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The Son of Frankenstein / The Ghost of Frankenstein

Classic Monster Collection: Series Three

  • Dracula's Daughter / Son of Dracula
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man/House of Frankenstein
  • The Mummy's Ghost/The Mummy's Curse
  • The Mummy's Hand/The Mummy's Tomb
  • Son of Frankenstein/Ghost of Frankenstein
  • Werewolf of London/She-Wolf of London

  • A look back....
  • Seeking to reboot its successful line of gothic horror films, in 1939 Universal released The Son of Frankenstein, the first sequel to the smash hits from earlier in the decade, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Although it was the first Frankenstein film not directed by the masterful James Whale, The Son of Frankenstein is still generally regarded as the last great entry of the series. In no way is it as well crafted as Bride, but it's clearly superior to the movies that followed.

    Basil Rathbone is Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the heretofore unmentioned son of the monster-maker from the first two movies. With his wife and young son, he's coming from America to the village of Frankenstein twenty-five years after his father's death. His plan is to occupy the ancestral estate (partially destroyed in Bride). However, the local villagers remember the past and believe that any Frankenstein by blood is a Frankenstein who will spill blood. The Baron encounters Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), whose arm was pulled off by the Monster years before. Also on hand is Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Once hanged for graverobbing, Ygor survived the ordeal but with his neck permanently broken. Vengeful against the town elders who tried to hang him, Ygor has kept the body of the Monster (Boris Karloff) intact, waiting. He persuades the Baron to revivify his father's creation. Reluctant at first, the Baron soon feels the Frankenstein destiny within him, and naturally lives to regret it.

    The Son of Frankenstein is notable for its dream-like, minimalist set design reminiscent of German expressionist films, and for Lugosi's animated turn as Ygor, whose only friend is the Monster. Here and in Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor is, hands down, Lugosi's finest non-Dracula role. Unfortunately, Karloff's pathos-ridden, articulate monster in Bride has been reduced to a mute, characterless caricature, a trend furthered in later entries. One of the few exceptions is the scene where the Monster is enraged by the (temporary) death of Ygor. This was the last time Karloff appeared in the famous Monster makeup of genius Jack P. Pierce. That is, until the age of 75, when he co-starred in a 1962 Halloween special of TV's Route 66, an outing that also included Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre. Baron Frankenstein's little boy was played by Donnie Dunagan, now known as the voice of Disney's Bambi. Son ended Hollywood's self-imposed ban on horror films. Oh, and fans of Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein will see plenty that's familiar here, including a gag involving darts and the Inspector's wooden arm.

    The success of Son ensured a sequel, and that came in 1942 with The Ghost of Frankenstein. The studio really should have left well enough alone. Lugosi is back as Ygor, but now we discover that the original Dr. Frankenstein had another son, Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). Picking up immediately where Son left off, Ygor digs out the Monster (now a robotic, seemingly anesthetized Lon Chaney) from the sulfur pit that entombed him in the previous film. "Your father was Frankenstein," Ygor exults, "and your mother was the lightning!" Whereupon a bolt from the sky strikes the Monster's neck electrodes, renewing his strength. "She has come down to you again!" Together they escape rampaging villagers with torches, and Ygor takes the Monster to Ludwig, a successful "doctor of the mind" who wants nothing to do with the work that killed his father and tormented his brother. Trouble is, that Frankenstein blood makes destiny inevitable. Ludwig wants only to dissect the Monster, but a vision of his father's ghost convinces him to save it by giving it a new, "good" brain. The plot takes a sharp turn for the absurd when Ludwig performs the operation. Thanks to a nefarious betrayal by Ludwig's unscrupulous assistant (the erstwhile Inspector Krogh, Lionel Atwill), Ludwig unknowingly places Ygor's brain into the Monster. So Lon Chaney rises from the table and rants megalomaniacally in Lugosi's voice. To top it off, because Ygor's blood type doesn't match the Monster's, the YgorMonster is blind. In a rage, he perishes (for now) in that ever-popular means of monster-killing, sudden conflagration.

    Ghost has some nifty atmospheric moments, Lugosi's Ygor, and some fine interplay between the Monster and a little girl. Sadly, the piecemeal script is the worst of the lot, the Monster continues his descent into parody, and stalwart Chaney just isn't right for that famous makeup and those too-short platform shoes — but as the Monster he's not nearly as painful to watch as Lugosi (!) will be in the next movie, the otherwise superior and surreally enjoyable Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

    *          *          *

    This disc offers some of the best-looking movies in this wave of Universal Classic Monster double-feature DVDs. Given that they're roughly 60 years old, the prints are alarmingly clean and free of wear. The black-and-white contrast is excellent and detail is just dandy. The transfers are super even if occasionally some minor edge artifacts are visible. Likewise, the audio is terrific given the limited range inherent in the technology of the period. Overall everything sounds sharp and clear, though now and then there's a little hiss. Both movies are in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

    No theatrical trailer is on board for Son, but Ghost's is here. Several screens of click-through Production Notes provide entertaining trivia. We also have Cast & Filmmakers biographies/filmographies, and promo material for the Universal Horror Double Feature Series. Audio tracks come only in English, plus English captions and French and Spanish subtitles. Keep-case.

    —Mark Bourne

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