As a writer who’s probably delivered one too many horror film seminars singing the praises of James Whale and his two Frankenstein efforts, it’s easy to forget that that director’s sublime, subversive brand of cinematic brilliance would have been completely lost on me as a boy. Don’t get me wrong, like most youngsters raised in the seventies, I was still revelling in a flickering black and white past, the likes of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon (1936) and Laurel and Hardy were just as much a part of my weekends as the newer custom made kid shows were, and of course, no Saturday night would have been complete without the late night double bill – usually comprising of two Universal scary movies. But it has to be said, there was no way then that I would have been as enthralled with Whale’s camp aesthetics as I am now. The first Frankenstein from 1931 left me cold and I don’t think I actually saw The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)until I was much older. I was far more enamoured by the creature creations of make-up man, Jack P Pierce, and the more of them the better. My absolute favourite movie as a seven-year-old child, was House of Frankenstein (1944), featuring as it did Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man and a mad doctor to boot. I was of course unconcerned with cinematography, politics and artistry—my enjoyment was born out of how much bang I got for my buck. In short I wanted to feast on a big monster sandwich and boy, was I hungry. Arguably though, there is one production from that era that seems to have an oversize boot in both the wilfully subversive arena and more carefree kiddy camp. That film is Son of Frankenstein.
Made almost eight years after Frankenstein, it was clear that Roland V Lee’s nineteen-thirty-nine foray into what was left of Mary Shelley’s book, was always going to exist in a different place to the one Whale’s earlier work had inhabited. The first run of Universal horrors still seemed mired in the catastrophic after-effects of World War One, Karloff’s stitched-together monster reflecting a beleaguered public’s shambling and shell-shocked entry into depression drained America. Son of Frankenstein, however was faced with the ever-growing threat of a new global conflict. So, gone were the subtler subversions of the past and in were the more fantastical escapist elements that would come to define the studio’s new cycle of war time creature features. That said, much about the production is eclipsed by the past. Its German setting and exquisite expressionist set design, harks back to the European nightmares of Murnau, Lang and Wiene as though Lee was publicly acknowledging cinematic horror’s twenty-year history. Caligari style stairways slant impossibly into stark theatrical backgrounds, ominous shadows hang like paintings on blank white walls and low angle camera shots add to our sense of the unusual.
As Colin Clive had died two years earlier it was left to the effortlessly suave Basil Rathbone to play the eponymous ‘son’, Wolf. Forever supplanted in the minds of a whole generation as Sherlock Holmes, it is refreshing to see Rathbone in non-sleuthing role, a much more assured and heroic character than Clive’s tortured obsessive, managing to encompass creator, father and swash-buckler into his impressive shtick. The Monster, Karloff again, for one last time, seems at odds with the earlier representations of Whale’s films. Out was the gaunt and child-like ghoul of Frankenstein or the more articulate ‘groom’ of Bride and in was the brutish, fuller-figured lumbering giant. His earlier nuances are lost in a Neanderthal-esque, blunt weapon of a performance, though he still retains our sympathies, his animal skin apparel cast him as super-powered troglodyte. In one scene, he even wields Lionel Atwill’s torn-off wooden arm in club-like Captain Caveman fashion. Yet Karloff’s less than memorable acting job only helps to fully underline just how good his co-star Bela Lugosi really is. After his breakout title role performance in Tod Browning’s hugely profitable, if not entirely very good, Dracula (1931), the Hungarian born actor quickly sank from stardom into a succession of supporting roles and poverty row style productions. Much maligned by the studios and critics, Lugosi was often seen as playing second fiddle to Karloff’s more rounded possibilities. The pair acted against each other on numerous occasions in features like the uneasily creepy The Black Cat (1934) or The Invisible Ray (1936), Lugosi often receiving a fraction of the pay of his co-star, and often the usual critical appraisal of Karloff being a far superior actor was born out. Though Karloff could hardly be described as having a wide range, Lugosi’s skillset was even narrower. His thick Eastern European accent may have made him perfect for Dracula but it seriously hampered his chances of playing a broader cast of characters.
But with Son of Frankenstein, Lugosi was able to deliver an incredible performance before he continued on his slide into morphine addiction and low budget obscurity. Ygor is by far the finest thing in Roland V Lee’s often underrated film. As the monster is reduced to knuckle-headed slave, Lugosi as Frankenstein senior’s one time assistant, becomes the true villain of the piece. Twisted, both inwardly and outwardly – he has been left deformed after a failed hanging attempt – Ygor becomes the embodiment of calculated cruel revenge. Employing Karloff’s creature as a kind proxy body, in light of his own physical imperfections, he attempts to play puppet master, eradicating those that sent him to the gallows all those years ago. Of course, he doesn’t quite get away with this. He is vanquished when Wolf shoots him down and the monster, after kidnapping Wolf’s infant son, is done away with, when he is upended Errol-Flynn-style into a bubbling sulphur pit.
Though Karloff would don the oversize boots for the last time, Universal’s run of Frankenstein films would continue. Lugosi would return as Ygor in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), before being reduced to play the monster, a role he had once turned down, in the fun but dumb Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Son of Frankenstein somehowmanages to satisfy our more sophisticated yearnings with its employment of beautiful set design and off kilter mise-en-scene; but it also provides us with something more enjoyably daft. For me it’s the last great Universal horror film. While The Wolf Man (1941) had its charm and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) was delightful, no film from its cannon fully embraces two different mindsets so successfully, this is the perfect monster movie for both cinephile and casual viewer, one to be intellectualised by a cynical writer or devoured by an awe-inspired seven-year-old boy.