Universal’s horror branch was in decline when the success of a double feature re-release in 1938 of Dracula and Frankenstein provided a shot in the arm. Cut to 1939 and the brand new entry in the dormant Frankenstein franchise, a film that found Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi teaming up for the first time in an entry in the Universal Monsters mega-franchise. They’d both put in the work in genre trailblazers and immortal classics, so the chance to see them team-up was a recipe for success. It’s just a shame that Son of Frankenstein doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of seeing them slathered in putty and chewing on the scenery.
The absence of James Whale in this film is pronounced as much of Son of Frankenstein looks and feels anonymous. Whale’s first two entries contained symphonies of light and shadow, of horror and pathos, of queer subtext and Pre-Code salaciousness, and none of that is here. Much of the gruesome stuff is alluded to more than seen, so you won’t find anything as tragic or terrifying as the creature throwing a little girl into the lake and accidentally drowning her here.
The greatest of the Universal Monster films create a world consumed by shadows, ever-present smoke and fog, and a fairy-story version of European hamlets that feel displaced from time and space. They create a mood, or they give you a performance that transforms the monster into a misunderstood antihero (think of Lon Chaney Jr.’s sweaty, panicked work in The Wolf Man). That seems mildly missing here as we’re instead treated to a son discovering the family legacy, becoming obsessed, but still restoring order in the end. It’s a solid concept, a nice twist on a series that was establishing motifs and themes, but it’s lacking a certain spark. (Forgive the pun.)
A more expressionistic look and feel would have done wonders. Son of Frankenstein was the last of the “A” movies in the series before they transitioned to solid “B” movie fare, and the film functions as something of a transition. It’s not quite a large step-down in quality, but there’s a certain attention to craft and detail that’s lacking here. I suppose that’s what you get when you trade an auteur like Whale or a journeyman like Rowland V. Lee. He keeps the whole thing moving, assembles a pleasing cast, and keeps the basic template in place so it’s not a massive comedown but a noticeable slide.
Basil Rathbone as titular son reclaiming his family’s inheritance and complicated legacy makes for a natural presence in the Universal Monsters canon with his erudite carriage, stiff manners, and Gothic romance looks. While Lionel Atwill gives his Inspector Krogh stiff and withheld emotional textures and body language, and he makes another pleasing addition to the various lawmen of the franchise. But it’s Bela Lugosi as Ygor that steals the show as he goes completely off the nails (gloriously so) in crafting a (literally) broken man hell-bent on revenge.
It’s a shame that Karloff’s final appearance as the creature reverts him not only to a mute but a mere pawn for Ygor’s machinations. Karloff brought unbearable amounts of conflicted agony and a poetic yearning for connection to his version of the Monster in the two prior films, and here he merely functions as a grunting, flailing golem. No wonder he grew tired of the role and left is behind right after this. He would eventually return to the Frankenstein films, but as a mad scientist where his mild lisp and droll diction wrapped around purple prose to grand, theatrical effect. Karloff’s exit from the role would mark the beginning of the end for the Monster as a headline player in the Universal Monsters franchise.
In fact, the next sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein, would prove to be his final solo outing, as the Monster would only now appear in crossover monster features like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or House of Frankenstein. If you were to see this particular film as a signpost, it would be as the starting point of the decline and overabundance of sequels of the Universal Monsters. There would remain bright spots, later entries like Creature from the Black Lagoon for example, but the mystery, atmosphere, and dream-like horror of the likes of The Bride of Frankenstein was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.