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Son Of Frankenstein
(1939)

Director: Rowland V. Lee   
Cast:
Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi


It's taken years and years, but as of this writing, I am getting very close. I am getting close to reaching that magic number - five hundred. Not my age, of course, though sometimes after watching a real bad movie for this web site I feel that old. I am talking about the number of movie reviews I will soon have on this web site. Other movie review web sites may have more movie reviews, but one thing I have always been proud of for my web site is that since its start I have attempted to have a very wide of a range of different kinds of movies that I review. Italian crime and western movies... blaxploitation... musicals... comedies... horror... science fiction... all that and a lot, lot more. But despite my best efforts, I must admit that there are some kind of movies I have neglected to review. The most glaring example will appear when I go though my reviews by decade. I have reviewed a number of movies coming from the '00s (has anyone settled on how to pronounce this decade yet?) I have reviewed a number of movies from the '90s. I have reviewed a number of movies from the '80s. I have reviewed a number of movies from the '70s. I have reviewed several movies from the '60s. (See where this is going yet?) As for the '50s, only two reviews come to mind that I have reviewed for that particular decade: The Rocket Man and World Without End. There's a chance you might be asking at this point what I have done about reviewing movies from the 1940s... the 1930s... even the 1920s or 1910s. To somewhat of a degree of embarrassment, I must admit that I haven't previously done anything to cover movies from any of those four particular decades.

Why is that? Why in all of my writings have I neglected a significant chunk of cinematic history? Am I repulsed by black and white movies? Do I find movies that are older dated in some other aspect? I must admit that I don't have a quick and easy answer as to why I have not reviewed significantly older movies. But in the days leading up to reviewing the movie I am reviewing here, I have come up with some possible answers. I think one of the main reasons I have not reviewed movies older that 1950 is that I was never brought up as a child to be a watcher of them. Let me explain further. I grew up in a small town in Canada that was far away from the nearest metropolitan area. There wasn't too much choice when it came to watching movies - three movie theaters and one drive-in, and none of them were revival theaters that would show older product. The situation on television was just as grim - back then just about all that we could get on our TV were the two Canadian networks and the three American networks from Seattle - and none of these TV channels would show older movies. Then there was all the literature that I was exposed to as a child - at least, the lack of it. At the book stores in my town, we didn't get magazines like Famous Monsters which would have educated me on older films, and at the library, the film section not only was very small, they didn't have much in the way of books dealing with older movies. You might think things would have improved in my city by the time the VCR revolution hit, but you would be wrong. The video stores in my city carried few older movies. Plus, the box art on those movies never seemed at tantalizing as the exploitation movies I eagerly rented.

As you have probably guessed by what I have just told you, I am not an expert on older movies, so I am reluctant to write about something I am not terribly familiar with. But over the past few years, I have been making efforts to correct this oversight of mine. One of the ways I have been doing this is with something that finally came to Canada a few years ago - Turner Classic Movies. Since its introduction here, it has become my favorite TV channel. With it I have finally watched many film classics like It Happened One Night and Bringing Up Baby. Another way I have been educating myself on the classics is with my account with Rogers Video Direct (the Canadian equivalent of Netflix.) That's how I got a copy of the movie I am reviewing here, Son Of Frankenstein. There will probably be some people (namely fans of classic horror movies) who will question if this movie is "unknown", but I feel it is for most people. Just about everyone has heard of Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein, (even those who have not actually seen these two movies) but the publicity over the years for the next entry in this series I have found has been nowhere near that of the first two movies. Son Of Frankenstein takes place years after the events of Bride Of Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein has died, and as the movie opens, his son Wolf (Rathbone) arrives in his father's village, and not to a good reception by the residents of the village. Wolf finds a creepy man, Ygor (Lugosi) hanging around his father's old laboratory, and Ygor eventually reveals to Wolf something he's been hiding - the Frankenstein monster (Karloff), who didn't die after the events of the last movie, but is more or less now in a coma. Wolf finds this opportunity to continue his father's work irresistible, and he quickly begins the operation to revive the monster. But he doesn't know what he'll get, nor does he know the secret plans Ygor has...

At the end of Son Of Frankenstein, I found that I had enjoyed myself during its 99 minute running time, and I suspect that anyone who has a love of classic monster movies will also find it a pleasurable experience. I am sure some people reading this are asking if it is up to the high standards of the first Frankenstein movie, or even the more highly regarded first sequel. My answer is that while it is a good movie, it is not a classic, and there are several things about it that probably explain why it has more or less been forgotten by most people. For one thing, it's significantly longer than each of the first two movies - almost 25 minutes longer than Bride Of Frankenstein, which was more snappily paced, just like the first movie. This fact may not have mattered if Son gave us more good stuff for us to view in these extra minutes - more scares, more thrills, and more stuff concerning the monster. But that's not the case here. Much of the movie feels kind of padded, not with horror stuff, but with the characters talking to each other. While I will admit that all of the taking in this movie movie never got to a point of where I would consider it boring, at times I was kind of impatiently waiting for something horror-like or monster-related to happen. The first face-to-face meeting of Wolf and Ygor doesn't happen until a quarter of the movie has gone by, and the first time we see the Frankenstein monster out of its stupor and acting like, well, the kind of monster we usually think of, doesn't happen until more than half of the movie has gone by. My research indicated that production started without the screenplay being finished; had there been more time to work on the screenplay, this pacing problem would probably have been eliminated.

Knowing that the screenplay was hastily being completed as the movie was being filmed seems to explain some of the other problems I had with the movie. There are some questions about what was happening with the monster before Wolf arrived. It's suggested that the monster was being used by Ygor back then, but how did the monster then get into a coma? For that matter, why wasn't Ygor brought in by the local police earlier when he was using the monster as his tool of revenge? Then there is the monster's dialogue... or rather, the lack of it. In the last movie, the monster learned to speak and used this new skill throughout. But in this movie, the monster is reduced to simply grunting and screaming - what happened? We never learn. The screenplay also has a few laughable touches that time for a rewrite would have possibly eliminated. What will happen to the monster at the end of the movie is telegraphed in a very unsubtle way in the first part of the movie, and there is stuff like the fact that the Frankenstein laboratory happens to also be the family mausoleum. Son also has some other problems not related to the hastily-assembled screenplay. There is an absolutely awful performance by Donnie Dunagan as Wolf's very young son. There's a kind of unwritten law that we are supposed to give child actors some slack, but Dunagan is so bad he doesn't even seem to be trying to act. He recites his lines so shrilly that it's absolutely painful to hear him, and it's fortunate that he doesn't get that much dialogue in the movie. (Dunagan didn't have much of an acting career, and this movie illustrates why.)

Fortunately, there is more non-screenplay stuff that works, enough to save the movie. I was impressed by the visuals of the movie. There are some eye-catching twisted set designs (inspired by The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari?) around the Frankenstein estate that I will admit will stay burned in my brain for a long time. Director Rowland V. Lee also adds some other kind of visuals throughout the movie that keep us watching during quieter moments; a cloud of white steam coming out of a teakettle punctuates the dark room where the law of the village come to talk, and the twisted shape of the Frankenstein manor's staircase thrown against a wall looks absolutely creepy. But what really makes the movie one to watch is its cast. Just think about it: we have Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi all in the same movie. And yes, there are several times in the movie when we see all three of them onscreen at once. Whether together or alone, all three actors are at the top of their game, and they never let the movie get boring. Rathbone doesn't play Wolf as cackling insane, but instead more realistically as educated but somewhat naive about his father's work and its consequences. Lugosi is creepy as the mysterious Ygor who clearly knows more than he lets on. (I must mention that he plays it so well that I didn't once think of him as Dracula in disguise.) As for Karloff, while it's a shame that he doesn't get as much screen time as he did in the previous two movies, he still gives it his all when he's onscreen. His best moment is when the monster is in front of a mirror - now that's acting. Son Of Frankenstein may not be a classic, but there's much to like. And the next entry, Ghost Of Frankenstein, happens to be on the same DVD, so there's an extra reason to get a copy of the movie on that format.

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See also: Blood Freak, Cellar Dweller, Mansion Of The Doomed

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