Son of Frankenstein (1939) is a star studded threequel and the last A-movie Frankenstein by Universal.
Baron Wolf von Frankenstein is returning to castle Frankenstein after his father's death. He has high hopes despite his wife's worries. After a chilly reception, Wolf is given his father's old things including the notes to create the Monster. The citizens all worry that he will create another one, since they had so much touble destroying the first. Meanwhile Ygor plots revenge and the Monster may not be as dead as everyone thought.
Universal really went all out with their cast. I usually don't like to spend too much time on the actors, but Basil Rathbone (the classic cinema Sherlock Holmes), Bela Lugosi (Universal's own Dracula) and Boris Karloff (returning as Frankenstein's Monster) requires a pause. This film clearly has a lot of time, effort and love put into it. While it may not be as deep as its two previous entries, Son of Frankenstein tells a more solid story.
Our Heroes at Last
Baron Wolf von Frankenstein is our lead this time around. He is an idealist who bears a stronger tie to the Victor Frankenstein of the novel than Henry did. He is also presented as a loving family man and a brilliant scientist. He holds this movie together and it thanks to a fantastic performance that he is the first Frankenstein I've empathized with. He makes stupid mistakes and does some stupid things, but he isn't nearly as bad as any of the others.
Elsa von Frankenstein is Wolf's wife. She believes in her husband and manages to voice her opinions on the house, the family's future, and the safety of her son. She holds some of the emotion in this story since most of the rest of the cast is out for revenge in some sort or another.
Inspector Krogh is the inspector of the town who tries to keep a close eye on Wolf. He had his arm ripped of by Frankenstein as a child, gruesome. He is an unrelenting force for justice with a tinge of personal revenge. There is also some dark humor in the use of his false arm.
The Mob Mentality
Peter von Frankenstein is Wolf's son. He is incredibly annoying and really brings the film down a little. He tries to be cute and playful, but ends up rather terrifying. He does play an important role in the plot though.
Benson is the Frankenstein family butler and lab assistant to Wolf. I like how we get to see a strong relationship based on shared history payed out through small scenes and subtle acknowledgement. This is what I wanted from Fritz! He does eventually being to question Wolf, but who wouldn't after reviving a killing machine?
The mob returns though they do have legitimate grievances by this point. Their bitter memories and fear of the Frankenstein family lead them to quick judgements. They also show up at Wolf's arrival in the rain only to walk out during his speech, cold.
The Monster is back and more controlled than before. He has lost the ability to speak and has fallen under Ygor's spell, presumably because he plays music or just treats him compassionately. Another fine performance though the monster is a bit underutilized as a tool for Ygor's revenge.
Ygor is difficult to pin down. We don't know exactly what his crime is. The councilors claim they caught him grave robbing, but they seem to have a deeper hatred of him. Ygor seems to think he was convicted unfairly. We never really find out what he did from a reliable source. He was hanged, but other than needing a neck brace he is okay. His revenge against the leaders of the town is the main drive of the plot and he plays the tricky devil figure well. I felt he was more on the sympathetic side, but the sequel to this movie disagrees with me.
I think they upped the bizarreness of the house design because it looks like Escher designed sections of it. There are also far more secret passages everywhere used by Ygor and the Monster to spy and exact revenge. They also went all out with all the sets in this, everything looks like it has sprung from a nightmare.
In the End
The ending was surprisingly bad ass with some fine action pieces for this old a movie. The tension is stirred with several deft moments of suspense where the characters really shine.
Despite the strong acting and star power, this movie does suffer from some silliness. Wolf keeps secrets for way too long and covers for some things I don't think he would have. Also, I didn't realize Frankenstein was the original member of the Fantastic Four, thank you cosmic ray pseudoscience. Despite these flaws it is a good movie and holds up better story wise than its predecessors.
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) has some good acting, but most everything else is not so good.
The villagers from the last film blow up Frankenstein castle and lab. In doing so they inadvertently free the Monster who is joined by Ygor. Apparently Ygor has been using his time to look up Wolf's previously unmentioned brother who lives in a village not far away. It is far enough that they haven't heard of the Monster, but they soon will. Doctor Ludwig Frankenstein is conveniently an expert on curing the mentally unstable through surgery.
By far the weakest and most confused of the solo Frankenstein series. This one still packs a strong cast, but the story is all over the place.
Doctor Ludwig Frankenstein is a very impressive force. He has several scenes where he just stares down the Monster. Unfortunately, he seems to suffer the same weird need to cover up stuff as his brother. I got used to Ygor's blackmail, but he has some other perplexing decisions such as covering up his friend's death and then deciding that his friend would be happier resurrected as the hated Monster.
Elsa Frankenstein is Ludwig's daughter, apparently named after her aunt. She is a headstong girl whose love for Ernst, the prosecutor is torn by her love for her father. She tries to make peace between them and stop her father's plans which is an even stronger goal than either of her predecessors.
Erik Ernst is the town prosecutor and Elsa's love. He has a fairly strong presence, but is overshadowed by Ludwig. He does some impressive things such as preventing the mob from massacring the Frankenstein family.
The Mob Mentality
The little girl in this film is excellent in a call back to the first film.
The mob spurs the main cast into action and gets some action in the end. They seem to get dumber and more superstitious each movie and this isn't even the same mob!
Monster is once again only a pawn. He has some cute scenes involving children, but doesn't do much until the very end of the film.
Doctor Bohmer gets some henchman style villain as he tries to get back in the medical spotlight. This sidekick betrayal is almost a running gag. Why would he agree to help Ygor and how would that help his career or ruin Frankenstein's?
Ygor is back and play the maniacal villain this time. He has some creepy moments, but spends most of his time hamming it up.
sets aren't really less convincing as they are more bland. Gone are the epic castles and mountainous terrain. In their place is generic German village #62. This is to be expected since they had a reduced budget. It really only becomes noticeable when contrasted against the previous three films.
In the End
The end is jarring and gets some very out of character action by Elsa and Ernst.
There is a large reliance on the abnormal brain subplot from the first film. It has been mentioned a few times in the previous films, but here they treat it with no subtlety whatsoever. See this one if you're interested in more Frankenstein or plan on seeing the Wolf Man continuation, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Otherwise I'd leave it at Son of Frankenstein.
Be sure to check out the the 31 Days of Macabre Movies over at The Good, The Bad and The Magnificent.