You were hereafter to be hailed as the benefactors of your species, your names adored as belonging to brave men who encountered death for honour and the benefit of mankind. – Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
He'll find no friends here. Nothing but locked doors and darkened windows. Locked hearts and bitter hatred. Let that too be part of the Frankenstein heritage – Village Councillor, Son of Frankenstein.
I hadn't really wanted to do this one just yet. But my scheme of skipping around through has meant that I haven't gone into a lot of detail on two important issues of the Frankenstein mythology: the Frankenstein family and Ygor. Both of these elements are introduced in Son of Frankenstein, so I'd probably better get on with it.
In the village of Frankenstein, Castle Frankenstein is closed up, shunned by the superstitious villagers. Its laboratory building is thought to inhabited only by Ygor (Bela Lugosi). The Frankenstein village council is unhappy to note the return of Wolf von Frankenstein, Henry's son and the new baron. The council believe that this new Frankenstein will carry out his father's work, nevertheless they agree to meet him at the station and deliver his father's papers.
Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutcheson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunnagan), arrive in the village. Wolf attempts to win over the villagers at the station but they are unimpressed. Wolf and family set up their new home in castle Frankenstein. Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwell) arrives, telling Frankenstein that he will be protected by the police if trouble starts. Krogh has a prosthetic arm, the original having been torn from him by the Monster. He tells Frankenstein about a series of unsolved murders that are being blamed on the ghost of the Monster.
The next day, Frankenstein explores the ruined laboratory, learning that it's built over a pool of molten sulphur. Ygor confronts Frankenstein and tells his story. Ygor was a grave robber, who was hanged for his crimes. Forbidden a Christian burial, the villagers simply threw his body into the ruin of Frankenstein's lab. Somehow Ygor survived. Behind a hidden door, Ygor shows Frankenstein the Frankenstein family crypt, where the Monster lies, barely alive. Ygor claims that the Monster is his friend.
Wolf, Ygor and Wolf's butler, Benson attempt to revive the Monster. The incompetents of the council are suspicious. They summon Ygor to account for himself, threatening him with hanging. However, since Ygor is legally dead, it seems that he cannot legally be tried. What's more, six members of the original eight member jury that sentenced Ygor are dead. Nothing suspicious here.
Wolf attempts to revive the Monster and seemingly fails. Krogh, somewhat cleverer than the councillors, continues his investigation, and is present when Peter Frankenstein tells of seeing a giant. Wolf goes off to confront Ygor, but comes face to face with the Monster. The silent encounter is one of the highlights of the movie, Wold struggling to overcome his obvious terror while the Monster struggles to understand the connection he feels to this mysterious newcomer.
Ygor intervenes and demonstrates his control over the Monster. Wolf has dinner with Krogh, while Ygor has the Monster murder one of the surviving jurors. When news of the death reaches Krogh, he observes Wolf's increasingly suspicious behaviour. Ygor denies the Monster's role in the murder, but Wolf is unconvinced. Krogh continues his investigation, while Ygor marks the final juror for death. Wolf, finally accepting the danger in which he has placed his family, convinces his wife to take his son away for a while.
The Monster kills the last juror at Ygor's behest. Now the town is in an uproar. Seven murders? That's fine. It happens. Eight muders? Time for a riot! The Inspector warns Wolf as the villagers approach the castle, meaning to kill Ygor ar least and probably Wolf as well. The Inspector places Wolf under house arrest. He then speaks to Peter, who claims a giant gave him a watch. The watch in inscribed 'George Benson'.
Wolf begins to unravel, and Elsa realises something is up. Krogh is called away and Wolf sneaks off to the lab. He discovers the Monster asleep and attempts to kill it, but is stopped by Ygor. Wolf returns to the castle, where he starts to come apart under interrogation from Krogh. He tries to convince Krogh that Ygor was responsible for the murders, but Ygor had alibis.
Wolf confronts Ygor again in the lab, this time armed. Ygor tries to kill him, and is shot dead. Krogh goes in search of the Monster, discovering Benson's body in the secret passages that Ygor has been using to get into the castle.
The Monster finds Ygor dead. Horrified at the death of his friend, he goes on a rampage. Wolf confesses to Krogh about killing Ygor. Krogh believes that it was Wolf who has been manipulating the Monster to kill people. Freed from the fear of discovery, Wolf begins pulling himself together. The Monster kidnaps Peter, stealing him away into the lab. Krogh follows the monster and a fight ensues. The Monster pushes Peter out of the way. Wolf swings down on a rope, knocking the Monster into the sulphur pit.
Wolf gives the castle over to the villagers who have stopped rioting and are pleased with the gesture. The Frankenstein family departs to safety.
Son of Frankenstein is a mixed bag. Slightly over long, and not as brilliant as its two preceding Frankenstein films, it's still pretty good in its own right. The technical aspects of the filming are excellent. The Castle Frankenstein interiors are hugely impressive, a strange and wonderful mix of Art Deco and Expressionist elements.
Basil Rathbone's Wolf is a very unusual take on Frankenstein. He's more self-assured and less twitchy than Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein, warmer and more human than Peter Cushing, Rathbone presents us with a Frankenstein who is dangerous because he isn't mad. Unlike other Frankensteins, Rathbone gives the impression that he actually understands and even cares about the consequences of his actions, but goes ahead anyway. The gradual erosion of his self-assurance as he gets in deeper and deeper is well done. It's not my favourite portrayal of monster-maker, but it's a unique one and Rathbone has the charisma to carry it off and still come across as somewhat sympathetic. The unfortunate part of his casting is that Rathbone is very tall. Even in his heavy Frankenstein shoes, Karloff is barely taller than him, and this takes some of the menace out of their encounters.
Karloff does his best with his scenes as the Monster. After Son, he quit the role, believing that he had nothing more that he could add to it. He was probably right to think so. His first encounter with Wolf manages to recapture some of the old magic, but other than that he seldom hits the heights of Frankenstein or Bride. His portrayal of the Monster is less sympathetic and more… well, more monstrous than before. It's still very effective, and he bows out on the role that made him famous on a high note.
Lionel Atwell has a splendid time hamming it up as Inspector Krogh. Many of the best scenes in the film are his confrontations with Wolf. The other performances are less impressive. Josephine Hutcheson does what she can with scant material as Elsa von Frankenstein. The councillors are mostly pretty unimpressive. And Donnie Dunnagan--best known as the voice of Bambi--is, pretty… Is it wrong to criticise a small child for being untalented? Probably it is. I'll just stop there.
There are three elements of Son of Frankenstein that I want to look at in more detail Ygor, the idea that the Monster is indestructible and the concept of the Frankenstein family curse. While Son of Frankenstein might get short shrift as the least of the three Karloff Frankensteins, it is through these elements that the movie casts a long shadow over the Frankenstein mythos.
Ygor: If you get nothing else from watching this movie, at least enjoy Bela Lugosi having the time of his life. After Dracula Lugosi was desperately typecast—not so much as a vampire, a role he rarely played, but as an aristocratic villain. Like so many typecast actors, he clearly relishes a role even a little outside of the ordinary. As Ygor, the uncouth blue-collar schemer, Lugosi chews is chewing a different sort of scenery than usual, and his joy in this is obvious.
But who is Ygor? The usual conception of Ygor, seen in so many cartoons and used so amusingly by Terry Pratchett comes partly from Fritz in Frankenstein (1931). A character modeled on Fritz but going by the name 'Igor' turns up in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein. Pratchett adds the lisp Charles Laughton used when playing Quasimodo to create the finishes subject.
The Ygor in Young Frankenstein may have donated his name to a horror archetype, but he bears little resemblance to that archetype. He is not a hunchback, his lopsided shoulders the result of his broken neck, rather than curvature of the spine. He does not assist in the creation of the monster, and he certainly does not call Frankenstein his 'Master', or even 'Mathter'. Ygor is a villain in his own right with his own agenda, not brilliant as Frankenstein is but cunning and ruthless. In spite of his death in Son, he goes on to reappear in Ghost of Frankenstein, though his fate after that is murky indeed.
The Frankenstein Family: Early in the film one of the old councilors claims that Wolf is bound to follow in Henry's footsteps. "It's in the blood," he says. At this point, there is precisely zero evidence for this assertion. Henry's folly we know, but Henry's father was a gruff old duffer who gave no suggestion that he was interested in science, let alone forbidden science.
Yet the councilor is correct. Wolf has to have a bash at Monster science, and people die as a result – although, remarkably, the villagers accept his redemption and he departs as a friend. In the next Frankenstein film, Ghost of Frankenstein, another of Henry's sons gets involved with the Monster. In later films, Frankenstein's daughter (Frankenstein Island, Santo vs Frankenstein's Daughter, ) grandson (Young Frankenstein), aunt, great grandson (Struck By Lightning) and great great great etc grandson (The Frankenstein Theory) all get in on the act.
This is, not to put too fine a point on it, weird. One of the minor themes of the original novel is that Frankenstein's unnatural creation is utterly destructive to his family (ie, the usual system for making more people). Frankenstein's brother and wife are both killed by the Monster and Frankenstein himself dies childless. The idea of the Frankensteins being genetic mad scientists directly contradicts Mary Shelley's ideas.
Yet somehow, somehow it sticks. Somehow the idea that monster making is a family curse is such an attractive one that we keep coming back to it. Even the Monster seems in on the act, seeming to sense some sort of connection with Wolf and Peter who, after all, are effectively his brother and nephew. When the Monster kidnaps Peter, there doesn't seem to be any malice involved. He does not harm the boy, and even pushes him to safety while fending off Krogh. It is almost like the Monster is seeking companionship with a relative after the death of a friend.
The Monster's indestructibility: The previous Frankenstein films all work on the assumption that the Creature can be destroyed. The Monster is strong and tough, but not necessarily superhuman. In Son, Wolf proclaims that the Monster is essentially immortal. It has two bullets in its heart and yet it lives. It can be rendered dormant, but never destroyed. In the climactic fight, Krogh shoots the Monster multiple times at close range, to no obvious effect.
While not every subsequent Frankenstein movie has followed this, the idea of the Monster as being indestructible/immortal begins here.
I bring these three things up, because they're important in the next few essays I'll be doing. Over the next few weeks, I'll be looking at Santo vs Frankenstein's Daughter, which of course plays off the issue of the Frankenstein family; Victor Frankenstein, which presents us with a re-imagined Ygor and Frankenstein: the True Story which goes perhaps the furthest into the Monster's invulnerability.
Finally, a thought on continuity. I don't want to get too stuck on this one. Disparities between Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein are easily explained by people -- both creative people at the studio and the public in general -- simply not caring. As long as the main elements of the previous story line up, why worry about the details?
Having said that, let's worry about the details. Son takes place several decades after Bride. It doesn't look it, because the designs of both films are contemporary, but never mind that. Let's say Frankenstein takes place around the turn of the century, Bride a few months later, and Son in the surprisingly peaceful Europe of 1939. What exactly has happened in the intervening years? The film implies that Henry Frankenstein's monster making ended with the laboratory explosion at the end of Bride. And yet the laboratory shown here is much closer to Castle Frankenstein as well as being the wrong shape and size--to say nothing of the fact that it suddenly contains a family tomb and a sulphur pit.
Then there's the attitude of the villagers. In Frankenstein, the villagers didn't seem to hold Henry's experiment against him. In Bride they didn’t even know what he was up to. In Son, we see the villagers are unanimous in their hatred of Henry's entire family. What's more, Krogh's description of the Monster's rampage implies a great deal more malicious damage done than seen in either of the first two movies.
Wolf was brought up in England by his mother. Was this before or after Henry died? When did he die? None of these things are clear. A letter from Henry to his son suggests a man unrepentant, willing to continue his work and happy for his son to take up his work after he is gone.
The obvious conclusion is that in between Bride and Son, Henry Frankenstein finally stopped dithering and turned full evil. He tried some other experiment. Emboldened by the villagers' lackadaisical approach to his previous mockeries of the laws of nature, he built a new laboratory closer to home – on top of his family's crypt, no less. Something went wrong, the Monster ran amok, more malicious and violent than ever before. Elizabeth was forced to flee the country, the laboratory was destroyed, supposedly killing the Monster. Henry probably died at this time or shortly after. Robbed of their vengeance, the villagers turned on a Ygor, a grave robber who was (rightly or wrongly) suspected of procuring parts for Henry. Ygor was hanged, and the rest is history.
That's the obvious conclusion, anyway. So it probably isn't right.