Son of Frankenstein (1939)


  • directed by Rowland V. Lee
  • starring Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Donnie Dunagan, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton
  • One of the sons of Frankenstein finds his father’s monster in a coma and revives him, only to find out he is controlled by Ygor who is bent on revenge.

“Nothing in nature is terrifying when one understands it.”

Unfortunately the third installment of the Frankenstein franchise adds very little to the universe that was built to a fitting conclusion in the first two films. This is most apparent in the monster itself, which had a full upward arc through two films, starting as a confused murder machine that gradually begins to mellow, yearn, and understand his surroundings. Son of Frankenstein brings the monster backwards, even past where he was upon first being charged to life in the first film. Karloff has no speech to work with in this film, his character has no capacity to learn, and there’s barely any direction for him besides being Ygor’s goat and tool for murder and revenge. There was not much story to care about, which is not surprising since they had a barebones script in place prior to filming.

Basil Rathbone, I do enjoy, and he was a great choice as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. His lamenting and exploration of the tarnished Frankenstein family name was a welcome aspect, but to resurrect the monster for medical research purposes and expect the townspeople of Goldstadt to celebrate it is something that makes little sense and signals that he’s got the same blind god complex that his father had. Bela Lugosi created a great character in Ygor but I did not expect or enjoy the fact that he was the central character to the plot. Why tie this movie to the Frankenstein brand at all if neither the monster nor the doctor is driving the plot? And then there’s good ol’ Donnie Dunagan, who played young Peter as if he was a carnival barker at the Texas State Fair. When you have the dignified and non-American Basil Rathbone as your father, the film is set in Germany, and you’re delivering speeches in a down-home Southern fashion, that’s just a weird choice.

So, I’m left thinking of what Lee’s main motivation was for this film and the best I can gather after watching was so he could play around with and enhance the visual environment. Where James Whale was constantly suppressing his Expressionist tendencies to present somewhat more mainstream visuals in the first two films, Lee just went full-on Caligari with this film. The Frankenstein residence with its multi-level platforms and one-of-a-kind, sort of nonsensically winding staircase and the shadows it cast gave the director a very twisted setting in which to work. The shot composition, angles, and stylized lighting also signaled an unabashed Expressionist approach by Lee.

The film had its bright spots, but in the end I really can’t forgive the gross fur vest that the monster wore, along with lessening him to mute and emotionless levels. Karloff deserved more than to take a backseat at any point in the franchise he helped create.


About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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