Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 3, 2018)
Apparently Dracula wasn’t the only one who got some action in between bouts of terror. In both 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and 1943’s Son of Dracula, we learned that our favorite vampire may have some unholy offspring.
However, the matter always remained unclear, as it never seemed certain that the titular folks actually bore genetic relation to Drac. Hey, I never felt sure if Son was a blood relative of the Count - pun intended - as he may have actually been Dracula himself.
No such uncertainties appear during two adventures that follow after the death of Henry Von Frankenstein from 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. As seen in both 1939’s Son of Frankenstein and 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, the new scientists we meet are definitely Henry’s progeny.
Apparently the whole “children of” milieu was the most successful of the horror sequels. Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula were erratic but better than average for the genre, and these two Frankenstein movies offered some of the best material found in the field.
Actually, I’m not sure I feel so strongly about Ghost, but Son is simply terrific, as it almost comes on a par with Bride, easily the best of the sequels and arguably the strongest Universal horror flick of them all. Just like that classic, Son takes the tale in a fine new direction that works terrifically well.
At the start of Son, we meet Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the titular child of the dead scientist. He inherits the family manor in Europe and comes with wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchison) and child Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to live.
Sensibly, the townsfolk worry about this. They’ve been burned - literally - a few times due to the father’s hijinks, so they fear the son will take up where Daddy stopped.
These fears seem merited, as Wolf wants to pursue his father’s research. He thinks Henry was on the right path, and he strongly desires to vindicate his dad’s work, as Wolf blames Victor’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) for the failure of the experiment due to the flawed human parts Ygor retrieved.
Wolf works to reinvent the monstrous wheel, which unfortunately means he needs the help of Ygor. The old boy was hanged for his crimes, but although his neck was broken, he didn’t die, so he remains deformed but defiant.
Ygor controls the monster (Boris Karloff) and uses him to pursue his own means. All the while, a local police inspector named Krogh (Lionel Atwill) keeps a very close eye on Wolf, and he maintains a suspicious attitude toward the young doctor, especially when some deaths start to occur.
While Son could have offered little more than another rehash of the same old thing, it becomes something special due to a variety of elements. For one, the acting seems uniformly superb.
Rathbone appears appropriately obsessive but he keeps his tone from becoming campy and hammy, so he makes Wolf a compelling and sympathetic figure but also maintains a tone of menace and insanity that work. Karloff has less to do than usual as the monster, but he still seems surprisingly rich and human in the role. The poor performances by later actors in the part just reinforce the wonderful work he offered.
I feel surprised by the fine work shown by Lugosi. While he succeeded as Count Dracula in the 1931 flick, he had more trouble distinguishing himself in later roles.
He even took a turn as Frankenstein’s monster himself in 1942’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but not with good results. However, as Ygor, Lugosi grabs the part and really makes it sing.
Lugosi presents a vicious and vindictive character but does so with enormous glee and verve. The nasty humor he adds to the role makes Ygor much more than just a bland henchman.
Atwill also seems excellent as Inspector Krogh, and he makes a strong character who could hold his own against the various villains. Often these kinds of roles are little more than generic ciphers, but Krogh seems powerful and authoritative. He brings a persistence and depth to the part that allows it to become rich and lively.
Inspector Krogh points out one of the film’s most significant post-release connections, as Mel Brooks clearly used a lot of this piece as a template for Young Frankenstein. The Gene Wilder part found in that movie was obviously based largely on Wolf, and the Inspector definitely inspired Kenneth Mars’ character there.
Some of Young’s best scenes amusingly echoed Son, such as the dart-playing scene between those two characters. I also wondered if Inspector Krogh’s arm inspired that aspect of Dr. Strangelove’s titular character, and since this film’s ending reflects that of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I felt curious about any possible relationship between those flicks.
Ultimately, Son of Frankenstein delivers a witty, wild and wonderful film. The movie works on a variety of levels, from sly comedy to psychological drama to simple horror flick. All elements function on a high level, and the result becomes one of a handful of true classics of the genre.