Sunday, April 27, 2014

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the son of the original monster-creating genius, returns with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and his incredibly annoying little son Peter (Donnie Dunagan), to his father’s old haunts – Castle Frankenstein in the village of Frankenstein. The Frankensteinians are not at all happy with their new neighbours and are only a small step from turning into a torch-wielding mob already. Fortunately, Krogh (Lionel Atwill), the one-armed chief of police of the village (and this place must have quite the crime rate, given that he’s the chief of police instead of the lone village cop), is a rather reasonable man, so things still might turn out well for everyone involved.

Of course, Wolf seems a bit too fascinated by his father’s experiments right from the start; that state of mind doesn’t improve when he meets Dad’s old assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) who has no trouble walking around with neck broken when he was hanged for his work for Frankenstein senior. Ygor shows Wolf the body of his father’s Creature (Boris Karloff) who has been lying in a coma for some weeks now, after it was hit by lightning, and easily convinces the scientist to revive it again. Curiously, Ygor fails to explain that he has some sort of mental hold on the Creature (implied to be connected to some fine woodwind playing), and that he has used it to kill the people involved in his hanging. Nor does Ygor mention he’s planning to continue the killing spree.

Soon, the son of Frankenstein is in a bit of trouble, and the never very peaceful village of Frankenstein is riled up again.

The usual narrative among us horror fans is that the Frankenstein films lost their lustre as quickly as the other Universal horror series, too soon descending in self-parody and the kind of films seemingly made by people who loathed the horror genre as much as they did their audience. This narrative’s not completely wrong, but too easily, a film as wonderful as Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein gets put down on the side of the increasingly bad films Universal made during its second wave of horror films, though I suggest Universal horror lost its enthusiasm a few years after the start of that wave, shortly after The Wolfman. Still Son carries a bit of a stigma with it in some circles, despite it being just as good as its two predecessors, if very different from them.

For most of its running time, Son feels a lot like an effort to outdo the two James Whale movies that came before in as many ways as possible. To some, this might sound sacrilegious, yet I think In some ways, the film is even quite successful with this project. Sure, Son doesn’t quite have the poetry of the best moments of Whale’s films, nor is it as thematically resonant as they are but it does probably win out when it comes to plotting and characterization by eschewing the slightly episodic feel of the first two Frankenstein films in favour of a surprisingly tight plot full of comparatively complex characters with actual motivations for their behaviour. Not that the behaviour itself makes much sense in the ways of reason and logic, mind you, but then, Frankenstein isn’t the place where these things would actually have a proper place.

One of the film’s many joys is the interplay between Rathbone’s increasingly crazed and frightened Wolf and Atwill’s stiff and distrustful but basically kind Krogh, culminating in a game of darts of all things.

I also just adore Lugosi’s performance here that sees the great man doing much of what he does best – the curious and threatening pronunciation of certain WORDS nobody around HIM seems to NOTICE, the grand overacting, the joyfully glittering eyes whenever the macabre or the grotesque rear their heads. And in this particular Frankenstein movie, the grotesque and the macabre are nearly always present. Even the comic relief tonally fits into the movie this time around, not really working as a relief but strengthening the audience’s conviction that Universal’s Backlot Europe is a place where nothing ever isn’t macabre and/or grotesque, not even the funny people.

This is after all a place where no angle ever is just a right one, where no stair step is shaped like the one next to it, and where people dine in nearly empty, starkly shadowed rooms dominated by giant somewhat cubist looking boar heads. In fact, where the visual style in the earlier Universal horrors seemed inspired by German expressionism, many of the (brilliant) sets here are expressionism pure, completely ignoring any idea of naturalism, and turning every place the characters dwell in into a part of a dream world, or, if you’re so inclined, places where the subconscious is right on the surface of things, and where it seems perfectly natural that men with broken necks walk, life can be created out of death, people pretend Bela Lugosi’s Ygor seems harmless, and the very same people are only very mildly concerned when six of the eight men responsible for a hanging wind up dead by exploding heart.

It’s all a pure joy to watch and witness, the sort of movie that makes a lot of weird decisions but then follows them through so well and so (un-)naturally, they make up a perfectly fitting whole.

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