the
SCRIVANI
pages
HATED, BLASPHEMED
& CONDEMNED

a defense of
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN
by RICH SCRIVANI
       It moves too slowly.
       It goes on too long. 
       The damn film is too "talky". 
       You don't even see the Monster for half an hour.
       And that KID - he SINGLEHANDEDLY ruins the movie. 
       Oh, and what about Basil Rathbone's hamming?
       Does he overact or what? Destroys the movie.

      The complaints go on and on, until I started start wondering, "What did I ever see in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN?" Well, I see plenty, I've seen it for years, and for what it's worth, I've never understood the endless line of the film's very vocal detractors.  And while it may seem a strange approach to begin an appreciation of a film on such a defensive foot, it needs to be acknowledged - this popular slamming of a film that, while it has its faults, is far more worthy than many "fans" are able (or willing) to recognize.  It's like "The Emperor's New Clothes" in reverse. It's time to reappraise the third entry in Universal's Karloff trilogy.

      By the time the second sequel to 1931's pioneering horror FRANKEN-
STEIN reached its pre-production phase, any betting man who had taken a gander at Willis Cooper's original shooting script would likely have wagered that the final result would have "loser" written all over it. A talking monster with dialogue like, "Listen - me - you - got - woman. You - got - baby. You like - woman - baby - kill? Hah!" Add to that a kid named Erwin with at least twice as big a part as little Peter eventually had, and a platoon of soldiers lobbing a hand grenade (?!) into a pit with the groaning Monster at the bottom, and you get a bit of an idea what director Rowland V. Lee saved us all from with his radical rewrite.

      What finally made it to film and what has been passed on to the ages is today still a sturdy, atmospheric and character-driven monument to the Frankenstein story, or more accurately, the Monster's legend. More so than in the original is present an all-penetrating sense of dread, a warping of the elements, first evidenced in the view seen through the windows of the train bearing Wolf Von Frankenstein and family: bare and twisted trees, stunted as if unable to grow from the sheer oppression of their surroundings, dwarfed by the very evil in the air. The mountain village of Frankenstein is a collection of bent and skewed municipalities, houses and cottages, Caligariesque and forbidding.  It is only upon entering the town hall that any fairy tale vestige of Tyrolean ambience, reminiscent of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN asserts itself.  And looming above it all, towering like a black monolith over the village is the axis of the bizarre atmosphere - EINGANG VERBOTEN Castle Frankenstein.  Bolted tight, its only sign of life is the bearded Old Ygor, peering out from a broken guardhouse window as if keeping vigil over the property, the place he uses as his home. He is as welcome in town as a cemetery rat. The entire setting, our introduction to the surroundings already has us off-balance, apprehensive.

     While I'm not attempting to laud SON as the best of Universal's Frankenstein films (that honor seemingly lodged firmly in BRIDE's court), and since by definition sequels usually fall short for lack of artistic merit, I do feel that its strengths, of which there are many, have been grossly overlooked in favor of its flaws. These shortcomings seem to be four in number: 1): The film is overlong and too talky. 2): Karloff's Monster isn't onscreen long enough, and takes a back seat to everyone else. 3): Rathbone overacts, and 4): Donnie Dunagan should have been thrown into the sulpher pit in reel one. While I agree with SOME of these criticisms to an extent, they are much easier for me to live with than A): ANY other actor who played the Monster, B): That kiddie show matinee approach to the rest of the films, C): The popular "brain juggling" theme that plagued GHOST and HOUSE ("You can't tell one brain from another without a program!"), and D): Basically no real "Frankenstein" story left after MEETS THE WOLF MAN. It can truly be said that any air of fascination, fear, mystery or awe for Mary Shelley's creation was absent following SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.

     Let's look at these issues and examine them fairly, and hopefully objectively. Concerning SON's overlength, the only place I find this to be a real problem is in the final third. I always found the character buildup and atmosphere in the first third to be one of the film's strengths.  In the story many years have passed and we must get to know the new characters and their relationships before the Monster is once more introduced.  Because BRIDE was so tight a sequel, we found out at once what happened to the Monster after the terrible windmill fire.  Thus the character was thrust upon us almost immediately, the story so taut that if it were not for different actors in key roles, the two films could literally be spliced together into one long epic.  There was also unexplored material left from the novel, and since it dealt with the developing awareness of the Monster, the creature became more familiar and therefore less frightening.  Many consider BRIDE to be almost a comedy in a Gothic setting.  Amazingly this worked beautifully for it, and only a master director like James Whale could have rendered its reputation more magnificent than the original, despite its watered-down chills.

     SON went back and aimed for the shudders produced by the 1931 film.
Lee had his work cut out for him, and possibly only his reverence for and fresh approach to the subject matter allowed him to return to square one and unnerve and shock audiences once again. In this first "slow" half hour we learn of the hatred the townsfolk harbor for anything Frankenstein, and enter the spare and otherworldly family estate with its strange angles, oversized furniture and shadowy staircases oddly recalling the warped visage of the Monster himself. We meet Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krogh, a character with dimension, a vivid past, and a wooden arm, the result of a horrible childhood encounter with the Monster. His military aspirations crushed, confined to his duties in the village, he is probably Atwill's most memorable character in the Universal canon. The ambience created in SON's opening reels is so thick and heavy, the dialogue so rich, that it has the effect of sculpting the Monster's image into our subconscious.

     The first third of the film saves its best for last in the person of Lugosi's crippled inside-and-out Ygor.  Our first glimpses of him, always in the shadows, climax in an effective shot following Wolf's reading of his father's letter in the castle library.  Rising for a closeup outside the huge windows, his soaking wet face illuminated by lightning flashes as he huddles against the raging storm, he is the picture of evil.  And when later we meet him in the ruins of the old lab, it is hard to believe that it is Lugosi underneath the scraggly hair and gnarled teeth, so disguised is his appearance and so good is his performance.  The sight of the old blacksmith rapping on his broken neck as he assures the doctor that it is "all right" has become genre
folklore.  What character would be more appropriate to introduce us to the Monster?

     The Monster, comatose, hidden in the family tomb, stretched out on a slab as the camera dollies back slowly to reveal him, is huge, monolithic, and every bit as fearsome as we have been led to expect by the stories we have heard. (It was also this writer's introduction to the Monster, SON having been my first Frankenstein film.)  In the scene's wild finale, Rathbone as Wolf takes a torch and rubs out the graffiti "maker of monsters" written in chalk on his father's sarcophagus, replacing it with "maker of men".  With Frank Skinner's magnificant score underlining the action, it is a powerful ending to SON's Act One.

     Act Two starts off by exploring the physiological nature of the Monster. After an impressive sequence in which he is lifted into the lab from the catacombs below, Frankenstein begins his examination.  We hear about rapid heartbeat (200 beats a minute!), high blood pressure, a hyperpituitary condition, bloodshot eyes, and for the first time learn the function of those peculiar neck bolts.  It's a shame they went a tad too far and made the old boy impervious to bullets; Lee's script was flirting with the danger of removing any trace of humanity, unfortunately going so far as to have Wolf declare, "There's not one part of his physical being that's like that of human beings".  A strange diagnosis, since he was constructed from the corpses of human beings.  It is a minor transgression for dramatic purposes, luckily not taken any further.

     As to the charge that the Monster is a minor player in the story, I agree to the extent that he is used as a tool to enact revenge for Ygor, who instructs him to do away with the jurors who had sentenced him to an unsuccessful hanging (the Monster was also "used" in BRIDE by Dr. Pretorious as a means to get Henry Frankenstein up off his arse and help him in the creation of a female, but this was more legitimate in that the Monster had an interest in doing so for himself, not solely by someone else's order).  What I don't agree with is the charge that Karloff is wasted and walks through the part, dwarfed by Lugosi and the others.  His first scene with Rathbone in the lab is a gem, and hardly any mention is made that Karloff acts his pants off in one of his best turns as the wretched, lonely creature trying to make sense of his pathetic ugliness.  Who can forget the moment when he turns Rathbone around to face him, begins stroking his face, "molding" a forced smile there, then slowly edging his huge hands to Wolf's throat causing a startled gasp?  Cut to the Monster's face - he cocks his head in confusion as if to say, "What's wrong? I'm not looking to hurt you." A marvelous moment, simple, understated, and beyond the ability of any of Karloff's successors.  His pitiable gesturing into the giant mirror as if making sure that the gaunt image there is indeed his own leads to a sad affirmation when comparing the doctor's handsome features to his square-headed grotesquery.  A passionate performance in a scene for my money worth the price of admission.

     It is a bit disheartening watching the demented Ygor lead the mythic
creature around like a dog on a leash, but we must remember two impor-
tant things: The Monster's abnormal brain has been further damaged by a lightning blast (one not received under laboratory control), and he has found his first lasting friend - one that looks after him and genuinely cares for him. These factors might have been enough to turn him into a confused, dangerous zombie, simply and easily led.  These two outcasts have only the company of each other in the world, and the fruits of their association can only end in tragedy.  To further convey this feeling of solitary and lost souls, Skinner's score provides a melancholy motif, heard initially behind Ygor's first dialogue scene and repeated during the the doctor's abovementioned encounter with the Monster in the lab.  Touches like these give SON a tone that were to be sadly missing from any further entries in the series.

     It is in the third act that SON OF FRANKENSTEIN weakens. Admittedly we are subjected to a few too many similar encounters between Wolf and the suspicious and accusing Inspector Krogh.  It is also the act in which Rathbone has been charged with indulging in his now-infamous overacting.  I thoroughly disagree with that popular assessment.  Look at Wolf von Frankenstein.  The villagers hate him almost to a man.  It is to the script's credit (and Atwill's acting) that we can see a glimpse of admiration and respect mixed in with Krogh's hostility and bitterness.  It is possible that the two men, freed from the surrounding circumstances could have become fast friends.  This being the sole undercurrent of positive energy, consider - Wolf has lied to his wife and family, restored life to his father's murderous creation, been responsible for two more deaths in the village (plus his butler/friend Benson), trusted Ygor, a fiend who has been using him to provide a revenge tool, and not only is he powerless to stop it all, but is being kept prisoner in his own home.  Top it off with having to keep it all secret, and you might just have a man with his nerves frayed to the point of hysteria.  Overacting?  Rethink it, folks.  I agree that the film would have benefitted by some tightening up in this section, and even I start to squirm by the time Krogh is asking Mrs. Frankenstein if he can poke his head in the refrigerator to find a spare chicken leg.  Also Karloff's contribution at this point is reduced to repetitive murders in the village, and while he looks splendid and powerful in Jack Pierce's makeup and fur vested suit, his moments are mechanical and routine.  The Monster's best scenes are yet to come.

     Routine is also the word that best describes most of Act Three.  By this time the film's atmosphere has already worked its magic in the first half and the plot now limps along to deal with murders, coroners' inquests and accusations.  Wolf visits the lab a couple of times, tries to arrange a trip abroad for his family and tiptoes around the relentless Krogh. It isn't until the death of Ygor that things pick up, and by then the end is near.  But what an end!  One of the best moments in all of horror films comes when the Monster discovers the bullet-riddled body of Ygor, cradles the blacksmith's lifeless hand and sways back and forth in grief.  Discovering blood, he throws his head back in an emotion-rending scream of agony (so effective that not only was it doubled for the Monster's plunge into the boiling sulpher, but also turned up on the soundtrack of Univeral's 1944 SPIDER WOMAN and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN).

   It is this thirty seconds of screen time that always makes me wonder what besides alcohol was coursing through Lon Chaney, Jr.'s grey matter that made his 1942 Monster such an automaton.  The original shooting script of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN reveals ample opportunity to emote, and enough screen time for the character to make said sequel much better than it was.  I can forgive Lugosi's 1943 turn, what with ill health, a contempt for the part and the need to put ghoulash on the table his only motivations, and I can almost let Glenn Strange off the hook due to the virtual non-existence of the role by the time he inherited it.  Though I can't stop wondering what GHOST might have been had Karloff taken one last crack at it, it's doubtful anything could have topped 1939's final rampage through the lab, the rediscovery of the fairy tale book, the abduction, the rejected attempt to murder the child, and the final confrontation and fiery death in the bubbling sulpher pit.

     Now to the favorite of everyone's complaints - Donnie Dunagan as
little Peter.  The way he is alluded to by detractors (and even some
defenders), you'd think he was Demon Spawn from Hell, a little AntiChrist. I'm at worst sort of amused by his scenes, certainly not impressed, but very vocal critics of his casting act as if he dominates the proceedings.  How much time is he allotted anyway?  It would be laughable to try and find anything substantial in his performance, but does he really bother everyone THAT much?  I guess my point here is the emphasis put on his contribution (or damage) to this film.  I would be willing to bet that the people who are SO bothered by him are ones that don't really care for the film from the getgo, or at least can't acknowledge its many attributes.  He is a footnote to the movie, and by the time he is used as a pawn by the Monster at the climax, he hardly utters a word.  And the moment he gives the Monster a hand climbing up from the sulpher pit, not realizing how closely he has escaped death, with a breezy "Here we are!", his part in the story is justified.  The outcome is the reverse of the encounter with Little Maria - 
it starts out violently and ends with a change of heart.

     I fully realize that this article will not make SON OF FRANKENSTEIN everyone's cup of tea.  It has its share of faults - I just don't agree with its naysayers and the degree to which their gripes are taken.  Because the film invests time in its exposition for character development, atmosphere and plot buildup, it endows a soul, a power missing from all subsequent sequels and from many of the Universal horror films that would follow; it is the last gasp of the studio's Golden Age.  While not nearly the artistic triumph of the previous Whale entries, it has a dignity and solidity that requires a certain temperament to appreciate, and while the pace is methodical, it remains true to the spirit of the original, offers perhaps Lugosi's greatest screen performance, and a doleful and unforgettable last appearance of Karloff's Monster.  As my introduction to the world of that mistreated and misunderstood creature, it drew me in with awe and held me.

     I still haven't escaped it.   
 

     article property of Rich Scrivani              E-MAIL RICH!