Wolf Frankenstein, son of the infamous scientist, moves into his ancestral home along with his wife and child, hoping to redeem his family name. Unfortunately, soon after arriving to a chilly reception from the locals, the ambitious young man discovers that a deranged madman named Igor has taken up residence in the ruins of his father’s old laboratory. Worse, the murderous monster created by Henry Frankenstein is also hidden in the rubble, barely alive. Igor convinces Wolf to restore the creature to full health, both men having very different plans for the monstrosity once it is revived.
Director Rowland V. Lee (THE REETURN OF FU MANCHU, THE TOWER OF LONDON) replaces James Whale for this, the third in Universal’s classic Frankenstein series. Lee brings a more macabre but less operatic flavor to the proceedings, eschewing Whale’s mythic subtext in favor of a manic sense of fun and increasingly frantic tension. Helping him is the strongest cast ever assembled for a Universal horror film (with respect to Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, and Ernest Thesiger). Boris Karloff returns for a third and final turn as the monster, his performance less sympathetic but decidedly more menacing than in either preceding entry. Bela Lugosi’s work here as Igor, the maniac who survived the gallows and wants revenge on those who sent him there, is on a par with his star-making performance in DRACULA. Both terror legends are nearly upstaged, however, by Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, a determined policeman with a wooden arm. Atwill’s outlandish manipulation of the prosthetic appendage is delightful enough, but his sincere delivery of screenwriter Wyllis Cooper’s loaded dialogue is what makes his character so unforgettable. Krogh’s show stopping speech recounting the childhood encounter with Frankenstein’s monster which left him tragically dismembered plays, through the lens of history, like the Grand Guignol ancestor of Robert Shaw’s U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue in JAWS.
Despite all of this considerable talent operating in top form, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is really the Basil Rathbone show. Rathbone’s Wolf Frankenstein is a man destined for tragedy from the moment he appears on-screen, an otherwise sensible fellow whose sharp eyes involuntarily light up at the mere mention of his father’s work. It doesn’t take long for him to begin the plummeting descent from concerned family man to ambitious nut, and he becomes more visibly agitated and obviously guilty in each successive scene in which he appears. By the end, Rathbone has become so wide-eyed and manic that the viewer isn’t sure he can be saved from his father’s fate. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that you haven’t seen an actor thoroughly devour a role or so skillfully set the pace of an entire film with his escalating scenery-chewing until you’ve seen Basil Rathbone in this movie.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is widely considered the weakest of the Karloff Frankenstein films. That may be a fair assessment in some respects, but to consider the film anything less than a true classic in its own right is to do it a great injustice. Consider this – Mel Brooks’ hilarious YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a virtual remake of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, right down to the wild performance of Gene Wilder and the presence of a police inspector with a prosthetic limb. The primary reason that 1974 comedy still leaves audience rolling on the floor decades after its release is that the film which it so closely imitates is an inspired, over-the-top chiller that can still shock and thrill nearly 80 years since it first graced the silver screen.