Film Reviews

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The creatures of the night claimed the New Beverly for their own yesterday, as monster fans packed the house for two Frankenstein films, and a chance to see Karloff and Lugosi in person. It wasn’t the famous actors themselves who were appearing, of course, but rather, their offspring–Sara Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Jr. Ms. Karloff sported an elegant white streak in her hair that evoked the monster’s Bride, while the younger Lugosi dressed all in black, enhancing the already uncanny likeness of his father. Both children shared stories about their fathers and their opinions on the films that were playing that night, which were Son of Frankenstein (1939), celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, and House of Frankenstein (1944), celebrating its 70th.

Karloff and Lugosi, Jr., were flanked by a panel of monster movie experts, including writer Don Glut, genre film historian Bill Warren, “100 Years of Horror” director Ted Newsom, and make-up artist Craig Reardon. The event drew a crowd with significantly more piercings and tattoos than perhaps the typical New Bev audience, but the murmurs of reverence at names like Jack Pierce made it clear they were movie buffs all the same.

Sara Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Jr.

The first film, Son of Frankenstein, marked the elder Karloff’s third and final appearance as the iconic Monster. The cast also includes Lugosi as the treacherous assistant Ygor, and Basil Rathbone as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, son of the original scientist and owner of one of cinema’s greatest character names. Baron Frankenstein has returned to his family’s ancestral castle home to claim his birthright, but his father’s experimentations caused the townsfolk to irrevocably distrust the name “Frankenstein,” so he doesn’t receive a particularly hearty welcome. Since he’s already being shunned, and still curious about his father’s research, Ygor shows Frankenstein where the Monster’s sleeping body lies, and Frankenstein begins to replicate his father’s work in order to revive the creature. This is ultimately in Ygor’s best interest though, as he had been hanged for his graverobbing crimes–but survived–and now uses the Monster to kill off the remaining council jurors who sentenced him to death.


There are a few references to the original film–the younger Frankenstein yelps, “It’s alive!” when he first meets the Monster, and, later, the Monster hesitates as he considers whether to throw a child to his watery doom, as though remembering the last time that happened. But one of the biggest differences, as Sara Karloff pointed out, is that this is really Ygor’s film, not the Monster’s. Not only is the Monster being used as a pawn, but he’s much bulkier and bumbling here than in the previous two, which is part of the reason why, Karloff suggested, her father ultimately decided not to continue with the character.

Lugosi, Jr., said that Ygor was one of his father’s favorite roles to play because it wasn’t just a straight horror element, but there were also some comedic moments involved as well. Indeed, the nefarious Ygor routinely seems to be about 20 steps ahead of the rest of the characters, and I particularly enjoyed a scene where the council was debating whether he could be hanged for any crimes he committed in the future, considering he had already been hanged for them once. Upon exiting, Ygor wryly points out that when council members die, they stay dead–unlike him–and accentuates his point by coughing directly into the mouths of the remaining two jury members. There are also some great bits with an inspector’s false arm (famously parodied in Young Frankenstein), as well as a discussion early on in the picture in which Baron Frankenstein laments how often people just say “Frankenstein” when they actually mean the “Monster.” It’s funny to think how prevalent both that mistake and annoyance regarding that mistake are today–but as we see here, it’s nothing new!

The film looks great, particularly on the nearly pristine print shown at the New Bev, and the expressionistic shadows and angles looked exceptionally crisp and clean on screen. Glut considers this one of the best-looking Frankenstein films, noting that much had changed in the film world in the eight years since Universal’s first outing with Frankenstein in 1931, including editing, lighting, and acting styles.

Karloff in costume for Son of Frankenstein, with Lugosi, Jr.
Karloff in costume for Son of Frankenstein, with Lugosi, Jr.

The creature makeup design by Jack Pierce is one of cinema’s most lasting and imitated images, and it works, Reardon says, because of an instinctive, unconscious stroke of genius. He notes that there’s a lot about the design that doesn’t quite make sense on an intellectual level–why is the top of the head flat, for instance?–but the result is something robotic, hypnotic, and as iconic to the 1930s as Mickey Mouse, Groucho Marx, or Charlie Chaplin were to their own eras. Renowned makeup artist Rick Baker was also in the audience last night, and agreed that, certainly on an aesthetic level at least, Pierce’s work has never been surpassed.

Much has been made of a rivalry between Boris Karloff and Béla Lugosi as actors, but Warren concluded the panel with a happy anecdote about their working relationship. Upon meeting Karloff and asking him about Lugosi, Karloff recounted a moment during the filming of this movie, where he would be required to lift Lugosi, playing dead, from the ground. He insisted on doing this scene himself, but was concerned about his bad back. When they went to film the scene, Karloff discovered that Lugosi had learned to support his own weight by surreptitiously lifting himself up with his legs–a trick he had learned as an old theater pro. Karloff was incredibly relieved and, even if they weren’t personal friends, it seems they had a deep respect for each other on a professional level. It’s on display here, and once you add Rathbone into the mix, Son of Frankenstein is a fun grouping of three of horror’s greatest.

The Son of Frankenstein / House of Frankenstein double feature plays at the New Beverly again tonight (January 20) starting at 7:30pm. Admission to both films is an ever-reasonable $8.

Lots of raised hands when the crowd is asked if they’d return for Creature of the Black Lagoon‘s 60th anniversary… so stayed tuned for the next edition, perhaps.

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