Horror Bites - Sins of the Father

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)

It goes without saying that the work done by James Whale on the original two Frankenstein films is iconic for a variety of reasons. But nobody really talks about the sequels that followed which don't have the same director, the same visual style or the same twisted sense of humour. After this third instalment they don't even have Boris Karloff. Rowland Lee's Son of Frankenstein is an odd piece of work with continuity errors that seem to be included on purpose to detach itself from the previous films so that it can move in a new direction. But that doesn't mean this should be overlooked by Universal monster fans as the film isn't without it's own merits.


The plot itself is fairly straightforward as Wolf (Basil Rathbone) son of Henry arrives in town to save the family name. However there are some peculiar choices that are apparent straight away, and I'm not just talking about how much of this is parodied in the Mel Brooks version Young Frankenstein. For some reason the town itself is now called Frankenstein, and there's a huge name plate above the train station. Also the famous castle and the nearby landscape is completely different. The laboratory which collapsed on everyone last time around is swapped for a weird dome shaped building that looks more like an igloo than a place of scientific research. But everyone keeps saying this is where it all happened in the hopes you don't notice.

This does at least show some creativity in terms of set design and lighting. The castle itself is far too airy with high walls and lots of open spaces for some reason. The atmosphere is less spooky and more like a European holiday home. It feels like the Baron might go off skiing at any moment. But at the same time they spent some effort creating striking expressionist style rooms with long shadows and huge staircases. It's all too clean and lacks the damp brickwork and cobweb infested gloominess you would be expecting, but it's fun to look at anyway. I suppose some credit has to be given as they did their own thing rather than ape what had come before, although it's not always successful.

The really sinister moments come from the new additions to the cast, with Ygor (Béla Lugosi) and Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwell) each adding different and memorable moments. Krogh himself is of course the guy Mel Brooks found so easy to spoof many years later, but at the same time he's a fairly effective authority figure. His story about losing an arm during what was supposedly an incident with the monster years earlier is chilling in a way these films often fail to achieve, and it dispels any idea of his appearance being a comedic inclusion. Ygor is the man they couldn't hang - a criminal that survived the gallows and was allowed to go on living. Rationale aside (wouldn't they just execute him again?) it's a macabre character who stands out from the other cast members. His visage peering through a window during a storm is particularly dramatic.


Elsewhere Basil Rathbone is good as the title character adding a touch of class to the proceedings. Henry's wife and son on the other hand barely register and feel like token additions to the film, the latter in particular comes across as a child in peril incident waiting to happen. His acting also leaves something to be desired, but I guess it's not too grating overall. The biggest missed opportunity is Boris Karloff who gets little to do as the real star of the film. Maybe someone thought all that masonry falling on him would cause lasting damage, or maybe someone didn't think he should be talking because it was too silly. Instead he lumbers around wearing a woolly jumper of some sort, which of course is far more serious.

The monster does at least get a few sympathetic moments after waking up and seeing both the Baron and his own reflection, perhaps contemplating his own lot in life. I'd have thought that the storyline would focus on something like this and be more thematically resonant, particularly when Henry visits his father's crypt and vows to save his research. Instead this is more of a revenge plot mixed with a few detective elements as Ygor helps the Baron resurrect the creature for his own insidious reasons and Krogh appears every so often to voice his suspicions. Personally this should have been their chance to make sure Henry's ambitions are vindicated and the creature is seen finally as the victim, but it was not to be. The monster is revived far too easily and his bride is missing entirely.

They rush to a series of murder scenes and a finale involving a ludicrous sulphur pit under the lab that exists for one obvious reason as everything goes awry. And yet this is still watchable on its own terms. Interestingly a lot of this would also be borrowed in some of the Hammer films, so I guess someone liked it beyond the comedy potential. But overall is this a real disappointment? Not really. Ygor is a great character, despite his central performance overshadowing those who should be the protagonists. Was he supposed to be Fritz from the original film? I have no idea. In the end it's best not to worry too much about all these odd threads. It doesn't hold a candle to Bride of Frankenstein, but it doesn't have to. Both exist and both work well in different ways, it's a kind of soft reboot decades before that idea was even a thing.

4/5

BONUS REVIEW
THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (1940)



In terms of films that do try and follow the original story but still don't quite succeed, this belated sequel gives it a go but doesn't really manage it. The Invisible Man doesn't return of course and instead this is a new character Sir Geoffrey (Vincent Price) who escapes execution for murder with the help of Jack Griffin's brother Frank. The circumstances that lead to his research being discovered and the prisoner escaping just at the right moment are vague and contrived, but at least they don't just rehash the original beat for beat. The real problem here is that this just isn't a horror film, it's more of a detective thriller as Geoffrey rushes to prove his innocence while the police search for him. It's not a bad story on its own, but it feels out of place and at times it's pretty dry and uninteresting.

Vincent Price is reasonable enough in one of his early horror roles, although the mania of Claude Rains is sorely missing. Instead it's a more reserved and sometimes sympathetic character, probably thanks to period censorship. Personally I liked it better when he was a total lunatic. They do at least have some special effects that match the original, and in some cases they actually surpass it. Ideas that were only talked about such as the invisibility being ineffective in rain or fog are actually achieved here, and it's still very impressive for its age. Overall this isn't a bad effort and there are some notable sequences, but it's all just a bit bland with a story that focuses too much on industrial safety standards instead of the psychology of the central character. It's watchable but if there was a film that needed James Whale at the helm this was it.

3/5