Since I had reviewed so many Bela Lugosi films lately, I thought I would tackle the time he appeared with Boris Karloff in a Frankenstein film, and got the better of him. I mean, sure Frankenstein’s monster is in this, but it’s Lugosi who steals the show with his portrayal of Igor. By the way, although hunchbacked lab assistants even in 1938 were already a cliche in movies (such as Fritz in the original Frankenstein movie), this is the first time such a character had been called by the name Igor, giving us the final element of the stereotypical character we associate today with such films. But more on Igor in a moment.
Wolf von Frankenstein (played by Basil Rathbone), the son of the original baron, has come to village Frankenstein to claim his inheritance, bringing with him his wife, Elsa, and young son, Peter. The villagers give Wolf a frosty reception, but Police Inspector Krogh befriends the family. Elsa dislikes the castle and is frightened to stay there, while Wolf is fascinated, especially after he finds his father’s notes. When he goes exploring in his father’s old lab, he comes across the monster’s hidden body. To redeem the family name, he decides to revive the monster and prove the genius of his father’s work (not quite sure how this makes sense, since the old Baron’s genius was never in question, just his common sense in creating a monster, but never mind).
This is where Igor comes in. Igor lurks around on the Frankenstein property playing a haunting melody on his hornpipe. He was hanged for graverobbing but the rope snapped before he died, and his broken neck healed improperly so now he walks with his head tilted to one side. Since he’s already been “executed,” he can’t be punished again for the crime. When Wolf decides to revive the monster, Igor is all too eager to help him.
After weeks of holing up in his lab and not explaining to Elsa what he’s doing, Wolf and Igor finally succeed in re-animating Wolf’s father’s creation. But the creature turns out only to obey Igor, who had befriended him before whatever had happened to make him fall comatose. It’s not long until a pair of murders have been committed in the village, the victims happening to coincide with those who sat on the jury in Igor’s trial.
The villagers form a mob and are ready to lynch the whole Frankenstein family, but Inspector Krogh calms things down. He has his own suspicions, however, and keeps an eye on things at the Frankenstein estate. When Wolf discovers that his faithful butler, Benson, has been murdered, he confronts Igor and shoots him. The monster finds Igor’s dead body and howls in rage, rushing to Peter’s bedroom to take revenge. He grabs the boy but doesn’t kill him (it’s ambiguous, but maybe this is a show of conscience?), instead taking Peter to the lab. Inspector Keogh confronts the monster there, but it is Wolf, who has scaled the outer walls of the lab and swings in through a window, who saves the day by knocking the monster into a molten acid pit (you know, like you have in labs).
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Story/Plot/Characters— The script is well put-together and the acting is fine, with Lugosi being a special highlight. Still, though there’s some attempt to introduce a few new elements to the Frankenstein story, it’s basically a retread of what we’ve already seen twice. (2 points)
Special Effects— Top-notch for its era, as ever for Universal. But by this point we’ve seen the Frankenstein make-up and the lab equipment twice before so there’s nothing novel here. (1 points)
Scariness— I can’t imagine anybody being scared by this. (0 points)
Atmosphere/Freakiness— The sets are actually pretty impressive, borrowing from German Expressionism disorienting angles and camera shots from low vantage points. Combined with Igor’s eerie hornpipe playing, there’s quite a bit of atmosphere. It’s the best part of the movie, actually. (2 points)
Total=5 points (Okay)
At this point, Universal was still putting effort into putting out quality horror movies (at least in terms of production values). If this were the only Frankenstein movie you’d ever seen it would be revelatory. But as the third in the series, there’s just too little we haven’t already seen.