by Steve Habrat
Nothing says Halloween like Frankenstein, the iconic horror story penned by Mary Shelley. The legendary tale has it all: walking corpses, gothic castles, mad scientists, hunchbacks, and misty graveyards. If that doesn’t scream Halloween then I don’t know what does. Shortly after the success of Dracula, Universal unleashed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, two horror classics that are still celebrated today and beloved by every single horror fan on the planet. If you wish to read Corinne Rizzo’s reviews of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, click here for Frankenstein or click here for Bride of Frankenstein. So, without further ado, here are Anti-Film School’s mini reviews of the Frankenstein sequels.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Picking up several years after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, Henry Frankenstein’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Played by Basil Rathbone), returns to his father’s castle with his wife, Elsa (Played by Josephine Hutchinson), and his young son, Peter (Played by Donnie Dunagan). Eager to repair his father’s reputation, Wolf quickly discovers that local villagers are not so eager to forgive for the abomination that his father created. Wolf soon finds himself approached by the demented Ygor (Played by Béla Lugosi), who wants Wolf to bring the Monster (Played by Boris Karloff) back from the dead. Wolf reluctantly agrees with the hopes of restoring his father’s legacy but with the reanimation of the Monster, death and destruction once again tear through the countryside.
If Universal would have ended its Frankenstein series with Son of Frankenstein, then it could have ranked as one of the greatest trilogies to ever come out of Hollywood. Wrapping things up quite horrifically, director Rowland V. Lee tells one of the heartiest tales Frankenstein’s Monster ever received and it is all the better for it. Immensely satisfying and surprisingly eerie, Karloff once again shines as everyone’s favorite grunting brute corpse as he shuffles about the twisted landscape. It would become the last time Karloff would ever don that famous make-up and boy does he go out with a bang. While he lacks much of the understanding and humanity that he did in Bride of Frankenstein (my personal favorite Universal Monster movie), he still gives the Monster heaping amounts of personality. Karloff does end up playing second fiddle to Lugosi, who gives one hell of a performance as Ygor, a raspy grave robber who somehow survived a hanging and now has a deformed neck.
As far as the supporting players go, Rathbone is adequate as a man who refuses to own up to what he has created. Rathbone consistently plays off of Lionel Atwill’s one-armed Inspector Krogh, who is being forced into reprimanding Wolf even though he believes that he isn’t the criminal the rambling villagers think he is. The film applies a nightmarish German Expressionist vision to the terror, making everything seem slightly surreal as Karloff and Lugosi lurch about the rocky landscape. The film really takes hold when Wolf’s son Peter begins explaining that a giant has paid him a visit, a confession that will give you the creeps. Overall, Son of Frankenstein stands as the last great Universal Frankenstein film, one that still manages to terrify to this very day. An unsung winner from Universal’s glory days. Grade: A-
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Taking place shortly after the events of Son of Frankenstein, the horrific devastation that took place at Frankenstein’s castle still looms over the nearby village. Many villagers believe that Ygor (Played by Béla Lugosi) is still alive and is desperately trying to find the body of Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.). It turns out that Ygor has indeed found the body of the Monster caught and preserved in the sulfur that he was pushed into by Wolf von Frankenstein. The villagers soon storm the ruins of the castle and run Ygor and the Monster, who has been weakened due to the sulfur exposure, out of town. Ygor decides to travel to the nearby village of Vasaria to find Ludwig Frankenstein (Played by Cedric Hardwicke), the second son of Henry Frankenstein, with the hopes that he can restore the Monster to his full strength. Ludwig begins studying the Monster with the hopes of destroying it once and for all, but a visit from his father’s apparition pleads with him to perfect the creation.
At a brief sixty-seven minutes, The Ghost of Frankenstein seems like lukewarm scraps that should have been thrown out rather than reheated. Despite a tepid script and a nonsensical storyline that is slightly convoluted, The Ghost of Frankenstein still has a few surprises that keep things just barely shuffling along. Chaney does a surprisingly decent job as the Monster, who once again doesn’t show the degree of humanity that Karloff did in Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein. Chaney is much better as this monster than he was as Dracula but he will always be the best at the Wolf-Man, a role he should have stuck to but I guess someone had to step in and fill Karloff’s shoes. Meanwhile, Lugosi once again steals the show as the unhinged freak Ygor, who wants to use the Monster to cause as much destruction as he possibly can. Despite a lot of silliness, Lugosi plays for keeps. Thankfully, he comes out unscathed. Then there is Hardwicke, who seems rather disinterested as Ludwig, a man who has been blackmailed into reviving the Monster. He certainly doesn’t live up to the other two Frankenstein boys.
A step down in the production department, The Ghost of Frankenstein feels frustratingly stale and downright meaningless. It is obviously a quick cash grab on the Frankenstein name and it is hard to forgive Universal for that, especially after that trio of treasures that they delivered before this. The film has very few creepy moments to speak of but the atmosphere of the original three films is long gone. Still, Chaney works hard to keep things on the ghoulish track and the ever-colorful Lugosi aids him along. I will admit that I did enjoy the morbid twist at the end of film, a twist that involves a quick brain swap with fiery results. Overall, it is far from my favorite Universal horror film but I believe you can do much, much worse. It just hurts to see the high quality Frankenstein series deteriorate into such an unimaginative mess. Grade: C
The House of Frankenstein (1944)
After the vengeful Dr. Gustav Niemann (Played by Boris Karloff) escapes from prison with the help of his hunchback assistant Daniel (Played by J. Carrol Naish), he sets out to find the three men responsible for his imprisonment. After murdering a traveling showman and taking over his roaming horror show, Dr. Niemann unleashes Dracula (Played by John Carradine), the Wolf-Man (Played by Lon Chaney, Jr.), and Frankenstein’s Monster (Played by Glenn Strange) to get revenge on those who have wronged him. As their rampage tears through multiple villages, Dr. Niemann and Daniel begin to fear that they may also fall victim to the horrors that they have unleashed.
Released a year before the weary House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein marked the first time that all of Universal’s headlining monsters were together in one smash horror show. A bit smoother than House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein is carried by the mere presence of Karloff, who here is portraying the mad doctor rather than the big green Monster. While Karloff seems to be enjoying the fact that he isn’t caked with make-up, the real star here is Naish’s hunchback Daniel, a tragic soul who lusts after a beautiful gypsy Ilonka (Played by Elena Verdugo). Daniel longs for a better body, which he believes would allow him to win over Ilonka’s affection. It is even more tragic to see Daniel pitted against Larry Tolbot/the Wolf-Man, who seems to be the apple of Ilonka’s eye. The House of Frankenstein also finds Glenn Strange stepping in as the Frankenstein Monster, once again played as a grunting brute with very little emotion. Carradine also makes an appearance as Dracula, who flies off with the film’s most thrilling sequence.
Much like House of Dracula, The House of Frankenstein is really straining to keep itself together for its seventy-one minute run. The film really works due to the surprisingly strong conflict between the Daniel and Larry; a feud that we know will not have a positive outcome. Still, the plot finding Dr. Niemann using these creatures to exact revenge is a much sharper idea than all of them wanting to be cured of their curses. While it doesn’t mark the last appearance of all these ghouls in one film, it really should have acted as their last appearance on the big screen. Overall, The House of Frankenstein is a mildly enjoyable undead soirée that should have closed the coffin lid on these decomposing beasts from Hell. Grade: C+
Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, and The House of Frankenstein are all available on DVD.