From 1936 to 1938, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi found themselves mired in a career slump. The British had placed a ban on American Horror films and the Laemmles had been forced out of power at Universal. This led to two years where no Horror films at all were produced at Universal. Then in 1938, a movie theater in L.A. which was nearing bankruptcy staged an ambitious triple-feature. The films were DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and KING KONG. The triple-feature became an instant hit, inspiring other theaters to follow suit. This convinced the new heads of Universal that the market would, despite the opinions of ‘experts’, support Horror films. With money to be made, they quickly put into production SON OF FRANKENSTEIN.
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Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, the son of the monster’s creator. Wolf travels to his father’s castle in order to try and redeem his family name, but encounters hostility from the villagers. While exploring the estate, he finds the body of his father’s monster (played once again by Boris Karloff) and sets out to revive it - proving his father right. Unfortunately for Wolf, the monster only obeys the orders of another and goes on a murderous rampage. Although this is a Frankenstein film and Karloff’s monster will always be the draw, this movie really belongs to Bela Lugosi as the devious, yet tragic Ygor.
To say that Ygor steals the show would be an understatement. Bela Lugosi pretty much rolls the film up, tucks it under his arm, and struts away with it. Lugosi and director Rowland Lee created an utterly fascinating character that is as sympathetic as he is repulsive. Lugosi musters every iota of his towering talent to craft an unforgettable performance full of villainy and pathos. That Lugosi continued to flounder in sub-par films after this indelible a performance borders on criminal.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN was released in 1939 and was a smash hit. The film almost single-handedly returned Universal to profitability and spawned the release of several more FRANKENSTEIN films. Boris Karloff, though, declined to return - feeling that the character was becoming tired. It may have been this decision that relegated subsequent FRANKENSTEIN features to “B” status productions. It is interesting to speculate on what those films might have been if the full force of the studio’s resources had been behind them as they had for the previous three. No matter though. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is a wonderful capper to the 1930’s decade of Universal Horror.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN fun facts - Claude Rains and Peter Lorre were both considered for Wolf von Frankenstein. Lorre was actually cast, but became ill and had to pull out.
The film was tested in Technicolor, but the idea was abandoned when it was determined that the monster’s make-up lost some impact in color.
Bela Lugosi’s character, Ygor, was never in the original script. Rowland Lee was disgusted at Bela Lugosi’s small salary and kept expanding the role in order to keep Lugosi working week to week. Bela Lugosi was always grateful to Lee for this.
Wolf von Frankenstein - “Nothing in nature is terrifying when one understands it. Darling, my father drew that very lightning from heaven and forced it for his own will to bring life to a being he created with his own hands. Why should we fear anything?”
Inspector Krogh - “One doesn‘t easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.”
Ygor - “They hanged me once Frankenstein. They broke my neck. They said I was dead. Then they cut me down. They threw me in here long ago. They won’t bury me in holy place like churchyard because I stole bodies, they said. So Ygor is dead. So, Dr. Frankenstein, nobody can mend Ygor’s neck. It’s all right.”