1939’s Son of Frankenstein is the final installment of the original Universal Monsters Frankenstein series featuring Boris Karloff as the monster. There were more Frankenstein installments, but you can look at these first three films as a trilogy on their own, completing somewhat of an arc for the creature.
The late Dr. Frankenstein’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), relocates his wife and son to his family’s castle. Wolf is shown lamenting his father and his reputation, saying it’s not fair that the name “Frankenstein” has become synonymous with the giant monster who was created from a mistake made by his father’s bumbling assistant. The entire community blames his father, and now that Wolf has arrived, they’ve unfairly passed on their resentment to him and his family.
It turns out the Monster (Karloff) is still alive, but has been put in a coma following an accident. A strange man, Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who’s been outcast to Dr. Frankenstein’s old laboratory following his botched hanging, requests Wolf’s assistance in reviving the monster, who Ygor calls his friend. It turns out Ygor has hypnotized the monster to do his dirty work, killing the jurors of his original trial. Now Wolf has to deal with hiding the fact that he revived the monster while also trying to protect his family from it.
The third act gets lost in what the story tries to do. The first two serve as a solid mystery featuring characters with dilemmas, but eventually the plot turns away from that and fails to capitalize on everything it’s built up. Much of the conflict gets rushed in the end, and so does our main character’s emotional arc, which had been intriguing up to that point.
The film nearly undermines the monster’s positive development from the previous film and regresses him socially, but wisely keeps the overall message of him being a product of his creator. This time around, you can add society to that list, as it’s clear the townspeople were the ones influencing Wolf’s decision to revive the monster to try and vindicate his father while saving their family’s reputation in the first place.
There are some unintentionally laughable moments throughout, which add the the film’s charm. But the laughs Lugosi gets are every bit intentional. He’s undeniably the standout performer, while Karloff doesn’t get as much to do. Lugosi livens up the film and helps it show that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
This is also the first appearance of any character named “Ygor”, even though his name has become conflated with Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz, from the first film in 1931.
The set pieces are on par with the previous two installments. The brilliantly designed castle is like something out of a German expressionist film with its bizarre angles and hidden passage ways.
Son of Frankenstein may not live up to the impossibly high standard set by Bride of Frankenstein, but is still a very fitting way to wrap up the trilogy and giving us a great story to hold onto.