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DVD SAVANT

Son of Frankenstein
&
Ghost of Frankenstein

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

In 1939, Universal made serious moves to revive their monster movie franchises. Besides another Mummy film in the works and a new interpretation of the werewolf legend reinvented by Curt Siodmak, they let their favorite Sherlock Holmes sidestep into two quality productions, Tower of London and Son of Frankenstein, both with Boris Karloff.


Son of Frankenstein
Home Video
1939 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 99m.
Starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Josephine Hutchinson, Lionel Atwill, Donnie Dunagan
Cinematography George Robinson
Art Director Jack Otterson
Film Editor Ted J. Kent
Makeup Jack Pierce
Original Music Lionel Newman & Frank Skinner
Writing credits Willis Cooper
Produced by
Directed by Rowland V. Lee

Synopsis:

Wolf Frankenstein, son of Victor (Basil Rathbone), returns to Vasaria with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and tiny son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to claim his rightful estate. He meets hostility from the villagers, but successfully installs his family into the castle. Then Ygor (Bela Lugosi) appears, a hanged murderer who survived the gallows and now haunts the Frankenstein ruins. He gloatingly reveals the inert but intact body of the Monster (Boris Karloff), and goads Wolf into reviving it. Frankenstein fils becomes excited by the prospect, not knowing that Ygor wants to use the monster to settle the score with the jury that convicted him.

This first non-James Whale Frankenstein film has a lot going for it, besides its powerhouse cast. The impressive art direction takes advantage of the better lenses and film stocks available since The Bride premiered four years earlier. The combination sulphur pit - laboratory is splendidly atmospheric, with its steam and dark lighting. The cracked-egg appearance of the lab exterior (a nice matte painting) is also unique.

The story this time around is played straight, not quite reaching the macabre extremes of Bride, but managing its own kind of menace. Lugosi's Ygor character has a creepy pied-piper quality and interacts well with Karloff's monster. After the speaking, active monster of the previous film, Karloff's mute and slow-witted interpretation this time around has disappointed a lot of Universal fans; from this point on the Monster would almost always be portrayed as a hulking automaton. But the level of pathos and expression hasn't really diminished; Karloff just skewed his playing to match the script's new style.

The closest I have to knowledge of how these pictures were received when new, comes from my mother, who remembers her first date being to go see this movie with a reissue of Dracula. At age 16 she was terrified and hasn't cared to see a horror film since. What they saw in 1939 was perhaps the last Universal Horror film intended to have real gravity instead of being a popcorn movie. Rathbone's dialogue is so well written and delivered, you'd think the gobbledegook he was spouting about internal medicine were real. Ygor's relationship with the Monster has some substance instead of being filler between action scenes, and time and effort are devoted to moody little setpieces such as when the nanny notices that the door to the nursery is closing by itself, very slowly ...

Universal's DVD copy of Son of Frankenstein looks fine, but is perhaps a bit murkier than other, less popular entries in the series. The logical reason for this is that successful movies from the 30s were printed and reprinted countless times for reissues over the years, wearing out the original neg and probably most of the original printing dupes made from it. This accounts for the fact that we can see pristine copies of The Seventh Victim, a film given a very short and unheralded run, while the popular The Body Snatcher exists in barely passable condition. The audio on this DVD is excellent. It accentuates the moody music, a custom score instead of the edited cues we're used to hearing later on in the series. The Realart trailer is included, along with some production notes that offer some interesting facts, such as an official mention of the notorious color test footage for Son that fans have long been itching to see.



Ghost of Frankenstein
Home Video
1942 / b&w / 1:37 flat / 67m.
Starring Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, Janet Ann Gallow
Cinematography Elwood Bredell, Milton R. Krasner
Art Direction Jack Otterson
Makeup Jack Pierce
Original Music Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter
Writing credits Scott Darling from a story by Eric Taylor
Produced by George Waggner
Directed by Erle C. Kenton

Synopsis:

Having somehow survived Wolf Frankenstein's bullets in The Son .., Ygor (Bela Lugosi) frees the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) from the hardened sulphur pit when the villagers foolishly attempt to dynamite the ruins of castle Frankenstein. Ygor then spirits the Monster (who receives an energy boost from a lightning storm along the way) across Bavaria to the mental clinic of the other Frankenstein son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke). Ludwig is using his father's secrets to cure insanity. Ygor blackmails Ludwig to transplant his own brain into the monster, as a way of finally being free of his hunchbacked, crippled body. Ludwig plans to doublecross Ygor by giving the monster the brain of a murdered assistant, Kettering (Barton Yarborough), but meddling doctor Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) intercedes to give Ygor the last laugh. Or is it?

The Ghost of Frankenstein isn't half bad, thanks to its quirky storyline. A direct sequel to The Son of Frankenstein, there is some time dedicated to a logical revival of the Monster from his sulphur pit tomb. For the first time however, it's clear that the story is a convenient assembly of available elements. Ralph Bellamy's ineffectual attorney arrives to supposedly save the day but serves mostly as a dupe to stall off the angry mob that from frame one is ready to burn down Frankenstein's hospital. Living in this patient-free science fiction establishment is the beautiful Evelyn Ankers. By the midpoint of the picture she's a witting accomplice to most of what's going on, but the script and direction forget to give her any reactions. She's there to be seen in designer dresses that clash with the ?-period design. There are automobiles, for instance, but Bellamy rides a horse.

The production notes boast that low-billed Lon Chaney (the Jr. is dropped from the posters) played all the main Uni monsters in a the period of a few months, perhaps the worst thing that happened to the series. His Dracula is a puffy dullard, his Frankenstein an inexpressive hulk, and even Forrest Ackerman copped to the truth that in many shots in the Mummy movies, it was really Eddie Parker shuffling off to Cairo.

However, the silliest part of this Frankenstein monster mash turns out to be the most fun. Hardwicke, Atwill and Lugosi go round-robin proposing what brain to transplant into which body, until everyone is confused. Lugosi's Ygor is a rather cleaned-up version of the original (and in pretty good shape considering Rathbone shot him full of holes three years before) but here negotiates like a champion, somehow convincing the conniving Atwill (magically reincarnated from the one-armed inspector Krogh of Son) to let his brain be the one to end up in the Monster's cranium, musical chairs-style. But medical science isn't up to the task, and blood types are an overlooked factor in the procedure. Also overlooked (by everyone but Ygor?) is the obvious idea that consciousness and identity probably reside in the brain ... if someone 'gives' you a new brain, it's the new brain that benefits, while yours goes out with the table scraps.

(spoiler) Although it wraps up with the same conflagration ending that became the easy out for everyone from Universal to Corman to Hammer, The Ghost of Frankenstein has one of the best kicker endings, one that actually delivers something to go with all its brain-swapping nonsense. When the Monster recovers from surgery, he speaks with Ygor's voice, an idea that makes no practical sense but works very well dramatically. Anything resembling a reasonable role for Lugosi became very rare from here on out, so it's nice to see (or even hear) him flexing his acting muscles and doing something unusual. This fun conclusion effectively redeems the rest of the newer, pre-fab elements in the production.


Once again, the less well-traveled title looks splendid, far better than the television prints we used to see. These films weren't terribly expensive, but the production values are not compromised, especially the careful and moody photography and the occasional spiffy special effect. Universal has gone rather skimpy with the extras, however, with just the Realart trailer and a few sketchy production facts text pages. The big news with these double-bill DVDs is just that ... two features for the price of one. Since some of these programmers are fairly short, they fit nicely onto a single disc, without any compromise of quality.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Son of Frankenstein rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2001


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ghost of Frankenstein rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2001



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