Halloween Endurance Test: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

The first thing one notices in Son of Frankenstein is that it’s a revenge flick. You’re not even a minute in and Bela Lugosi leans his head out of Castle Frankenstein’s ruins; attempting to scare away juvenile vandals, and failing at it! The major studios might turn a blind eye to a star’s “personal demons,” but they’d never forget a slight such as refusing a role they wanted for you. Instead they’d wait out your good fortune, and slap you with fourth billing as Igor the hunchback, the next chance they get. Ygor isn’t even a “true” hunchback, he just seems to have lopsided shoulders due to his broken neck.

Ygor plays the film’s comic relief, a new turn for Lugosi. Called in front of the court to inform them about Frankenstein’s son’s experiments, the authorities can’t decide on how to deal with Ygor, not Frankenstein. At first they want to hang him, but as he points out, they already have. They ultimately decide on the almost Fulci decision that if he’s hung but the devil doesn’t want him, they’ll have to wait to hang him again. Apparently the courts here only prescribe a punishment, not what the end result of that punishment should be.

In time Ygor will become the darker side of Frankenstein’s son’s conscience; commanding the murders that Frankenstein’s father had to call for himself in Bride of Frankenstein. Ygor trains the monster to respond in a Pavlovian manner to the playing of what appears to be a kind of backwoods Hungarian flute. Bela jams, a townsperson dies. Only this time they aren’t dying for (body) parts, they’re dying so no one finds about the experiments that they’ll need (body) parts for.

Frankenstein’s heir, true to the film’s title, runs the show. Traveling to the family estate from England, where he was a professor, Frankenstein wants to escape the academic life. What he can’t escape is the baggage of his name; as his absentee, monster-making father isn’t the most popular person in the village. The village inspector introduces himself, explains why the Frankensteins are so unpopular, then shows off his wooden arm; as the monster ripped his last one out during his rampage.

One really wonders what happened after Elizabeth was kidnapped in Bride of Frankenstein. Here Frankenstein’s son admits he’s only ever heard tales about his father, and he’s excited to find his father’s scientific notes. Notes, we soon find, that outline how to create everlasting life. Igor, always eager to please, helpfully points out how Frankenstein’s son and the monster are technically half-brothers, in a strange attempt to perversely justify the monster’s resurrection in a twisted, familial way.

“The cells seem to battle themselves… as if they have a mind of their own.”

The monster’s angry disposition now becomes conditional upon his origin. The forcing of life into dead tissue has left that tissue disagreeable even amongst each other. The cells within his own blood can’t get along. (He also has a heart twice the size of an average human. Where Frankenstein Sr found that specimen is never explained.)

Or perhaps its due to the castle’s layout. Which owes more to German Expressionism then ever before. Gone are the majestic cathedral ceilings, replaced with meandering staircases and hallways composed entirely of shadows. Making one think that young Frankenstein made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at Caligari’s castle.

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