Listen Jena (and unborn child), it’s October at last, the nights are cooling; it’s time for scary movies. I started with Son of Frankenstein because I wanted some Legosi and Karloff, and that’s the best movie starring both. It wasn’t until halfway through the film that I realized that I - an expectant, first-time father - was watching a movie in which a son tries to redeem his father’s disastrous life’s work. Much scarier than I expected.
Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels with his wife and young son to his late father’s manor, left empty for decades and hiding the old lightning-harnessing laboratory. The locals remember their dead and are not happy to see the Frankensteins come home.
Very soon Wolf meets two remnants of the monster’s rampage: Inspector Krogh, who was a child when the monster pulled his arm off (this is the cop spoofed so well in Young Frankenstein), and Ygor (Bela Legosi), Dr. Frankenstein’s former assistant, whom the villagers hung for his grave robbing. Ygor survived the hanging, and his three knocks on the bone protruding from his neck is surprisingly unsettling.
Wolf finds a letter from his father in a suitcase full of his research. “My son, herein lie my faiths, my beliefs, and my unfoldments,” the letter reads. “Perhaps you will regard my work with ridicule or even with a distaste. If so, destroy these records.”
But of course Wolf Frankenstein does not destroy his father’s work; Ygor reveals the monster, comatose and hidden beneath the manor, and Wolf gets to work shocking the creature back to life, because science.
Jena this is where the movie spooked me out as you and the unborn, fist-sized baby slept. W. Frankenstein is surrounded by the consequences of his father’s experiments - the one-armed cop, the vengeful Ygor, the manor surrounded by hateful villagers - and still he brings the monster back to life. Standing beneath a portrait of his father, he lies to his wife about the secret laboratory.
So the monster is revived, and Boris Karloff once again gives a performance that is surprisingly convincing. Villagers die (specifically the men who condemned Ygor to hang…), the one-armed cop closes in, and it all comes to an exciting conclusion involving pistols, a false arm, and a little Tarzan-inspired heroics. The movie’s not as funny or scary as Bride of Frankenstein (the best of the classics: more on that soon), but Karloff and Legosi both show why they are legends.
Sadly, the Hollywood execs of the 1930s had already decided that happy endings sell, and so Wolf’s meddling does not lead to his demise. Even the villagers forgive him. The young man’s failure to avoid his father’s madness is the stuff of tragedy, though. Like all the classic monster movies, this one gets scarier the more imagination you lend to it. Just for a second, before playing Halo to ease my mind, I looked around our own little manor that I’ll fill with my life’s work, disastrous or not, wondering, fearing, and doubting.