The last of the great Universal monster films, Son of Frankenstein (1939) has a lot going for it. It features a great cast: Basil Rathbone in his prime as Dr. Frankenstein, Lionel Atwill memorable as the one-armed Inspector Krogh, Bela Lugosi as the crippled Igor, and of course, Karloff in his last performance as the Monster. The script features a number of great lines (“Only his mother was the lightening!”) and sharp exchanges between Atwill and Rathbone (Much of the original script was discarded and it appears a great deal of the film was improvised as shooting progressed).
But what elevates the third film in the series above what followed in the 1940s and even what had passed before is the emphasis placed on set design, photography, and atmosphere.
Helmed by director Rowland V. Lee, Son of Frankenstein features eye-popping set design/art direction by Jack Otterson and shadow-rich photography by George Robinson. The film ranks as one of the finest Hollywood derivations of German expressionism. A sense of unreality permeates the proceedings, thanks to out-sized doors, furniture and stairways broken into forced perspective, and layers of sharp angled shadows.
While Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) were no slouches in art direction and photography, in those films they served mainly to support the story and acting. In Son of Frankenstein, they nearly overwhelm the film. This appears to have been a deliberate choice made by Lee, who supposedly was aiming to create a fairy tale horror film, one rooted in Grimm’s and other Germanic primal folklore. Or it’s possible that since the film was created to capitalize on the box office success of the re-release of the original, that Lee was merely trying to create a film that served up as much sensation as the censors of the time would allow. At a time when cleavage was banned and gruesome shock was unknown, spooky corridors and suggestive shadows were as much horror as the public was allowed.