The Morbid Imagination » Son of Frankenstein

Universal Horror in the 1940s

Posted in Movies on December 3rd, 2008 by admin

In my last post I referred to Son of Frankenstein (1939) as the “last great Universal Horror movie.” I wrote that assuming someone might say: “But what about The Wolfman?” (I didn’t assume anyone would retort: “But what about “The Son of Dracula?”)

The Wolfman (1941) is a fine film, one that created an icon of horror that has been copied numerous times since. But it is not a great film. I think its impact was due mainly to Jack Pierce’s make up and John Fulton’s lap dissolve transformation scenes.

Beginning with Son of Frankenstein, which launched a new cycle of monster movies, Universal assigned studio functionaries to their monster films, like George Waggner, Curt Siodmak, or Roy William Neill. Contrast this with the impressive list of artists involved in 1930s Horror: James Whale, Robert Florey, Edgar G. Ulmer, Karl Freund, or Tod Browning. In the 1930s, Horror Films were “A” list productions, in the 1940s they were “B” movies churned out for a quick buck along with Sherlock Holmes or Abbott and Costello films. While pre-WW2 films of this cycle, like The Wolfman or The Mummy’s Hand (1940), were clearly better budgeted and crafted than the sequels and team-up films that followed, all of these movies were a step or two down from the sophisticated fare of the previous decade.

That doesn’t mean they weren’t fun or enjoyable, but it’s stretching it to try and hold them up favorably to the ground-breaking, sometimes truly chilling masterpieces that created a whole genre.

Here are few things, however, I loved about the 1940s Universal Horror Movies:

  • The opening scene in Frankenstein vs. The Wolfman (1943) where grave robbers break into Larry Talbot’s crypt and unleash the Wolfman. Genuinely creepy.
  • Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Kharis
  • Evelyn Ankers, Ilona Massey, and Elena Verdugo. Universal made sure it included a hot actress in nearly every film, and either glammed them up with striking gowns or draped them in negligees. A special nod to Virginia Christine, who was exotic and sexy in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and many years later went on to fame as “Mrs. Olsen” of Folger’s Coffee.
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The Art of Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Posted in Movies on November 28th, 2008 by admin

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.

Son of Frankenstein

Son of Frankenstein

 

Son of Frankenstein

Son of Frankenstein

 

Son of Frankenstein

Son of Frankenstein

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