“Welcome to a new world of Gods and Monsters!”
Reviewing the classic Universal Monster films may seem like a simple enough task at first glance, but it’s proven to be a difficult one, especially if you’re going by the Legacy collections now available on DVD and Blu Ray, as there are more than a few of the same crossover movies that are available in each set. I decided that this list for the ‘Frankenstein’ films would only consist of the primary four films, while I’ll review ‘Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman’ (1943), ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944) and ‘House of Dracula’ (1945) when I go to take on the Wolfman legacy, considering that the crossover films are the only sequels to feature the character of Lawrence Talbot/The Wolfman.
I should note that I’ll be referring to the characters based on their names in the films, and if you’re a purist of the novel, but unfamiliar with these older films, you should know that there’s more than a few alterations from book to film, most notably, is that of the lead: named Victor Frankenstein in the novel, and Henry Frankenstein in the 1931 film adaptation. I will also be spelling Ygor (pronounced and sometimes spelled Igor) according to how he is listed in the credits of these films.
04) ‘Frankenstein’ (1931)
– On the surface, it seems pretty blasphemous to place the first film at the bottom of the list, but hear me out: this is a solid franchise, and there’s not a dull one in the bunch, but as much as I do love this movie, it still feels the most incomplete on its own. It’s great when it’s coupled with the second film, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, acting as a one-two punch that tells one large story divided between two films, but on its own merits, it’s less enjoyable than some of the sequels, at least in my opinion.
But that’s enough negativity from me, because this has a lot of things going for it. James Whale’s loose adaption of Mary Shelley’s novel begins with Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) stealing a freshly buried body from a local cemetery, with the intent to use parts of the body for Frankenstein’s grand experiment to create new life. Meanwhile, Henry’s fiance, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and friend Victor (John Boles) grow concerned of Henry’s absence, and seek out his old mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), whom Fritz recently stole a preserved human brain from. The trio travel to Henry’s laboratory on a wellness check of sorts, and end up witnessing the birth of The Monster (Boris Karloff). Shortly after Dr. Waldman reveals that the stolen brain was that of a criminal, Henry begins to notice the flaws of his creation. After killing Fritz and Dr. Waldman, the Monster escapes and roams the countryside, accidentally killing a child, and then attacking Elizabeth, causing Henry and a lynch mob of angry, blood-thirsty, villagers to hunt the Monster to destroy it.
I think that it’s the short run time (111 minutes) that makes this film seem incomplete to me; after all, the Monster doesn’t escape until near the 40-minute mark, and his time alone in the world is cut very short. Luckily, the sequel rectified this by giving the Monster an arc of his own, but more on that later. Make no mistake, this is a terrific, beautifully shot movie with solid performances, particularly from Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. It’s considered a classic for good reason. This movie is essentially the “Cause”, or the origin story, and it effectively leaves you wanting more.
03) ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’ (1942)
– The fourth film is a direct sequel to ‘The Son of Frankenstein’, and picks up immediately where that film ended. The villagers are restless, and fearful of a curse placed on the land by Henry’s monstrous creation; unconvinced that the Monster truly died in the sulfur pit. They rally together to destroy Castle Frankenstein, unaware that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) and the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr) had escaped undetected.
After the Monster is struck by lightning, Ygor decides that they need to seek out the second son of Frankenstein, a successful brain surgeon named Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), so that the Monster could be restored to his full strength. However, as they reach the village where Ludwig resides, The Monster causes a stir in his efforts to help a little girl retrieve her ball, which was kicked onto a rooftop by three little pricks who were bullying the girl. The villagers, believing that the girl is in danger, attempt to snatch her from the Monster, and as a result one man is bitch slapped off the roof by the Monster. The Monster gets the girl’s ball, and is convinced to hand over the little girl under the promise that he will not be harmed, but immediately after giving the girl back to her father, he is attacked and arrested by village police.
Ygor confronts Ludwig at his home, and practically blackmails him into helping, and demands that Ludwig gets the Monster out of police custody. At the emergency court hearing for the Monster, The Monster reacts to Ludwig Frankenstein’s appearance and breaks free from his shackles – and just as he attempts to strike at Ludwig, the Monster is called away by Ygor; later, Ygor and the Monster break into Ludwig’s home, and the Monster ends up killing Ludwig’s colleague, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough) and attacks Ludwig’s daughter, Elsa (Evelyn Ankers, who plays a different Elsa then the Elsa Frankenstein from ‘Son of Frankenstein’ ) but Ludwig releases a gas that knocks out Ygor and the Monster before he could commit serious harm to her.
With his father’s creation finally restrained, Ludwig plots to disassemble the Monster in an effort to destroy him for good, until the ghost of his father appears before him and urges him to fix his fathers mistakes, and to remove the criminal brain from the Monster, and replacing it with the late Dr Kettering’s brain – but Ygor has a different plan, and propositions Ludwig’s other colleague, Dr Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) to assist him.
So, what is it about this movie that I like it more than the first film? Ygor. I love the way the character was written; in both, ‘The Son of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Ghost of Frankenstein’, he is always referring to the Monster as “Friend”, and acting as a sort of protector or guardian to the Monster. His motives are entirely consistent, with his need for companionship, and his willingness to do whatever it takes to keep his friend alive. In this film, he’s also given a bit of a moral compass as well; he lures the Monster way before he can kill Ludwig; he tries to stop the Monster from killing Kettering, and eventually Elsa before being gassed; he tries to lure the Monster away from kidnapping the girl towards the end; and in an excellent performance by Bela Lugosi, Ygor seems genuinely appalled and concerned for the safety of the child. I just love the continuation and evolution of Ygor and the Monster’s relationship. The other characters are well handled as well, with solid performances from Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, and Lon Chaney Jr. The only negative is that the story sort of repeats the same beats as ‘The Son of Frankenstein’, which you’ll discover below.
02) ‘The Son of Frankenstein’ (1939)
– The third film in the series is probably one of the strongest of the bunch, mostly in terms of acting and characterization. The story begins with Baron Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson), and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) traveling to the village known as Frankenstein to claim their inheritance following the death of Wolf’s father, Henry.
Their optimism in starting a new life in a strange new country is met with hostility, however, as the villagers have yet to forgive and forget in regards to what had happened as a result of Henry’s experiment. Regardless, Wolf still clings onto hope that things will turn around once people get to know them. Shortly settling in to his father’s former estate, Wolf decides to go exploring, and ventures to the remains of his father’s old laboratory, where he meets the deformed Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor reveals that he was once Henry’s assistant, and was hanged for his part in stealing bodies, but because he was unable to die, he was exiled. Ygor then lures Wolf to the lower chambers, where he reveals that the Monster (Boris Karloff) did not die from the explosion at the end of the second film, but is instead in a coma after being struck by lightning. Ygor persuades Wolf into helping his friend get better by harnessing the lighting. Wolf agrees, looking to improve on his father’s failure, hoping to clear the family name.
After reviving the Monster, Wolf is denied the opportunity to continue to experiment on him, and is threatened by Ygor, who leaves the laboratory with his newly restored friend. As bodies begin to pile up, local Police Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) and the locals begin to suspect that the Son of Frankenstein is following in his father’s footsteps. Inspector Krogh, who has his own personal history with the Monster from his childhood – an incident that left him missing a limb and destroying his boyhood dream of being a military general – is the most skeptical of Wolf’s denial, and as the lies and persecution grow, Wolf starts to become unraveled. Believing that Ygor is responsible for the murders, Wolf tracks down Ygor and shoots him point blank multiple times. But this is not enough to convince Inspector Krogh that there is no Monster, and he continues to pursue the truth; meanwhile, the Monster becomes vengeful and upset at the sight of the supposedly dead Ygor, and seeks revenge against Wolf by kidnapping Peter, leading to a showdown, of sorts, between Krogh, Wolf and the Monster.
The one thing I love the most about this movie is Bela Lugosi’s performance as Ygor, who is one of this series’ best characters – I’ll even go as far to say that this is better than Lugosi’s performance as Dracula – I love it that much. Speaking of performances, Basil Rathbone’s sometimes-over-the-top portrayal of Wolf Frankenstein is also very solid, particularly when the pressure mounts and he begins to come unglued, agitated at the persecution towards him solely because of his family legacy, and the fear that his role in reviving the Monster could be exposed. I also enjoyed the inclusion of Inspector Krogh and his backstory with the monster, which I feel really helped cement the characters motivations and actions throughout the film. Story wise it’s an interesting follow up, even if it doesn’t quite adhere to the continuity of the first two films, and does its own thing. (Ygor is established as Henry’s assistant who was hanged for his role in grave robbing, but Ygor was not a character in either of the two films that proceeded this; also, Krogh’s backstory was also not a part of the previous films as well) But, I think very highly of this sequel.
01) ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ (1935)
-The second film is, in my opinion, everything a sequel should be; it’s the expansion; it’s the second half of the story, not all that different in the way ‘Superman 2’ (1980) was to ‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978), or they way ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser 2’ (1988) was to ‘Hellraiser’ (1987), or even ‘Halloween 2’ (1981) to ‘John Carpenter’s Halloween’ (1978) – the first film set up the overall story, conflict and characters – the cause, if you will – and the second movie is the effect.
Immediately following the end to the first film, the Monster is seemingly killed and buried beneath the ruins of the burned down windmill but survives via an old mining shaft. Meanwhile, the guilt-ridden Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) wants to run from this nightmare with his beloved Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson) but is suddenly approached by Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a scientist beyond ethics – a mirror image of Henry, only without conscience or morals – who invites Henry to glimpse into his mad experiments as he makes a proposition: Pretorius wants to work with Henry to create a mate for the Monster. As this happens, the Monster roams the countryside, where he experiences persecution and assault, until discovering an old blind man who attempts to teach him to speak, and humanity through his kindness. The Monster begins to experience peace and acceptance, but this is short lived when the blind man’s family returns, recognizing the Monster, and driving him back out onto his own. Pretorius and the Monster meet, in which Pretorius informs the Monster of his plans for a mate, but in order to do so, he needs Henry’s help. The Monster abducts Elizabeth, forcing Henry to work with Pretorius under the conditions that Elizabeth is not to be harmed, and she is returned safely. After the Bride (Elsa Lanchester, who also plays author Mary Shelley in the films opening) is awakened, she immediately rejects the Monster – causing the Monster to decide for himself on life and death, and making the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good.
Much like the first film, ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’ is beautifully shot; the camera angles and framing are just top notch. All of the lead characters and their arcs are well developed, especially including the Monster, whose arc is probably one of the most fascinating things about this movie. The score, especially at the reveal of the Bride was terrific. This is just one well put together film that works so well as a solo film, but even better as a companion to the classic original. I will always and forever consider this to be one of the greatest sequels ever, right up there along ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
What do you think? Do you agree with this list? Disagree? Please let us know! Feel free to comment your own list, and engage in discussion about these movies!