Apparently Dracula wasn’t the only one who got some action in between bouts of terror. In both 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and 1943’s Son of Dracula, we learned that our favorite vampire may have some unholy offspring. However, the matter always remained unclear, and it never seemed certain that the titular folks actually bore genetic relation to Drac. Hey, I never felt sure if Son was a blood relative of the Count (pun intended); he might have been, but he also may have been Dracula himself.
No such uncertainties appeared during two adventures that follow after the life of Henry Von Frankenstein from 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. As seen in both 1939’s Son of Frankenstein and 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, the new scientists we met were definitely Henry’s progeny. Apparently the whole “children of” milieu was the most successful of the horror sequels; Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula were erratic but better than average for the genre, and these two Frankenstein movies offered some of the best material found in the field.
Actually, I’m not sure I felt so strongly about Ghost, but Son was simply terrific; it was almost on a par with Bride, which was easily the best of the sequels and arguably the strongest Universal horror flick of them all. Just like that classic, Son took the tale in a fine new direction that worked terrifically well.
At the start of Son, we meet Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), the titular child of the dead scientist. He inherits the family manor in Europe and comes with wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchison) and child Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to live. Sensibly, the townsfolk worry about this; they’ve been burned - literally - a few times due to the father’s hijinks, so they fear the son will take up where Daddy stopped.
These fears seem merited, as Wolf wants to pursue his father’s research. He thinks Henry was on the right path, and he strongly desires to vindicate his dad’s work; Wolf blames Vic’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) for the failure of the experiment due to the flawed human parts Ygor retrieved.
Wolf works to reinvent the monstrous wheel, which unfortunately means he needs the help of Ygor. The old boy was hanged for his crimes, but although his neck was broken, he didn’t die; he remains deformed but defiant. Ygor controls the monster (Boris Karloff) and uses him to pursue his own means. All the while, a local police inspector named Krogh (Lionel Atwill) keeps a very close eye on Wolf, and he maintains a suspicious attitude toward the young doctor, especially when some deaths start to occur.
While Son could have offered little more than another rehash of the same old thing, it becomes something special due to a variety of elements. For one, the acting seems uniformly superb. Rathbone appears appropriately obsessive but he keeps his tone from becoming campy and hammy; he makes Wolf a compelling and sympathetic figure but also maintains a tone of menace and insanity that work. Karloff has less to do than usual as the monster, but he still seems surprisingly rich and human in the role; the poor performances by later actors in the part just reinforce the wonderful performances he offered.
Somewhat surprising was the fine work shown by Lugosi. While he succeeded as Count Dracula in the 1931 flick, he had more trouble distinguishing himself in later roles. He even took a turn as Frankenstein’s monster himself in 1942’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but not with good results. However, as Ygor, Lugosi grabbed the part and really made it sing. He presents a vicious and vindictive character but does so with enormous glee and verve; the nasty humor he adds to the role make Ygor much more than just a bland henchman.
Also excellent was Atwill as Inspector Krogh. He makes a strong character who could hold his own against the various villains. Often these kinds of roles are little more than generic ciphers, but Krogh seems powerful and authoritative; he brings a persistence and depth to the part that allows it to become rich and lively.
Inspector Krogh points out one of the film’s most significant post-release connections, as Mel Brooks clearly used a lot of the piece as a template for Young Frankenstein. The Gene Wilder part found in that movie was obviously based largely on Wolf, and the Inspector definitely inspired Kenneth Mars’ character there. Some of Young’s best scenes amusingly echoed Son, such as the dart-playing scene between those two characters. I also wondered if Inspector Krogh’s arm inspired that aspect of Dr. Strangelove’s titular character, and since this film’s ending echoed that of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, I felt curious about any possible relationship between those flicks.
Ultimately, Son of Frankenstein was a witty, wild and wonderful film. The movie worked on a variety of levels, from sly comedy to psychological drama to simple horror flick. All elements functioned on a high level, and the result was one of a handful of true classics of the genre.
One oddity: young Dunagan - who also provided the voice of Bambi in the famous 1942 Disney film - seemed to be almost unintelligible during Son. The boy spoke with an accent that appeared almost Cajun. How they let him go undubbed is a mystery.
Son of Frankenstein appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though the picture showed its age, I felt it offered a pretty solid presentation for the most part.
Sharpness usually looked reasonably crisp and well defined. Some softness intruded at times, but for the most part, the movie appeared detailed and accurate. I detected no problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges.
Black levels came across as fairly deep and rich, but contrast showed some modest concerns. At times the image looked a bit flat and gray. Shadow detail could be a little heavy on occasion, but for the most part low-light sequences seemed to be acceptably opaque but not excessively thick.
Print flaws were relatively light for an older movie. Grain could appear somewhat heavy at times, but otherwise I thought this was a surprisingly clean image. Occasional examples of specks and other light problems could mar the presentation, but grain remained the only moderately distracting issue throughout this rather fresh picture. Son of Frankenstein merited a solid “B-“ for its visuals.
Also surprisingly satisfying was the monaural soundtrack of Son of Frankenstein. Speech sounded nicely natural and distinct for its age, and I heard no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Music and effects displayed limited dynamics and could appear somewhat flat, but they showed fidelity that was well within the norm for the era, and they displayed no signs of distortion or other problems; those elements were fairly clear and accurate. Although I heard a light hum at times, the soundtrack lacked many signs of source flaws. I detected no background noise, popping or clicking to distract from the experience. Ultimately Son offered a pretty nice soundtrack for its era.
The supplements found of Son of Frankenstein match up closely with those found on the other Universal Monster double feature DVDs. We get some good text “Production Notes”. In addition, we find “Cast and Filmmakers” biographies of director Rowland V. Lee and actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Donnie Dunagan, and Emma Dunn. Those offer short but decent looks at their careers. Oddly, Son is the only one of the 12 Classic Monsters double feature DVDs that doesn’t include the film’s trailer.
Picture/Sound/Extras: Ghost of Frankenstein B-/B/D-
After the highs of Son, we come back to earth with the much more pedestrian sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein. This story picked up where its predecessor left off, but it failed to reignite the same sparks and excitement.
In Ghost we meet another son named Dr, Ludwig Von Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). He struggles to avoid the nasty shadow of his relatives, but fate will not allow this, as Ygor (again played by Lugosi) brings the monster (now portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) to his attention. It seemed the creature needs a new lease on life, and Ygor blackmails the good doctor to get him to perform the work. A happy medium seems to be found when Luddy plans to plop the brain of a recently-deceased genius doctor into the monster’s body, but Ygor - assisted by jealous Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) - concocts a plan whereby his own mind will land inside the creature’s powerful form.
All of this had some potential, but the result seemed flat and bland, especially compared to the joys of Son. Perhaps if I hadn’t watched them back-to-back, I might have enjoyed Ghost more, but if really suffered through direct comparison. I won’t call Ghost a bad movie; Lord knows I’ve seen plenty of true clunkers via some of the other Universal monster flicks. Nonetheless, Ghost felt like a bit of a retread as it tried to redo Son but failed to achieve the same highs.
For one, Ludwig was much less compelling than Wolf. Part of the problem resided with the actors, as Hardwicke simply never got into the spirit of things in the manner shown by Rathbone. However, a lot of the cause stemmed from the blandness of the character himself. Compared to the haunted genius of Wolf, Luddy was nothing more than a drab goody-goody. He felt like a hole at the center of the flick.
Lugosi also fared less well here. In contrast with the vicious nastiness shown in Son, he felt almost kindly here, despite his evil plans. He looked much less grotesque; I guess someone gave him a makeover during the interim. Ygor lacked the serious menace and insanity seen earlier, and this harmed the film.
As for the monsters themselves, Chaney couldn’t compare with Karloff. Young Lon tried to become the greatest movie monster actor of all, but he failed miserably. His turns as Wolf Man Larry Talbot were decent, but all others flopped badly; in addition to this spin as Frankenstein’s monster, Chaney played the Mummy and Dracula, and he seemed ill equipped for all of them. Karloff was easily the best actor of the monster regulars, and his absence clearly hurt Ghost.
How about that title, by the way? Though most of these horror flicks from the era never bothered to justify themselves - continuity errors abounded - Ghost did at least attempt to make its title work. We briefly saw Ludwig’s visions of his departed Dad. These scenes seemed gratuitous and silly; I think they existed simply to validate the movie’s name. They didn’t work.
Ultimately, The Ghost of Frankenstein offered a very average horror film. The story had some potential, and the execution wasn’t terrible. However, compared to its three predecessors in the Frankenstein series, it clearly didn’t live up to their heights. Those were arguably the three best horror flicks of their era, while Ghost was just another movie. It’s watchable but nothing more than that.
The Ghost of Frankenstein appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Overall, Ghost provided a solid picture that closely compared to that of Son.
Sharpness again seemed to be a little soft at times, but most of the film looked acceptably clear and accurate. Actually, these elements appeared a little stronger than during Son, but the concerns remained fairly consistent nonetheless. Moiré effects and jagged edges still caused no problems.
Black levels remained pretty dark and solid, and contrast looked a little more positive, as the movie showed stronger clarity in that regard. However, these improvements were minor. Shadow detail seemed about the same, as the low-light situations could be mildly dim at times but generally looked nicely visible and appropriate.
Print flaws varied a little from Son, but not much. Grain remained the prime issue. It wasn’t as heavy as during Son, but additional defects caused other concerns. Light speckling occurred through the film, and I also saw some spots. Nonetheless, the image still looked quite clean for its age. Ultimately, I felt Ghost earned another “B-“.
The monaural soundtrack of The Ghost of Frankenstein also compared favorably with that of its predecessor. Actually, audio quality improved slightly. Speech remained relatively warm and natural, and I discerned no concerns related to edginess or intelligibility. Effects and music displayed moderately greater depth and dynamics; they still seemed pretty flat and thin, but they showed stronger bass than usual for the era. Unfortunately, they also appeared a little harsh at times, and some additional source flaws appeared. I detected a minor hum at times, and some light popping occurred as well. As a whole, this was still a very fine soundtrack for its age, though, and the minor concerns didn’t bother me much.
The supplements of The Ghost of Frankenstein strongly echo those found with Son of Frankenstein and all the other double features. We find the movie’s trailer and additional solid text “Production Notes”. Yup, more “Cast and Filmmakers” biographies appear as well; we get entries for director Erle C. Kenton and actors Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, and Lon Chaney, Jr. These remain short but interesting.
Of the six recent Universal Classic Monsters “double feature” DVDs, this combination of Son of Frankenstein/The Ghost of Frankenstein comes closest to “must have” status. While Ghost offers a film that seems decent at best, Son provides a genuinely terrific experience that compares favorably with the more famous classics of the genre. Heck, I thought it was much better than more popular flicks like 1931’s Dracula or 1932’s The Mummy; its only real competition comes from its Frankenstein predecessors, though the Spanish version of Dracula - available on the same DVD as the better-known edition - and 1933’s The Invisible Man were awfully good as well.
Both Son and Ghost featured relatively positive picture and sound that seemed good for their age. Features appeared lackluster, but given the inclusion of two films on one DVD, that wasn’t a surprise. While I find it disappointing that a classic such as Son of Frankenstein didn’t get its own special edition, this DVD still seemed good enough to merit your attention.