Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Unseen #15: Son Of Frankenstein Karloff Blog-o-thon

I'm participating in Frankensteinia's Boris Karloff's Blogothon. I decided to write about Son Of Frankenstein, A film I've wanted to see for awhile. And in the process knock off a film for my "Unseen" column.

For those new to my blog The Unseen is a semi regular feature I do in which I explore films that I own, but have never seen. The number of which is higher then it has any right to be. Sometimes I get pleasantly surprised, sometimes not so much. Sometimes a dog pisses on the ashes of Freddy Krueger and Dokken sings. Either way it’s always interesting trip through the odder corners of my collection.

Why’d I Buy It? Part of The Frankenstein Box set I bought.

Why Haven’t I Watched It?: Its reputation as one of the lesser Universal horror films kept me from it.

How Was It?: I considered for quite awhile which Karloff film to write about. Of the horror stars only Christopher Lee and Vincent Price had such rich careers as a whole, with their different eras all so uniquely rewarding and both rank a distant second to Karloff. Should I write about his collaborations with Val Lewton? Or those with Bava? What about his Corman films and the way his old school Hollywood elegance rubbed up against The Film Brat generation. There is however, no escaping the fact that the Universal Monster Movies, and in particular that large distended brow loom large over Karloff’s career.

Frankenstein's Monster, is the role that seared itself into the collective consciousness of film lovers and philistines alike. Like all true Icons even the poor souls who’ve never seen the film know not only the character but the man behind it. On Halloween I blogged about how Karloff gave me my first memory of the movies period. And in many ways set the template for what I consider to be great cinema even to this day.

So as odd as it might seem for someone so in love with the role, I had no idea that Karloff played the character a third time until fairly recently. Son Of Frankenstein, is the red headed stepchild of the franchise, and isn’t usually referenced as one of The Universal films of the first water. I thought I’d use the opportunity of the blog-o-thon to view a film I’d never seen.

I wish I could tell you that Son Of Frankenstein is a true Universal Classic ripe for rediscovery, but that’s unfortunately not the case. It has much to recommend it, and I certainly think it’s underrated, but its also talky, long (at 99 minutes it contains none of the great storytelling economy that nearly all the other Universal pictures possess) and filled with unsympathetic characters and meandering subplots.

The story tells of Victor Frankenstein’s Son coming back to reclaim his ancestral homestead. He’s be met by suspicious townsfolk and also Bela Lugosi, and a giant monster in the basement. The former has been using the latter as the baddest one monster hit squad in town, as revenge for his little nearly murdered by the townsfolk thing and needs SOF to resurrect the monster from an inconvenient coma, so he can continue his horn fueled murderous rampage.

The main problem with Son Of Frankenstein, is that the Son Of Frankenstein himself is kind of a wash. Rathbone has always been a charismatic actor, and I’ve never seen him give a less sympathetic performance as a preening jackass. He’s a vain, cocky, drip, ignoring the warning of the helpful constable and the problems of the monster (Not to mention way way over the top). He really never seems to consider the moral or existential ramifications of The Monster in the least. How someone this blasé and blithe managed to become a doctor in anything baffles me. He possesses none of the hubris, insanity, and remorse that made Colin Clive such a fascinating watch. He plays around with The Monster the way other middle aged men putter around with model trains, with a vague air of boredom and embarrassed satisfaction. Its really impossible to overstate the douchiness of the character. By the end of the film you're begging for his comeuppance. The fact that it never really comes adds to the frustration.

It helps nothing that Rathbone’s towing along a child for whom the term Moppet is too mild (Seriously Diabetics should consult their physician’s before watching this movie) and the long scenes of science babble in which he is given the unenviable task of trying to give feasible reasons for the existence of The Monster, which involves The Monster being the secret fifth member of The Fantastic Four.

The other problem with Son Of Frankenstein is the lack of The Monster. He doesn’t show up until nearly a third of the way through the film (wearing a fur coat that the can only be referred to as “pimp”), and remains comatose for a long while after that. Its over halfway through the film before he comes out of the coma and starts doing shit.

It all boils down to the script. Everything is played too broad, and while the Universal Horror films always had a touch of the theatrical, between the hammy townspeople and the various winking self references (have a shot for every “It’s alive!!” joke and see how drunk you get), this one seems to be gunning for vaudeville.

It’s on the whole a stupider Frankenstein, the instinctive sympathy of Whale and Shelly have been replaced by paranoia. We get a story of Frankenstein ripping the arm out of a child, and references to him hunting, its like someone based the film’s premise off of someone else’s description of the previous films, rather then the real thing. Only Karloff’s mournful performance retains the original’s nuanced sympathy. He plays the Monster in away that’s almost fragile. It’s more Golem-like then his first two performances, something mournfully human like then actually human. His performance before the mirror and his reaction when he encounters the death of his "friend" are stunning and belong among any counting of Karloff's greatest moments.

Still there are other things to recommend the film, ironically enough most brought by Bela Lugosi, in his wonderfully malevolent performance as Igor. Played with a physicality that wasn’t usually Lugosi’s forte. With a permanently broken neck, cataracted piggy eyes, and a leering filed grin, Lugosi is to put it quite bluntly, some freaky shit. He steals every scene he is in (which is about 2/3rds of the movie) and the image of him leering through a secret passage at Frankenstein’s sleeping child is some genuinely haunting stuff. Yet like all great monster's he's somewhat sympathetic. Much more so then Rathbone, Igor at least takes responsibility for the monster.

Though director Rowland V. Lee isn’t able to capture the pathos of Whale, he is a capable stylist creating both sinister shadow soaked expressionist frames (Frankenstein’s decent into the pit where he’s been holding the monster plays like an outtake from Caligari as does the requisite scene of the villagers mobbing at the castle gates) and capturing the Gleaming Art Deco feel of the Mad Lab’s set. His history in silent films is put to good use.

But in the end all of this stuff is window dressing. Merely a pretext to the distinct pleasure of watching a great actor perform his greatest role. Disappointments and nitpicks aside nothing can take away from that.


robby431 said...

Overall I agree with your review. It is too talky and Frankenstein isn't in it enough. This is my favorite performance of Lugosi though. He is perfect!

Bryce Wilson said...

Lugosi really is the man in this. No doubt.