Universal Terror VIII: "Son of Frankenstein" and Beyond
In 1938, in an attempt to gain profits, Universal re-released Dracula and Frankenstein. The gamble paid off; the re-releases were extremely popular. Universal then decided to make a third Frankenstein film. In 1939, Son of Frankenstein was made. Henry Frankenstein's son Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to his ancestral village to claim his inheritance. Wolf, his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson), and his son Peter (Donnie Dugan) are not welcomed by the villagers. The villagers remember his father's monster and the damage it did. Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill) promises to protect Wolf and his family from the villager's attacks. Krogh tells Wolf how he had his arm pulled off by the monster when he was a small child.
Wolf explores the ruins of his father's laboratory and meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor tells how his neck was broken when he was hung for helping Wolf's father steal bodies. Ygor leads Wolf to the family crypt where the monster (Boris Karloff) lies unconscious.
Wolf and Ygor revive the monster. At night, Ygor sends the monster to kill those that were responsible for his hanging. Ygor also has the monster kill the Frankensteins' butler. Inspector Krogh notices that Peter is carrying the butler's watch. Krogh asks Peter where he got the watch from and Peter tells Krogh that a "giant" gave it to him. Krogh immediately becomes suspicious.
Krogh arrests Wolf for the murder of the butler, but Wolf knows Ygor was behind it. When Wolf confronts Ygor, Ygor tries to kill him with a hammer. Wolf shoots Ygor and kills him. The monster cries when he finds Ygor's body and vows revenge.
The monster kidnaps Peter and plans to throw him in the sulfur pit in the lab. Krogh finds the monster and shoots at him, but the monster pulls off his wooden arm. When the monster puts Peter down, Wolf swings on a rope and knocks the monster into the sulfur pit.
Son of Frankenstein was released in January of 1939. The film was a huge hit and revitalized the horror genre. Universal had hired Willis Cooper, writer of the radio program "Lights Out!," to write the script. Director Rowland V. Lee made many changes to Cooper's script. In Cooper's script the monster is a cunning, ruthless killer, still demanding a mate. Lee made the monster more sympathetic, like in the previous films. The key difference in Willis Cooper's script and the final film is character of Ygor. In Willis Cooper's original script Ygor never existed. Rowland V. Lee's revisions made Ygor more and more prominent.
The cast of Son of Frankenstein is one of the greatest casts in horror film history. Peter Lorre had originally been offered the role of Wolf von Frankenstein, but he turned it down. Basil Rathbone was then given the role. When Universal heard that Bela Lugosi had hit hard times and needed money, they figured they could buy him cheap. Universal cut his salary from $1,000 a week to $500 a week. Universal then re-scheduled all his scenes to be shot in one week. Rowland V. Lee became furious and became determined to keep Bela Lugosi on the film. Lugosi's role as Ygor upstages Karloff as the monster. Boris Karloff does little more in the film than be examined by Basil Rathbone. This film would feature Karloff's last portrayal of the Frankenstein monster.
One of the most impressive aspects of Son of Frankenstein is the sets. The sets in the film are the most impressive of any Universal horror film. They were constructed by designer Jack Otterson. Otterson refereed to the sets as "Psychological sets" because they were intended to reflect the moods of the characters inhabiting them.
Rowland V. Lee and cinematographer George Robinson experimented with shooting Son of Frankenstein in Technicolor. The wool vest worn by Boris Karloff in the film was chosen because it would look better in color than the monster's all black costume. The Technicolor idea was dropped because Boris Karloff's make up would not photograph well. The color footage was lost and has never re-surfaced. The only color footage of the monster available are home movies shot during Karloff's fifty first birthday party on the set.
Son of Frankenstein remains a classic. Bela Lugosi delivers one of his greatest performances. Son of Frankenstein is also Boris Karloff's final appearance in the role that made him a star. The sets create a strange world all it's own. Son of Frankenstein is the last Frankenstein film Universal ever made with "A" production values.
Son of Frankenstein brought horror films back from the dead.
Horror would be at Universal for decades. In the 1940's Universal made such horror classics as The Wolf Man (1941), The Mummy's Hand (1940), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and House of Frankenstein (1944).
By 1948, the classic monsters had lost their original scariness and were forced to do comedy. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ended the horror cycle of Universal.
In the 1950's, Universal's monsters were atomic mutations, aliens, and prehistoric throwbacks. These films include Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Mole People (1956), and Tarantula (1957).
In the 1960's Universal's classic monsters discovered a new audience when "Shock" debuted on late night television. "Shock" was a late night show which showed all the great, classic Universal horror films. It caused a large return of interest in the films.
In 1974, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder made Young Frankenstein. The film was a spoof and a tribute to Universal's classic Frankenstein films. It was a huge hit and is widely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.
The rise of slasher films in the later 1970's and 1980's caused the classic monsters to be forgotten once again. In the 1990's they arose once more because of a major merchandising campaign by Universal. Universal also re-released all of the great films on videocassette. In 1997 the United States Postal service released a series of stamps commemorating Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Lon Chaney Jr.
The film Gods and Monsters was released in 1998. The film told the story of the last days of film director James Whale. Ian McKellen played James Whale and Bill Condon directed the film. The film was critically acclaimed and was considered one of the best films of the year. Gods and Monsters won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay and Ian McKellan was nominated for the best actor award for his portrayal of the Frankenstein director.
The Mummy was released in 1999. It was a remake of the 1932 film starring Boris Karloff. Stephen Sommers directed the film as more of an action-comedy, that owed more to "Indiana Jones" than to Karl Freund, or Boris Karloff. The film was a surprise hit for Universal. A sequel titled The Mummy Returns was released in May of 2001.
The Universal Monsters have become pop culture icons like few other characters have. The Frankenstein monster, Dracula, and the mummy are arguably the most famous film characters of all time. The popularity of films like Gods and Monsters and The Mummy shows that these monsters are truly immortal. It would take more than a stake through the heart to destroy Universal's famous fiends.