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The Overlooked Beauty of Son of Frankenstein

Let's take a look back at the second sequel in Universal's classic monster franchise.

By Matthew Jackson
Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone looking at their creation Boris Karloff in a scene from the film Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Bride of Frankenstein is one of the greatest sequels in the history of horror cinema, an inventive and constantly delightful comedy-horror ride that simultaneously reinvents the characters from the original Frankenstein and serves as a satisfying continuation of their story. It's easily the best sequel in the Universal Monsters canon, and arguably the best of the original Universal Monsters movies overall, besting even the original Frankenstein

So you can understand why the film that followed it four years later is still a bit overlooked. 

Why Now Is a Great Time to Revisit Son of Frankenstein, Now on Peacock

Frankenstein's creation (Boris Karloff) (R) looks over Elsa von Frankenstein (Josephine Hutchinson) who lays on a rock in the woods in Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Son of Frankenstein (now streaming on Peacock), released in 1939 and marking the final time that Boris Karloff would play the legendary Creature, arrived at a time when Universal was looking for more and more avenues to keep its blockbuster monster movie machine rolling. Sequels were becoming increasingly common, and by the 1940s they would explode as the first major cinematic universe took shape around the studio's various creatures. With all this in mind, it made sense that the time was right to reinvent the Frankenstein story. But how?

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What we eventually got with Son of Frankenstein is at least somewhat predictable. With the story of the original Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) done, it was time to turn to his son, Wolf (Basil Rathbone), who heads out to his family's ancestral castle with the goal of making a new life for his family. Unlike his father, this Frankenstein is not a half-mad scientist hellbent on wielding a certain power when we meet him. He's charming, easygoing, but devoted to a certain idea about his family: that his father was "right" about creating life from dead tissue. He just made a crucial mistake with the creature's brain, and was therefore made a monster by all of history. 

When Wolf arrives back in the village that bears his family name, and settles into the castle, he's eager to rehabilitate the family reputation by both being an upstanding citizen and by finding proof of just how right his father was. Little does he know, of course, that an old hermit named Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has already located the long-thought-dead creature (Karloff), and that a new wave of horrors is waiting for the Frankenstein family.

As you can tell, Son of Frankenstein conveniently finds new ways to pick up the story left behind by Bride of Frankenstein, but it's not just a predictable series of horror plot devices. There's a surprisingly potent meditation on legacy happening here, and it's helped along tremendously by Rathbone, who does a wonderful job taking Wolf from well-meaning aristocrat trying to rebuild his family's reputation to mad scientist in his own right, driven not just by a desire to succeed but by an innate need to right his family's past wrongs in the best way he knows how. Karloff is, of course, wonderful in his final turn as the monster, and Lugosi makes a welcome addition to the Frankenstein family as a weird old man with a broken neck who sees himself as the monster's new master.

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But what really sets Son of Frankenstein apart is the way it looks. Because the film takes place decades after the events of Bride of Frankenstein, the production has the freedom to update certain aspects of the iconic castle, giving it new decor and an almost expressionistic shape that might remind you of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Within that space, director Rowland V. Lee and cinematographer George Robinson fill the world of the film with shadows, turning staircases into sculptures of darkness that look not unlike prison bars, throwing shapes against walls that make the film feel like the walls are forever closing in on Wolf and his family. Even by Frankenstein standards, it's an absolutely gorgeous movie, and rewatching it, you may find yourself getting lost in the production design and cinematography even more than the story. 

So, as you go back through your Universal Monsters classics this Halloween, make sure to save some time for Son of Frankenstein. It's a wonder in the midst of a lineup of classics, and it's far too often overlooked in favor of its predecessors.

Son of Frankenstein is now streaming on Peacock.