SON OF FRANKENSTEIN July 23rd 22.10-23.45
Butler-eating babies! Head to head beds!
I have a hard time with favourites.
When people find out you like films – or books, or music – they’ll almost inevitably ask you what your favourite is. It’s a well-meant attempt to engage you in conversation on a subject they know you’re interested in, but the downside of course is that it reveals them to be somewhat lacking in what Renfield, in between gobbling files and spiders, called ‘the aerial powers of the psychic faculties’.
After all, given the wealth of delights which the history of cinema, or even just the horror genre, has to offer, anyone with half a brain cell should know it’s impossible to pick a single favourite. Depends what you mean… Depends what for… Depends what mood I’m in… I went through a phase of rather wearily trying to explain all this to them. Then I went through a phase of replying by asking them to tell me which of their children was their favourite. Then I didn’t have any friends and no-one wanted to talk to me anymore. So now I say Son of Frankenstein.
The film holds a very specific place in the Universal cycle. It’s the first film in the second wave of Universal horror, appearing after an almost three year break in the production of monster movies which had come about partly as a result of the virtual ban on the genre in Britain. The British market served as a lucrative source of extra income for the Hollywood studios, and so the embargo which held sway in this country after the perceived sadism of the 1935 Karloff/Lugosi vehicle The Raven made the American studios abandon the genre in favour of safer stuff which could still generate decent audiences in Tunbridge Wells. It was only the vastly profitable reissue of the original Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, which, taking Universal entirely by surprise, convinced the studio that there was life in the old ghouls yet, and prompted Son of Frankenstein into production.
Son of Frankenstein, however, is not only, or even primarily, the first of the new cycle, but rather the last of the old. In its casting, in its set design, in its budget, Son is the last of the glossy, high profile Universal horrors. From here on, they were essentially B movies, made fast and efficiently on slender budgets to play as the second feature – often very imaginatively and effectively, but very different in tone to the grandiose prestige horror productions which characterised Universal’s early thirties output.
Florid, lush, rich and stylised, Son of Frankenstein is both a culmination and a summation of all that came before, and although its very healthy profits were sufficient to launch a new, rather less ambitious cycle, it represents the end of the Golden age of classic horror, somehow seeming to embody and encapsulate all the different and apparently disparate strands of the earlier films.
The set design is wildly expressionistic, but seems to draw not only on the Caligari flavoured visual style of Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, but also encapsulates the more full-blooded gothic of Dracula and Frankenstein while even somehow maintaining a kinship with the ultra-modern Bauhaus of Ulmer’s The Black Cat.
There is a heightened, baroque quality to every aspect of the film which steps precipitously close to parody, without ever quite tripping over (it’s no co-incidence that this is the film Mel Brooks draws on most heavily for Young Frankenstein).
The film even boasts a wonderful line which suggests of Benson the butler that he ‘went up to the nursery with the baby’s supper dish…we haven’t seen him since,’ enabling a whole generation of horror fans to dreamily envisage the monstrous butler-gobbling baby. It’s a testament to the lavish, delirious atmosphere the film creates from the first frame to the last that it wouldn’t have seemed entirely out of place.
I have a similar feeling for Son of Frankenstein as I do for Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – it’s my favourite of all the spaghetti westerns, taking many of the stylistic tics which characterised the early, more prosaic versions and pushing them almost to breaking point. The result is an extreme, vertiginous experience: breathtaking, operatic and epic, but just one step further would bring the whole edifice crashing down in a puff of bathos. Both films are a joyous summation of, and progression from, past glories, but leave nowhere to go for their respective cycles. The enjoyable, briskly pedestrian Universal horrors that came later were perhaps the only direction the studio could have taken after the wild excesses on display here. In every way, Son of Frankenstein feels like a wonderful ending.
The acting too is beautifully judged, played to the absolute hilt but somehow – just – never quite slipping into the overripe or hammy, and Son of Frankenstein boasts probably the finest cast ever assembled for a horror film. Karloff, and Lugosi and Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill, and all of them at the top of their game. It’s a true ensemble piece, beautifully and diversely played by each of them.
It’s Karloff’s swansong as the monster, and although he’s given rather less to do here than in the first two films, the howl of anguish he delivers over Lugosi’s dead body is right up there with the ‘catching the sunbeams’ moment from the original and stands unabashed alongside the brilliance with which he endowed every moment of Bride of Frankenstein.
Rathbone too is a delight, his Wolf Frankenstein operating at a deliciously sustained pitch of barely contained hysteria. His scenes verbally fencing with Lionel Atwill’s equally impressive turn as the shrewd Inspector Krogh are a pure joy, anticipating their return battle as Holmes and Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon a couple of years later.
Atwill himself deserves special mention here I think. Less well-known today than the first rank monsters, he sits alongside George Zucco in the pantheon of horror stars, never quite hitting the heights of a Lugosi or a Karloff, but always effective, always reliable, never giving a bad performance and at times giving a great one.
A few years earlier, in Mystery of the Wax Museum, Atwill had been – alongside the ubiquitous and wonderful Fay Wray – part of one of the great monster reveals of all time when his ‘face’ is beaten away to reveal a genuinely hideous makeup job beneath. It’s a film, remade very well in the 50s as a 3D Vincent Price vehicle called House of Wax and remade again, appallingly, as a vehicle for Paris Hilton in 2005, which remains one of my very favourites from the golden age of the early thirties, not least because of Atwill’s fantastic performance.
Here, in Son of Frankenstein, his Inspector Krogh is a minor gem. He’s complex and believable, with the blackly comic bits of business Atwill lends to the character’s false arm – the Strangelove-anticipating salutes, the monacle cleaning – proving an endless source of pleasure and suggesting the actor’s wickedly dark sense of humour.
If horror has a first eleven Atwill deserves a place. Chaney, Lugosi, Karloff, Chaney jr., Carradine, Lorre, Rathbone, Price, Cushing, Lee, Atwill. That’s eleven. Poor George Zucco will have to make do with twelfth madman.
My fondness for Atwill was only increased by my later discovery of the career-threatening sex scandal which engulfed him in 1940, revealing the clipped and rather portly actor as the unlikely wet-lipped host of a string of wild and frenzied orgies and as the owner of an unrivalled collection of pornographic films. In fact it was only the loyalty shown to Atwill by Universal which enabled his career to survive the scandal – a fact I’ve always found a little odd given how shamefully the same company misused, mistreated, and ultimately ignored Lugosi, whose exhilarating but dreadfully underpaid performance in the massively profitable Dracula in 1931 had effectively saved the company from ruin.
As a dyed in the wool Lugosi worshipper, it’s also a source of enormous pleasure and pride to see my favourite so charmingly and effortlessly stealing the film from actors with the power and presence of Rathbone, Karloff and Atwill.
His Ygor in Son of Frankenstein is very possibly the greatest single performance in the history of the horror film, filled with charm and menace, cunning and sly humour, pathos and passion, and all underscored by an exceptional degree of – for want of a better term – twinkle.
Those critics – and they are legion – who, on the back of his early thirties films, regard Lugosi as a one-trick pony capable only of a series of stylised, theatrical variations on his version of the immortal Count tend to conveniently forget Ygor, possibly because Lugosi is so completely subsumed into the character that he is virtually unrecognisable.
Perhaps a part of the sheer sense of mischief, of delightful play, at work in Lugosi here is as a result of the enormous relief he must have felt to be in the film at all. He had been virtually unemployed for the previous two years and had lost his house, production on horror films having been effectively ended in Hollywood, with no American producers able to see that Lugosi could be accepted by audiences as anything other than the ‘horror man’.
As it was, Lugosi was initially only hired for a few days’ work in a minor role on a minimal wage – the studio knew of his desperate financial straits as well as the potential marquee value of his name and shamefully used his desperation to hire him on the cheap. It was only the innate decency of the film’s director, Rowland V. Lee (alongside his bloody-minded willingness to defy the studio executives), which expanded Lugosi’s role and kept him employed throughout the shoot. In return Lugosi’s performance delivered Lee a piece of film history.
It could and should have been enough to offer Lugosi a second shot at major film stardom, at least as a talented and versatile character actor, and it very nearly was. Impressed despite themselves with what Lugosi had delivered, Universal placed him under non-exclusive contract, brought him back to reprise Ygor almost as effectively in Ghost of Frankenstein and considered him for the lead in The Wolf Man. For the second time in his career, however, Lugosi was supplanted by the appearance of a new rival for the horror crown. First it had been Karloff, now it was Lon Chaney jr., who over the next few years was to play not only the Wolf Man but all of the classic Universal monsters including – worst insult of all – Dracula.
Nevertheless, whatever sorrows and disappointments and humiliations laid in wait for Lugosi, Ygor remains a performance to be relished and appreciated for all time. Given immortality by the magic of celluloid and the charisma of the actor, the role is a powerful and enduring testimony to Lugosi’s talent and grace, however much that talent may have been wasted by the limited opportunities he was to be given later.
Perhaps it was not only that sense of relief which injects something extra into the performance, and into the feeling of the film as a whole. Never really friends, but never the daggers-drawn rivals they have sometimes been portrayed as either, the teaming of Lugosi and Karloff here seems genuinely close. At the time of the filming of Son of Frankenstein both men had recently become first time fathers, and perhaps it was this bond that leant the on-screen chemistry a sense of warmth and camaraderie that is never suggested elsewhere in the many collaborations of the horror cinema’s greatest double act.
The power of the new father bond should never be underestimated. Something in the heady cocktail of delight and fear and dad-shock opens one up emotionally. I once had an extra phone line installed unofficially and without charge by a telecom engineer simply because a conversation over the obligatory cuppa revealed his girlfriend had just given birth to their first child while my own daughter was only a few months old.This was a notable exception to the normal pattern of such encounters for me, incidentally. Does anybody else find workmen in the house as awkward as I do? There’s the whole ‘do I leave them to it and read a book in the living room or do I stand around awkwardly while they work in case they want to talk?’ debate. Then, assuming I’ve made the latter choice, there’s the whole ‘assumption that I know something about plumbing/ electrics/ windows/ phones/ wireless connections/ insert relevant trade here’ thing. An assumption that, for whatever pathetic reason, I feel as if I can’t contradict without having to add shamefacedly ‘I’ve no willy’, like Eoin McLove in Father Ted. Thus lots of knowing ‘mms’ and ‘yeahs’ and informed nodding, interspersed with a few well-placed ‘mates’ added in an accent a bit more rough and ready than my own, none of which makes me look like an idiot at all.
I don’t know why I should feel as if I need to maintain some vague semblance of manliness in those situations – or why it should be ‘manly’ to know about combi boilers anyway. When talking to me, no-one feels the least need to fake a knowledge of assessing pupil progress in the Key Stage 3 English Curriculum for fear of appearing to be a bit of a jessie.
Whatever the reasons – new fatherhood, the return of an apparently deceased genre, the personality of Rowland Lee – the film has a golden, late summer feeling to it, and contemporary accounts suggest that the shoot was indeed a very happy one. In large part it may be the faint, insubstantial traces of this joy in the making which transmits itself to me and renders it, though I would readily admit it may not be the best film ever made, my favourite. In fact, a bit like John Lennon being asked if Ringo Starr was really the best rock drummer in the world and laconically replying ‘He’s not even the best drummer in The Beatles’, I’d be quite prepared to concede Son of Frankenstein is not even the best film in this season. Certainly The Premature Burial and Fall of the House of Usher are more eerie and unsettling. Frankenstein is darker and bleaker and The Black Cat more strikingly original. Dracula is more ground breaking, while Brides of Dracula and The Reptile are faster-paced and more dramatic. Bride of Frankenstein is wittier and more moving. I think those things are undeniable, objective truth. But then, pleasure is essentially subjective, isn’t it?
Of course Shakespeare is a greater dramatist than Dennis Potter, but The Singing Detective moves and impresses me more deeply than Hamlet, King Lear, Othello and Macbeth put together. The ‘me’ is the key element in that heretical statement. It goes without saying that Potter’s masterpiece isn’t ‘better’ than Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it moves me more. An accidental co-incidence of elements in my history, my background, and my personality make me more receptive to the lesser work than to the greater.
It’s in this sense that, with a polite raise of the hat to Christopher Ricks, it’s perfectly fair to investigate the question whether or not Bob Dylan should be spoken of in the same breath as Keats, and why I will always love old horror movies and TV fantasy more than Greek tragedy or the nineteenth century novel. Joss Whedon is not a better writer than George Eliot, I just happen to like his work more, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Art is not a competition: my unique, entirely subjective appreciation of Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer does not wipe Middlemarch out of existence, any more than my love for Norwich City makes them in any objective sense a better team than Manchester United.
Even more than this defence of subjectivity, however, and rather less often commented on, I’d argue that our responses are much more a part of the specific circumstances surrounding our encounter with the artistic work than is often allowed for. Our personal context, in other words. In an extended interview with Chris Rodley my favourite director, David Lynch, described one specific viewing of his own film Eraserhead, in which it appeared to him ‘perfect’. Lynch has never struck me as especially arrogant or self-satisfied, and Eraserhead is not a film I particularly enjoy, and yet I know exactly what he was driving at. Lynch wasn’t suggesting he had made a perfect film; only that on that one particular day, in that one particular set of screening circumstances, the film had felt that way to him.
On the Saturday I most recently re-watched Son of Frankenstein, I went to see Norwich City, having looked like being drawn ever more inexorably into mid-table obscurity, produce a dizzyingly good performance to beat Nottingham Forest 5-1, with each and every strike a magnificent goal of the season contender. It was a blissful Saturday afternoon fit to convince me that promotion was still on the cards this season, and the surge of disproportionate joy I felt carried me over into the film, which presented itself to me as absolutely perfect.
There was not a single flaw, not a moment of Son of Frankenstein I would have wished any different; an uncharacteristic generosity of spirit I even extended to the presence of Donnie Dunagan (later to be the voice of Bambi) as Basil Rathbone’s teeny tot son Peter. Under normal circumstances the appearance of a child actor in any film is enough to make me wish to immediately call upon the combined services of the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Joan Crawford with a wire coat hanger.
Nearly forty years previously on the 23rd of July 1977, when I settled down to watch Son of Frankenstein for the first time, the Summer holidays, and an escape from all the miseries of school, were properly underway. The England cricket team, boasting the elegance of the late Bob Woolmer and the nervous energy of Derek Randall in its batting line up, a bowling attack including Bob Willis, John Lever, Chris Old and ‘deadly’ Derek Underwood, Tony Greig’s gangly all-round brilliance and Alan Knott, still the finest wicketkeeper ever to pull on the gloves, had recently beaten Australia by 9 wickets and were well on the way to regaining the Ashes.
A couple of weeks earlier had seen what may well have been the greatest Wimbledon men’s singles ever, back at a time when I had become almost obsessed by the tournament, perhaps because in the 70s and early 80s the players’ games seemed to be somehow an expression of personality as much as ability, a pleasure that the modern game, for all the exceptional talents which grace it, no longer seems to offer spectators.
The semi-finals that year saw Jimmy Connors win, but in the process, almost unbelievably, lose a set to an unknown teenager who had come to play in the junior tournament but progressed all the way through the qualifying rounds of the real thing, before beating seasoned pro after seasoned pro to reach the semis of the main event. The upstart’s name was John McEnroe. In the other half of the draw the semi was between the iceman and the rock star, Bjorn Borg against his practice partner Vitus Gerulaitus, and the pairing produced an epic five-set battle which eventually went to Borg 9-7 in the fifth and remains for me perhaps the greatest, most enthralling tennis match I’ve ever seen, rivalled for skill and drama only by the two finals Borg contested with McEnroe in 1980 and 81 respectively. The final in 77 was no let-down either, Connors beginning like an express train and Borg only gradually finding a way back into the match to take it in another gruelling five sets.
The charts across that July included The Pistols with both Pretty Vacant and God Save the Queen (of course it was number 1 in the week of the silver jubilee, even if the BBC pretended it wasn’t, just as surely as Ding Dong The Witch is Dead wonderfully dominated the charts in the week of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral), ELO’s Telephone Line, The Stranglers’ Peaches/Go Buddy Go, The Ramones’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker and Halfway Down the Stairs by The Muppets.
The Spy Who Loved Me was in cinemas and I’d been to see it with my mum (how cool was I?), probably this very week. Still my favourite of the Bond films, this one is more familiar to non-Bondians as ‘the one with the underwater car’ – a white Lotus Esprit – or ‘the one with Jaws’. Even though we initiates know that in fact there are two ‘ones with Jaws’ because the steel-toothed henchman played by Richard Kiel was popular enough to be brought back in Moonraker, the next, considerably less effective entry in the series. The Spy Who Loved Me was the last Bond movie for many years to achieve a fully successful balance between humour, entertainment and excitement, many of the later films teetering over either into self-parody or, in reaction, a determined po-facedness, and I continue to love the film to this day.
But perhaps most significant of all in influencing my mood as Son of Frankenstein began was that this was probably the point when my love of the horror double bill became secure. I’d settled in, in other words. This was the fourth week and I was no longer finding out, or realising. By now I knew how much I was going to love each three hours or so in front of the TV late on a Saturday night and there was an extra dimension of cosiness, pleasure and joy in that foreknowledge.
All of these things together combined, mystically, in front of this particular screening to create a sense, of living, however briefly, in the best of all possible worlds. It couldn’t happen independently of the film of course. No amount of summer holidays or sporting or musical excellence could have made, say, Night of the Lepus into an all-time favourite for me, but when those personal, contextual intangibles combined with the intrinsic quality of a film as good as Son of Frankenstein I was sold for all time. Which is why it’s my favourite. Even though I don’t have a favourite because the idea of having just one favourite is … etc.
Whether it’s a film or a book, a football team or a life partner, we love the things and the people we love for a reason – or reasons – and our response in the end is our own, unique and sovereign and irreducible: a fact that, in this world of ever more received opinions and ever more skilled and insidious methods of infiltrating and colonising the insides of our heads, we should kick and scream and fight and scratch to defend.