When James Whales’s "Frankenstein" lit up the box office in 1931 it didn’t take a mad genius to figure out that Universal would soon start churning out sequels to capitalize on the popularity of everyone’s favorite platform-shoed monster. The first follow-up film was 1935’s "The Bride of Frankenstein," a shockingly original story full of overt and covert sexual imagery that return director James Whale was able to slip right under the noses of the Hollywood censors. Many even argue that the sequel is actually superior to the original and once again it should come as no surprise that further films based on the Frankenstein legend would soon follow.
"Son of Frankenstein" premiered in 1939 and featured Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster for the last time. As the title suggests, the film features the son of the original Dr. Frankenstein, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), returning to the family estate after an absence of some years. The local villagers are understandably nervous about another Dr. Frankenstein taking up residence and prepare for the worst.
Upon his return to the castle, Frankenstein discovers that the murderous, and supposedly quite dead, Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has taken up residence in the abandoned building. But Ygor is not alone -- the monster that all had assumed was destroyed has befriended Ygor and was carrying out acts of terror under his command until he became too damaged to run amok any longer.
The new Dr. Frankenstein looks upon this situation as an opportunity to continue his father’s work while at the same time striving to turn the monster into an agent of good rather than evil. Needless to say, things don’t quite go the way the good doctor had hoped.
"Son of Frankenstein" is worth a look if for no other reason than to see the wonderful expressionistic cinematography or Boris Karloff for the very last time in the role that made him a star. But the film is also quite good in its own right and Bela Lugosi is great as the twisted Ygor.
The second film on this double-feature DVD is 1942’s "The Ghost of Frankenstein." This film picks up right where the previous one left off and opens with Baron von Frankenstein and family beating a hasty retreat back to the States after their less than pleasant interlude at the castle and leaving it to the much-maligned villagers to clean up their mess. The local officials decide that the best course of action is to burn the wicked place to the ground.
Once again that shifty Ygor escapes death with his pet monster (this time portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) and goes looking for famed brain surgeon Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), Wolf’s younger brother. Ygor forces the reluctant Dr. Frankenstein (lots of MDs in that family, eh?) and his jealous colleague Dr. Theodor Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) to fix up the monster by transplanting his own brain into the beast and once again much mayhem ensues with some very peeved villagers bearing the cost of the Frankenstein family’s odd obsession with playing God.
By 1942 these films had become pretty much paint-by-the-numbers standard horror fare but "The Ghost of Frankenstein" remains interesting nonetheless. The story works because of the audience’s easy familiarity with the plot elements and the solid work by the very experienced cast members. Such Universal horror stalwarts as Evelyn Ankers, Lionel Atwill, and Bela Lugosi turn in strong performances while the new man in the monster makeup carries on in fine style.
After finally getting a monster of his very own in 1941’s "The Wolf Man," Lon Chaney, Jr. soon found himself back playing whatever creature needed a large body to wear the costume whether it be the mummy or Frankenstein’s monster. He does an admirable job of filling Boris Karloff’s very big shoes (bad pun intended) and, while his version of the monster does look somewhat different, Chaney manages to carry over most of the stiff movements and facial expressions that everyone associates with Frankenstein’s monster.
Both films are presented in their original full frame, black and white. Both are somewhat grainy which should come as no real surprise given their age. Surprisingly, physical defects are much less in evidence than I was expecting and the lack of distracting nicks and scratches is quite nice. "Ghost" has the better overall image with more accurate black levels and a bit more sharpness but both films offer more than acceptable viewing.
Audio in both cases are English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono mixes that exhibit all the shortcomings one would expect from 60-year-old audio sources. Dynamic range is quite constrained and there is some noticeable distortion evident here and there. But dialogue is always clear and the faint background hiss is only really bothersome during the few very quiet on-screen sequences.
Extras consist of the usual cast and crew biographies and filmographies, some informative production notes (I had no idea that "Son" was almost shot in color), and the trailer for "The Ghost of Frankenstein." I’m assuming that no usable trailer for "Son of Frankenstein" could be found.
There is also one little quirk about the menu system that can be confusing. The viewer must select one of the two films immediately upon inserting the disc and then the only way to get back to this first screen is by pressing the ’Title’ button on the DVD remote rather than the more typical ’Menu’ button. It works just fine once you know the trick.
Both "Son of Frankenstein" and "The Ghost of Frankenstein" are enjoyable films although I personally prefer Boris Karloff as the monster. Fans of classic horror films won’t be disappointed with either but more casual viewers should really start off with the vastly superior original "Frankenstein" and its first sequel "The Bride of Frankenstein." Jumping into the story mid-stream may be confusing and it certainly makes these follow-up films far less entertaining.
I’m a big fan of these double-feature discs and kudos go to Universal for going this route for these admittedly second and third tier movies. Audio and video quality are better than expected and I wholeheartedly recommend this double-dose of the Frankenstein monster.