Saturday, May 22, 1971: Son of Frankenstein (1939) / Night Monster (1942)

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father’s estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father’s work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail.


At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms. Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father’s “monster”; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots.


Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father’s laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father’s work by bringing the creature back to life…

Comments: This was the third entry in Universal’s Frankenstein series of films, and the last to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. It essentially plays as Young Frankenstein without the jokes. Basil Rathbone brings a haughty authority to Frankenstein that Colin Clive couldn’t manage; and we get the impression that the motivating factor for Wolf is an obsession with restoring his family’s good name, a somewhat healthier motivation than Henry’s twisted desire for god-like power.

That “Frankenstein” is now shown to be the name of the town as well as a particular family isn’t a trivial detail. Wolf sees the people of the village as his people, sees his role as that of a feudal lord who must help the peasants to appreciate his father’s genius. Of course, in later films various members of the Frankenstein clan would be lured into the monster-building trade for the flimsiest of excuses, but on this occasion it makes at least some kind of sense.

Part of the problem in making a Frankenstein movie is that the very presence of the creature limits your story options. The monster isn’t going to enroll in Oxford. He isn’t going to get married. He isn’t going to solve a murder that has baffled Scotland Yard.

Nope, he is really only going to do one thing, and that is stumble around and smash things. The truth is, the Frankenstein films had already established their formula, and the only interest from here on out would have to be sustained by the secondary and tertiary characters.

 
On that score, Son of Frankenstein doesn’t disappoint. Lionel Atwill is classy and charming as Krogh. Bela Lugosi, never a particularly talented actor, is unexpectedly engaging here as Ygor. His frequent cackles and growls of “Frahn-ken-shtien!” are funny and memorable, and the production as a whole still carries some of the fine craftsmanship that was evident in the first two films.

Son of Frankenstein was made in 1939, near the end of Universal’s so-called “Golden Age” of horror films. The coming war would draw a lot of talent away from the Universal lot, and the overall quality of their output would suffer as a result. But this one was a respectable effort, a reminder of a time when studios produced workmanlike B-pictures built around solid, well-crafted scripts.

Night Monster

Synopsis: The Ingston mansion lies near the spooky swamps of a rural area, miles from the nearest town. It’s gloomy enough in the daytime, but at night it’s really creepy. That’s when the fog rolls in and weird things start happening.


Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan) is the wealthy old recluse who lives there, along with his crazy sister Margaret (Fay Helm) and a gaggle of creepy domestics.


In fact the only one in the house who isn’t a weirdo is the maid, Milly (Janet Shaw), but she hasn’t been there long and has decided to quit. She is creeped out by the place and by its inhabitants. She also thinks that someone from the Ingston house is responsible for a murder that happened nearby, and that there might even be a connection between the murder and a hulking creature seen roaming the area at night. The local constable, however, isn’t buying it.


About the time Milly is leaving, a number of visitors are showing up at the house: Agor Singh (Nils Asther), a mystic who has gained the confidence of Kurt Ingston; Dr. Lynn Harper (Irene Hervey), a psychologist that a desperate Margaret had sent for; Dick Baldwin (Don Porter), a local mystery writer who is a frequent visitor to the estate. And Ingston has invited three doctors to pay a visit — King, Timmins and Phipps — the same three doctors whose botched surgery left him paralyzed.
Singh demonstrates his mystic powers by making a skeleton appear in the room — apparently real, and when he makes it disappear there is a pool of blood left on the carpet where it appeared.


Before long, the body of young Milly is found in the swamps nearby. This brings the local constable to the Ingston Mansion. But that doesn’t prevent the brutal murder of the three doctors. Harper and Baldwin begin to suspect Kurt Ingston — after all, he had a motive for wanting the doctors dead, and perhaps he wasn’t quite as paralyzed as he let on. But how could Ingston have committed the murders when he has no arms or legs?



Comments: If I told you that Night Monster was shot in eight days, would you expect to see a good movie?

I’m guessing not. But this little flick really exceeds expectations. Admittedly, it ain’t Citizen Kane. But it is still a better movie than it has any right to be.

To me, Night Monster is a good example of how the old Hollywood film factory worked: a script was picked, contract actors were assigned, an existing set was dressed, a shooting schedule was posted, and it was running as the B-picture in theaters across America almost before the prints were dry.


I have a lot of admiration for the old studio system because it was a marvelously efficient way to make lots of movies while ensuring at least a basic level of quality. In spite of what you may have heard, it hasn’t entirely disappeared; tune into the Disney Channel sometime, and you’ll see a vertically-integrated entertainment outlet at work.

So this is a worthy product of that system: craftsmanlike, competent, but nothing flashy.
And best of all, Night Monster doesn’t cheat the audience.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by that. Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen movies that are basically conventional mysteries or thrillers with a smidgen of horror-movie content. Or — ahem –with less than a smidgen of horror-movie content. There’s nothing more frustrating than being suckered into a movie expecting one thing and getting another. So this week it’s refreshing to get a horror movie in which the horror elements are an essential part of the narrative.

But there is a bait-and-switch present in Night Monster, one that I haven’t been able to figure out. The top billing for the movie go to Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. Yet both actors are relegated to minor parts. Atwill plays the fatuous Dr. King, and Lugosi plays Rolf, the butler. Had I been casting the film, I’d probably give Atwill the Kurt Ingston role, while Lugosi, not a particularly versatile actor, would have been a good choice for the mystic, Agor Singh (though I have no complaint with the performances of Ralph Morgan or Nils Asther — the latter delivers the obligatory there-are-some-things-that-man-was-not-meant-to-know line with appropriate gravity).

I suppose it’s a little late to send a letter complaining about the casting to director Ford Beebe, so I will conclude by praising the performance of Janet Shaw, who plays Milly. She has real presence when she’s on screen and disappears all too soon.

But when she’s there, you can’t take your eyes off her. In one scene the Ingston chauffer is driving her to town. Suddenly he pulls off the road, turns off the car, and turns toward her with a wolfish gleam in his eye. Shaw delivers the best line in the movie: “What’s this all about,” she tosses off contemptuously, “as if I didn’t know?”

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One comment

  1. This would have been my favorite pairing of Lugosi films, whatever the shortcomings. Kudos to NIGHT MONSTER's Janet Shaw, who spent 15 years in Hollywood before returning to her native Nebraska, who supplied memorable bits in so many Universals- HOLD THAT GHOST, THE MUMMY'S TOMB, HOUSE OF HORRORS come to mind.

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