Synopsis: Wolf 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, Krogh (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 takes Wolf to the family crypt, where we see Henry’s casket has been defaced; scrawled below his father’s name are the words “MAKER OF MONSTERS”.
Farther back in the crypt, Ygor shows Wolf the body of the monster, in a state of suspended animation. Ygor tells him that the monster is his friend and he implores Frankenstein to help revive him. Excited by this discovery, Wolf realizes that he can vindicate his father’s work by bringing the creature back to life. Taking the burned end of a torch, he overwrites the graffiti on his father’s tomb with his own sobriquet: “MAKER OF MEN”….
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 versatile actor, is unexpectedly engaging here as Ygor. His frequent cackles and growls of “Fran-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, and the coming war would draw a lot of talent away from the Universal lot. That and a growing realization that quality didn’t really have an impact on box office performance for horror films led to a decline in production values that lasted until the end of the studio’s so-called “golden age”. But this one was a top-notch effort, a reminder of a time when studios produced workmanlike B-pictures built around solid, well-crafted scripts.
Spider Woman Strikes Back
Synopsis: Jean Kingsley (Brenda Joyce) arrives in the small town of Domingo. She’s been hired as a nurse / companion to a reclusive blind woman, Zenovia Dollard (Gale Sondegaard). Moments after the bus has dropped Jean off in town she bumps into Hal Wentley, an old school friend who has long carried a torch for her. Jean seems uncomfortable seeing him again, and Hal is disappointed that she isn’t in town to visit him. But when the expected car from the Dollard mansion doesn’t arrive to pick her up, Jean accepts a ride out to the place from Hal.
Dollard’s place is far out of town, a creepy house complete with a creepy mute servant named Mario (Rondo Hatton). It seems Miss Dollard has trouble keeping assistants on staff, which might seem surprising given the light duties involved, but might not when you consider there’s a freakish-looking manservant skulking around in the shadows. Miss Dollard is troubled to hear that Jean knows someone in town, and expresses the hope that Jean will stay for a long while. She certainly doesn’t want Jean to run off and get married, as her last assistant did.
Meanwhile, the local farmers are upset at a wave of cattle deaths that have been occurring throughout the area, deaths that have been left the local soil expert (Milburn Stone) baffled; the cattle deaths indicate that poison plants are growing in the area, yet there are no such plants to be found anywhere. One by one, the farmers conclude that they must sell out before they’re ruined.
Back at the mansion, Jean settles into her new duties, which prove to be less than taxing. But she is alarmed by the baleful stares and the unwelcome attention from the grotesque Mario, and puzzled that she sleeps so soundly during the night, almost as if she were drugged.
What she does not suspect is that she is being drugged, every night; what’s more, the sinister Miss Dollard is draining her blood each night in order to feed a brood of carnivorous plants in the basement, and that she is using the plants to make a deadly poison….
Comments: Minnesota native Gale Sondegaard must have made an impression at Universal when she appeared in the 1944 Sherlock Holmes movie The Spider Woman, because the studio decided to use the same character again in a different setting.
Not exactly the same character, mind you; instead of Adrea Spedding of London, Sondergaard was now playing the allegedly blind Zenovia Dollard of Domingo, a wealthy small-town recluse with evil on her mind.
She’s trading in poisonous orchids rather than poisonous arachnids this time, but never mind — Sondergaard was quite good at projecting an outwardly friendly demeanor while suggesting something sinister lurking just beneath the surface.
And she projects just the right sort of menace for this creepy little mystery story, which cleverly uses Jean’s vulnerability to ratchet up the suspense. Both Miss Dollard and Mario are interested in Jean for different reasons, neither of which can be described as wholesome.
And the small town of Domingo is shown to add to Jean’s sense of isolation and paranoia: when she wants to quietly mail a letter to her predecessor, who left a forwarding address in New York, she is thwarted by the nosy denizens of small-town America, ca. 1946. The Domingo postmaster is suspicious even of her request for an air-mail stamp (“Air mail? Goodness! What’s your hurry, miss?”).
If I have any complaint about the character of Dollard, it’s that she’s a little too evil. Don’t get me wrong, I love evil women*, but she seems to be trying too hard. Zenovia, honey, isn’t it evil enough to drug your hired help so that you can drain her blood in order to breed carnivorous plants so that you can poison the local cattle population? Must you pretend to be blind as well? That’s just showing off, dear.
But she is by far the most interesting character in the movie, even more intriguing than Rondo Hatton’s glowering Mario. We must fill in a lot of the blanks in Mario’s background, and this ambiguity serves the plot well. The movie suggests that he had an overweening interest in some of Miss Dollard’s past caretakers; but beyond that we have little to go on. Hatton’s performance here is somewhat better than that in House of Horrors; he makes the most of a non-speaking part, conveying a wide range of emotion with some very subtle body language.
Brenda Joyce is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies. About her performance in The Spider Woman Strikes Back, I can only say that she is best-known as the second actress to play Jane in the Tarzan movies.
Interestingly, there were originally twelve speaking roles in Spider Woman Strikes Back; five of them were cut out prior to release, and the film was trimmed down to less than an hour. I can’t say the brief running time hobbles the narrative. The movie moves along at a good clip, and none of the scenes appear to be superfluous.
The Spider Woman Strikes Back was never released on home video, but there are businesses that will burn DVDs for you from old 16mm prints. The quality isn’t stellar, but most of these movies can be had if you are persistent and willing to pay.
The truth is, there is very little you can’t find online. One thing I’ll say about the internet — for better or worse, it’s good at bringing obsessive people together.
*I even married one! Ha ha! Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week.