Saturday, May 27, 1978: Son of Frankenstein (1939) / The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

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.

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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”….

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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.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)  Directed by Rowland V. Lee Shown: Be

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.

The Mummy’s Tomb

Synopsis: Retired archeologist Steve Banning (Dick Foran) is regaling his son John (John Hubbard) and John’s fiancée Isobel Evans (Elyse Knox) with the story of his strange expedition to Egypt thirty years earlier: how he and the members of his expedition found the tomb of the mummy Kharis and, breaking the seal, unleashed a horrible curse that brought the mummy back to life.

In a series of flashbacks, we are told how various members of the expedition were killed by Kharis, who was being controlled by the high priest Andoheb (George Zucco). In the end the mummy was destroyed and Steve and the surviving members of his party returned home.

John and Isobel find the story so fantastic that it isn’t clear if they completely believe it, but Banning claims every word of it is true.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, an elderly Andoheb is handing off his mummy-protecting duties to young Mehemet Bey (Turhan Bey). He tells the young man that the defilers of Kharis’ tomb still live; they must be tracked down and killed, and their line must be extinguished. Bey immediately makes plans to sail to Massachusetts, where the Banning family lives.

Once in America, Bey takes a job as caretaker in a cemetery, and from the caretaker’s cottage sets his plan in motion. Each night he gives the mummy the potion derived from nine tana leaves, which brings it to life. He orders the creature to kill Steve Banning. It shambles out to the Banning house and does so. The next night Bey orders it to dispense with Babe Hanson, another survivor of the expedition. This too the mummy accomplishes.

But a mummy’s work is never done, and we learn that young John Banning is on the schedule for the next night. Surprisingly, the ultra-disciplined Bey hesitates. He finds himself captivated by the beautiful Isobel, and disobeys his orders from Andoheb by sending the mummy not to kill John but to capture Isobel, and bring her to him. What he does not know is that the townspeople are becoming suspicious of him, and that Kharis is close to rebelling against his sacrilege….

Comments: While watching The Mummy’s Tomb, I found myself thinking back to the summer of 1999. In those days I lived in the Highland Park neighborhood in St. Paul, just a few blocks from the 2-screen Highland Theater. Walking along Cleveland Avenue one afternoon I saw two magic words spelled out on the theater marquee: THE MUMMY.

“Oh boy!” I blurted out. “The Mummy!”

A woman walking a few paces ahead of me slowed and threw a quizzical glance back in my direction: grown men are not supposed to say such things in public. I lowered my head guiltily, then jaywalked across to the theater and bought a ticket.

The movie I saw that day was, of course, Universal’s “reboot” of the Mummy franchise, a “reimagining” that played more as a light-hearted action romp than a horror film: louder, busier, more violent and more expensive than the originals — not that there’s anything wrong with that.

This millennial Mummy reboot was certainly entertaining, informed by the same bubblegum sensibility that made Raiders of the Lost Ark go.

Nevertheless, I prefer Universal’s original take, as dull as its later entries sometimes were; as well as the Hammer mummy films that came along a couple of decades later. I first saw Hammer’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb at age 15; and seeing it I sensed that a new world was opening up to me.

Not a world of mummies or the supernatural — that was quite old hat for me. Nope, Valerie Leon had arrived in my life, and she was a different sort than the sugary girl-next-door types who had long inhabited Universal horror movies. Leon played a woman who smoldered with unfulfilled sexual longing, and I began to realize how prudish American movies were by comparison. We can see ample evidence of that prudishness in any Universal film of the era, but especially in tonight’s movie.

After all, each of the Universal Mummy sequels used sexual hunger as a plot device, but it was always expressed obliquely and never experienced by any of the women in the film. In fact the virginal female leads never display any interest in sex at all, beyond the occasional arch of the eyebrows designed to hurry her love interest along to the altar. The sexual longing in these films is entirely assumed by the hapless High Priests of Karnakh, a secret society so incompetent it can’t even keep track of one fucking mummy, and staffed by members so repressed that the appearance of a single attractive woman sends the most devout of them straight over the edge.

George Zucco’s Andoheb is the first to go bananas in The Mummy’s Hand, as he decides to abandon his vows because he likes the cut of Peggy Moran’s jib. Similarly, in The Mummy’s Ghost, John Carradine’s Yousef Bey decides that he’d prefer to wake up each morning next to Ramsey Ames, rather than a sarcophagus. In The Mummy’s Curse, Peter Coe’s Ilzor actually manages to keep his pants on, but assistant Martin Kosleck can’t. In tonight’s feature Turhan Bey is made the keeper of the tana leaf jar, but he fares no better: one look at John Banning’s fiance Isobel and he becomes a sex-obsessed wreck, turning Kharis against him when he opts to chuck his part in a 3,500 year-old mission in order to get laid.

This turn of events is foreshadowed early in the movie, when the newly-minted High Priest takes the job of a cemetery caretaker in Mapleton. The retiring caretaker is skeptical: why would a man want to waste his youth among the dead, when there is a whole world of living to be had? But the young man is adamant, insisting that he finds the cemetery peaceful. Like many religious fanatics, Mehemet Bey has drastically narrowed his life experience in order to avoid the temptations of the flesh. But he has outsmarted himself, because avoiding temptation has left him without the strength to resist it when it inevitably appears on his doorstep.


Which leads us to an almost archetypal scene in these movies: the High Priest of Karnakh has betrayed his vows in order to be with a woman, but he forgot to check in with the woman first. He has Kharis retrieve her the same way a black lab retrieves a downed mallard. Isobel wakes up, bound hand and foot, to see a stranger looming over her, delivering the Worst Pick-Up Line Ever:

It is your destiny to achieve the greatest honor that can come to a woman. You will become the bride of a high priest of Karnakh….for you I am going to forsake the teachings that have been handed down to us for generations without end….the secret that has kept Kharis alive all these years can be ours as well….after I have given you the tana fluid you will be immortal, just as Kharis is immortal.

Aw, what a sweet-talker, this guy.


You’ll note that the tana fluid device, which was never that convincing to begin with (exactly nine leaves to bring the mummy to life? What if the leaves are broken, or of different sizes?) is given a new angle: now if any human drinks the tana leaf fluid, they become immortal too. I can see the ad campaign now — TANA LEAVES: THEY’RE NOT JUST FOR MUMMIES ANYMORE. No word from the High Priests of Karnakh as to how they came by this information, or how mummy-like a human imbibing tana leaf fluid becomes.

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