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DVD Review: Frankenstein – The Legacy Collection (Part Two of Three)

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Of English Accents, Lightning Storms, and Monsters

"In the minds of many horror aficionados, [Lionel] Atwill's greatest performance came in a supporting part–as the unforgettable, wooden-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein. Constructed with equal parts bottled rage and gallows humor, Krogh ranks as the most completely assembled supporting character of Universal's entire Frankenstein series (unless you count Bela Lugosi's Ygor, who became the de facto star of Son and Ghost of Frankenstein). Krogh also remains the only hero from the entire canon of Universal horror classics who's as much fun to watch as the studio's monsters and mad scientists." — Mark Clark, author of Smirk, Sneer and Scream: Great Acting in Horror Cinema.

"Well, don't stand there like a cow, blow them out," said my sister Trixie.

"Don't rush me. I'm savoring the moment. You don't turn fifty-two more than once, you know." I pulled in a long breath, aimed all of it at the little plastic Grim Reaper standing defiantly in the middle of my name, and blew out the candles on my birthday cake. The Grim Reaper tipped over, but the point of his scythe held fast to the frosting. Damn.

"The Grim Reaper was my idea," said Zombos. "I knew you would get a kick out of it."

"How does it feel being fifty-two?" asked Zimba, pulling a candle out to lick the icing.

"A lot like fifty-one, only older," I replied.

Yes, the number fifty-two: it's the atomic number of tellurium. It's one of the tombstones in Goth: The Game of Horror Trivia. The Mayan Calendar moves through a complete cycle every fifty-two years. At age fifty-two, Alfred Hitchcock directed Strangers on a Train. Fifty-two is also the age at which Boris Karloff played the Frankenstein monster for the third and last time in a Universal film.

"What were you doing stumbling around the attic?" asked Trixie.

"Well, Zombos insisted he put his–"

"Oh, let's not start that again," said Zombos. "I distinctly remember putting–"

"Hush," said Zimba. "You'd forget where your own head was if it wasn't bolted on. Let's cut the cake!"

"I can help with that," volunteered Trixie. Before we could stop her she snapped her fingers. The cake split open down the middle, sending the Grim Reaper high into the air, along with most of the cake's icing. Zombos, who was standing nearest, pulled a candle out of his hair. Zimba handed him a napkin to wipe the icing off his glasses.

"Oops. Sorry. I thought I had that spell down pat," Trixie apologized. My sister's witchery skills did leave much to be desired.

"So… how are those lessons going at the Witchfinders School of Cauldronic Arts?" asked Zombos.

"Never mind, dear," said Zimba. "No harm done." Zombos was about to say something more but Zimba gave him the stare of Medusa and he kept quiet. "Why don't you all go into the drawing room while I have Chef Machiavelli put more frosting on the cake and make coffee."

We obediently headed to the drawing room. Lightning still flashed now and then across the large windowpanes, and streams of water still poured, pell-mell, across the glass. The roaring fire on the grate sent warmth into us as we lounged in front of it. Thoughts of blazing torches held high by disgruntled villagers, a quintessential image in many Universal horror films, filled my mind.

Sof02Lightning and rain play an important part in all of the Frankenstein films also. It took four years after Frankenstein to make the demanding monster a mate in Bride of Frankenstein, and another four years for Wolf Von Frankenstein to take on his father's less than stellar habits in Son of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff returns as the monster, but, except for his patent snarls and growls, plays a lesser role to become sidekick to Bela Lugosi's virtuoso performance as the equally undying Ygor. Finally, the undead and undying monster has found a kindred spirit, although an evil one at that. With Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill playing to the rafters, and Lugosi taking center stage this time around, poor Karloff didn't stand a ghost of a chance. But it's not only the role of the monster that changed; Son of Frankenstein stands as the bridge between the melancholia and mania of Whale's artful Gothic night sweats, and the slicked-up, front office-controlled, shadow show budget package of Universal's monsters for a new decade beleaguered by the real terrors of war.

The placeless quality of this Grimm's fairy tale-like universe is still here. The train that Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein and his family travel in, to the cursed village of his father, seems modern enough. That modernity dissipates, however, as soon as he steps off the train, much like the villagers who, huddling under a sea of black umbrellas in the pouring rain to glimpse the face of their tragedy, dissolve away as he stumbles across ill-chosen words of praise for his father. Receiving a brusque welcome by the town council, his father's chest of papers is dumped into his hands. Only Inspector Krogh is somewhat cordial. He realizes the danger Wolf Von Frankenstein is in — the intoxicating power of dabbling in forbidden science that plagues the family. Driving up to the family's medieval estate, a skulking Ygor is briefly seen in a flash of headlights as the motor car pulls up to the front door, a portent of bad things to come.

In these first minutes we've crossed into a timeless world where technological and agrarian artifice mingles with the arcane; where people dress in both contemporary and quaintly antiquated clothing, and where mundane laws and continuity from movie to movie do not apply. Here be monsters, both human and otherwise, walking the shadows, strutting and fretting their hour on the stage while leering at the face of convention. Only in this world can art director Jack Otterson's expressionistic and cavernous rooms, filled with overbearing archways, oddly intersecting but precise angles, large, recklessly sprawling wooden staircases without handrails, and sparse furnishings accentuating the cheerless emptiness of castle Frankenstein, be accepted as commonplace. Even the outrageously large metal knocker that Inspector Krogh pounds against the front door to announce his arrival seems normal given the rest of the peculiar architecture in Frankenstein's fiefdom.

Sof01 Falling under the black shadows of Frankenstein's legacy, the surrounding countryside is just as cheerless and surreal. Filled with barren, gnarled trees, mist covered tombstones tilting left and right, and hanged — but still kicking — Ygor shuffling around, gleefully playing a dirge on his horn to annoy already agitated villagers, we see the spook show trappings that would move to the forefront of Universal's later movies.

In Philip J. Riley's Son of Frankenstein: Universal Filmscripts Series Classic Horror Films Volume 3, it is mentioned director Rowland V. Lee made sure to use third-billed Lugosi as much as possible after the studio cut the former Dracula star's weekly salary in half, and insisted all his scenes be shot in one week. Not in the original shooting script to begin with, the character of Ygor was hastily crafted by Lee and writer Willis Cooper as production started. Not much of the finished film comes from the script, either, but what evolved is a pastiche of earlier, more introspective, horror elements stitched onto a fresh body more suited to wartime-worried audiences. But it is Ygor who steals the show.

Bela Lugosi, originally signed to play a police inspector in the film, had the role of a lifetime literally improvised on the set — the broken-necked, snaggletoothed Ygor, the monster's demented shepherd. Gone completely was any hint of Dracula; here, for virtually the only time in Hollywood, was Lugosi as the versatile character actor he really was. Unfortunately, Hollywood paid little attention, and would never extend Lugosi such an opportunity again. — David J, Skal in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror

Ygor, who's been using the monster to do his dirty work, insists Wolf Von Frankenstein revive his only friend, made comatose by a lightning bolt strike. Oddly enough, it's a lightning bolt the monster seeks in the later Ghost of Frankenstein to innervate him, but here he's knocked senseless by one. Frankenstein's son can't resist the challenge, and soon the villagers are throwing rocks at the large boxes of equipment heading for the lab — hey, wait a minute, didn't his dad's lab get blown to smithereens in the last film? Oh, right, continuity and Hollywood don't mix. Why not throw in a boiling pit of sulfur that's been around since the Romans, while we're at it, then? And make sure to stick it in the middle of the lab and leave out the safety guard rails. Okay. We're good.

Soon the Kenneth Strickfadden electrical phantasmagorical high amperage show of pyrogeysers is crackling and arcing away, and before Wolf can say "why aren't the sulfur fumes knocking me out?" the monster is back on his eighteen-pound asphalter boots, kicking up some mayhem at Ygor's bidding. After trying to make friends — and woo a lab-ordered bride — Karloff's monster no longer looks for understanding; he's simply fed up with people screaming at the sight of him, or shooting at him, or chasing after him with flaming torches. Passing in front of a mirror he pauses to despise his visage. He hates what he is and not even Dr. Phil can help. Misunderstood and feared, after being treated as a monster for so long, he now is one and acts accordingly. Karloff must have realized, at this point, anyone could play the monster, and so the role was taken over by Lon Chaney Jr. in Ghost of Frankenstein, and Glenn Strange (the iconic 1960s image of the monster) in House of Frankenstein.

The relegation of Frankenstein's creation to stock monster status is not the only thing carried over to subsequent movies. Any dichotomy of nature versus nurture, dialectic regarding responsibility and determinism, and display of pathos is left behind in favor of a quick fix gimmick that begins here and continues through Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the later stories — since the monster's brain is bad, he's bad; replace his brain with a good one and he becomes good. Splendid! Now why didn't Wolf's father think of that and save the villagers all this trouble?

The hunt for a new brain begins with little Shirley Temple-cute Peter Frankenstein (Donnie Dunagan), Wolf's son. The monster takes a liking to him and eventually figures out that if he had Peter's brain, maybe he'd be as sweet and innocent and fun to be with; still creepy and awfully big, but fun to be with. Of course, Donnie Dunagan's odd southern drawl — given his dad has a noticeable British accent and his mom (Emma Dunn) has perfect diction — should have given the monster pause for concern.

Inspector Krogh begins to suspect foul things are afoot when town council members start turning up dead, and Ygor brazenly struts around playing his blasted horn, agitating the villagers while Wolf is increasingly high-strung, bordering on snippy, every time Krogh pays him a visit. Both Rathbone and Atwill, classically trained British actors who could intentionally overact, play off each other, with Atwill slowly simmering and Rathbone rapidly boiling. As the villagers once again get ready to storm the castle, Krogh's impatience with Wolf's supercilious attitude reaches the breaking point. In answer to Wolf's defiant question to name one person whom the monster has killed or hurt, Krogh recalls his own horrific experience.

Wolf: Do you honestly know of one criminal act that this poor creature committed? Did you ever even see him?

Krogh: The most vivid recollection of my life.

[Solemn instrumental music]

Krogh: I was but a child at the time, about the age of your own son. The monster had escaped and was ravaging the countryside… killing, maiming, terrorizing. One night, he burst into our house. My father took a gun and fired at him… but the savage brute sent him crashing to a corner. Then he grabbed me by the arm.

[Thud] Inspector Krogh slams his fake arm against the wall, a vacant look on his face.

[Tense instrumental music]

Krogh: One doesn't easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots.

[Pause] Wolf is stunned, humbled.

Wolf: No, I…

Krogh: My lifelong ambition was to have been a soldier. But for this…

Atwill's bits of business as he remembers — he pushes his monocle between the wooden fingers of his prosthetic arm and casually polishes it with a handkerchief — make this scene a show-stopper. The sudden thump as he slams down his useless arm in disgust against the wall caps a memorable moment of pathos. Even with this life-altering trauma, Krogh has a sense of gallows humor — during a heated game of darts with the Baron, he uses his fake arm as a convenient dart holder by sticking them point first into it. Anyone who has seen Young Frankenstein or Dr. Strangelove will understand how influential Atwill's Inspector Krogh performance has been.

With the torches lighted and the sulfur pit boiling at fever pitch, it's time for the showdown. The dart game is interrupted by the disappearance of Peter. Inspector Krogh finds the secret passage — another spook show staple — that leads from Peter's room to the laboratory, and Wolf heads there by other means. When Ygor is gunned down, Karloff has one last moment of glory for the monster legacy he created. Realizing his only friend is dead (until the next movie, that is), the monster screams out his sorrow as he holds Ygor's lifeless body. With Peter now under foot — the monster's left one, as I recall — Inspector Krogh has his wooden arm torn off before Wolf grabs onto a chain and swings into the monster, sending him falling into the boiling pit of sulfur. All's right with the world now the undying monster is dead again (until the next movie), and Wolf deeds over his castle and estate to the now happy villagers (until the next movie).

"My, that coffee smells delicious," said Zombos, as Chef Machiavelli rolled in the large silver coffee urn. "The Sumatran blend, I'd say?"

Chef Machiavelli nodded his head. He readied the sambuca and amaretto.

"What, no cream?" said Zombos, holding up the empty creamer.

Chef Machiavelli grunted. He had forgotten to fill it.

"I can help!" said my sister snapping her fingers.

The cream appeared, but not in the creamer.

"Oh, my," said Zimba reaching for the napkins again. She helped Zombos wipe off his clothes.

"Darn, I thought that was an easy one, too." Trixie looked at her errant fingertips as if to scold them.

"Never mind, dear. Never mind," said Zimba.

"I'll take mine black," I said, "with a little amaretto if you don't mind."

In the third and final part of our review of the Frankenstein Legacy Collection, we'll explore Ghost of Frankenstein, where Lon Chaney Jr. solidifies the role of the Frankenstein monster as a mute brute, and we meet yet another son of Frankenstein, Ludwig, coerced by Ygor to help his still ailing friend who's — so far — been burned up, blown up, and boiled in sulfur.

Read part one. 

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