SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939)
The third film in Universal's Frankenstein franchise, Son of Frankenstein isn't as popular as its predecessors (1931's Frankenstein and 1935's Bride of Frankenstein) but it did make its own lasting contribution to pop culture. This is the film that introduced the world to a character named Ygor (more commonly spelled Igor). However, this version of Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi, doesn't quite fit the image most people associate with that name.
Viewers often seem to have a bit of confusion regarding the Frankenstein films. As this movie points out in a sort of meta moment, 9 out of 10 people refer to the monster created by Dr. Frankenstein as Frankenstein himself. Similarly, viewers seem to have mixed the name Ygor/Igor with the image of the doctor's hunchbacked assistant from the first film, Fritz. Ygor does have issues of his own - his shoulders are slanted and his head is twisted to the side because he survived a hanging.
In the first movie, the Baron Frankenstein was hoping that his son Dr. Henry Frankenstein's marriage to a woman named Elizabeth would result in a new son being born to the house of Frankenstein. That has happened, Henry and Elizabeth had a son named Wolf, but unfortunately Henry died so soon after Wolf's birth that his son doesn't remember him.
Son of Frankenstein picks up decades after the events of Frankenstein and Bride, when Wolf travels to Castle Frankenstein for the first time in his life, accompanied by his own wife and child. This brings great unease to the local villagers, as they don't like having someone named Frankenstein around... and yet the town is now called Frankenstein, when it had previously seemed to be called Goldstadt.
It's not clear just how much time has passed between films, but Wolf is played by Basil Rathbone, who was 46 years old at the time of filming, and police officer Inspector Krogh says that Frankenstein's Monster tore off his right arm when he was about the same age as Wolf's son Peter, who is around 5. Krogh is played by Lionel Atwill, who was 53 when he made this movie.
Venturing into the ruins of his father's laboratory, Wolf finds that Ygor is living in there. And he's not alone. Frankenstein's Monster is also in the laboratory. Although caught in an explosion at the end of Bride, the Monster doesn't appear to have been harmed by that event, but he is ailing now. I would suspect that the two bullets lodged in his heart would be an issue, but Ygor says it was a lightning strike that has put the Monster down. Ygor is friends with the Monster, and he asks Wolf, who has some science skills of his own, to nurse him back to health.
Wolf didn't know his father, but he is in awe of his father's accomplishments. Henry didn't intend for his creation to be a dangerous monster, he didn't deserve the pain and suffering that resulted from his experiment. By reviving the Monster and making it available for study, Wolf intends to clear his father's name.
Ygor, on the other hand, has his own plans for the Monster. Through hypnosis or some other means he has taken complete control over the Monster and is using him to get revenge on the eight men who condemned him to hang for the crime of grave robbing. The Monster makes quick work of these men as well, having perfected a method of causing a person's heart to burst simply by thumping them on the base of the neck.
Boris Karloff returned to play the Monster for the third and final time in Son of Frankenstein, and he didn't have a whole lot to do here. Most of his screen time consists of him lying around in the laboratory while Wolf doctors him and studies him (and deduces that he was initially brought to life not by lightning but by cosmic rays). He doesn't speak, as he did in Bride, and when he is up and walking around he is merely Ygor's puppet. It isn't until the final minutes that he is given some acting to do.
It's easy to see why Son of Frankenstein hasn't endured in the way the two films prior have. Although it's over 20 minutes longer than both of those films, it has less going on. The characters are good and the actors did fine work in their roles, but the story drags. It takes too long for Wolf to get the Monster back in action, and six of Ygor's eight targets have already been killed before the film even starts. It would have been much more interesting if more of the film had been dedicated to Ygor's revenge.
Oddly, Ygor wasn't even in the screenplay written by Willis Cooper, so I'm not sure what the original story was. The character was added because Universal wanted both Karloff and Lugosi in the movie. Most of Son of Frankenstein was actually written on the day of filming, with director Rowland V. Lee greatly expanding the role of Ygor because he was outraged at how little Universal was paying Lugosi, just $500 a week. Because of that, he made Ygor a very important character and made sure Lugosi was on set for the entire production.
Whatever the original story for Son was, expanding the role of Ygor worked out, because that character is the thing that makes the movie worth watching.
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942)
Although it's a direct sequel to Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein - which was directed by Erle C. Kenton from a script by Scott Darling and Eric Taylor - has some glaring continuity errors. One of the biggest ones is the fact that the two men who were killed by the Monster in Son are somehow alive again and back on the town council.
It also doesn't seem very likely that there would be a "second son" of the Monster's late creator, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, but that's what we get in this sequel. The titular Son of the previous movie, Wolf, does not return. Instead, there's Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, who has just made a breakthrough in brain surgery. He has figured out how to entirely remove a person's brain from their skull, perform surgery on the brain, then put it back where it came from.
At the end of Son, the homicidal mastermind Ygor (Bela Lugosi) had been shot to death and the Monster was knocked into an 800 degree sulphur pit. Ghost comes along to let us know that these things were just a minor inconvenience to the pair - Ygor is doing alright, and he spends his time hanging out next to the sulphur pit, which has cooled and hardened since the Monster plunged into it. When the villagers decide to blow up the remains of Frankenstein's laboratory and rid the area of this curse for good, they inadvertently release the Monster from within the ground.
In the previous film, Ygor said the Monster was ailing because he had been struck by lightning. Here, the weakened Monster gains strength when he's struck by lightning after being removed from the sulphur pit. Maybe those two bullets in his heart were the trouble after all. Ygor wants to get his friend juiced up even further, so he seeks the help of Ludwig. Since Wolf isn't around anymore.
Rather than help, Ludwig instead intends to destroy the Monster. He's all set to cut his father's creation limb from limb when the ghost of Henry (Cedric Hardwicke pulling double duty) appears to him and convinces him not to go through with this plan. Don't destroy the thing he dedicated his life to creating. I think the real Henry would have been fine with his Monster being disassembled, but Ludwig listens to the ghost and comes up with a different plan. He'll remove the abnormal criminal brain his father accidentally put in the Monster and replace it with a normal brain. The brain of a fellow doctor who the Monster has killed.
Of course, when Ygor hears of the brain transplant scheme, he wants his own brain put in the Monster's head, and you can imagine what sort of terrible things this twisted creep wants to do if he can take over the Monster's powerful, immortal body. Despite having learned to speak in Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster lost this ability in Son and still doesn't speak here, but it becomes quite obvious that it has its own disturbing idea for whose brain should be put in its body. You see, the Monster has made friends with a little local girl named Cloestine (Janet Ann Gallow), who is around 4 years old, and he thinks putting Cloestine's brain in his head would be a real good idea.
As you may expect, neither Ludwig nor Ygor can agree with that. The Monster does get a new brain by the end of this film, but it's not Cloestine's. It is a brain that has a major effect on his demeanor...
It's not just the Monster's brain that was changed with this movie, the actor in the part changed as well. Boris Karloff did not return for Ghost, being replaced by Lon Chaney Jr., who had played The Wolf Man the year before. Chaney looks great in the Jack B. Pierce makeup and delivers a fine performance; if someone said they didn't notice there had been an actor swap I wouldn't be able to fault them for it.
Ygor was the best thing about Son of Frankenstein, so The Ghost of Frankenstein benefits from having him at the center of events again. This might be a slightly more entertaining film than Son overall, but what really gives it an edge over its immediate predecessor is the fact that it's more than 30 minutes shorter than Son. Ghost is a decent movie. It doesn't stand out as being anything special, but I don't have any complaints about it other than the continuity.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943)
The better part of a century before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, Universal Pictures was already doing the shared universe thing by having their monster characters cross over with each other. The fifth film in the Frankenstein franchise and the sequel to The Wolf Man is the first of those crossovers, with The Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak teaming with director Roy William Neill to figure out how to get the two titular monsters to cross paths.
It's werewolf Lawrence Talbot (played again by Lon Chaney Jr.) who carries the story on his shoulders, despite dying at the end of his introductory film. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man begins with a pair of grave robbers raiding the Talbot family crypt and disturbing Lawrence's body, accidentally bringing him back to life. I instantly loved this scene when I first saw this movie as a young kid, because it reminded me of the opening sequence in the movie I credit with getting me into horror, Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI.
The Wolf Man is the only monster around for half of the movie, as we follow Lawrence on his quest to figure out how to end this second chance at a cursed life. He seeks the help of the Gypsy lady Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the fortune teller who was the mother of the werewolf who bit Lawrence. Maleva takes Lawrence to the town of Vasaria, the setting of The Ghost of Frankenstein, because she has heard that Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein can help people no one else can help. Unfortunately, Ludwig perished at the end of Ghost, so he's not helping anyone by the time they get there.
35 minutes into the film, Lawrence is responsible for reviving Frankenstein's Monster. After wolfing out and running off through the wintry Vasaria countryside, he finds the Monster encased in ice... I'm not sure how exactly he managed to let this happen, since he was going up in flames the last time we saw him... and unwisely busts him out.
Chaney had played the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein and apparently there was some consideration given to the idea of having him play both Lawrence and the Monster in this film, but they quickly realized that would be too difficult. Instead, Chaney was replaced in the role by Bela Lugosi - who had been offered the part in the first movie before Boris Karloff. Having Lugosi play the Monster here makes sense, since the brain of his character Ygor was transplanted into the Monster's head near the end of Ghost, but poor Bela kind of got screwed on this one. For one thing, Ygor could still speak after becoming the Monster in Ghost, so the Monster originally had dialogue in this film as well. The story goes that people found it funny to hear Lugosi's voice come from the Monster, so all of his lines were cut out - although you can sometimes see his mouth moving in the finished film as he speaks the silenced dialogue. Ghost had also established that Ygor's blood type did not match with the Monster's body, and thus his senses were shutting down. The Monster went blind, which is why Lugosi walks as if he is blind in this film, with his arms stretched out in front of him. There are no references to his blindness in the movie as released, so his movements come off as being a bit of a humorous choice. This has convinced generations of viewers that the Monster is supposed to walk with his arms out in front of him, though.
Ygor-Monster leads Lawrence to surviving Frankenstein Elsa, Ludwig's daughter, who was played by Evelyn Ankers in Ghost. Evelyn Ankers had also played Lawrence's love interest in The Wolf Man, so rather than confuse the audience by having Lawrence hang out with different Evelyn Ankers characters in his two movies the filmmakers cast Ilona Massey as Elsa this time. Elsa isn't enthusiastic about letting Lawrence see her father's diaries, but she does go to the Festival of the New Wine with him, and I will never forget the musical scene that plays out at that setting.
Eventually, the characters come up with a plan to kill both the Wolf Man and the Monster by hooking them up to Ludwig's machines, but things aren't as simple as that. And yes, the Wolf Man and the Monster do have a fight scene in the final moments, and anyone having crossover characters fight in future films could look back on this one and use it as an example of how not to present the battle. The "Wolf Man vs. the Monster" element is disappointing because it's not nearly long enough, and the filmmakers found a way to give us no clear winner.
The fight is lacking, but it is fun to see Lawrence Talbot and the Monster interacting (even if the Monster's dialogue was cut), and it's cool to see the Wolf Man and the Monster share the frame. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man could have handled the concept in a better way, but this crossover was the first of its kind. I can cut it some slack.