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Sunday, December 5, 2010


If you're just a casual viewer of the classic Universal horror films from the 30s and 40s, you might sometimes wonder exactly what's going on in a particular episode of the "Frankenstein" saga.  How come the Monster can talk in one movie, but is mute in the next?  How did he end up in that block of ice?  Why does he suddenly look like Bela Lugosi? 

Let's see if we can't get the story straight, and make as much sense out of things as possible, so that the next time you watch a "Frankenstein" movie, you'll know exactly where it fits in the continuing story of the Monster.  Although there's certainly more nitpicking that can be done with these films, such as various anachronisms, changing locations, and multiple spellings of certain names, we'll be dealing with the basic storylines and more fun-type details here.

And if you already know all of this stuff--well, what the heck, you can read it anyway.

(Warning: wall-to-wall spoilers ahead!)


This is the original, the one in which renegade scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) first stitches together various parts of dead bodies to create a man, which he and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) then bring to life via electricity.  (Note that the name "Frankenstein", despite popular misconception, refers to Clive's character and not to the Monster himself.)  While outdone in the sequel, the thundrous creation sequence is still a highlight of horror cinema, punctuated by Clive's frenzied declaration, "It's ALIVE!"

Boris Karloff rightfully became famous overnight for his portrayal of the Monster, a pitiful, confused creature (possessed of a criminal brain thanks to the bumbling Fritz) who longs for acceptance but is greeted only with fear and loathing.  To make matters worse for the poor soul, his fickle creator, despite all of his initial enthusiasm, seems to lose interest in his creation pretty quick when the pitiful brute shows his savage side due to the cruel taunting of a sadistic, torch-wielding Fritz. 

The Monster manages to kill his twisted tormentor, prompting Frankenstein's concerned mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward van Sloan), to suggest dissection.  The exhausted Henry washes his hands of the whole matter and scampers back to town to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), leaving Dr. Waldman to perform the grisly task alone.  But as Waldman bends over the lab table with his scapel, the Monster wakes up from his anesthesia and does away with him. 

Free at last, the confused creature makes his way out the front door of the old watchtower laboratory and into the wild. He ends up accidentally drowning the one person who is nice to him, a little girl named Maria (Marilyn Harris), who shows him that flowers float just like boats, but little girls don't.  The Monster then terrorizes Frankenstein's bride Elizabeth on their wedding day, but, unlike what occurs in Mary Shelley's novel, lets her live. 

A hunting party comprised of enraged villagers tracks him down to an abandoned windmill, where the Monster and his creator have their final confrontation.  Henry Frankenstein survives being throttled and thrown from the mill (thanks to a happy ending tacked on by the studio), but the Monster meets a fiery death when the villagers set the building ablaze and gleefully watch it burn to the ground.  The poor Monster, who is deathly afraid of fire, screams in agony as a heavy beam breaks free and pins him to the floor while the raging flames close in around him.


Picking up where the first film left off, we find that the Monster (Karloff again) didn't die in the fire after all.  Instead, he plunged through the collapsing floor into the stream that flows beneath the windmill.  Maria's father, who must see the Monster's charred bones for himself in order to be able to sleep at night, ventures too close and falls in himself.  The Monster angrily drowns him, then kills the man's wife when she offers her hand thinking that it's her husband who is climbing out of the ruins.  Surprise!  It's the Monster, and he's loose upon the countryside once again. 

The villagers hunt him down as before, tying him to a pole like a wild animal and lifting it straight into the air before letting it fall into a hay wagon.  In this moment, as the Monster is suspended over the crowd upon the upraised pole, director James Whale creates an audacious crucifixion analogy featuring the Frankenstein Monster as a Christlike figure.  He escapes from captivity later on, of course, and finds his way to the isolated hut of a blind hermit, who takes him in and cares for him as a fellow outcast from society.  During their time together, the kindly hermit teaches him basic English ("Breeead!  Gooood!"), and introduces him to the dubious pleasures of smoking and drinking before a couple of passing hunters (including a young John Carradine) break up the party and send the Monster stumbling into the wilderness once again. 

Making his way into an underground crypt, he encounters a flamboyantly unbalanced individual named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Theisiger), who seeks to collaborate with an unwilling Henry Frankenstein in the creation of life and considers the Monster to be the perfect means of persuading him to cooperate.  This persuasion will include the kidnapping of Frankenstein's bride Elizabeth (Valerie Hobson this time) as an additional incentive. 

The Monster is particularly interested when he discovers that Pretorius plans to create a woman as a fitting companion for him ("Wo-man...friend...wife..." he muses).  And in one of the most thrilling sequences ever filmed, full of crackling lightning, blazing showers of sparks, and generally bravura filmmaking, this is accomplished.  But the towering bride (Elsa Lanchester), a magnificent creation of perverse Gothic beauty, rejects him with the same fear and loathing with which he has been greeted by everyone else. 

In a fit of angst and despair, the Monster grabs a convenient lever ("Get away from that lever!  You'll blow us all to atoms!" Pretorius warns) and, after graciously allowing Henry and Elizabeth to escape unharmed, destroys the mountaintop laboratory in a spectacular explosion.  His last words to Pretorius and his erstwhile bride-to-be are:  "We belong dead."


Traveling to the village of Frankenstein by train, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), son of the infamous monster-maker, looks forward to moving into the house he has inherited from his father with his wife Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and their young son, Peter (Donnie Dunagan).  While the first film featured a roomy high-ceilinged mansion and the second an even larger and grander one, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN's oversized and stunningly Gothic castle is practically cavernous and designed in a style dripping with German expressionism.  The ruins of the once-remote watchtower laboratory are now situated directly behind it.

The Frankensteins receive a rather chilly reception from the villagers, and the local chief of constables, Inspector Krogh (Lionel Atwill), warns Wolf not to attempt to resume his father's work lest he risk their wrath. Krogh himself has an unfortunate history in this regard, the Monster having torn his arm from its roots when he was a child.  Before long, however, Wolf discovers the comatose Monster (who survived the explosion of the previous film, and is played by Karloff for the third and last time) beneath the ruins of the laboratory, tended by the faithful Ygor (Bela Lugosi in one of his finest performances). 

Ygor, a grotesque, broken-necked graverobber who was hanged for his crimes but survived, now lives in a cave beneath the laboratory with his friend, the Monster.  "He...does things for me," Ygor cryptically tells Wolf, alluding to the fact that, one by one, the Monster has been dispatching the members of the jury that sentenced Ygor to death before being immobilized by an errant bolt of lightning.  (Which is curious, as in other films lightning is the very thing which makes him stronger.)

Wolf is thrilled to discover the indisputable proof of his father's genius, and, even as Inspector Krogh and the volatile villagers become more and more suspicious of his actions, he quickly begins work on bringing the Monster back to full power.  But when this is accomplished, he finds the Monster (inexplicably mute once again) still in the vengeful thrall of the evil Ygor, who tasks him to finish off the rest of the jury that condemned him.  Realizing his mistake in reviving the Monster, Wolf attempts unsuccessfully to kill him, and later is forced to shoot Ygor in self-defense.  

Upon finding Ygor's body, the grief-stricken Monster strikes back by entering Peter's bedroom through a secret passage and kidnapping him.  In a climactic confrontation within the ruined laboratory, with the Monster holding both Wolf and the Inspector at bay with one foot on the little boy's neck, Wolf performs a swashbuckling rope swing and kicks the Monster head over heels into a boiling pit of sulpher, where he apparently meets his parboiled doom.  Wolf decides to take his family and leave the charming little village while the getting's good, and, for some inexplicable reason, the villagers give him a hero's send-off.


As this story begins, the villagers are complaining to the mayor about what a dump their little burg has become due to the curse of Frankenstein.  One woman moans that her children cry themselves to sleep each night because "there is no bread."  What, did the Monster eat it all?  ("Breeead...goood.")  Did he knock down the bread factory?  Anyway, the mayor finally gives in and allows the villagers to blow up Frankenstein's castle, which prompts them to grab an armload of the nearest dynamite and gleefully scurry off to perform the impromptu demolition. 

Before you know it, the castle is a smoking, crumbling ruin, and Ygor, who somehow survived having several bullets pumped into his gut by Wolf von Frankenstein in the previous movie, is weaving his way through massive chunks of flying debris until he comes upon a startling sight--a wall has given way to reveal the solidified mass of sulphur which contains the body of the Monster (a stone-faced Lon Chaney, Jr. this time out), and he is still alive.  "The sulphur...was GOOD for you!" Ygor crows as he digs the Monster out.  Together they escape the destruction of the castle and, after the Monster is rejuvenated by an obliging bolt of lightning, make their way to the village of Vasaria, where yet another son of Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke as "Ludwig") presides over a mental institution while conducting his own advanced scientific research. 

Ygor is confident that this Dr. Frankenstein can restore the Monster to his full capacity, but his plan is sidetracked when the Monster breaks into the institution and murders an assistant, one Dr. Kettering.  Ludwig will have nothing of Ygor's dastardly plan, instead plotting to destroy the Monster by dissection, until the ghost of his father appears (also Hardwicke) and talks him out of doing away with his creation.  Ludwig decides instead to vindicate his father's genius by replacing the criminal brain within the Monster's skull with that of the murdered Dr. Kettering.

Taking advantage of this rare opportunity, the cunning Ygor persuades Ludwig's unscrupulous associate Dr. Bohmer (a leering Lionel Atwill) to make sure that his own brain is placed in the Monster's skull instead.  (The Monster's idea of having his brain replaced with that of a little girl he has befriended is vetoed.)  When the operation is over, Dr. Frankenstein is shocked to encounter a Monster that speaks not in Kettering's voice, but with the sinister tones of Bela Lugosi's Ygor, who schemes to take over the world now that his evil mind is housed in such a powerful body. 

But neither Ygor nor Bohmer foresaw a crucial element--while Kettering had the same blood type as the Monster, Ygor does not--and sudden blindness is the result.  As the ever-vigilant villagers once again take action and set fire to the institution, Ygorstein kills Dr. Frankenstein and then rampages blindly through the laboratory, knocking over several vials of flammable chemicals and turning the place into an inferno which, presumably, engulfs him.

That's it for part one!  Don't miss the thrill-packed conclusion, in which we'll take a close look at the final four films in the series: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA, and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.  Coming soon to this theater!

(This article, in a somewhat different form, was first posted at

Buy these films at
Frankenstein Legacy Collection
Wolf Man Legacy Collection
Dracula Legacy Collection

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