The villagers in the small European town of Frankenstein are not happy because they have gotten word that the nobleman who shares the name of their home is returning, decades after he left as a child. The reason the villagers are so upset is that the deceased father of that nobleman created a monster (Boris Karloff) that killed many of their number and awarded the place a sorry reputation, but Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has ideas of his own. He will move into the castle with his young family and set about improving things - but he reckons without the fascination his father's work holds...
The final instalment of Universal's classic Frankenstein trilogy to star Karloff as the famed Monster, the fact that it did not live up to the previous two James Whale-directed films was no slight on its quality; well, maybe a little one. In truth the formula for these films was just that, and although they had the benefit of having the official, original mad scientist line at the heart of their thrills, it was apparent that they couldn't bring much that was new to the table. With that in mind, they presented the most iconic scenes and characters without doing much to work up any great novelty.
This may have been much of the inspiration behind Mel Brooks' affectionate spoof Young Frankenstein, but it has a few decent chuckles of its own if you're in an indulgent mood. Largely this is thanks to some tremendously enjoyable playing from Rathbone, he's enormous fun as his Baron goes from enthusiastic reformer to guilty and paranoid dupe, living down to his father's notoriety. Seeing his overcompensating attempts at cheerfulness can be laugh out loud funny, but he remains sympathetic even when carrying off the de rigueur crazed-look-in-the-eye experiment sequences, as we can put the blame on his dear old dad.
Well, him and social outcast Ygor, played with insidious relish by Bela Lugosi under a heap of hair and bad teeth, not to mention a broken neck where the hangman's noose failed to do the character in. Ygor has one friend in the world, and it is he who is behind the murders of the jury who convicted him a while back. His friend? The one who is doing his bidding by committing the killings? Step forward the Monster, although when Ygor introduces him to the Baron he's in a coma and Ygor wishes him revived. Thanks to access to his father's extensive notes, Wolf is able to light up the Monster with electricity, and the whole cycle of mayhem begins once more.
This time around the Monster is more the villain than the victim, and consequently Karloff was offered less to do, not that his performance suffered: he was as impressive as ever, particularly in one scene where he makes an unwelcome discovery and his cry of anguish still chills. But really this was what set the Monster in place as the shambling agent of doom, brought on for the final act to bring the house down but otherwise failing to tug the heartstrings. There are compensations elsewhere, as despite this being the longest of the Universal Frankensteins, there's nary a moment wasted thanks to lean direction by Rowland V. Lee, bringing out the best in the striking set design and characters such as Lionel Atwill's wooden-armed Inspector. At least the studio spent a bit of cash on this one, and that's to its benefit. Also, watch out for Rathbone hitting the dartboard bullseye without looking! Music by Frank Skinner.