Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Frankenstein Month: 'The Ghost of Frankenstein' (1942)

Whatever artistic ambition existed in Universal's Frankenstein series is all gone by the fourth entry, The Ghost of Frankenstein, which is also Universal's last solo Frankenstein movie (the monster's later appearances would all be in crossovers). Even Boris Karloff isn't around anymore, replaced by fellow horror icon Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster. In many ways an inferior retread of Son of Frankenstein, Ghost once again features Bela Lugosi's demented Ygor seeking out a son of the original Henry Frankenstein in order to revive the monster so that Ygor can use him for his own nefarious purposes. Both Ygor and the monster appeared to be pretty dead at the end of Son, but of course that's no real obstacle, and at the beginning of Ghost Ygor is totally fine despite having been riddled with bullets at the hand of Basil Rathbone's Wolf Frankenstein.

The monster takes a little more effort to revive; he's buried in the now-solidified sulfur pits below the Frankenstein castle, and when the townspeople decide to blow up the castle (of course), they end up freeing the monster. Ygor takes him off to find yet another previously unmentioned son of Henry Frankenstein, who is conveniently also a doctor and lives in what appears to be a neighboring town (much easier than getting Wolf all the way from America). Despite being referred to as "the second son of Frankenstein," Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke) is much older than Wolf, and even has an adult daughter. Like his brother, he doesn't take too much convincing to revive the monster, who kills a few townspeople but befriends a young girl after helping her retrieve her ball from a rooftop.

By this time, the monster has become essentially a pet, going from cute antics with the little girl to mindless rages at Ygor's command. There's none of the soulfulness of Karloff's portrayal in Chaney's performance, although that's at least as much the fault of the script and the direction (by Erle C. Kenton) as it is the acting. The striking set design is also gone in favor of the cheap and utilitarian (at one point Chaney seems to accidentally knock over a flimsy piece of scenery, and the movie just forges ahead), with an overbearing score that tramples over any potentially scary or suspenseful moment. The franchise has clearly fallen into B-movie territory at this point, with a perfunctory story that barely stretches to feature length (at 67 minutes) and plenty of corners being cut. When Ludwig's daughter reads the (never before seen) diaries of his father and brother, the movie plays clips from the first movie featuring Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, but when Ludwig imagines the actual ghost of Frankenstein talking to him about what to do with the monster, Hardwicke himself plays Henry.

It's that kind of cavalier disregard for basic filmmaking that makes Ghost such a disappointment; Son may not have had James Whale's artistic vision, but it at least had some style and effort. Hardwicke is stiff and dull as the latest Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill, who had fun with the part of the one-armed inspector in Son, barely makes an impression here as one of Ludwig's colleagues. Lugosi is the only one here who seems to be trying, once again hamming it up as the maniacal Ygor, whose eventual plan involves having his own brain transplanted into the monster's body. It all leads to another rushed ending in which the monster and his maker are apparently destroyed, but of course that never seems to stick.

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