“The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942)
by A.J. Hakari
Decades of parodies have made Frankenstein’s Monster a lumbering oaf in the public eye, but it wasn’t always so. Universal’s original, James Whale-directed pictures carried serious dramatic heft, and while 1939’s Son of Frankenstein didn’t quite reach their masterpiece status, the presence of Boris Karloff undoubtedly lent a sense of pathos to the production. But if you could single out a flick as the one that set the grand-daddy of movie monsters on the path of becoming the joke so many know him as today, it’s this franchise’s fourth installment. The Ghost of Frankenstein features the big undead lummox as what folks have spent years making fun of him for being: a bumbling beast devoid of personality, arms forever outstretched in zombielike fashion. Given that the movie was released as the studio devoted less financial resources to its horror unit, that gravitas got the heave-ho in favor of just having the thing ready to be slapped on the screen was to be expected. Don’t get me wrong, since The Ghost of Frankenstein is a perfectly enjoyable watch that boasts some fine acting and quality production design, but after the brilliant one-two-three punch that preceded it, it’s a little disheartening to find this series go from creating genre gold to whipping up a quickie creature feature.
Those angry villagers that assemble at the end of every Frankie flick are through messing around. They’re fed up with the pall that the scientist’s name has cast over their town, and as our story begins, they’re already blowing his ancestral castle to bits. Unfortunately, doing so has freed the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) from his prison, and a still-living Ygor (Bela Lugosi) is there to spirit him off to the countryside before they find more trouble. But years of slumber have weakened the boltnecked one, so to return him to full strength, Ygor decides to seek out Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), the original Dr. Frankenstein’s second son. Ludwig has put his father’s horrible legacy behind him and started a new life of healing the insane, but when these two gruesome guests come knocking on his door, all of that is about to change. Under threat of harm coming to his daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers), Ludwig has no choice but to comply with Ygor’s demands of replenishing the Monster’s power…unaware of the hunchbacked fiend’s nefarious scheme to put his brain in the creature’s towering body.
The Ghost of Frankenstein is like a family reunion for nearly every Universal horror trope you can imagine. Mad scientists with buzzing machinery? Check. Unimportant romantic subplot? Check. A setting of indeterminately European origin? Check. For classic monster movie fans, it all amounts to a very inviting atmosphere, and at just over an hour’s length, the picture proves to be a quick, fun, spooky little experience. The story is essentially a rehash of Son of Frankenstein‘s plot, with yet another descendant of the original doctor being tempted to follow in his immortality-seeking footsteps. The stakes don’t feel as vital in this film as they were in its immediate predecessor, but they’re addressed with enough seriousness to draw you in all the same. As opposed to being stock motivation for some uninteresting villain, the notion of the Frankenstein bloodline being cursed with turning to the dark side of scientific progress still has some weight to it here. Hardwicke’s performance helps sell this angle in a big way, as he starts off the story wanting absolutely nothing to do with the Monster…until he’s compelled to meddle by his father’s spirit (so yeah, there’s a literal ghost of Frankenstein in this thing). It’s a silly reason for Ludwig to make the switch, but Hardwicke’s acting helps you empathize with him as he uses this opportunity to do some good and correct his family’s wrongs.
Still, for as often as The Ghost of Frankenstein‘s clichés are endearing, they don’t make for a horror show that really sticks with you. The movie really exists in the moment — as you’re watching it, it’s a blast, but come the ending title card, the details of what you just saw start to get fuzzy pretty fast. The story isn’t particularly inept, but as previously mentioned, it’s all been recycled from ideas that were executed more memorably before. As wickedly entertaining as Lugosi is to watch as Ygor here, even his acting and characterization pales to the truly sinister presence he maintained in Son. But worse off yet is poor Chaney, who doesn’t even come close to making an impression as the Monster. It’s not through his doing — he’s just the guy in the make-up — but the screenplay gives him nothing to do outside of squinting at everything and lumbering about. He’s completely lacking in the humanity that made Karloff’s interpretation so tragic and involving, and while this film tries rectifying that by having the Monster strike up a friendship with a little girl (Janet Ann Gallow), it’s a subplot that’s soon discarded after its unnecessarily disturbing intent is revealed. The remaining actors are given equally bland material to work with, although their performances are no worse for the wear. Ankers and Ralph Bellamy make a likable romantic pair, and Lionel Atwill does what he can to elevate his role as Ludwig’s mentor, who’s driven by jealousy to help carry out Ygor’s fiendish plot.
For a minor entry in Universal’s pantheon of ghouls and creatures of the night, The Ghost of Frankenstein is a fairly good time. It doesn’t pick your brain or tug your heartstrings as its predecessors did, but if you’re simply searching for a festival of exploding models, laboratories laden with elaborate gizmos, and mobs fleeing from unstoppable monsters, you could do a lot worse. Though a little more on the cheesy side than one would like it to be, The Ghost of Frankenstein musters enough dignity to do its franchise proud.