Written by Scott Darling
Directed by Erle C. Kenton
Starring Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers
US Release March 13, 1942
RT 67 min.
Home Video Universal Studios Home Video
Classic Horrors rating = 6 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
I’ve been waiting for it. Watching all the Universal Monsters movies, I knew it was coming. I’m talking about the moment the series jumped the shark. It comes in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), not when Ygor’s (Bela Lugosi) brain is unknowingly transplanted into The Monster’s (Lon Chaney, Jr.) head; instead, when The Monster subsequently speaks and it is with Ygor’s voice. There are a lot of moments in the movie that could be considered shark-jumping, but I accepted them all… until this one.
Backing up for a bit, have you ever wondered what happened to the original Frankenstein (Henry) at the end of Bride of Frankenstein? The Monster told him, “Go. Live.” Then Henry and Elizabeth walked outside his laboratory and watched it explode after The Monster pulled the lever that it was warned would blow them all to atoms. Well, apparently, the couple spent the next few years procreating. Not only did his grown son, Wolf, appear in Son of Frankenstein, but now an even older son, Ludwig, is introduced in The Ghost of Frankenstein.
Both sons have access to Henry’s old diaries. Wolf inherited them and Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) now has another set, plus some of Wolf’s notes. I’m not sure how he got them considering that Ghost takes place soon after Son and no one in his village of Vasaria seems to have heard of Frankenstein or his monster. Perhaps Wolf travelled through town when he and his family left the village of Frankenstein at the end of Son. Wolf wanted to use the notes to revive The Monster, but Ludwig wants to use them to destroy it.
Before we come to that, though, Ygor has survived Wolf’s gunshot wound and hangs around town playing his horn and scaring the locals. Said locals are still in an uproar about recent events and get the mayor to allow them to destroy what remains of Frankenstein’s laboratory. In doing so, they inadvertently release The Monster from his hardened sulfur encasement. This sends Ygor and The Monster, still the best of friends, on the run. In Son, lightning put The Monster in a coma, but in Ghost, it revives him. Hence, Ygor wants Ludwig to give him a permanent boost.
Ludwig has the most level head of the Frankenstein men and has no desire to further the family business. I don’t know why he couldn’t just chop The Monster into tiny parts, but he seems to need his father’s notes to properly disassemble it. Then, fresh off a successful surgery where he removed a man’s brain, performed surgery on it, then put it back in, he gets the idea of replacing The Monster’s criminal brain with a normal brain so that he can restore the family’s good name.
Coincidentally, a good brain has just become available since The Monster clobbered Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough) in the hallway. But Ygor has other ideas. He wants Ludwig to put his brain in The Monster so that he can escape his broken body. Really, he has delusions of grandeur about what he would do. “With my brain in that body, I could rule the country!” He convinces Ludwig’s jealous colleague, Doctor Theodore Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) to switch brains just before the operation.
For the first time in a Universal Monsters movie, Boris Karloff does not play The Monster. For the first (and last) time, Lon Chaney, Jr. does. I don’t care for his characterization. He just doesn’t look… right. I keep telling myself that the fact he’s been burned (twice), exploded and melted in hot sulfur, means he might not look the same as Karloff did. There’s a great sadness that carries through from Chaney; from eyes that are puffier and slanted, to his perpetual frown. He doesn’t feel like the same creature.
He’s also a stockier monster. The poor thing barely eats; how has it gained weight? It seems to get enough exercise throwing around bodies. Chaney’s performance also adds one thing to the Frankenstein Monster stereotype. It’s the first time it walks with its arms outstretched in front of him. If you’re playing charades and draw Frankenstein, I bet anything you’re going to walk with straight legs and your arms outstretched in front of you.
Why is this movie named The Ghost of Frankenstein? Well, and take this as you will, when Ludwig is putting himself through mental anguish about The Monster (“While it lives, no one is safe”), his father’s… uh, ghost appears to him and gives him the idea that he can “fix” its brain (“What if it had another”) instead of destroy its body. It’s hard to tell, but I think the ghost is actually a physical representation of what’s happening in Ludwig’s mind; it looks and speaks a lot like he does.
We finally get to that moment… the moment when The Monster, who had become mute somewhere along the way since Bride of Frankenstein ended, speaks with Ygor’s voice. It’s not without huge dramatic effect; that’s how Ludwig realizes it’s not Kettering’s brain in The Monster’s body. Plus, it demonstrates the idea that even though a plot point may be incredibly ridiculous, it can be delivered in an entirely entertaining way. And, at the very least, The Ghost of Frankenstein is an entertaining movie.