The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942, 69 min.)
At the end of Son of Frankenstein, the monster is cast into a boiling sulphur pit, presumably to his death. Except that most of that film’s dialog revolved around the fact that the monster was now immortal. Was anyone really surprised when the monster reared its ugly head in yet another sequel? (Especially since the sequels were a cash cow for Universal.)
I was struck by how expressive, how sad, the new monster looked. Now inhabited by Lon Chaney Jr., the old makeup seems to let more of the actor’s face through. Perhaps Boris Karloff was getting bored with the role—his monster in Son was half-hearted. This sad new monster is dug out of yet another early grave by Ygor, still played with enthusiasm by Bela Lugosi. You may remember that Ygor is plugged full of bullets by Wolf Frankenstein at the end of Son, but never mind that. He’s alive and kicking, and he leads his friend the monster on a search for yet another son of the original Dr. Frankenstein.
That son is Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), who is yet another doctor, this time a brain surgeon. He runs a big, Gothic hospital for the insane, where he removes brains, operates on them, and then puts them back. His assistant Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill, with both arms intact) resents Frankenstein’s genius, as Bohmer used to be in charge until an unnamed incident knocked him down a peg. And of course there’s a beautiful woman, Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers), who is being wooed by the county prosecutor, Erik (Ralph Bellamy).
As soon as Ygor and the monster arrive in town, they get in trouble, as the monster carries off a girl and kills two villagers who attempt to stop him (the monster is only helping the little tyke retrieve a ball, but they don’t know that). In a development that borders on the ridiculous, the monster is arrested and taken to court, but he soon escapes—but not before Ygor blackmails Dr. Frankenstein to help heal the monster. Just as soon as you can say “It’s alive! Alive!” there’s mad doctoring afoot, but for once it’s not coming from a member of the cursed Frankenstein family. Bohmer lets Ygor convince him to sabotage the brain-switching operation that Frankeinstein intends to cure the monster; instead of the brain of one of Frank’s unfortunate assistants, Bohmer engineers it so that Ygor’s brain is put in the monster’s body.
There are various nice touches that keep this film from straying too far over the line between campy and ridiculous. Elsa wears a dress early in the film that looks like giant hands reaching up her body to throttle her. There’s yet another insufferably cute kid (Janet Ann Gallow), and the monster has some touching scenes with her, including one where he demonstrates that he understands the principle of the brain-switching operation, but he would rather have the little girl’s brain. It’s one of the most emotionally satisfying moments in the entire series.
Given the array of actors present, I was a bit disappointed with the performances. Ralph Bellamy is possibly the only smart man in any of the films, but he’s too reserved, as if he didn’t fit the histronic tone of the Frankenstein universe. Sadly, Lionel Atwill didn’t get to act like a mad doctor very much. Cedric Hardwicke looks a little lost (and more than a little like Atwill). Most importantly, there weren’t any colorful villagers to stand out from the usual angry mob.
There’s one glaring question that goes unanswered: at the beginning of the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the monster is frozen in ice. How does he end up there? There’s nothing at the climax of this film that would indicate the present of hidden bodies of water or concealed glaciers. I’ll have to check out the beginning of the next film again to look for clues.