James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein was probably the most famous of all Universal monster flicks; Boris Karloff’s monster, with its flat-top head, sad, heavy-lidded eyes and neck bolts, has entered our cultural consciousness. Ask anyone to sketch a Frankenstein’s Monster, and they’ll almost certainly draw the one from James Whale’s picture.
Unsurprisingly, Frankenstein’s success led to several sequels of varying quality. The first, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by Whale, is considered by some to be the best of the series. Whale left Universal in 1937, and the films that followed, Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) drifted into self-parody.
Here’s a plot summary: Ygor rescues the monster from the sulphur pit that entombed him at the end of the previous film, and the pair flee to Vasaria, a village which is home to Ludwig Frankenstein, the original mad doctor’s second son. Predictably, it isn’t long before panic and chaos ensues, as the Monster manages to kill a few villagers with his clumsily flailing arms.
And then the plot gets really bizarre. Doctor Ludwig plans to destroy the Monster by dismemberment, but the ghost of his father appears and convinces Ludwig to give the creature a brain transplant instead…
The Ghost of Frankenstein contains all the ingredients you’d expect from a Frankenstein production – there’s plenty of lightning, mobs of angry villagers with flaming torches, and just for good measure, two collapsing buildings.
Unfortunately, the film is little more than a regurgitation of elements from the previous three, glued awkwardly together with little regard for character or plot. Boris Karloff was wise to bail before The Ghost of Frankenstein began production.
Lon Chaney Jr’s version of the monster is oddly stiff and zombie-like, sadly lacking the flickers of poignant emotion that Boris Karloff brought to the role. Bela Lugosi’s Ygor is sly and conniving but little else, while the characters of Elsa and Erik (played by Evely Ankers and Ralph Bellamy respectively) are strangely underwritten and do nothing for the plot – Elsa, in particular, has little to do other than appear in a series of flowing gowns and emit the occasional scream.
It’s quite apparent that, by 1942, The Ghost of Frankenstein’s writers had run out of ideas. There is, after all, only so much you can do with a shuffling giant in a black suit, which would go some way to explain why the Monster is reduced to a bit-part in his own picture.
The production values have also dropped considerably – lighting and camerawork are nowhere near the standard of James Whale’s legendary original, and even the poor old monster’s makeup has suffered.
Still, Ghost does exude a certain goofy charm – Lugosi appears to have fun with his one-dimensional character, and the way he controls the monster with his oboe/flute-type instrument is unintentionally hilarious.
If you can get over the film’s B picture status, The Ghost of Frankenstein is still a concise (only 67 minutes) bit of fun – even if its plot is as brainless as the Monster itself.
The Ghost Of Frankenstein is available as part of Universal’s Cinema Classics Collection in the ‘horror’ category.