(5/10) The magic is all but gone from the fourth Universal Frankenstein picture, made in 1942. Although well-paced and entertaining, the film stumbles on a ridiculous, self-contradictory script, a low budget and a Lon Chaney Jr. who isn’t up to the task of replacing Boris Karloff as the monster.
The Ghost of Frankenstein. 1942, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Scott Darling & Eric Taylor. Inspired by novel by Mary Shelley. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Barton Yarborough. Produced by George Waggner. TIMDb: 6.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 75% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
This is the fourth instalment in Universal’s Frankenstein saga, and notable for a number of reasons. The Ghost of Frankenstein is the first Frankenstein film to be relegated to the studio’s B movie unit, resulting in slashed funding. It is the first film to replace Boris Karloff as the monster with another actor, in this case Lon Chaney Jr. It is also the last of the classic Universal films in which the Frankenstein monster is going it solo — from here on there be monster bashes.
On paper everything looked good. Universal had been able to rekindle the interest in the monster franchise first in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein (review) and again in 1941 with the smash hit The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. Producing The Ghost of Frankenstein was The Wolf Man’s producer and director George Waggner, who had also directed Chaney in the nifty little cheapo Man Made Monster (review) in 1941. As director Universal had been able to get Erle C. Kenton, who directed the masterpiece Island of Lost Souls in 1932 (review). True, Boris Karloff had swore never to play Frankenstein’s monster again. And even if he would, at the time the movie was made, he was making a whole new kind of killing in a smash hit production of Arsenic and Old Lace on Broadway. And true, a lot of Hollywood’s top talent was unavailable, as many were serving in WWII. And even if they were available, Universal might not have afforded them for a B movie. Nonetheless, the film didn’t lack talent. Renowned British character actor Cedric Hardwicke plays Henry Frankenstein’s other son, Ludwig, and almost equally renowned character actor Lionel Atwill plays the film’s other mad doctor, Theodore Bohmer (of course Atwill’s career was now in the skids because of trouble in his private life). Karloff was replaced in the flat-headed makeup by Universal’s new horror star, Lon Chaney Jr, and as icing on the cake, the studio revived Bela Lugosi’s evil assistant/villain Ygor with the broken neck from The Son of Frankenstein (1939), by many seen the best role in Lugosi’s career.
But, alas. Despite The Wolf Man’s success, the allure of the monster movies was slowly fading, and now played mostly to a juvenile audience and die-hard fans. Erle C. Kenton was never able to reprise the artistic qualities of Paramount’s Island of Lost Souls, which perhaps had other factors than the director to thank for its greatness, and he was now deeply mired in the B movie bog. Likewise, The Wolf Man probably had screenwriter Curt Siodmak and makeup genius Jack Pierce to thank for its success, rather than George Waggner. While Cedric Hardwicke was always a very good character actor, he didn’t have the crazed charisma to carry a film like this, in the same way as Colin Clive in the first two films — or Lionel Atwill, who is probably the one who should have donned the Frankenstein mantle. And Lon Chaney Jr. was, despite his lauded performance in The Wolf Man, not an especially versatile actor, and fails (along with the script) to do anything interesting with his role. The heart of the Universal’s Frankenstein franchise had always been Boris Karloff and his uncanny ability to provide the monster with a very human soul. And now the filmmakers didn’t even have the budget on their side.
With The Ghost of Frankenstein Universal no longer cared too much for the artistic quality of the film, and treated in as a product to draw in some cash and fill up a B slot for a bigger movie. So unique vision was not an issue when choosing screenwriters, and the job went to prolific hacks Scott Darling and Eric Taylor, and the result is a rehash of The Son of Frankenstein with giant holes in the logic, bad dialogue and a script that sells on cheap thrills rather than any deeper thought. Darling’s only other SF credits is the woefully boring screwball comedy The Body Disappears (1941, review), and Taylor had previously contributed to a couple of so-so horror movies, Black Friday (1940, review) and The Black Cat (1941).
The Ghost of Frankenstein copies the opening scene from Son of Frankenstein, with overacting villagers complaining to the burgomaster about the curse of Frankenstein. The script disregards the fact that the first son of Frankenstein, played by Basil Rathbone in the previous movie, ended the previous film as a hero. In a show of utter lack of originality, the film then has an angry mob burn down the Frankenstein castle, which looks nothing like in the previous film. Ygor the almost-hunchback (Lugosi) escapes to the caves beneath the castle and finds the monster (Chaney) buried in the dried sulphur pit in which he apparently did not die at the end of the previous movie. The two set off to find the other son of Frankenstein, of which there was no mention in the previous film.
Ludwig Frankenstein (Hardwicke) is a beloved doctor on the brink of a medical revolution, as he works on a way of switching brains between human bodies. Exactly how often this would be convenient is wisely left untold, despite a very forced exposition scene at an operating table where he and his two assistants try to lay out a whole backstory in approximately five lines. One is the good assistant, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough), and the other the evil assistant, Dr Bohmer (Atwill). It seems Bohmer was the actual genius of the brain-switching method, but a botched experiment has now turned the master into apprentice, and for this he clearly holds a grudge against Frankenstein.
Ygor blackmails Frankenstein into ”curing” the monster by giving him a new brain. The monster kills Dr. Kettering for no apparent reason other than plot convenience, and Frankenstein then plans to replace the monster’s brain with Kettering’s. For some reason the monster agrees to having his brain removed, (which is one of those major plot holes that is hard to get over, but I’ll get to that later). However, the monster doesn’t want Kettering’s brain, but that of a little girl he kidnaps. But Ygor has other plans, as he conspires to get out of his broken down body and into the immortal abode of the monster (yes, the monster is now apparently immortal, but we’ll get to that later).
Frankenstein himself wants nothing to do with the whole monster business, and secretly plans to kill the immortal monster by dissecting it limb by limb after having it sedated. But after his father’s ghost (also played by Hardwicke) pays him a visit and scalds him for planning to destroy his life’s work, Ludwig has a change of heart. But, alas, he didn’t count on his evil assistant Dr. Bohmer, who, for some inexplicable reason, agrees to put Ygor’s brain into the monster in Frankenstein’s absence. And with that, the monster regains the power of speech – in Bela Lugosi’s voice, which adds some unintentional(?) comedy. But in an unprecedented deus-ex-machina it turns out that the monster’s blood type isn’t the same as Ygor’s, which for some reason turns the monster blind. ”It won’t feed the optical nerves”, Frankenstein informs Bohmer.
What sort of science is this? You give a guy an organ with the wrong blood type and “it won’t feed the optical nerves” is the only – very specific – problem? Who makes this shit up?! (Taylor and Darling, apparently)
And this is where Chaney starts walking around with his arms stretched out in front of him flailing from side to side, which has unfortunately been incorporated as the picture of how the monster moves, even if Karloff never did it. When Lugosi took over the role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (review), he continued doing so, without any explanation, which is sadly what turned the character and Lugosi into laughing stock.
Now, you can take one guess — will the monster burn to its death in a lab fire or not?
And one should also mention that there is a romantic subplot between Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (genre staple Evelyn Ankers) and the town’s prosecutor (Ralph Bellamy). Not that these characters have any bearing on the plot whatsoever, but for some reason it’s been decided that all these films need a romantic “leading” couple.
Now, let’s talk for a moment about the logic of this script. Because nothing makes any sense to me. The first and most glaring problem is the whole brain switcheroo thing. The idea comes from author and screenwriter Curt Siodmak, who co-penned Black Friday with Eric Taylor in 1940, a film in which Boris Karloff transplants a brain from a mob boss into the head of a Professor of English literature, creating a split personality Jekyll and Hyde problem. (Siodmak would take the brain trope to new heights later in 1942 with his novel Donovan’s Brain.) Of course, anyone with a brain attached will call out the glaring hole in this logic, as we all know that it is the brain that contains all of our personality (unless we start talking souls, which we won’t). Black Friday sort of caught itself halfway through, and tried to circumvent the problem by implying that only part of the brain was transplanted. But of course, The Ghost of Frankenstein never deals in partial brain transplants.
The film labours with the idea that the monster wants a brain transplant — not so that his brain would be put in another body, but that the monster wants to put a little girl’s brain into his body, and that the body would still somehow preserve his essence and personality. Not only is this completely bonkers from a scientific point of view, it’s also the wrong way round from the point of view of the story. The monster’s main problem is not its brain, rather, throughout the whole franchise his problem has been his body: people are afraid of him. And he has, over the franchise, displayed his child-like innocence. So, the obvious request would be for him to want to have his brain placed in the body of a little girl. THAT would be an interesting movie!
This would also take care of another one of the film’s glaring plot holes, namely: what happens to the monster’s brain once it is removed? The script never mentions this. It is sort of assumed that it would die, or be empty, or something. But hold on: didn’t we establish that the monster is immortal? And if we still keep to the basic idea that your brain is where your personality and consciousness lies, then — what happens to an immortal brain when removed from a body and put into a glass jar? FOREVER!
Which brings us to another one of the glaring plot holes — the whole immortality thing. First of all — how and when did the monster become immortal? Well, the film actually explains this with a lot of hokum about how the original Doctor Henry Frankenstein’s electricity treatment changed the molecules in the monster’s body. And that’s fair enough. But let’s just walk through this now. The monster’s problem is now that it cannot die. Well, it can obviously have its skull sawed open and its brain removed. What happens when its brain is removed? Is not the body of the monster then technically dead? Well, yes, but the brain lives on, doesn’t it? No, not according to this film, as we have established above. So, if the brain is out and dead, and the body doesn’t function without a brain — how the hell is it then not dead?
And this just goes on. In the movie Ludwig Frankenstein wants to kill the monster. But when he learns that it is immortal, he concludes that the only way to kill it is to first sedate it and then dissect it limb by limb the way it was created. Okay, but hold on now. First of all, sedating the monster is theoretically the same as poisoning it. If it can be poisoned, then how can it be immortal? Can’t Ludwig just triple the dose? And wait now, because it is immortal, Frankenstein wants to kill it by dissecting it? WHAT?! IS THAT NOT THE SAME THING AS CUTTING IT TO PIECES AND KILLING IT? HOW DOES THIS MAKE SENSE? MY BRAIN HURTS! And what happens in the end? IT BURNS! Well, of course we all know that it doesn’t really burn, as it returns in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man — but why do all the characters in the film take for granted that the immortal creature has died in a fire, when it has been established that it cannot be physically harmed? Except when sedated and dissected, that is. Aaaaaagh.
Now, of course, this is a silly monster movie and doesn’t have to make perfect sense all the time. But when a film’s central premise contradicts itself at every possible turn, it’s just a sign of extremely sloppy screenwriting, as if the writers simply don’t give a shit. This script is just a complete mess. The way Frankenstein’s bloody ghost suddenly turns up to make Ludwig do a total 180 degree turn on all his morals is such a lazy deus-ex-machina, as if Taylor and Darling just didn’t bother to write an actual character arc. And neither do they bother to try to incorporate the “leading couple” into the plot in any meaningful way. They’re just there because the film “needs” a romance — which it doesn’t.
But. Script problems and internal logic aside, The Ghost of Frankenstein is actually a rather entertaining and enjoyable film, as long as you leave your brain on the shelf for the duration of it. Erle C. Kenton is a capable director, and keeps things moving at a fair pace, and despite the movie’s low budget it still has Universal’s backlot of sets to draw from. The film is filled with top-notch actors, and in any other movie the assembled brilliance of Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi and a capable Evelyn Ankers would have been enough to make it shine — throw in a Lon Chaney Jr. lunkhead while you’re at it. But apart from Lugosi, they all feel somewhat underused. Bela Lugosi relishes in his wonderful role as Ygor once more, and is the salt of this movie, although his part isn’t nearly as well written as in The Son of Frankenstein.
Oscar-winning DP Milton Krasner provides clean, well-composed images. Krasner also filmed The Invisible Man Returns (1939, review), and years later Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The sets, although ”setty” are not at all bad, and I especially like the cramped town environments. For much of the time the film is too brightly lit for a Frankenstein film, and there is no hint of the expressionism that was still present in The Son of Frankenstein, although Kenton tries to resurrect the first film’s stagy feel in the beginning with an obviously staged forest and graveyard set. But by now it feels more like a ripoff than artistry, especially since he isn’t able to carry the feeling through to the rest of the movie.
Six-time Oscar nominated composer Hans Salter provides an effective score, and we find the whole usual team of Universal horror crew members aboard, including art direction duo Jack Otterson and Russell Gausman, gown designer Vera West, makeup legend Jack Pierce, editor Ted J. Kent and special effects guru John P. Fulton, who does his best with a small budget. But the magic from the previous films are gone. The lab is small and barren, and hardly emits a Strickfadenian crackle and zap, the burning buildings look like very obvious miniatures – although the scene with stunt man Eddie Parker as the monster collapsing in the burning building is quite impressive.
The make-up on Lon Chaney looks like it has him painted white, rather than the more subtle nuances given to Karloff, and unfortunately the design looks rather silly on the stockier Chaney. The makeup is also a lot more simplified. This was partly due to time constraints: there simply wasn’t enough time on the movie’s low budget to go through hours of makeup each morning before shooting: plus the fact that the ill-tempered and alcoholic Chaney didn’t care much for sitting through long makeup sessions. And according to film historian Tom Weaver, another problem was that Chaney was allergic to some of the materials that makeup artist Jack Pierce had used for Karloff. According to film historian Gregory Mank, Chaney at one point wanted the forehead piece removed during a lunch break, and as no-one would remove it, he tried to rip it off, which naturally wasn’t possible, and instead tore a gash in his forehead, which required a trip to the hospital and several stitches.
Tom Weaver in his book Universal Monsters: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946 interestingly writes: “The Ghost of Frankenstein, like The Mummy’s Hand, made it plain that Universal was less interested in producing horror films than it was in churning out mere ‘monster movies’. While horror films, at their best, offer a wide palette of interesting possibilities (nuance of character, hints of subtext, echoes of the folklore or literature that inspired it), the ‘monster movie’ blithely tosses away the subtlety to serve hard-sell horror in the form of grotesque makeup, swooning heroines and/or rip-roaring action. The Ghost of Frankenstein offers monster moviemaking at its classy best which is the reason it has been embraced by fans in a way that Son of Frankenstein, a better film by any standard, has not.”
And judging from online reviews, the movie has a lot of admirers. Both Frank Veenstra at Boba Fett 1138 and Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews give the movie 7/10 stars, with Davidson calling it “a worthy final chapter in Universal Studios’ saga of standalone Frankenstein features”, even if he notes its flaws. The pseudonym “Cannibalor” at French Oh My Gore! takes it up a notch, awarding the movie with a somewhat astonishing 8/10 stars, writing that The Ghost of Frankenstein is of “real cinematographic interest, but also very entertaining”. Geoff Rosengren at The Telltale Mind likewise gives the movie 4/5 stars, praising Chaney’s performance in particular. While Rosengren acknowledges that The Ghost of Frankenstein is “a small step down” from the previous Frankenstein movies, he feels that “it still stands tall among them and other horror films from the period”.
I know that Chaney has a lot of fans in the horrorverse, but unfortunately his turn as Frankenstein monster is something of a low-point even in his chequered career. Nothing remains of the subtle vulnerability that Karloff gave the original creature, and Chaney’s monster feels like the sort of parody that got stuck in comedies spoofing the original movies. Chaney grimaces his way through the movie, and the monster is now nothing more than a lumbering prop. Still, this was Chaney’s career peak. After struggling for a decade and a half in mostly bit-parts and small supporting roles under his real first name Creighton, avoiding to ride on his famous father’s fame, he he was snatched up by Universal in 1940, as Universal was desperately looking for a new face to be its monster man after Boris Karloff vowed never to play monsters again after his turn in Son of Frankenstein. He was put to the test in the low-budget shocker Man Made Monster (1940, review), and was subsequently baptised in fire in the smash hit The Wolf Man in 1941. Over the years Chaney took over the roles as Dracula and The Mummy as well, but perhaps surprisingly never the The Invisible Man, before his career hit the skids due to his alcoholism, and he saw himself stuck in Poverty Row Z-films in the fifties and sixties.
And while The Ghost of Frankenstein has its defenders, it also has its detractors. Eric Reifschneider at Blood Brothers and Richard Scheib at Moria both give the film 2/5 stars. Scheib calls the film “pedestrian”, Hardwicke “dull” and writes that Chaney “lacks […] anything approaching the pathos that Karloff invested the character with”. Nick Renzos at Greek Res Kai Pes awards the movie with 1,5/4 stars, writing that “The Ghost of Frankenstein is unfortunately just what his title says; a ghost of the previous films, both artistically and commercially”. Jean Demblant at French Avoir Alire calls the movie “a barely revived corpse”, giving it 1/5 stars.
By 1942 British American Thespian and character actor Lionel Atwill had honed his mad scientist skills in a number of movies, from Warner’s taut colour movie Doctor X (1932, review) and the low-budget clunker The Vampire Bat (1933, review) to Universal’s Man Made Monster and The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, review). His career was already spiralling downward after a press scandal involving a “sex orgy” at his home on Christmas Eve 1940, and it would hit rock bottom in 1943 when he was sentenced to five years probation for perjury after having lied in court about the nature of said party to protect his friends. He was then squarely stuck in Poverty Row for the rest of his sadly short career, with ended in his death from cancer-related pneumonia in 1946. Atwill was always good, and shone in all his mad scientist parts, no matter how turgid the films he appeared in were. Unfortunately his role in The Ghost of Frankenstein is one of the weakest he was offered, and as stated before, he is underused.
Although never one of Hollywood’s brightest shining stars, Ralph Bellamy was one of the most enduring actors of both the screen, the stage and television. His career on the stage, where he would continue to flourish during his entire career, started in the twenties and earned him a Tony Award on 1958. His film career started in 1933 and lasted almost 60 years. The role he is perhaps best known for today is as the old millionaire who almost gets destroyed by Richard Gere in Pretty Woman in 1990. That was Bellamy’s last role. Another one of his famous portrayals was that of the villainous doctor in Roman Polanski’s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. He played the lead in one of TV:s first ever detective series as early as 1949, called Man Against Crime. Although not immediately recognised as a prolific sci-fi actor, he did appear in a number of science fiction films and series in his later career, including the film Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), the TV series The Invaders (1967) and The Twilight Zone (1986), as well as in two science fiction pilot episodes that never went anywhere, now available as TV movies: Search for the Gods (1975) with a young Kurt Russell and The Clone Master (1978).
Evelyn Ankers was a British actress who emigrated to Hollywood in the thirties, and soon found herself as a recurring leading lady in a number of horror and science fiction B movies. Her first outing in the genre was as Lon Chaney’s love interest in The Wolf Man, and after The Ghost of Frankenstein she went on to play the ”other” female lead in Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), and she reprised that role in Jungle Woman (1944, review). She also had the biggest female role in The Mad Ghoul (1943, review) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). She may also be recognised by matinée TV viewers from Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), and a few of the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone.
The rest of the cast is mainly made up of Universal stable bit-part players. Worthy of mention, though, is child actor (extra) William Smith, who would later grow up big, and, among other things, was a boxer, body builder, weight lifter, arm wrestling world champion, discus thrower, stunt man and Korean war veteran. He was fluent in five languages and would have become a Ph.D. in Russian, had he not landed a contract with MGM.
He appeared in close to 300 films or TV series, and is notable for playing Adonis in the TV series Batman in 1966, for playing the lead in a number of cheap exploitation B films, such as Grave of the Vampire (1972) and Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973). A more mainstream audience might recognise him as the guy who brawled with Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way You Can (1980), but his crowning achievement for all genre film fans was playing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father in Conan the Barbarian (1982). In his prime he also starred in such quality classics as Empire of Ash III (1989), Roller Blade Seven (1991) Cybernator (1991) and Big Sister 2000 (1995). His last screen credit is from 2014, and he is still alive and kicking as of September 2019.
My final verdict on The Ghost of Frankenstein? It’s a fun, entertaining monster movie, it has strong direction, and for for the most part good acting. The film suffers somewhat from the lack of a clear-cut protagonist. Cedric Hardwicke’s character is cut out for the job, but Hardwicke himself is a bit too dry and detached in his delivery to carry the mantle from Colin Clive and Basil Rathbone. Lon Chaney, as stated, does the monster no favours. Lugosi and Atwill, on the other hand, are top notch. The movie’s main problems are Chaney’s bad performance and a rotten script that contradicts itself at every turn.
The Ghost of Frankenstein. 1942, USA. Directed by Erle C. Kenton. Written by Scott Darling & Eric Taylor. Inspired by the novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Barton Yarborough, Janet Ann Gallow, Doris Lloyd, Leyland Hodgson, Olaf Hytten, Holmes Herbert, Richard Alexander, Dwight Frye, Lawrence Grant, William Smith. Music: Hans J. Salter. Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner, Elwood Bredell. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: Charles S. Gould. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Special effects: John P. Fulton. Stunts: Eddie Parker. Produced by George Waggner for Universal.