In 1942, three years after Son of Frankenstein, Universal Pictures continued the story of the Frankenstein family with The Ghost of Frankenstein!
However, The Ghost of Frankenstein was a far different film from the three that came before it. The budget was lower. The story was less complicated. The running time was much shorter. Whereas the previous films in the franchise clearly took place in Germany, the setting for The Ghost of Frankenstein is less easily defined. (Considering that the film was made during World War II, this isn’t surprising.) The biggest change is that, in The Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster is not played by Boris Karloff. Instead, the role is taken by Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney’s hulking frame was perfect for the monster but his face is never as expressive as Karloff’s. Whereas Karloff turned the monster into as much of a victim as a victimizer, Chaney plays the monster like a … well, a monster.
Returning from Son of Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi is back as Ygor. At the start of the film, we learn that Ygor actually wasn’t killed at the end of Son of Frankenstein. Instead, he was just wounded. He’s spent the last few years hiding out in the old castle, trying to once again revive the monster. When the villagers attempts to blow up the castle, he and the monster flee.
It turns out that there’s one other Frankenstein son. His name is Ludwig and he’s played by a very dignified Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Ludwig, who has been hiding his identity and denying the family legacy, has a successful medical practice in another village. Working with his assistants, Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarbrough) and the bitterly jealous Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill, who played a far different role in Son of Frankenstein), Ludwig has developed a procedure in which a damaged brain can be removed from the skull, repaired, and then stuck back inside the skull…
Uhmmm … wow, I have no idea what to say about that. That’s quite a medical breakthrough, though…
When Ygor and the monster show up in the village, searching for Ludwig, the monster ends up getting arrested. The local prosecutor (played by Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant’s romantic rival in both The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday) asks Ludwig to examine the prisoner. Ludwig is shocked to discover that the prisoner is his father’s creation!
Ygor wants Ludwig to perform a brain transplant on the Monster. At first, Ludwig is hesitant but then he’s visited by Henry Frankenstein’s ghost. (Since Colin Clive died 5 years before Ghost of Frankenstein went into production, Hardwicke plays both Ludwig and Henry.) The ghost asks Ludwig to perfect the monster.
Ludwig finally relents and agrees to give the monster a new brain. Ludwig wants to use the brain of kindly colleague but Ygor has different plans…
The Ghost of Frankenstein is only 67 minutes long but, oddly, it still feels just a little bit draggy. Director Erle C. Kenton does a workmanlike job but, at no point, does Ghost feature the wit that distinguished James Whale’s films or Rowland V. Lee’s work on Son of Frankenstein. Chaney is not a particularly interesting monster but Bela Lugosi is a lot of fun as Ygor. With Chaney showing even less emotion than he usually did and Hardwicke appearing to be occasionally embarrassed by the whole film, it falls to Lugosi to keep the audience awake and he manages to do just that. Lugosi’s performance may be overly theatrical but that’s exactly what The Ghost of Frankenstein needed.
The Ghost of Frankenstein is occasionally entertaining but ultimately forgettable. It’ll best be enjoyed by Universal horror completists.