Erle C. Kenton, 1942
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Evelyn Ankers
The fourth film in the Frankenstein series and the first to feature a new Monster — Wolf Man Lon Chaney, Jr. instead of Boris Karloff — this is also the first film to enter into B-movie territory and represents a real change of form for Universal horror: unintentional self-parody. Picking up sometime after Son of Frankenstein left off, the residents of the village near Frankenstein’s castle (the village now bears the name Frankenstein as well for some reason) detonate the castle due to their lingering superstitions. The recently revived Ygor frees the Monster from his underground tomb and they flee to the woods. The Monster is struck by lightening during a storm and Ygor decides to locate Henry Frankenstein’s son, Ludwig, to try to fix the Monster.
It just so happens that Ludwig, along with two of his colleagues, has invented a new kind of surgery that allows the removal and repair of a diseased brain. Though the villagers get wind of the Monster and capture, imprison, and try him in court, Ygor convinces Ludwig to take up the case. Ludwig’s daughter, Elsa, is afraid of the Monster and is suspicious that her father is hiding it somewhere in their mansion. Her boyfriend Erik, the town prosector, has the same fears and is determined to bring the creature to justice. Ygor, meanwhile, intends to have his own brain implanted in the Monster’s body, so that he can shed his own mangled form and have free reign for his nefarious plans...
Sadly, The Ghost of Frankenstein is essentially a B-level parody of the rest of the series and not a particularly funny one at that. The Monster looks simply awful, production values are at a dramatic low, and I have no idea what they were thinking with the script. I’m glad Karloff is not here to be embarrassed by such a ridiculous film, though I can’t help but think that his presence would have at least given me more of a reason to sit through this very boring film that feels far longer than its 70 minute running time. Though Lugosi does return as Ygor, he is not given much to do other than tote the Monster around and wish for a new body. His character is almost wholesome here and his sinister side that emerges in the final act feels like an after thought.
Director Earle C. Kenton (Island of Lost Souls, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula) presumably does his best here and includes a number of explosions, fires, collapsing building, and expressionist-like storm scenes, but this is certainly one of the worst Universal sequels. There are numerous plot holes, including the miraculous revival of both Ygor and the Monster, and Lionel Atwill returns, though in another role entirely. Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is a never before mentioned second son of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, who claims to have been raised in the area of the castle, where Henry’s son in Son of Frankenstein states that he grew up in America. The title, The Ghost of Frankenstein, refers to the fact that Henry (also played by Hardwicke) visits his son in ghostly form to encourage him to revive the Monster. What?
As far as I’m concerned, Chaney, Jr. is one of the worst incarnations of the Monster. He is physically large enough to fill Karloff’s platformed shoes, but lacks any of the pathos or sensitivity. It doesn’t help that he got what is essentially the bargain basement version of Jack Pierce’s make up and by this fourth film, the role of the Monster is extremely limited. He has some nice scenes with a little girl, but making the Monster into a public figure — he is corned by the entire town in the middle of the day, is arrested, jailed, and taken to trail — is a sad mockery that sets the tone for the rest of the film. There is simply no longer anyway to find the Monster frightening or even compelling.
Elsa Frankenstein (Universal regular Evelyn Ankers) and her boyfriend Erik (Ralph Bellamy) are both wasted. Their romantic subplot is rushed through, seemingly in order to give the film a happy ending, and Ankers doesn’t have much to do other than run around the house in weird dresses and shriek at shadows. Cedric Hardwicke (The Ghoul, The Invisible Man Returns) is dry and unlikable as the surprise second son of Henry Frankenstein and Lionel Atwill is entertaining, but given too little screen time as his frustrated accomplice, Dr. Bohmer.
Hardcore fans of Universal horror might want to check this out simply out of curiousity and it does have some unintentionally hilarious moments. It’s a shame that this is the last true Frankenstein film, though the Monster (usually accompanied by a miscellaneous mad doctor/scientist) would reappear in monster mash-up films Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. All of these are better than The Ghost of Frankenstein. It is available in Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection, which includes all five films in the series, as well as some nice special features.