In what is perhaps the greatest line of ballyhoo ever penned, the trailer for Erle C. Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) assures us, “Here is drama completely strange!” Unfortunately, there’s not much all that strange about it—unless you’ve never seen a Frankenstein movie. This is the movie where the once-great series drops into the realm of the B picture, but it’s a solid little B movie and the last of the Universal Frankensteins that can be taken reasonably seriously — reasonably, mind you. It picks up where Son of Frankenstein(1939) leaves off—but with some not subtle rewritings. Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has somehow recovered from being pumped full of lead in the previous film. (On the evidence, 1942 was a good year for getting over having a gun emptied into you, since the same thing happened to George Zucco in The Mummy’s Tomb.) The boiling sulfur pit the Monster fell into has inexplicably hardened over. The happy villagers at the end of the preceding film have gotten all grumpy and torch-happy as villagers in these movies are wont to do and decide that dynamiting the castle—which has inexplicably changed dramatically from the Expressionist oddity of Son—will set things to rights.
Well, what it really does is free the Monster from the dried sulfur (where he somehow got a different jacket and turned into Lon Chaney) so that he and Ygor can wander off to Vasaria and get Frankenstein’s heretofore unmentioned other son, Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), fix up the rundown Monster. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned and mayhem, murder, duplicity and brain-swapping follow. But it’s agreeable enough, thanks to solid production values, Lugosi’s amusingly wicked Ygor, Chaney’s interesting take on the Monster, and the terrific Hans J. Salter music. Just don’t expect the brilliance of the two James Whale films or the scope of Son of Frankenstein.
The Ghost of Frankenstein is one of those films that’s an odd mixture of the truly good and the merely amusing — and it’s a toss-up as to which aspect is the more appealing. Much of the look of the film is very well achieved — though I’ve seen it argued that it lacks on atmosphere because it’s too brightly lit. Kenton gets some wonderful effects — in an ersatz James Whale way — with scenes staged in front of elaborate windows. The bit where Evelyn Ankers gets an eyeful of The Monster and Ygor ill met by lightning storm and peering in the window just after she’s read Grandad Frakenstein’s diary is exceptional. But her response of taking care of things by closing the curtains — like that’ll keep ’em out — moves things back into the realm of amusing. Similarly, it’s not many minutes later that The Monster kicks in a four-inch-thick door and murders someone — followed by Ygor preposterously exhorting him, “Come away with me — nobody will know who did it.” Seriously?
There’s also Chaney’s take on The Monster. If nothing else, it’s interesting. The make-up — which doesn’t work so well on Lon’s pudgy face — has here been degraded from the series’ glory days, and is starting to look rubbery and more like a mask. But Chaney’s approach — or the approach he was told to take — of playing The Monster as a completely mute and implacable brute certainly sets him apart from everyone else’s portrayal. Oh, yeah, and if you’re wondering about that title — yes, there is a ghost of Frankenstein in the picture. It’s old Henry Frankenstein himself and appears to Sir Cedric Hardwicke — playing Ludwig, “the second son of Frankenstein” — in order to talk him out of dissecting The Monster. Unfortunately, Colin Clive, who had played Henry, had been dead for five years. The solution? Hardwicke would play his own father, so in a sense Ludwig is talking to himself. Maybe old Ludwig — the dullest and least interesting of all the Frankensteins — was just as crazy as the rest of them.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Ghost of Frankenstein Thursday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.