If it’s a month with 31 days in it, you can be sure that Jules will be firing out the horror movie reviews.
So, following on from his on “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and May, and his “31 Days of American Horror” in August, Jules is once travelling across the pond this October with… you guessed it… 31 MORE Days of American Horror!
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers
After three exceptional performances, Boris Karloff had established himself forever as the definitive Frankenstein’s Monster, an accolade that few would argue with even now. So replacing him was always going to be difficult, if not impossible.
No surprise then that Universal’s new star Lon Chaney Jr offered a different kind of creature, wisely avoiding trying just to copy Karloff’s mannerisms. Backed a strong cast that included Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Cedrick Hardwicke and Ralph Bellamy, Ghost Of Frankenstein is the first real sign of franchise fatigue in the series, but there’s more than enough in there to prove that they’re was still some spark in the old neck bolts…
The townspeople of Frankenstein are tired of the castle overlooking them and what they see as evil that keeps being produced by it, so are given permission by the Mayor to destroy it and it’s only inhabitant Ygor (Bela Lugosi), the deformed and quite insane former blacksmith who seems to be almost as hard to kill as the monster itself.
The explosives reveal that the creature (Lon Chaney Jr) was not destroyed by the sulphur put he was last seen falling into, instead he was preserved, albeit in a weakened state. Ygor takes him into the adjacent countryside where a stray bolt of lightning invigorates the Monster, inspiring his friend to bring him to the one man he believes might restore him to full strength- Henry Frankenstein’s other son Ludwig.
The younger man is a doctor who, along with his assistants Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough) and Dr. Theodore Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), has a successful practice in Visaria and initially wants nothing to do with the dark legacy of his father. When Kettering is killed though, Ludwig reads his father’s journals and is convinced that his brain could be placed in the monster’s body by none other than the spirit of his dead father. Ygor however, has other plans. Plans for the creature, himself and the very world itself…
After the epic that was Son Of Frankenstein, director Erle C. Kenton keeps things tight here despite having a fair whack to pack into its lean 67-minute run time. Between its book-endings of a castle being blown up (surely somebody could have come up with something else for one of them?) we gave Ygor and his lumbering friend take a road trip, mate friends with the local children, get put on trial, escape, find themselves at Ludwig’s, escape again and…well, you get the picture. It’s like a really weird proto-buddy road movie, but with more growling and brain transplants.
Obviously the most important thing is his Chaney Jr steps into those huge club shoes of Karloff’s. He does well to be fair. There’s no denying his talent for conveying a tragic character (as evidenced on 1941’s The Wolf Man and many more) but Lon is nowhere near the actor Boris is, so all that subtlety and deft physical acting is out the window.
Saying that, he’s playing a Monster who’s damaged even more than usual, so maybe it fits that he’s a simpler animal, more basic in his responses and expressions. He gets to flex his chops a bit more when Ygor’s brain gets transplanted into him though, but on the whole, Frankenstein’s creation is rendered in fairly broad strokes here.
Bela Lugosi’s performance is a different kettle of mad fish altogether though. The great man positively shines here, giving one of his best performances as the complex Ygor. He’s devoted to protecting his monstrous friend and genuinely upset when he is attacked or even misjudged, but has no compunctions about removing his brain to put his own in its indestructible body as part of his plan to take over the state of not the country and beyond. Lugosi pitches it spot on here, as Ygor is the real monster in this film, but he’s no black villain, he’s much more interesting than that and that’s down to Bela‘a typically deft touch.
As the new member of the Frankenstein family (seriously, where was he? You’d think Wolf or someone might have mentioned him before?), Cedrick Hardwicke does a competent job, even if he does lack the charisma of a Clive or Rathbone. Particularly of note is the scene where he pulls double duty, as Ludwig plans to unmake the Monstet, but the actual ghost of his father (played by himself again) appears to talk him out of it.
It’s how he does it that sums up what all these films are really about- hubris. By appealing to his ego, that with his knowledge of science he could replace the old criminal brain with another, better one, Frankenstein’s ghost damns another of his sons with what as may well be the family curse. It’s not the Monster, it’s ego and hubris. It runs in the family, no matter how far they run away from it, it always catches up with them, even if it takes a spectral presence to give things a nudge.
Ghost of Frankenstein would prove to be the last time the Monster would star in his own film, as from here on in he would be sharing the bill with Universal’s other horror cash cows and also the last time Chaney would wear the bolts before switching back to the fur and claws that made his name for the next picture in the series.
As a finale of sorts for the Frankenstein films, Ghost…is more than effective and while not hitting the heights of previous entries, is still a solid effort in its own right.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy