Thursday, December 26, 2013

The First One Without Karloff

Boris Karloff played Frankenstein's Monster three times, bringing pathos and humanity to the role.  It's always been fascinating to me that for the rest of his life, Karloff received fan mail from children that were addressed to the Monster. "I know you are always scared, but if you came to my house, we could play and  no one will chase you and you won't have to be scared anymore. I will be your friend."

To quote Karloff himself:

When I played Frankenstein’s Monster I received sack loads of fan mail…mostly from young girls. These children had seen right through the make-up and had been deeply moved by sympathy for the poor brute. (from "My Life as a Monster")

But by the time The Ghost of Frankenstein came along, Karloff had decided to retire from the role. So Universal turned to their other monster movie star--Lon Chaney Jr.  Though usually best suited for supporting roles, Chaney had done a magnificent job a year earlier as Larry Talbot in The Wolfman

The Ghost of Frankenstein marked the series descent from A-picture territory into the realm of B-Movies. But, as my 1 or 2 regular readers know, I have a real love for the straightforward storytelling we find in the world of B-Movies. Ghost doesn't have the mythic power of the earlier films, it's still tells a good story.

Bela Lugosi reprises his role as Igor, the Monster's manipulative but only friend. I think this is Lugosi's best role--we never doubt he's evil, but we also never doubt that he really does consider the Monster to be his friend. Of course, that won't stop him from looking out for himself no matter what.

Igor was supposedly shot to death in the previous film (1939's Son of Frankenstein) and the Monster was knocked into a searing-hot pit of sulfur. But we soon find out that both had survived. Igor takes the Monster to the village of Vasaria, where a son of the original Doctor Frankenstein works as a brain surgeon. Soon, several people are dead and Igor is pretty much blackmailing Frankenstein into helping the Monster. This leads to a plan to replace the Monster's damaged and evil brain with the brain of one of his victims--Dr. Kettering. 

But Igor has plans of his own concerning whose brain will be put into the Monster's skull...

It's all great fun, with the story jumping around from one plot point to the next in an internally logical manner. Chaney doesn't elicit quite the same level of sympathy that Karloff brings to the role of the Monster, but he still gives us a worthy effort. A scene in which he befriends a young girl come closest to emulating a Karloff-like moment. 

The rest of the cast do fine jobs, most notably Lugosi and Lionel Atwill as Frankenstein's less-than-ethical assistant. The black-and-white photography and the lighting are wonderful, giving the movie the proper atmosphere. Despite the drop in quality when compared those made in the 1930s, I'm glad The Ghost of Frankenstein and the later films were made.


  1. I agree, Tim, that this is a noteworthy film and probably deserves a better reputation. Though not a fan of horror films in general, I do truly appreciate and savor these Universal classics. I do think that Lon Chaney's single turn as the Monster is a fine effort, and it's kind of fun to note that Bela Lugosi, whose brain gets implanted into the Monster in this film, becomes the Monster in the very next one. These Universal Frankensteins do try to preserve a thread of continuity through the whole saga, from the first "Frankenstein" all the way to "House of Dracula" (a continuity that ultimately absorbs elements of the Wolf Man and Dracula sagas as well), by linking each of the monster's "finales" to his revival in the next film. There is also a preservation of the family line, as Basil Rathbone's character in "Son" is the son and heir to Colin Clive's character of Henry Frankenstein from the previous films, and the Dr. Frankenstein of "Ghost" is referred to as the second son of Henry Frankenstein. I really enjoy these details of continuity, even though they are not perfectly consistent from one film to the next. There is simply nothing like these great black-and-white Universal monster classics.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I also have a real love of the Universal monster films. They depended on generating real emotion and honest scares rather than simply trying to gross us out.

      The continuity between films is a little weak at times, but I think you are correct in that the efforts that were made to tie the films together are a lot of fun. Someday, I'll have to do a post giving my explanation for some of the inconsistent or unexplained portions of continuity (such as Dracula dying in House of Frankenstein, yet being alive again in House of Dracula).


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