“The lightning. It is good for you! Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning!” – Ygor
Fresh from being cast in The Wolf Man, and actually only a month after finishing filming it, Lon Chaney (the “junior” had been dropped) was ready to assume his role as Universal’s go-to monster, and by the end of Universal’s run of horror movies, he would play them all. First up was The Frankenstein Monster in this, the fourth of the Frankenstein series – and the last Frankenstein to feature an actual Doctor Frankenstein, the last to feature the Frankenstein Monster as the ONLY monster in the film, and the last to be filmed by Universal’s A – film crew. They’d be B movies from now on, with a budget to match.
Ghost of Frankenstein featured four cast members from The Wolf Man, as well as some of the sets, including the misty forest and both exterior and interior of Talbot Castle, repurposed as the home and workplace of …
But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Somehow, Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has survived the hail of bullets he suffered at the revolver of Wolf Frankenstein in the previous film. We don’t know how, and it doesn’t really matter. If we can accept that he survived death by hanging, we’ll go with this – it’s just easier. Besides, Lugosi’s leering evil in this film is off the scale. As you’ll recall, the monster met his end in a pit of boiling sulphur last time. Well, the pit has dried up and the sulphur has solidified. Ygor spends his days playing his flute type thing made out of the horn of a sheep or goat to the solid mass of sulphur.
But even though he’s minding his own business, the villagers are still up in arms and want to blow Castle Frankenstein to smithereens. Reluctantly, the Burgomaster gives them permission to do as they like. (Oddly though – nobody seems to mind that the Burgomaster and a couple of others are all familiar faces who were killed in Son of Frankenstein. A particularly vocal villager is played by Dwight Frye who had played two of Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistants in earlier movies and both of THEM had been killed too.
So, they storm the castle (at night, perplexingly) and set dynamite to bring the whole edifice down, while Ygor mocks them and starts kicking and pushing down large slabs from the turrets. When the charges start to explode, it cracks open the solid mass of sulphur, revealing the hand of the Monster.
Ygor helps to dig him out – he’s pretty weak at this point, and they make their way out of the castle – undoubtedly by some hidden passage – before the whole structure comes down.
As Ygor and the Monster (Chaney) make their way through a graveyard when a storm begins and lightning strikes. (All this, incidentally, is in the first eight minutes.) The monster starts to stumble around, much to Ygor’s confusion. Then we get what for my money is one, if not THE best scene in these later Frankenstein films. A bolt of lightning strikes the Monster on the electrode on his neck, to a triumphant fanfare of music, and Ygor utters the line I’ve used to start this review.
Chaney seems to actually grow in stature in this scene, telling us that the Monster is re-energised purely by stance and body language. Now having said that, let’s address Chaney as the Monster. Well, he has the height. When he was fully made up with the headpiece and the boots, Chaney was an imposing 6’9. The original intention was to alter the make up to give him a different appearance, but the producer over-ruled and insisted that Karloff’s make-up be adapted for Chaney.
Chaney was no Karloff. He was too burly to carry off the revived corpse look successfully and came across as more of a clumsy brute. The half-closed eyelids tend to make him look half asleep, and the Monster shouldn’t really have jowls. Adding to this brutishness is the fact that Chaney doesn’t have the sense of suffering Karloff showed, and is mute – none of the anguished howls or snarling.
Ygor decides that they’ll go to Visaria “better place than this” and seek out Ludwig Frankenstein, Henry’s other son and brother of Wolf.
Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwick) has an enviable lifestyle. He lives in a stately manor, is the world’s eminent pioneer in dealing with diseases of the mind and has successfully removed a brain from a patient’s skull, operated on it and re-installed it with the help of Doctor Boehmer (Lionel Atwill) and Doctor Kettering (Barton Yarborough). He has a daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) and he’s highly respected in the community. Elsa is being courted by Prosecutor Erik Ernst (Ralph Bellamy). So, the last thing he wants is his shady family history wandering in and spoiling everything.
But Ygor and the Monster have arrived, and the Monster’s been arrested after helping a little girl retrieve her ball from a rooftop. It’s not the helping the little girl that got him in trouble, it’s that he killed two men while doing it. Anyway, Ludwig is summoned by Erik to assess the new prisoner – and the Monster recognises him, though this is downplayed by Ludwig. (It’s hard to believe that these villagers don’t know of Frankenstein’s monster and well, Ludwig hasn’t changed his surname. This village seems to be walking distance from Castle Frankenstein, after all. I don’t think Ygor and the Monster hitched a ride.)
When the monster escapes with Ygor, they head to Frankenstein’s house and workplace/lab/secret lab. As soon as they arrive, they kill the hapless Doctor Kettering, poor guy. Ludwig decides to destroy this blight for once and for all – he will dissect the Monster and wants Boehmer to help him. But Boehmer wants no part of it – he’s a guy with his own dark past. He was Ludwig’s teacher but some unethical experiment went horribly wrong. We don’t know exactly what – but he barely controls his bitterness.
After being visited by the ghost of his father, Ludwig has a change of heart and decides to do the right thing. He won’t kill the Monster. He’ll put the recently deceased Kettering’s brain in the Monster’s head and atone for all the wrong his family has done and redeem the family name. (Uh, I don’t think it quite works like that, Ludwig. You might want to think this through.)
Well, everybody has a different idea of what to do next, here. Ygor doesn’t want to lose his buddy and suggests his brain be used, Frankenstein wants to atone and doesn’t want to make things worse by putting Ygor’s evil, scheming brain in the Monster, the Monster wants the brain of the little girl he helped put in his head, Boehmer just wants to operate on someone.
It all comes to a head (see what I did there?) when Ygor has his body crushed and broken by the Monster and uses his wiles to convince Boehmer to dump Kettering’s brain and use Ygor’s. Ludwig doesn’t know any of this.
Of course, Erik is investigating the whereabouts of the Monster and Ygor (still oblivious to the Frankenstein connection) and the disappearance of Kettering and demands to search the house. Ludwig says he can, but haughtily adds that he might not be welcome there as a guest any more (that’s not suspicious at all, is it?)
Erik discovers the secret lab and the Monster – but as Ludwig calmly tries to explain what he did – the Monster starts to talk. In Ygor’s voice (Again, makes no sense, as the vocal chords are still the Monster’s, but what the hell…) Ludwig is horrified at what he’s unknowingly created, but not as horrified as the Monster when he goes blind. Boehmer knew that Kettering and the Monster were the same blood type, but didn’t bother checking if Ygor was the same type. The Monster stomps around, destroying the lab, which as all labs must, instantly becomes consumed in flame. Elsa and Erik have just enough time to escape while the Monster and doctors burn to death.
They walk off, hand in hand, to a glowing sunrise – Elsa seeming not to give a crap that her father just burned to death and she’s now homeless.
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