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Universal Monsters in Review: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

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Just when you think you’ve seen all Universal has to offer in the monster department, when perhaps you believe all that remains are nothing but phoned-in poor imitations of the forebearers, there comes a movie that pleasantly surprises. Nothing brings me more joy than to admit how wrong I am…at least when it comes to movies. My disposition or assumption (I should say) is due to the lack luster attempt of the previous film, The Son of Frankenstein. I know. I know. How can I say such a thing? Well, its true. Despite the charismatic lead of Boris Karloff as the monster and one of the more tantalizing roles for Bela Lugosi as Igor, the story and direction seemed flat and untangle and the motivations felt totally absurd, especially for the creature and his resurrection. Karloff had evolved the monster in Bride of Frankenstein to a talking, understanding, wanting thing, only to be thrown back into the pit of mindless wanderer/murderer in the sequel. And you can tell on screen how much Karloff was done with the role. He’d taken it as far as he could. After that, what can you do but walk away? And so he did. Let me say, quickly, before I eat up more time here, that I adore Karloff. His signature role will always be the Creature/Monster, the unwanted child of Baron Frankenstein; however, with that said, I was equally impressed with Lon Chaney Jr.’s role as the Creature. Despite being tethered to the flat-lined story of Son of Frankenstein, you can feel his excitement in having the opportunity at playing the Monster. And Bela…oh my. It may be blasphemy to say this, but I think he makes a better Igor than he did as Dracula. Before you start igniting those torches and sharpening your pitchforks, let me say before I hand over this review to our esteemed and more talented guest author, I absolutely loved Ghost of Frankenstein. The acting was top notch. The story made tangible sense. And the plot had deeper meanings than just the typical phone-in message we’ve been getting with other Universal monster sequels. Okay…I’ve said far too much probably! Without further delay, let’s see what our guest has to say about The Ghost of Frankenstein.

THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN

By: David Sgalambro

 

Just when you believed the “Frankenstein” Monster had truly perished in the boiling sulfur pit, at the end of the third film based on Mary Shelly’s beloved novel, he and his creators spirit both return in the fourth installment of the series titled The Ghost of Frankenstein.

The film was released in 1942 by the infamous monster makers, Universal Studios and directed by Erle C. Kenton. The movie has the signature black and white shadowy feel from start to finish, but the drastic change from its previous predecessors is that Lon Chaney Jr. (known the year prior as The Wolfman) replaces Boris Karloff as the horrifying monster. We once again see the return of the maniacal loner Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi who reprises one of his finest roles, and the incredible talent of Make-Up Artist Jack P. Pierce providing all the fun ghoulish disguises.

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I personally am a big fan of all the Frankenstein movies (the first always being my favorite) so the chance for the monster’s story to continue is more than welcomed by me and especially coming from the masters, Universal Studios. Just like all their pictures, I can get visually lost in this one as well. All the scenes ranging from the old quaint village to the Frankenstein laboratory, the film holds you firmly with its intriguing backgrounds and its petrified motionless landscapes.

All these classic monster movies were a huge part of my childhood that I carried over into my adult life because in my eyes, they are always a wonderful reminiscing treat to watch. I would rank The Ghost of Frankenstein right in the order that the series was numerically released, placing it fourth, as my favorite Universal Studios Frankenstein movie (excluding the incredible & hilarious masterpiece Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein).

SUMMARY:

A group of angry villagers are once again complaining to the town’s mayor that the Frankenstein name has a curse upon them. With destructive intent, they return to the infamous castle only to find an unfriendly Ygor (played once again by Bela Lugosi). With deadly explosives, they think they killed two birds with one stone, but unknowingly they awoke and unleashed the murderous Monster from the castles’ now cracked and exposed dried sulfur pit. Igor is thrilled to be reunited with his old friend and swears to find the second son of his creator Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (played by actor Cedric Hardwicke) who specializes in Diseases of the Mind, and convince him to bring back the strength to his father’s creation.

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As the film progresses forward we are introduced to Dr. Frankenstein’s two laboratory assistants Dr. Kettering (played by Barton Yarborough) and Dr. Theodore Bohmer (played by Lionel Atwill) who along with the great doctor, have just successfully removed, repaired and replaced a damaged brain from a patient’s skull. Next we meet Dr. Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa (played by Evelyn Ankers who was also in The Wolfman) and her boyfriend prosecutor Erik Ernst (played by Ralph Bellamy) whose job is to basically keep the angry villagers at bay.

There are a few touching moments in this film (just like every Frankenstein film thus far) that deserves an honorable mention which included a child by the name of Cloestine Hussman (played by Janet Ann Gallow). We once again see a subtle side of the creature as he comes to her aid and rescues her ball, but unfortunately kills two villagers in the process (that’s just poor Frankie’s luck). The big guy is apprehended but of course breaks free and escapes with the help of his buddy Ygor. They show back up at the Frankenstein residence and of course chaos erupts with Dr. Kettering being the unfortunate victim.

The title and the premise of the movie happens midway through the film when a ghostly apparition of Dr. Frankenstein’s father (also played by Cedric Hardwicke, but in an elderly state).appears and gives him advice with regard to saving his creation by transplanting the deceased Dr. Kettering’s brain into the skull of the monster.

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With beloved inspiration from the past, Dr. Frankenstein is set on a new path and calls in the aid from his last living assistant Dr. Bohmer. The sudden ruckus of the laboratory brings the attention of Ygor to the lab who suddenly joins in on the fun. Once he hears the details of the operation, he begs the Doctor to use his brain instead, but was quickly denied. A later secret conversation between Ygor and Dr, Bohmer leaves the films promising ending now horrifically speculative.

At one point the Monster gets a full explanation about his upcoming brain transplant operation and decides to leave the Frankenstein residence. He walks back to town and kidnaps little Cloestein with intentions of wanting the Doctor to use her brain in the transplant instead. With a little convincing, the child is returned into the arms of Elsa and the evening’s normal procedures will move forward as planned. Hours before Dr. Frankenstein’s operation, Dr. Bohmer upheld his end of the verbal contract he had made with Ygor and removed his brain. Working solely, he ultimately presents Ludwig with Igor’s contribution.

The operation was a success but left us with a comedic image of Lon Chaney Jr. lying down with a huge bandage upon his monstrous head. The new Lugosi/ Chaney twist to the story and the whole build up to the end is somewhat brilliant, with the results now pending by the assistant’s underhanded scheme. I personally thought the idea was perfect for the film, giving the audiences exactly what they wanted back then … a shock!

The film then plays out that two weeks have passed before the villagers once again storm the Frankenstein residence demanding answers about Cloestein Hussman and Dr. Kettering disappearances and their unbelievable alibis. They send in Erik Ernst first giving the good doctor a chance to explain his intentions for the operation on a more calm and intelligent level. He states that he finally made amends for his family’s dark past and that the monster now has the brain of Dr. Kettering instead, and that all the problems for the villagers were solved.

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He brings the prosecutor into the room where the Monster had been hiding, and for the first time since the operation, he speaks to the Monster and after a long pause from the giant … The Doctor was shocked when he heard …??? … Igor’s voice behind his father’s infamous creation. Definitely a great highlight in the film as Lon Chaney Jr. does his best lip-sync job, mimicking Bela Lugosi’s brutal and demanding lines.

The movie’s dramatic finale begins with the anxious angry towns’ people busting down Frankenstein’s front door and entering the residence in an uncontrollable rage. They are able to quickly get little Cloestein out safely, but some of them are quickly subdued by wall vents that release a knockout gas that the doctor had installed in case of violent patients.

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The now Ygor/Monster, Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Bohmer are back in the laboratory when all of a sudden the Igor/monster suddenly goes blind. He reaches out and grabs Dr. Bohmer demanding an explanation when Dr. Frankenstein comes forth and tells the reason for the failure. He says that the Monster and Dr. Kettering had the same type blood, but not the same as Igor’s, which caused the brain to react incorrectly with the sensory nerves.

The now blind Ygor/Monster grabs Dr. Bohmer and begins blaming him for the tragic results from the botched brain transplant. Then with his temper flaring, the Ygor/Monster pushes the doctor into a large piece of laboratory equipment which instantly electrocutes him to death. The now blind giant is left stumbling around the laboratory and begins clumsily knocking over everything which sets the place ablaze. The final scenes show the Frankenstein Monster engulfed in flames and sporting a hideous melting face, which I’m sure made the audiences scream. Then they show the helpless monster becoming trapped under beams of burning rubble, as the large residence begins collapsing around him.

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Surprisingly the movie never goes back to Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein character after his medical speech to Dr. Bohmer and the Ygor/Monster, so I am going to assume that he also met his demise by the unruly fire. But luckily, the majority of the town’s people managed to escape from the burning home along with Elsa and Erik, who wind up walking off into a dark cloudy “sunset-ish” type night and ending the classic film on a somewhat happy note.

My Overall Review:

Like most of the Universal Studios monster movies, what’s not to love about them? Yes some are better than others, but every single one of them captures a moment in time where a film can just be scary based on its premise, musical score and overall feel. Just because we are now four movies into the Frankenstein saga doesn’t mean there’s still not an intriguing tale left to be told. I once again congratulate the studio for coming up with a brilliant and sinister idea to keep the franchise alive. I felt the role of the monster was played a bit over the top at times by Lon Chaney Jr., but he was still able to incorporate a level of fear into us as the abnormal creation. Bela Lugosi on the other hand definitely nailed another monumental part in these ageless classics as the one and only suffering Ygor.

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The only complaint I have about the film is that Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein is probably the most boring (mad) doctor in all of the Universal Monster films. I’ll assume the studio writers probably went with the more subtle approach to the story, being he was the second son of the lunatic creator, but actor Cedric Hardwicke practically performed a lobotomy on me with his dullness.

But between loving the unexpected ending, featuring the lip-syncing dialogue from the Ygor/Monster and the overall feel of another ageless B&W Universal Studios classic monster movie, I still recommend this film to everyone of all ages. My advice is start from the beginning and watch them all in the chronological order they were made in, to achieve your best Frankenstein viewing experience.

Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

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DAVID SGALAMBRO is a horror writer at J. Ellington Ashton Press and a contributing Writer at Resident Rock Star Magazine. He was born in New York, but spent the majority of his life sweltering down in Florida. Growing up, he was obsessed with every 1960’s Monster magazine on the newsstand (He still has hundreds of them that he can’t bear to part with ….ever) and any Horror movie his eyes could watch (He blames some of his lunacy upon seeing the original Night of the Living Dead at the age of nine). His continuous love for the genre has kept him in movie theaters throughout his life indulging in all of the decade’s bloodiest moments, but not up until recently has he tapped into his own dark inner voice as a writer, and brought forth his compelling debut novel published by J. Ellington Ashton Press titled NED. It’s his first attempt at the literary game and he credits his love of Horror for its terrifying content. David is currently working on his second novel which once again explores the darkest depths of his maniacal mind for inspiration and creativity. David’s other current literary escape is as a contributing writer for a music publication called Resident Rock Star magazine out of Colorado. With them he gets the freedom to write about what’s happening in the current music scene pertaining to his own personal taste, Heavy Metal.

In David’s own words, “I would would like thank Thomas S. Flowers for asking me to be one of his reviewers on this very important and very cool webpage. I am also honored to find myself on a list that includes such amazing and talented authors in the literary world of Horror. And as always…. Stay Brutal !!! –  David Sgalambro.

 

 

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Universal Monsters in Review: Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

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As we enter into the sophomore era of the Information Age, which began its infantilism back in the 1970s and slowly grew, finally exploding in the early 2000’s, ushering humanity into a new echelon, what is commonly referred to as the New Media Age, it has become incredibly easy to get lost in the heartbreak and horror the world has to offer. Be it a mass shooting at a nightclub. The murder of children. A flood destroying an entire town. And probably the worst, the constant flow of personal opinion and prejudiced. Its easy to get lost in all the chatter. In all the turmoil. These were my thoughts while I was screening Universal’s last of the slap-stick dynamite comedic duo, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. My own fears of where our country is going politically, why it seems no one is willing to meet on solid ground, and contemplating when the death moderates and compromise happened. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huuuge fan of the A&C act. Sure, I love the historic quality of vaudeville. I used to watch The Three Stooges religiously. And Charlie Chaplin…well, a legend, to be sure. But my mood wasn’t willing. It took some struggle to throw in the DVD instead of watching something else a little more nihilistic. I believed it would be boring. I’m glad to have been wrong. As soon was the film started, with that over-the-top circus performance, and Bud and Lou came on screen wearing those ridiculous safari hats, looking more like Dark Helmet, my disposition softened. My fears abated, at least for the time being. Sure, the movie played out way longer than needed. The plot, if there was one, could have been finished within 45 mins, and that’s being generous. Regardless, it was fun and lighthearted and perhaps that’s something we all need more of in our lives. Not to forget or ignore the tragedy, but to cope, to put things back in perspective. Anyhow, I shall delay no longer. We have a very special guest with us today, co-host of The Last Knock, Jon Weidler.

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

By: Jon Weidler

[80 minutes. Unrated. Director: Charles Lamont]

Tom Servo: “Joel, what are ‘boobs’?”

Joel Robinson: “You know, like Jethro Bodine.”

  • Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“Pod People”)

My experience with the comedic oeuvre of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello is very limited; in fact, the closest I had ever gotten to experiencing their routines were the impersonations done by the comedians of the UK incarnation of “Whose Line is it Anyway?” and descendants of the duo riffing on the “who’s on first” routine. I watched “The Three Stooges” as a child, and found humor in their brand of easily-accessible, over-the-top slapstick – Abbott and Costello simply eluded my radar. Even in the VHS era, when Universal was reissuing all of their classic monsters in fancy new packaging, Abbott & Costello seemed to have a lower profile than the more straightforward horror efforts (for what it’s worth, though, Amazon is still selling new VHS tapes of A & C’s various cinematic adventures).

In any case: my crash course in their brand of black-and-white comedy-horror begins with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

The second-to-last collaboration of the duo, the film comes late in the Universal Monsters cycle, and it shows (for a bit of perspective, Hammer would debut their own stylish, serious-minded, and colorized incarnation of The Mummy 4 years later): the production values have a stripped-down quality that conveys studio disinterest, the screenplay alternates between our bumbling buffoons and stilted scenes of dull exposition, and the synthesis of the comedic and horrific elements is lackluster at best.

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I have conflicted feelings toward the ensembles of successful film series (comedy or otherwise). For a recent example, consider the first sequel to Todd Phillips’ The Hangover, wherein the guys who laid waste (and wasted) to Vegas brought their culture-wrecking shenanigans to Bangkok. As with so many sequels, the result was an uninspired, watered-down retread of a far more endearing original, its formula poised to rake in easy box office dollars and line the pockets of its stars. Where I sympathize is in the expectations that the reprisal of such roles (and character types) instills in the actors, becoming typecast as smug douchebags (Bradley Cooper), mentally deficient man-children (Zach Galifianakis), or passive punching bags (Ed Helms). The complicity of the actors in these Xeroxed efforts is a point I sympathize far less with, especially when they know they could be doing so much more with their talents.

The same can be said for Abbott and Costello: perhaps the most successful of the comedic duos/trios of the early twentieth century, they bested their peers (The Three Stooges; Laurel and Hardy) with a presence in both television and high-profile films (indeed, they were the only comedians given access to the financially lucrative Universal Monsters vault). Their shtick subsisted on a mix of physical humor and bouts of wordplay that ostensibly appealed to a broader audience, but by the 1950s, had run its course as cinema in general moved toward Cold War-inspired horrors. Traditional monsters with a more romantic, literary sensibility gave way to everything that could be doused in radiation – for the most part, bigger didn’t equal better, but provided an evolution of the “spectacle” that filmgoers were seeking at the time.

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And perhaps that is why the musty aroma of antiquity seems to permeate each frame of Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. I went into the film with an open mind – even a slight optimism – as the Mummy is one of my favorite monsters of all time (Christopher Lee’s rendition, especially, supplied considerable nightmare fuel for my childhood).

The film overall feels like one of those direct-to-DVD ventures wherein a top-billed “name” actor shows up for a few minutes before disappearing altogether. Despite a more pronounced presence, Abbott and Costello seem shoehorned into the plot. Our duo is wrongfully implicated in the death of Dr. Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch), who had recently excavated the Mummy of Klaris (Edwin Parker), who is subsequently stolen by a sect of followers to be resurrected and walk once more as their ruler…or something (extended scenes of ritual dance are involved). In the meantime, there are hijinks involving a priceless medallion belonging to Klaris, as Madame Rontru (Marie Windsor) looks to pay our bumbling pair for said medallion, and Lou crashing into closets, through walls, and stumbling into secret passageways. Some of the gags elicit polite laughter, but none are genuinely hilarious because the setup is so labored.

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For example, there is a routine where Bud and Lou, upon having learned of the “death curse” of Klaris’s medallion, spend a couple minutes sneaking it to each other in a restaurant; while this sequence shines as an example of old-school comic timing, it culminates in a protracted punchline wherein Lou is left to chew on the medallion for a couple minutes, well past the point of it being funny. And while it’s interesting to see the origin of certain bits that have wormed themselves into more recent films – including a scene that precludes Macaulay Culkin’s use of a tough-talking gangster movie to intimidate the burglars in Home Alone – earlier doesn’t necessarily mean better in this case. The voice-over narration that begins the film uses a lame pun to get things rolling (“a boy’s best friend is his mummy”), and the late-occurring “pick and shovel” debate comes off as an uninspired gloss on “who’s on first?” Though, when Bud explains to Lou that “some mummies are men, some are women” to his partner’s exasperation and surprise, one can admire screenwriters Lee Loeb and John Grant for bringing LGBT awareness to light (though I’m guessing that was unintentional).

Much like our less-than-dynamic duo’s routine, the main plot also feels tired. Populated by a stiff supporting cast whose lines are uttered as though at gunpoint, the exposition-heavy dialog scenes are dull at best, and painful at worst. The main problem with the film is that it’s never creative enough to be truly interesting, and its pantsuit-wearing depiction of the Mummy as a growling, twitching – and sometimes running – beast is a far cry from the subtleties that Boris Karloff originally brought to the role.

4 out of 10 stars

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Jon Weidler works for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania by day, but is a podcast superhero by night. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast under the moniker “Jonny Numb,” and is a regular contributor to the Crash Palace Productions and Loud Green Bird websites. His archived movie reviews can be found at numbviews.livejournal.com, and his social media handle is @JonnyNumb (Twitter & Letterboxd).