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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: Son of Frankenstein (1939)

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Frankenstein’s monster rises again in this third installment in the Frankenstein series, if you can call such a questionable connection, a series. Son of Frankenstein is notable, certainly, as the last time Boris Karloff reprises the role as the monster. And from what I was able to glimpse on screen after multiple viewings, it was not all too surprising why Boris let others, such as Lon Chaney, Lugosi, and Strange take up the mantle. Son of Frankenstein is a very unusual movie. And a hard one for any fan of classic Universal monsters to review. There were so many things I loved about the film. And there were many things I found to be down right deplorable. Most of what I disliked came mostly from my issues with the treatment of both the monster and with Dwight Frye (an underappreciated actor, among many, in his day). If you’ve seen the originals, the movies that started…well, everything, then you’ll probably have noted how there was a certain kind of story being told regarding the monster in both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein that was either altogether ignored or erased in Son of Frankenstein. I’m not saying it was a bad movie, not at all, but with the absence of James Whale, the directorial differences are noticeable, especially with the monster and it’s relationship with its maker, or in this case, the maker’s son. Well, before we get too far down the rabbit hole, lets give this movie a proper introduction, shall we?

Here’s a quickfire synopsis:

Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to the Baronial manor from the United States with his wife Elsa ( Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan). He is not made welcome by the locals who are still terrified of his father’s works and the monster he created. The local Burgomaster gives him a sealed briefcase left by his father and inside Wolf finds his father’s scientific notes. At the manor he the past quickly reveals itself both from the grave warning of inspector Krough (Lionel Atwill) and an accidental meeting with Igor (Bela Lugosi) who asks him to heal the monster his father created, thought to be in some sort of coma. Desiring to reclaim his father’s lost honor and to prove his genius, Wolf’s initial attempts to re-animate the creature seem to fail but when Peter says he saw a giant in the woods, it appears the creature has risen yet again. When people are mysteriously killed in the village there is little doubt that the monster is responsible.

In a nutshell, that’s the basic jist of the movie. And a very different one at that, though not too far removed from what we might expect from a “mad scientist” story. Wolf von Frankenstein returns to his fatherland hoping to reclaim the honor of his legacy, his fathers work, and their family name. Admittedly, it is very confusing to follow the movie chronologically. Did papa Frank escape the castle in Bride of Frankenstein to ship off to England or the States or wherever to bear a son…? As the monster demanded in Bride, “Live…you must live.” And we assumed he did just that. Son of Frankenstein takes place more or less a generation later. There’s cars in the movie, not just carriages. But certain aspects of the script beg-to-question if the baron ever escaped. Wolf confesses he didn’t know his father very well, only what others told him, and of his “great work” and genius. It doesnt make sense for Wolf to travel to the hobble town of Frankenstein if his father was there to warn him. The only way for the context of the plot to make sense is to assume, no, papa Frank did not survive and did not accompany his pregnant bride to England, the State, wherever. He died and now his son is retracing his father’s steps. Understanding how Son of Frankenstein is not a direct sequel to Bride of Frankenstein is very disappointing. But it also seems the norm when it comes to Universal monster additions, especially when dealing with a third movie.

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The set is designed with an eye for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, very expressionistic with shadowed backgrounds and twisted vaulted archways, something we might expect from a Tim Burton film today. The storm is raging as the Frank family find their way to the baronial manor. The house is oddly constructed with tall porch-like hallways and odd decor dinning areas. The son, Peter, with his blonde curls no doubt represents absolute innocence, while Igor represents evil, with the creature pulled somewhere between. Bela Lugosi gives us one of his best performances, I think, as Igor, though I will not hide my disappointment with the exclusion of Dwight Frye, who apparently was given an unaccredited role as “villager” in Son of Frank. Lugosi did wonderfully in the part of twisted vengeful Igor. In fact, the entire movie could have just been about him and it would have been fantastic. If we admit that Son of Frankenstein is its own standalone movie, loosely connected to the first, it is understandable why the powers that be did not cast Dwight as Igor, but still…it seems wrong to have him only as a lowly “villager.” Even in Bride they gave Dwight a more noteworthy role as Karl, one of Dr. Pretoruis’s henchmen.

The evolution of the monster is the most disappointing things of the movie. In the original movie, the creature had just been born and was thus learning and discovering. In Bride the creature was more or less coping with it’s created plight, desiring a mate, failing, and thus accepting its fate. Doomed. However, in Son it seems as if the creature took several steps back to the bumbling newborn, instead of the seasoned creation. By the third installment, it would be safe to assume the creature had progressed in some way, some understanding, as Igor stated to Wolf, “Your father made him to live for all time.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a creature with that kind of wisdom, of a being that lived for “all time?” Sadly, we do not get that creature in Son of Frankenstein. We’re drawn back to the basics. I like to think that is where James Whale would have taken the story, had he directed this film. There are some wonderful scenes, no doubt. As the creature lifts the boy and is ready to throw him into the sulfur pit, the creature changes it’s mind. When the boy helps the creature up the ladder, it’d expression is thought provoking. Maybe, once again, the monster just wanted a friend. Or maybe the monster just wanted to be good. To be given the chance.

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A twist in the story is discovering that Igor is somehow controlling the monster, though this is never fully explained. The motivation makes sense, not wanting to be hanged, again, Igor deploys the creature to dispatch the men on the jury who sentenced the poor laboratory assist to the hangman’s gallery. He wants revenge, understood. But nothing is resolved. Igor is shot by Wolf. Killed. The creature discovers the body and goes berserk. The last moments are very rapid. Not to mention odd, especially with the leading actor, Basil Rathbone, who seems too…comedic for the role. I’m not saying Basil is a comedian by trade, most of his credited roles were in 1940s noir films, but there’s a strange way he carries himself that seems too satiric. And his swashbuckling slaying of the monster was, while fun to watch, altogether unnecessary. Listening to Basil playing as Wolf, I can’t help but imagine Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein. And this is juxtaposed with some rather serious and horrifying moments in the film. Listening to inspector Krough describe how the creature had severed his arm as a boy, “torn by the roots” as he says, it is very disturbing. Also, whenever Igor is on stage, there is a real feeling of something sinister going on and his lines are ever so marvelous, as he says, “They hanged me for stealing bodies…(pause) so they said.”

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The elements in Son of Frankenstein are endless. Father, husband, son, doctor…mad scientist even? Ultimately, the movie asks us what is truly important. Our legacy, our names, or are our families what’s most important, in the here and now. Should we be so concerned with righting the past that we forget about those in our lives today? It would seem, in this regard, the creature was nothing more than a ghost…one we’ll no doubt see later in this review series when Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) emerges from the sulfur pit to haunt our dreams once more.

My rating: 3.5/5

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Thomas S. Flowers is the published author of several character driven stories of terror. He grew up in the small town of Vinton, Virginia, but in 2001, left home to enlist in the U.S. Army. Following his third tour in Iraq, Thomas moved to Houston, Texas where he now lives with his beautiful bride and amazing daughter. Thomas attended night school, with a focus on creative writing and history. In 2014, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in History from UHCL. Thomas blogs at machinemean[dot]org where he reviews movies, books, and other horror related topics.