Thursday, November 3, 2016

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

The people of the village of Frankenstein finally have their fill of what they identify as The Frankenstein Curse™. Consequently, they build a mob armed with torches and explosives to raze Castle Frankenstein - you know, the building last movie’s Frankenstein gifted to them at the end of Son of Frankenstein. During the course of their demolition project, they free the Creature (now played by Lon Chaney Jr.) from the sulphur pit that wasn’t located below the castle in the last movie but now seems to have teleported there. Ygor (still Bela Lugosi) – despite having been shot dead in the last film, a fact the film adorably shrugs away with a “well, he already survived a hanging” – is rather chipper too, blowing his horn merrily and cackling with evil. So off he goes with his best bud the Creature to find the brother of last film’s Frankenstein, one Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), whom he plans to blackmail into improving the Creature. The poor thing, you see, is rather poorly and in dire need of some electric stimulation after the whole sulphur pit affair.

Soon enough, things get a little out of control. How out of control? We very quickly progress from “Make the poor Creature healthy again!” to brain transplants and the dire question whose new brain the creature is supposed to get: Frankenstein opts for the brain of an assistant the Creature has killed, the Creature wants the brain of a little girl (seriously) and Ygor wants his brain in the Creature’s body to rule the country with the power of a hundred men, immortality and his wonderful, wonderful brain! And Ygor might just get what he wants, for Frankenstein’s mentor, partner and secret hater Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) is rather interested in a job as YgorCreature’s new sidekick.

Given the stage of affairs at Universal at this point in time, it is easy to be positively surprised by Erle C. Kenton’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, a film which seems to take its relegation to the minor leagues of minor budgets in stride. At the very least, unlike a lot of horror films Universal had already started to crap out at around this time, this film does clearly try to entertain its audience, so it lacks the offensive tendency of many a Universal horror film from this era to drag a non-plot from one moment of nothing of interest happening to another, and instead hits a mix of Frankenstein’s Greatest Hits while adding a few weird ideas all of its own, without getting bogged down in decidedly boring romance, comic relief, or simple feet-dragging.

After the mix of craziness and artfulness of Son of Frankenstein, Ghost is of course still quite a let-down, but at least it is an entertaining one. Kenton’s direction certainly isn’t on par with old style Universal at all, but he keeps the pacing vigorous, the film nice to look at and never does anything to embarrass himself. Why, from time to time, he even has a good idea or two. Junior obviously isn’t Karloff, and he certainly does overplay the stiff arms bit terribly, but he really does good work with the minimum of facial expression the – still excellent – make-up allows him; he particularly seems to enjoy his short time as the YgorCreature. In fact I would certainly have preferred the further adventures of this power couple to the business with the Wolfman coming up in the next film. Bela is still pretty damn great as Ygor, hitting a nice mix of cackling evil and a more sensitive side. I don’t believe I’ll ever understand people who say Lugosi couldn’t act – how else would you play a guy who wants his brain in the Creature’s body than as a complete yet somehow charming and pathetic weirdo?

Speaking of weird – and goofy – I’m very happy with the film’s brain fixation that after all finds various people having very peculiar ideas concerning what sort of brain belongs in a monster body. Frankly, I’m rather dubious about the idea Frankenstein’s assistant would thank the good doctor for getting this particular body – “oh hey, I’m not only a hideous creature every torch-wielding mob in Backlot Europe (that’s at least one mob per square kilometre) wants to burn, I’m also in the body who murdered me. Happy days!”. The Creature’s own candidate being a little girl is interesting to say the least, and Ygor’s preference is an awesome mixture of the megalomaniacal and the pathetic, so very much Ygor.

Ghost of Frankenstein is so entertaining, I didn’t even need to mention the – absolutely shoehorned in – titular ghost of Frankenstein (senior), a scene utterly useless yet still one that would probably still have been the highpoint in most of the Universal horrors in their express-decaying era. And if that’s not high praise, I don’t know what is.

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