Horror Is Universal: “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942)

When I first pressed Play on this movie, I really had no idea what to expect. Son of Frankenstein had been a decent, if not perfect, conclusion to the story begun in the 1931 film, and after three movies, the most interesting story possibilities for the Frankensteins and the Creature had already been played out. I also knew that after Son, the Frankenstein series lost some of its prestige and was relegated to B-movie territory. Most importantly, this was going to be Universal’s first Frankenstein film that didn’t have Boris Karloff. Would the series be able to survive without its central figure?

But the one thing I definitely wasn’t prepared was how fascinated and conflicted I am about The Ghost of Frankenstein. There’s way more to talk about here than I expected to find. It is deeply flawed but also far better than it had any right to be, actually improving on its immediate predecessor in a few ways. But I think its biggest accomplishment is this: The Ghost of Frankenstein has, believe it or not, what I think is one of the most frightening and stomach-churning moments in the Universal Horror canon.

But we’ll get into that later.

The Plot: After Son of Frankenstein, all the plot threads weren’t tied up as neatly as we thought. Castle Frankenstein still stands above the village as a reminder of all the gruesome tragedy, but that’s not all: the wicked Ygor (Bela Lugosi) is still alive, standing guard over the hardened sulfur pit where the Creature (Lon Chaney Jr.) lies buried. When the villagers decide to demolish Castle Frankenstein, the explosions break apart the rock and free the Creature from his imprisonment. Ygor and the Creature flee to another town in search of Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), another son of Henry. Ludwig is a respected surgeon with his own practice and a loving daughter named Elsa (Evelyn Ankers), and he wants no part of his father’s legacy. He plans to destroy the Creature once and for all, but a ghostly visitation gives him another idea: why not save the Creature by discarding its criminal brain and giving it a new one? Spurred on by his mentor-turned-assistant Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), Ludwig begins making plans for his ambitious brain transplant. But Ygor is still hiding in the shadows crafting a scheme of his own — and this time, the consequences may be even more devastating if he gets his way.

Universal first announced The Ghost of Frankenstein in November 1941, about a month before the release of The Wolf Man. And one of the first crew members to come on board was Wolf Man director George Waggner, though he was only serving as a producer this time around. The actual directing duties would go to Erle C. Kenton, who we’ll see directing a few more Universal Horror films in the future. Ten years prior to this, Kenton had also directed Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau. So Kenton was no stranger to working on horror films, nor is he completely unknown to modern audiences.

The script for Ghost of Frankenstein, developed by pulp writer Eric Taylor and silent film writer/director W. Scott Darling, went through a few iterations and started out as a more direct follow-up to Son: the character of Wolf Frankenstein was even set to reappear. He doesn’t show up in the final film, although he is mentioned. We’ll focus later on how the film pays homage to its predecessors, but also cuts ties with them to an extent.

Surprisingly, we’ve come across an instance where there’s hardly a new face to be seen in the cast list. All the main players are people we’ve seen in Universal Horror before: Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Ankers, Hardwicke, Atwill, etc. There’s even some familiar names in the supporting cast, like Ralph Bellamy from The Wolf Man and a cameo from Dwight Frye. Out of this whole list, Chaney Jr. will be one of the more interesting figures to talk about. See, he gets the rather unenviable job of replacing Karloff as the Creature. We know he can act, but the silent, hulking Creature is worlds away from Larry Talbot. How will he fare? Well, this is the only time he plays the Creature in a Universal Horror film…but don’t be so quick to judge.

When Castle Frankenstein gets blown to pieces in the opening minutes of the film, it’s more than just a plot device designed to get the Creature back. It’s also the movie’s way of symbolically cutting ties with its predecessors as it heads off into uncharted territory. We’re not exactly going to the big city here, but the setting of Ghost definitely feels more urban, clinical and modern compared to the rural, antiquated settings of the previous films. There’s something else, too: Ghost doesn’t quite have the same bombastic nature that the series — especially the two James Whale films — had previously. There’s something more somber and procedural about how this new world deals with the problem of the Creature. The angry, fearful mob isn’t as unified as it was before, and the Creature is treated as a more conventional criminal or public menace: he actually has to stand trial at one point, in a scene that’s amusing on the surface and ends up being rather poignant. The cool and analytical vibes that the movie gives off only get stronger when we meet Ludwig Frankenstein, who is perhaps best summed up via his idea for destroying the Creature: dismantling the whole body piece by piece.

Horrifying? Yes. The only good idea for killing the Creature that anyone in these movies has ever had? Also yes.

By this point, we’ve seen a few different interpretations of Dr. Frankenstein in our time together. We’ve seen Henry, the brooding and tortured genius who believed in a grand idea and was let down. We’ve seen Wolf, the manic fanboy obsessed with saving the legacy of a family he never knew. So what about Ludwig? He’s the only Frankenstein who has moved on, as we might say. Rather than trying to resurrect the past, he is content to focus on shaping his own future. And he’s done a pretty good job of it, as we see from his successful career and family life. But there is a coldness to Ludwig that we never saw in Henry or Wolf. Cedric Hardwicke plays him as this restrained and calculating figure who seems burdened by the weight of his predecessors’ mistakes. He wants nothing to do with his family’s legacy, even when it literally ends up on his doorstep in the form of Ygor and the Creature. He sees that as a problem that needs to be taken care of through methodical destruction.

But of course, Ludwig is not as immune to the Frankenstein curse as he believes. The moment he realizes that the Creature’s reappearance is a chance to chase further glory and restore his family’s reputation, he falls victim to temptation and hubris. The moment that triggers this shift is fascinating. On the surface, it looks pretty straightforward: Ludwig is visited by the spirit of Henry, who tells him that the Creature can be reformed if his criminal brain is replaced with a normal one. It may seem like Ludwig is really talking to a ghost, but is he really? Cedric Hardwicke plays both Ludwig and the apparition that claims to be Henry. This casting choice could have been made out of necessity, but you could just as easily read deeper meaning into it. If it’s not a coincidence, then the visit from the ghost is really Ludwig being tempted by his own dark side and hubris. And in that regard, he is absolutely a Frankenstein.

One reason I was impressed with The Ghost of Frankenstein is that it does something which Son of Frankenstein had the opportunity to try but failed to: explore the relationship between the Creature and his “brother.” The scenes between Creature and Ludwig are much different than the scenes between him and Wolf, largely owing to the fact that the Creature is — gasp! — actually a character again in this film. He’s still largely mute, but he definitely has his own autonomy again as opposed to being Ygor’s puppet. And what he does with that autonomy is surprising. There seems to have been an effort to rediscover what made the Creature so likable and sympathetic in the original film. So his aggression and violence are toned down, and that childlike sense of curiosity comes back. Like in the first two films, he’s searching for acceptance and a connection with another living being. Over the course of this film, there are two characters that he develops an interesting and complicated relationship with. One of them is Ludwig, whom the Creature seems to recognize and acknowledge as his family. Their first meeting in the courtroom, as the Creature is being put on trial by the townspeople, is a memorable moment: the Creature approaches Ludwig and gently lays his hands on his shoulders while Ludwig, obviously unsettled, insists that he’s never seen this man before in his life.

The other character that the Creature bonds with, in true Frankenstein tradition, is a young girl named Cloestine. I think it’s fascinating how you can more or less track the Creature’s character development in these movies by studying how he treats children. From accidentally killing Maria to kidnapping and almost killing Peter on purpose, his interactions with kids in these movies provides a good snapshot of his headspace. In the case of Cloestine, what we seem to have here is a Creature who is aware of his past mistakes and trying not to repeat them, at least to a certain extent. When he first meets Cloestine, he quickly becomes friendly and protective towards her. There’s a sequence early in the film where she loses her ball on top of a roof, so the Creature picks her up and takes her on the roof to retrieve it. It’s cute and disturbing at the same time because we’re not 100% sure what the Creature is going to do yet, and a couple villagers who try to rescue the girl are sent plummeting to the ground below. The odd friendship continues in the courtroom, where Cloestine tries getting the Creature to talk about who he is and where he came from, and she nearly succeeds in doing so.

But the weirdest and most significant interaction between these two characters happens late into the film. Once it’s decided to give the Creature a new brain — the ethics of which we’ll get into later — he breaks out of Ludwig’s lab, kidnaps Cloestine and brings her back there. He then indicates that he wants Cloestine’s brain to be put into his own body, but when he sees how terrified the girl is, he relents and lets her go. It’s creepy as heck, but it also offers up copious food for thought. Why does the Creature make this request? Does he think that he and his friend will somehow be together forever if her brain is in his body? Does he think it will give him the chance to start over as an innocent being? The film never says, and it’s not clear if the filmmakers intended anything deeper than a shocking moment. But like the Creature’s other actions in this film, it gives you a lot to consider.

Another thing you have to consider in this story is the ethics of our so-called “heroes.” The central scientific endeavor in the film is a brain transplant: Ludwig and Bohmer plot to remove the Creature’s current brain and replace it with the brain of a man the Creature killed. In a move that demonstrates surprising depth and awareness from the script, this is treated as something of a morally ambiguous decision. Ygor points out that the scientists would basically be killing the Creature if they go through with their plan. Ludwig and Bohmer regard that as a necessary evil, if they acknowledge the truth of it at all. Brain transplants were pure science fiction back in the 40s, just as they are today. But even back then, storytellers were using them as a means to ask difficult questions about the human consciousness. If you get rid of a person’s brain and give them a new one, are they still the same person afterwards? The film seems to indicate that they wouldn’t be. But then the Creature, who has repeatedly proved himself to be a sapient being capable of autonomy and emotion, would cease to exist. It would indeed be a form of death. And maybe it’s just because I love the Creature as a character so much, but I can’t see how this plot point wasn’t mean to turn the audience against the scientists.

From there, the film becomes less enjoyable as it settles for being a Son of Frankenstein redux. The new Dr. Frankenstein embarks on an ill-fated mission to “fix” the Creature, spurred on by Ygor, who’s acting as the proverbial shoulder devil while carrying out background schemes of his own. Same story, (mostly) different faces. On one level there’s a bit of sense to it, considering how history repeating itself is such a prominent theme in the Frankenstein sequels. But it also feels like evidence that the franchise is running out of new ground to cover. Ghost has a few good ideas and setpieces of its own, but most of its material is being pulled from its predecessors, especially as we head into the third act. And the comparison isn’t helped by the fact that Ghost simply isn’t as entertaining as those predecessors. Erle Kenton’s direction lacks the cleverness and enthusiasm of James Whale, or even Rowland V. Lee. This isn’t a completely lifeless movie like The Mummy’s Hand, but it can’t shake the feeling of just going through the motions.

The main element that keeps the film from being a drag is the acting. Most of the cast isn’t incredible, but they’re all passable. The two that manage to rise above the rest are, as you might expect, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. Ygor is still a trickster, but he doesn’t get used for comedy very much this time around. He’s a lot more sinister, manipulative and ruthless, and Lugosi’s acting is the main reason for that change. He’s not at Dracula levels here, but he’s still scary. Meanwhile, Chaney Jr. does an admirable job of filling Boris Karloff’s shoes. His take on the Creature is very similar to what we saw in the 1931 film, silent and intimidating but not devoid of tenderness. After the way Son of Frankenstein did this character a disservice, his portrayal here is a breath of fresh air.

Of course, Ghost does a disservice to the Creature in a very different way.

In a bit of a cruel twist, The Ghost of Frankenstein‘s biggest triumph is also the reason that it left me with the feeling of never wanting to see it again. You can see the various characters’ plans piling up in a complex web, and you know that none of them are going to turn out well. But when you actually get to the ending and see how everything plays out, it actually makes for a hell of an emotional gut punch. And, like I said, one of the more disturbing moments in Universal Horror canon.

Ygor’s evil plan still involves controlling the Creature. But this time, he wants to do it a little more…directly, shall we say. See, between his neck getting broken and his getting shot almost to death at the end of Son, his body’s not working that well anymore. So now he wants to have his brain placed inside the Creature’s body, in what is essentially a Get Out situation. Ludwig is very firm about not doing this. Or as he says, “Do you think I would put your sly and sinister brain into the body of a giant? That would be a monster indeed!” He instead plans to replace the Creature’s brain with the brain of his deceased colleague Dr. Kettering. But Ygor decides to butter up Dr. Bohmer instead and convince him to secretly swap out the brains before the operation. It doesn’t take much persuasion to get Bohmer to betray his boss, since he resents being in Ludwig’s shadow despite having taught Ludwig everything he knows about surgery. So before Ludwig operates, Bohmer discards Kettering’s brain and replaces it with the brain of Ygor. And then after the operation, when Ludwig is trying to assess the results of his experiment, this happens:

Ludwig: Can you understand me? Do you know who I am?

Creature/Ygor: You are Dr. Frankenstein.

Ludwig: And you are…you are Dr. Kettering?

Creature/Ygor: I am not Dr. Kettering. I am Ygor. I am Ygor! I have the strength of a hundred men! I cannot die! I cannot be destroyed! I, Ygor, will live forever!

You really have to see this moment in context to understand how skin-crawling it is. There’s the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. is suddenly speaking with Bela Lugosi’s voice, the fact that the Creature goes from barely speaking to fully formed sentences, the fact that his demeanor just feels so markedly different from how he’s been throughout the film. And that’s when the truly unsettling implication sets in: the Creature, arguably the main character of this franchise, is well and truly gone. His body has been taken over by another person, and we get zero indication that the original personality has survived. There’s nothing left of him.

I feel like I’ve been watching a long-running TV show and my favorite character has just been brutally murdered for no reason. Is this what the last season of Game of Thrones did to people?

After that revelation, the last few minutes of the film take a sudden slide downhill. With Ygor having gotten what he wants, the story has written itself into a corner without an obvious way to disarm the villain. So in a very “only the author can save us now!” moment, the Ygor-Creature suddenly goes blind because Ygor and the Creature didn’t have the same blood type or something. Which I’m pretty sure is not how blood types work. Ygor flies into a rage and kills Bohmer by throwing him against some machinery, which sets the whole house on fire. Ludwig’s daughter and her love interest manage to escape, but Ludwig and Ygor are caught in the flames and perish. Allegedly.

So, what are we left with at the end of the day? A worthy entry into the Frankenstein canon? Well…yes and no, in my opinion. Ghost does fix some of the problems that I had with Son by making the Creature more sympathetic again and giving him genuine interactions with Ludwig. On the other hand, it’s not as good or entertaining a movie as the other films are, and it goes out on a sour note by destroying the Creature in such a mean-spirited way. He could come back like he has before, but death via having your brain taken out and destroyed feels pretty final. Despite the faults of Son, that story did feel like a better ending to the series, with Wolf giving Castle Frankenstein over to the villagers and leaving his family’s past behind. Ghost doesn’t give you that sense of the protagonists having grown and learned something: they all just die at the end.

I can’t say I would ever put this movie on again just for fun. And if the subsequent Frankenstein films decide to just ignore this installment entirely, I don’t think I would mind. But I can’t say I regret watching it. Like many average films, it has good ideas and a few standout moments — it just doesn’t quite have the power or confidence to make the most of them.

The Ghost of Frankenstein represents a shift in the series’ mentality, going from Gothic horror to modern B-movie sci-fi. The bulk of its ideas are pulled from the earlier films in the series, especially Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. But it does manage to put a decent twist on several of those pre-existing ideas, and it offers up a few interesting ethical dilemmas of its own. Bela Lugosi is still having a great time in the role of Ygor, and Lon Chaney Jr. does a wonderful job as the new Creature. Unfortunately, the film’s good points are hampered by its overall dull and grim tone as well as its surprisingly mean-spirited finale. The Creature’s demise is far more cold and permanent than in the other films, and it just leaves you with a bad feeling at the end of the story. The film might get a strong reaction out of you once or twice, but it’s not really a good time in the way that the other Frankenstein movies are. It’s not unwatchable, but it’s no classic.

Final Rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Up to this point, the Universal Horror series has never been interested in fiddling around with current events. But we’re still in 1942, and there’s a certain current even going on that the United States, Hollywood included, simply can’t ignore any longer…

UP NEXT: Invisible Agent (1942)

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

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