Friday, April 20, 2012

#613. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Directed By: Erle C. Kenton

Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Lon Chaney Jr., Ralph Bellamy

Tag line: "You've waited years for these NEW Terrifying adventures, more Thrilling than ever before!"

Trivia:  Lon Chaney Jr. was cast while he was still filming The Wolf Man

After three solid entries in a row, the Universal Frankenstein series hits a snag with 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, the first to feature a Monster not played by Boris Karloff.

The villagers, tired of the so-called “Frankenstein Curse”, take matters into their own hands and blow up Castle Frankenstein, thus ridding themselves of it once and for all. But the dynamite does more than destroy a dusty old building, and when the smoke finally clears, the Monster (Lon Chaney Jr.) is again among the living. Delighted to see his old friend up and about, Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who somehow survived the bullets fired into his torso in Son of Frankenstein, leads the Monster to the village of Vasaria, where Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), works as a psychiatrist. Threatening to reveal his family's dark secret, Ygor blackmails Ludwig into repairing the damaged creature. Convinced he can cure the Monster, and thus restore his family's good name (sound familiar?), Ludwig will replace the beast's criminal brain with a normal one. What he doesn't know is Ygor , with the help of Frankenstein's colleague, Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), plans to give the creature a different brain altogether...namely his own!

What Karloff meant to the role of the Monster is evident in Lon Chaney’s stoic interpretation of the creature, playing him more as a mindless brute than a being aware of his own situation. Upon his arrival in Vasaria, the Monster spots a young girl (Janet Ann Gallow) being taunted by some older boys, who kick the ball she’s playing with onto a nearby rooftop. Lumbering over to assist her, the Monster picks up the girl and carries her to the roof to retrieve the toy, all as nervous townsfolk, including the girl’s father (Olaf Hytten), look on below. Yet there’s no feeling, no sympathy in his eyes for the little girl's plight, leaving us puzzled as to why he’s even helping her in the first place (other than the flimsy notion he remembers a similar child from his past). Even after he's apprehended by the police and dragged to their station, where he’s immediately chained to a chair, the Monster doesn’t struggle to free himself, as he’s done so often in the past. Instead, he sits motionless, looking on quietly as curious onlookers surround him, staring at the oddity that’s just invaded their village. Chaney’s performance is a regrettable miscalculation, and does nothing but stir up a longing for Karloff’s emotionally charged portrayals.

By no means is The Ghost of Frankenstein a bad movie; its production value is still substantial (Ludwig Frankenstein’s laboratory boasts as many cool gadgets as his father’s and brother’s), and the story, which featured more action than the previous three films, managed to hold my attention. The cardinal sin committed by The Ghost of Frankenstein isn’t that it’s terrible; just mediocre. And with a trio of classic movies preceding it, that’s enough to make its shortcomings really stand out.

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