This is an interesting one for me personally. I saw the last bit of it when I was very little. I must have been only six years old or so. I remembered it vividly: the Frankenstein monster rampaging through the laboratory, speaking in a growling voice. I was disappointed that the movie ended right there with the monster apparently being killed in a burning house. I wanted more. But I never forgot that bit of it and for years, that was one of the only Frankenstein movie I'd seen any part of. I almost saw it again in my early teens. I say "almost" because I got it on VHS but the film inside the tape wasn't connected so it wouldn't play! I felt really ripped off and it wasn't until I was seventeen and got the Universal Legacy set that I finally saw The Ghost of Frankenstein for the first time since I was a kid.
The villagers of Frankenstein are still apparently cursed by that very name, with poverty abound and no tourists ever stopping by. The villagers finally decide to destroy the castle but unknown to them, Ygor, who is somehow still alive even though Wolf Frankenstein shot him several times, finds the monster in the dried sulfur pit and they escape. They travel to the village of Vasaria, where Ludwig Frankenstein, the other son of Henry Frankenstein, lives with his daughter. A well renowned physician, Ludwig is blackmailed by Ygor into taking the monster in and making him well. Ludwig ultimately decides to remove the criminal brain from the monster's skull and put in the brain of a recently killed doctor. However, Ygor wants his brain put into the monster's body and will do anything to make sure it happens.
First thing that's noticeable is that this movie doesn't feel as big as the films that came before it, especially Son of Frankenstein, which was a big budget production. By this point, Universal had relegated its horror films to B-level status, with small budgets and reusing many of the same actors. In this film especially, the cast is made up of the usual people you would see in horror films at that time: Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy from The Wolf Man. But the most interesting aspect of this film is that it was the first Universal Frankenstein movie to have someone other than Boris Karloff as the monster. Lon Chaney Jr. was the studio's new big horror star, having just created his iconic role of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, so it was an obvious choice to have him play the monster. But Chaney's performance of the monster in this film has long been criticized. Does it deserve this criticism? Let's see.
Chaney had Boris Karloff beat physically. His enormous size made him much more imposing than Karloff ever was. Acting wise, however, Chaney is more than a little stiff and this is probably the film that started the image of the monster lumbering about in a robotic manner. He's also absolutely silent. He never grunts or growls throughout the entire film. He also seems to have his eyes shut or barely open throughout the film, which is odd. Attitude-wise, Chaney's monster is much different than the way Karloff was in the previous film. Whereas Ygor had complete control over him before, the monster begins to become much more defiant to him in this movie. He often shoves Ygor aside when he's bothering him and seems to be annoyed by Ygor's very presence, (although that's mostly from the face Chaney holds throughout the entire film). As before, the monster is sympathetic towards children and befriends a little girl. When the prospect of a new brain is given to him, the monster actually brings the girl to Ludwig Frankenstein and, using hand gestures, tells him that he wants her brain to be put in his head. Speaking of which, when Ygor tells him that his brain will be put in his skull, the monster clearly doesn't like that and ends up severely wounding Ygor in a rage. Also, the monster does appear to be able to understand human speech more than he did in the previous film. At one point, he is captured and chained in the courthouse. When Ludwig Frankenstein comes before him, the monster recognizes the similarity between him and his creator but becomes enraged when Ludwig denies knowing him and tries to kill him. Later, when Ygor describes to the monster that he will get a new brain, the monster clearly understands; he walks up to Ludwig and puts his hands on his shoulders as a gesture of gratitude. He seems to know that he will finally have peace of mind.
The most striking part concerning the monster is at the end of the film when Ygor's brain is switched for the brain of the intended doctor. Once he becomes conscious, Ygor's voice comes out of the monster's mouth, declaring that he is now invincible and will rule the world. I remembered that vividly because that was what I saw when I was young. I assumed that the monster always talked but, of course, I didn't understand it fully. I think Chaney clearly spoke the dialogue and Lugosi's voice was dubbed over it and from his mannerisms, Chaney really got into playing the monster with Ygor's brain! He's much more lively than he was before. So, ultimately Chaney's performance as the monster isn't as bad as many say it is. I think many have judged Chaney a bit too harshly simply because he was first person to play the monster after Karloff, which is unfair. But the truth is that, while he isn't horrible, he does ultimately pale in comparison to Karloff. Even though it's ostensibly the same character, it doesn't feel the same. That's unavoidable given a casting change but it's still there. Lon, I love you, but you're no Karloff.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Ludwig Frankenstein, the second son of Henry Frankenstein, who was unmentioned in the previous film. He's a completely different character than his brother Wolf. While Wolf had the urge to clear his father's name even before he arrived at the estate, Ludwig was lived out the greater portion of his life without anybody knowing who he is. He's got a lovely daughter, is respected by the townspeople, and is determined not to let the monster ruin his life the way it did his father and brother (Wolf, despite the ending of Son of Frankenstein, was apparently driven into exile due to his family's name). But when Ygor blackmails him by threatening to expose him if he doesn't help cure the monster, Ludwig reluctantly agrees. But he manages to subdue the monster and Ygor and becomes more determined than ever to destroy his father's creation.
This leads to a curious scene, the one that the movie derives its name from. Ludwig is visited by the spirit of his father (played by Hardwicke as well, which made think, "You are so not Colin Clive!"), who urges him not to destroy the monster. It this spirit that suggest to Ludwig the idea of replacing the criminal brain with a benevolent one. It's never made clear whether this is really meant to be Henry Frankenstein's spirit or if Ludwig is either hallucinating or dreaming. Personally, seeing as Henry seemed to grow to despise the monster, I don't think he would have suggested sparing his life. On the other hand, Henry may have seen where his life's work could finally be corrected and that's what he's getting at. Inspired by this, Ludwig, like his brother, tries to clear his family's name by making the monster into something beneficial to mankind. But of course, his plan fails and he's ultimately killed by Ygor in the monster's body, his family's name even more soiled than it was before. By that token, his story is ultimately even sadder than that of his father and brother.
Bela Lugosi returns as the sinister Ygor. While no explanation is given for how he survived his apparent death in the previous film, remember the guy survived a hanging so he must simply be hard to kill. Lugosi's performance here is a bit different than it was before. Ygor seems to genuinely regard the monster as a friend here, rather than a tool as he seemed to in Son of Frankenstein. The first thing he says when he discovers the monster in the dried sulfur is, "My friend!" And when he hears that the monster's brain is going to be replaced, he says, "You can't take my friend away from me! He's all I have in the world!" That's when he suggests that his brain be put into the monster's skull, saying that they would be together forever. Ludwig of course refuses but Ygor decides to coerce Ludwig's friend, Dr. Bohmer, to make the switch, saying that he would be able to rule the country in the monster's body and that Bohmer would have everything he wanted. This makes one wonder if Ygor really does regard the monster as his friend or if he still thinks of him as a weapon. Perhaps it's a bit of both, since Ygor seems sincere both times. Ygor is power hungry anyway so maybe he sees his friend as a means to end in this case.
Ygor is also as manipulative as he was before. Like I said, he blackmails Ludwig into helping the monster, threatening to reveal his family's identity to the community. Ludwig also seems to know Ygor when he first sees him. Wolf probably talked to his brother and described him. Ygor may be able to blackmail Ludwig but he can't convince to put his brain in the monster's body. So, Ygor uses his slick talking to coerce Dr. Bohmer, who has been rejected in the scientific field, to do so. Ygor knows Bohmer's unfavorable history and uses that to his advantage. That's the worst part about Ygor: he's not stupid and, like Hannibal Lecter decades later, knows how to use your personal problems to manipulate you. But, Ygor's power inside the monster is short-lived when he suddenly goes blind. It's revealed that because Ygor's blood type and the monster's blood type aren't the same, the blood won't feed the sensory nerves. (I would accept that except Ygor could clearly see when he first becomes conscious after the operation. How is that explained?) Realizing his power has been taken from him, Ygor brings about his own demise, causing a fire that burns down the house.
Lionel Atwill plays Dr. Bohmer, a brilliant scientist who was Ludwig's professor and well-regarded at one time. But when one of his surgeries went wrong, he was relegated to being Ludwig's assistant, which he still hates to this day. From his introduction, that fact is made clear and ultimately, that's what Ygor uses to manipulate him. Ygor promises to help him if Bohmer makes the brain switch for him. Bohmer, ultimately, can't resist the chance and does so. He does seem to have some moments of regret when Ludwig thanks him for helping in the operation and that it may restore his reputation. However, that disappears when Ygor as the monster runs rampant and it seems like his dream will be fulfilled. But when Ygor loses his sight, he turns on Bohmer and throws him into a machine, electrocuting him to death. In the end, Bohmer's jealousy was his downfall.
None of the other actors are that striking. Ralph Bellamy does a respectable job as Erik Ernst, the town prosecutor who loves Ludwig's daughter, Elsa. Not really much else to say about him. Evelyn Ankers plays the aforementioned Elsa. Her role isn't nearly as meaty as her role of Gwen in The Wolf Man and she does little more than scream at the monster and worry about her father. Dwight Frye has a small, uncredited role the beginning of the movie as one of the angry villagers who destroy the Frankenstein castle. Really said that such a great actor was relegated to bit parts by this point.
The Ghost of Frankenstein is a much smaller film than the others in many respects. As I said, it's clearly a low budget B-picture, with none of the grandiosity of its predecessors. The look and art direction is pretty basic and a lot of the music is borrowed from other films. A new lumbering theme for the monster is present but it sounds cartoony when compared to the ones before. They even reuse footage from the original Frankenstein during a sequence where Elsa reads her grandfather's diary and learns the history of the monster. Later, as budgets on these movies would get tighter, footage from this movie would pop up in other movies. This film's director is Erle C. Kenton, who would go on to direct House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. So, it's obvious from his other credentials that Kenton wasn't the best at directing actors but the acting here is still fairly good, if ultimately still B-level.
The movie, despite its faults, is an easy watch. For one thing, it's very short: merely an hour and seven minutes. And it moves at a brisk pace. It begins with an exciting sequence of the villagers dynamiting the Frankenstein estate, leads on to a scene where the monster is struck by lightning in a thunderstorm and gets stronger (which doesn't make sense considering it put him into a coma before the events of the last film), then, after some short dialogue, the scene between the monster and the little girl occurs, which leads to the scene in the courthouse and so on. Very fast-paced, exciting film and one of the more enjoyable to watch.
All in all, The Ghost of Frankenstein is a fun film but when put into context, its marks the beginning of the downward slide of the monster's character. This would be the last film where the monster was on his own. In the rest of his film appearances, he would be one of an ensemble cast of monsters and his importance would diminish to the point where he might as well not be present. Lon Chaney Jr. would never play the monster again after this film. He was supposed to play him again in the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as his role of the wolf man but it proved too difficult to do so. So who played the monster in the next film? Ironically, it would be the actor that was originally offered the role at the very beginning but his performance would ultimately prove to be lackluster due to an unintentional sabotage. But that's next time. All in all, I do recommend this film for Universal monster fans. It may not be the best but it's still really enjoyable.