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22 December, 2007

GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN—The Monster’s Last Real Hurrah

Between 1931 and 1948, Universal released no less than eight films featuring their most iconic creation, Frankenstein’s Monster. Portrayed by more of Universal’s Horror stars than any other Classic Universal monster, he also underwent the greatest amount of change of any of the Big Four of Universal’s stable of monsters. Not in terms of his trademarked look, but in how he was treated and portrayed on-screen.

Boris Karloff’s 1931 Monster was the very image of pathos, a tortured soul seemingly cursed by an unkind God to a living death. Four years later, in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, he shambled closer to capturing his humanity, if only for a few brief moments, before being rejected by his erstwhile bride.

Karloff’s last turn as his signature character was 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, and by then any trace of humanity was gone, replaced by a cold seething hatred of all save his friend Ygor, played wonderfully by Bela Lugosi. After this film, Karloff vowed never to play the Monster again; so dissatisfied was he with the direction the character was taking.

Though Karloff was without question Universal’s biggest Horror Star of the 1930’s, by the early ‘40’s that crown was planted firmly on Lon Chaney, Jr’s furrowed (and often furry…) brow. Perhaps it was natural that he should succeed Karloff in portraying Universal’s most significant Monster. In 1942’s GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, he does just that, on his way to becoming the only actor to play all of Universal’s four top monsters. He also gave us the Monster’s last starring role, and the last time that Frankenstein’s Monster is portrayed as anything more than a prop. After this, Chaney's Wolf-Man / Larry Talbot would become Universal’s biggest headliner, and the Monster was reduced to the role of second banana.

In the four subsequent films, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN; HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN; HOUSE OF DRACULA; and ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster was relegated to little more than “background”, in the scene but having little to do with it. GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN was, in my opinion, the Monster’s last hurrah.

That doesn’t mean that those movies were bad; they weren’t. In fact, they were good, old-fashioned, B-grade, popcorn-selling programmers; fun to watch, and fun to remember. They are the movies that inspired my love of the Universal classics, and are still the movies I turn to when feeling nostalgic for the carefree days of my youth. But it’s not the Monster’s contributions that make them so.

However, in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, Chaney’s able to imbue the Monster with a final spark of humanity, a last glimpse of the brilliant characterization that Karloff created in 1931. His interaction with the young girl, played by Janet Ann Gallow, easily recalls to mind the Monster’s first such encounter, along with its drastically different outcome. We can see the learning process that the Monster has undergone since little Maria’s tragic demise, and it helps restore some humanity that the Monster lost with his cold-blooded threats to Wolf Frankenstein's son Peter in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939).

Now, it is fair to say that GHOST… has its share of problems. The pace is slow for a Uni-Horror, with far too much screen time devoted to exposition and character development; the casting was misguided, with Cedric Hardwicke in over his head as Victor Frankenstein, Henry’s other son. Lionel Atwill, who was wasted in the role of Dr. Bohmer, would have carried the lead splendidly had it been given to him.

Also, the story was the weakest thus far in the series. With the plot concerning replacement of the Monster’s brain, which necessitated his being immobilized for long stretches of the film, we see that the Monster has begun his transformation from lead character to stage prop. He would spend the balance of his career stretched out on slabs of one form or another, waiting for the next experiment.

But at least in GHOST… we get to see him playing an active role one last time, and with one of the greatest Horror stars ever under Jack Pierce’s make-up. While Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t the equal of Karloff when it came to acting ability, he performed far better in the role than Bela Lugosi would in the next film, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN. Lugosi, who passed on the opportunity to portray the Monster for the original 1931 production, only proved that his initial decision was correct. And while Glenn Strange did better than Lugosi, it’s not as though he was asked to truly stretch his acting muscles.

I really didn’t intend for this to be a review of GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN. I’ve written that review before, and don’t really care to revisit it now. I just wanted to convey to the Crypt’s readership the bittersweet appeal of this installment in the Universal Horror franchise. While not the equal of the movies that preceded it, GHOST… does offer us a unique portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster, a terrific performance from Lugosi as Ygor, the always gorgeous Evelyn Ankers as the daughter of Victor Frankenstein, and Lionel Atwill as the Doctor’s twistedly evil assistant, Bohmer. The plot is weak, but no more than the norm for Universal Horrors of the 1940’s, and the fine performances more than make up for any deficiencies in the story.

GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN isn’t a big favorite of mine, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the film for its place in the Universal canon. Its importance far outweighs the quality of the movie itself, which is admittedly not Universal’s best. And for me, the most important aspect of the movie is Chaney’s performance as the Monster, the one last glimpse we get of the Monster as the Monster, rather than the caricature he would become.
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1 comment:

dan said...

First time visitor (so you might have mentioned this in one of your other reviews of the movie). GoF is the "Last Hurrah" in more wasy than one. The brain got replaced in this movie. After this, the "Monster as Prop" wasn't the Karloff monster, it was the Monster with I/Ygor's brain in it. Which, since Y/Igor was a jerk, is almost fitting and acceptable.