Son of Frankenstein (1939) & The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

I’ve been marathoning my way through the Universal Monster films of the 1920s-50s. By and large I’ve found them to be as excellent as I remember from my youth (in the early 90s, I was not yet born when they were made… hell, my dad wasn’t born when most of them were made). However as I work my way through the sequels there’s an obvious decline. Frankenstein is a masterpiece and Bride of Franeknstein is at the same level (if not better), but afterwards there’s a bit of a decline. That’s not enough to dissuade me from loving the series… after all, I love bad horror movies old or new. Son of Frankenstein was the last of the films to star Boris Karloff in his iconic role as the Monster. The Ghost of Frankenstein was the first of the Universal Monster films to be ran as a B-movie. (For the uninitiated: back in the day every time you went to the movies you got a double feature, as well as a cartoon and newsreel. The main movie, with a higher budget, that people went to the theater to see was the A-movie. The one before that was cheaper, the B-movie.)

Son of Frankenstein (1939) – Wolfgang von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone, most famous for repeatedly playing Sherlock Holmes) is returning to his father’s hometown along with his wife (Josephine Hutchinson) and young son (David Dunagan). The villagers are not too happy, as Wolf’s father created the Monster (Karloff) that terrorized their town. The one exception is Ygor (Béla Lugosi), a criminal who was once hanged but survived despite the broken neck. Ygor has a friend… the Monster. The Monster is ailing and Ygor wants Wolf to fix him. An Inspector named Krogh (Lionel Atwill), who lost an arm in a previous encounter with the Monster, has taken an interest in Dr. Frankenstein and is constantly snooping about. Frankenstein is annoyed at the constant suspicion, but his interest in the Monster somewhat justifies it. Then there’s the matter that the jurors who sentenced Ygor to the gallows have been dying one by one in violent mishaps…

In Ygor, Béla Lugosi found perhaps his most memorable non-Dracula role. Somewhere down the line, some confusion between the character of Ygor and Dwight Frye’s character of Fritz the hunchbacked assistant from Frankenstein started. True, Ygor’s broken-necked posture can be confused with that of a hunchback. After this movie Boris Karloff did not want to return to play the Monster. It’s not hard to see why. While Son of Frankenstein is a pretty decent movie, it’s no classic on the level of its two predecessors. Karloff had a great character to work with in those films, but in this one he is basically the brutish attack dog for Ygor. It makes sense for the character that his overwhelming desire for companionship would lead him to a twisted madman eager to use the Monster to advance his own agenda, but then we already got shades of that with Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein. Ygor isn’t the only strong character in the film. Basil Rathbone (who supposedly was not overly fond of horror films) brings the right level of arrogance to Wolf. Lionel Atwill creates a memorable character with the one armed Inspector Krogh, who would go on to be so memorably lampooned by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Actually, Son of Frankenstein seems to serve as the narrative template for a lot of Brooks’s later parody. Anyway, even if the character was minimized it is great to see Karloff as the Monster one last time even if he is overshadowed by Lugosi.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) – The villagers are still upset that everything that has gone in their village is the fault of the Frankenstein family. They decide to blow up the castle. However Ygor (still Lugosi) is still living there, and the explosions only wake the dormant Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.). Ygor decides in order to bring the Monster back to 100%, they should seek out Dr. Ludwig von Frankenstein (Cedric Hardwicke), the other son of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive in clips from Frankenstein, Hardwicke in a spectral vision). Ludwig eventually gets the idea that if it’s the abnormal brain that causes the Monster’s, a brain transplant could fix his aberrational behavior. He turns to his colleague Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), an expert on brain surgery. While Dr. Frankenstein wishes to use the brain of a murdered colleague (Barton Yarborough), Ygor has other ideas of whose brain should go into the Monster’s body as does the Monster himself…

So as mentioned earlier, this can be pointed to as where the series began to decline somewhat in quality. Actually it has a lot of good things going for it. Ygor is still a creepy dude, as played by Lugosi. Lon Chaney Jr. steps into the role of the Monster fairly well, hitting all the iconic mannerisms established by Karloff but using his own instincts as an actor to make it his own somewhat. The Monster’s sympathetic characteristics make a return. He bonds with a young girl (the adorable Janet Ann Gallow) and once more only attacks when provoked. Ygor is still taking advantage of him for his own ends, but the Monster seems to be a character again as opposed to the puppet he was in Son of Frankenstein. Returning from Son as a different character, Lionel Atwill plays Dr. Bohmer as something of a fame-seeker without any of the integrity that marked Inspector Krogh. Cedric Hardwicke doesn’t bring too much to the table as Ludwig, but I guess the series felt they still needed a Frankenstein in the story. In addition to Chaney and Lugosi, The Wolf Man cast members Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy play the young lovers of the film (Frankenstein’s daughter and the city prosecutor). In a lot of ways The Ghost of Frankenstein is just going through the motions of a Universal Monster movie, but it manages to entertain as it does so.

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