Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
It's probably not a coincidence that the first Frankenstein film without Boris Karloff as the Monster marked the beginning of the series' downturn in quality. As much as James Whale (and after him Rowland V. Lee) defined and shaped the classic Frankenstein ambiance and emotional architecture, it was Karloff's gentleman heart that made the movies more than simple creature features. His films had a soul - Ghost of Frankenstein, however, does not.
To demonstrate the expanse of imagination not at work here, the film begins with torch-bearing villagers storming Castle Frankenstein. The film ends with torch-bearing denizens of a different village storming the chateau of Ludwig von Frankenstein. It's as if screenwriter W. Scott Darling couldn't readily come up with a good opening for the movie, so he copied and pasted the ending onto the first reel and hoped nobody would notice.
It's hard to imagine why he'd be lacking for material, though, since Ghost is essentially a compressed remix of Son of Frankenstein. Ygor (Bela Lugosi), having inexplicably survived three bullets to the belly, takes the monster (a stiff Lon Chaney, Jr.) to another Frankenstein son, Ludwig. Ludwig want nothing to do with the matter until the ghost of his father encourages him to cure the monster's insanity. Stuck into the plot at an awkward angle is a romance between Ludwig's daughter (Evelyn Ankers) and the local prosecutor (Ralph Bellamy).
As in Son, Lugosi is the actor to watch, even if his performance is something of a pale reflection of his work in the previous film. The gruff treachery is still there, but the edge has been taken off. Overall, he's softserve villainy; even his makeup appears less harsh.
Hardwicke disappoints terribly as Ludwig; his manner is short and snippy, dry as the Sonoran desert, and somewhat boring for a Frankenstein. At one point, his assistant (Lionel Atwill) describes him as "half-insane," an appraisal that seems to come for nowhere. If Ludwig is, in fact, half-insane, he lacks the menace, the histrionics, and the actual crazy that tends to come with such a thing.
Chaney, however, is the real problem here, sucking the life from the picture like a black hole of crap. As the monster, he's a shambling nonentity, a stiff-armed automaton who only serves as a reminder of how good Karloff was in the role. Chaney does, however, become more menacing after Ludwig's "curative" work is complete, probably because the developments stemming from that gave him reign to play the monster with more of a human vibe.
Director Erle C. Kenton (of the marvelous Island of Lost Souls) sticks to a bland point-and-shoot method, although he makes some oddball cinematographic choices once in a while. Some of them work (check out the great height perspective shots with the monster and the little girl) and some don't (Atwill converses from behind a donut-shaped antenna thing that frames his head). I can't help but wonder if the few truly bold moves were inspired by Citizen Kane, which had seen release the previous year.
All is not lost, however. There's just enough new elements here, such as the village of Vasaria and the concept of brain transplants, to keep the diehard Universal fan happy. Also, there's plenty of electrical doodads and whirligigs about, spinning and sparking the way they always should.
Sadly, though, Ghost of Frankenstein is merely a drab programmer that is, for the most part, an amalgamation of the previous entries' concepts, though it carries none of the the intelligence of those films. The best thing that can be said for Ghost is that it is the shortest of the Frankenstein movies at only 68 minutes. For Frankenstein fans, this is the perfect amount of time to waste on a movie like this. If you're not so inclined, however, it really isn't worth the effort.
Stuntman Eddie Parker is occasionally visible standing in for Chaney as the Monster.