The success of Universal’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN meant a sequel was inevitable, and the studio trotted out GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN three years later. Horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi (as the broken-necked Ygor) and Lionel Atwill (although in a decidedly different role than the previous film) were back, but for the first time it wasn’t Boris Karloff under Jack Pierce’s monster makeup. Instead, Lon Chaney Jr., fresh off his triumph as THE WOLF MAN , stepped into those big asphalter’s boots as The Monster. But while SON OF was an ‘A’ budget production, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN begins The Monster’s journey into ‘B’ territory.
Old Ygor is still alive and well, “playing his weird harp” at deserted Castle Frankenstein. The villagers (including Dwight Frye! ) are in an uproar (as villagers are wont to do), complaining “the curse of Frankenstein” has left them in poverty, and storm the castle to blow it up once and for all. The Monster gets jarred loose from his sulfur-pit grave, in a weakened condition (and without his fur vest), and escapes with Ygor into the night. A storm is brewing (because that’s how things go in these movies), and The Monster reaches out to the lightning. “Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning”, says Ygor, and they’re off to see The Wizard… actually, to see Ludwig, “the second son of Frankenstein”.
Ludwig von Frankenstein lives at an estate in the village of Vasaria, specializing in “Diseases of the Mind” (it says so right on the sign). Ludwig and his two assistants, Drs. Bohmer and Kettering, perform a successful brain operation, but Bohmer harbors deep resentments (“in those days, I was the master, Frankenstein was just a pupil…. but I made a slight miscalculation”). Meanwhile, Ygor and The Monster arrive in Vasaria, asking a pretty young villager for directions to Frankenstein’s home (and the fact she doesn’t flee in terror at the sight of these two boggles the mind!). When The Monster helps the little child Cloestine retrieve her ball from a rooftop, he shows compassion… which is more than the villagers show, as a cadre of cops subdue him.
Village prosecutor Erick, who happens to be Ludwig’s daughter Elsa von Frankenstein’s boyfriend (what a coincidence!), asks Ludwig to examine the “madman” who’s “already killed two villagers”. When Erick leaves, Ygor appears, asking Ludwig to “harness the lightning” and return his friend to full strength, or he’ll spill the beans about Ludwig’s true ancestry (although the name Frankenstein is probably a dead giveaway). At the inquest, The Monster recognizes his ‘brother’ Ludwig and breaks free of his chains, escaping with Ygor in a waiting cart. Meanwhile, Elsa finds her grandfather’s diary on Ludwig’s desk and begins reading, giving the filmmakers the opportunity to utilize stock footage from the 1931 classic (and giving Dwight Frye the opportunity to appear in two different roles!).
The dastardly duo return to Frankenstein’s lab, where The Monster kills Dr. Kettering. Ludwig turns on the “knockout gas” to render them unconscious (and his own daughter in the process). Ludwig decides the only way to stop this madness is to “dissect” The Monster, but receives a ghostly visitation from his father (hence the title), and changes his plan: he’ll remove The Monster’s criminal brain and transplant the brain of Dr. Kettering! Ygor protests, wanting instead his own brain transplanted in The Monster’s body, and The Monster himself has an idea of his own… use Cloestine’s little brain! The sneaky Dr. Bohmer conspires with Ygor, and they pull a switcheroo, and Ygor now has “the strength of a hundred men” (and speaks with the voice of Lugosi!). But The Ygor Monster goes blind, result of a wrong blood type, and goes berserk just as the villagers blow the whole place to Kingdom Come!
Despite my glibness, GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN is an enjoyable entry in the Universal Horror canon. The main problem is Scott Darling’s silly script, but the all-star cast of horror veterans and director Erle C. Kenton (ISLAND OF LOST SOULS) somehow make it work. Lugosi’s Ygor is one of his classic roles, and Atwill as Dr. Bohmer shows once again why he was the best mad doctor in the business. Sir Cedric Hardwicke (THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS ) takes his Ludwig von Frankenstein seriously, and WOLF MAN costars Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers are lovers Erick and Elsa. Little Janet Ann Gallow (Cloestine) is expressionless and wooden, but like Donnie Donagan in SON OF…, she’s just a kid, so I’ll cut her a break.
As for Lon Chaney Jr. as The Monster, he really isn’t given much to do besides bring his imposing physical presence and brute strength to the part. He doesn’t even get to grunt like Karloff, but that may be due to The Monster’s weakened condition. Later in the film, after the brain transplant takes place, Lon perks up a bit, miming the words overdubbed by Lugosi. This change in character leads directly to the next sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN… or rather, it was supposed to, as we’ll find out…