27 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: NO, YOUR MOTHER WAS THE LIGHTNING

Along comes World War II, and all of a sudden you can't sink too much time and effort and especially money into making a movie anymore; certainly not an epic-scale monster movie. And thus it was was that 1941's The Wolf Man, though itself a film riddled with small signs of cheapness, would be the last Universal horror movie until well into the modern era that could plausibly be described as anything but a B-movie. The signs of a new age were quick to arrive, with the March, 1942 release of the fourth movie in the studio's most important franchise, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and although we can hardly blame America's entry into the war for a movie that was released barely four months later, I know this much to be absolutely true: once the Frankenstein family found themselves shoved into a film as cheap and unambitious as this one - particularly following the supremely ambitious Son of Frankenstein - there was absolutely no hope for the vampires and werewolves and mummies sharing the same backlot.

Yet even though The Ghost of Frankenstein is inarguably the flimsiest of the movies in its particular series to that point, that's not to say that it's a failure, certainly not if we take into account that it's aims are considerably lower than the first three. It gets the job done with admirable efficiency, no excess of imagination, and all in a compact 67-minute frame, and you really wouldn't want it to be any longer than that. Chief among the movie's charms is that it's not a terribly big commitment, but rather a quick way to waste some time in between doing other, more important things, and unlike the contemporary cinema (when such movies regularly bust past the two-hour mark), B-picture producers back in those days knew how to keep a film from going one frame longer than it absolutely had to. As a result, a great many movies that could be dreary and miserable without that level of discipline are short and fast enough to remain entertaining for their modest duration. The Ghost of Frankenstein is exactly such a movie.

Written by B-film veteran Scott Darling, who heavily revised a story put down by detective-picture specialist Eric Taylor, the film is rather strangely obsessed with retaining continuity from Son of Frankenstein in a number of specific ways, while whole-heartedly ditching continuity at other moments. Thus in the film's opening scene do we find two community leaders in the village of Frankenstein who, by rights, ought to be dead. To be fair, it's a brief moment and you'd never notice it without the benefit of watching the movies all in a pile on DVD.

The activity in which these mysteriously undead gents are engaged is the traditional Frankenstein pastime of freaking out over the evils of the town's namesake family. Apparently building directly off of Wolf von Frankenstein's gift in the last film of his ancestral home to the townsfolk, the townsfolk now want to dynamite it to the ground, along with the wretched Ygor (Bela Lugosi), who managed to survive being shot multiple times in the last movie, and now spends all his time skulking around the hardened sulphur pit where the monster was destroyed. This scene points out in a very small way the cheapness that would forever after infect the series: the exterior of the town hall is very plainly the exterior of some middle American building with the word "Frankenstein" hung in desperately Gothic letting over the Main Street U.S.A style "town hall" sign.

The villagers are quick to execute their plan, and before you can say "torches and pitchforks" they've stormed Castle Frankenstein and blown it to bits, with Ygor still inside. He survives, naturally, and he's not alone: the explosion knocked loose enough of the sulphur wall that a certain something's hand has poked out, and wriggles a bit (the shadow of the hand on the wall opposite Ygor is by far the most Expressionist image in this movie, another sign of cheapness: style has been sacrificed for expediency. Ygor digs his friend out of the rubble, and we see that it's quite a bit a worse for the wear: it's sluggish and its eyes are vacant in the few moments when they're not closed, and it's being played now by Lon Chaney, Jr. instead of Boris Karloff. About which I shall say more later.

A dramatically appropriate thunderstorm has picked up during this sequence, and as Ygor stands gawking at the creature, a bolt of lightning hits it square in the neck-electrodes. Though the crippled little murderer is terrified by this, it actually seems to perk the monster up a bit, and Ygor has a great idea: take it to the son of Frankenstein, and blackmail him into fixing the monster by harnessing the power of the heavens. No, not that son of Frankenstein; Basil Rathbone was too busy being Sherlock Holmes now. It turns out that contrary to everything implied in Son of Frankenstein, Heinrich Frankenstein actually had two children, and the other one, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Wolf's "von" having been lost two time), is living in nearby Visaria, where he runs a successful mental institution. Although it's not clear to me that Scott Darling has a clear idea of what that entails, since the first time we see Ludwig (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), he's just stitching a patient up after a tremendously successful round of brain surgery with his colleagues Dr. Kettering (Barton Yarborough) and Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill). Some thick slabs of exposition inform us that Bohmer once was Ludwig's teacher, and that the brain surgery was based on his studies; unfortunately, years of professional set-backs have left him the younger man's subordinate, a fact that he bears with a small but discernible level of frustration. That will be important for later.

Ygor and the monster arrive in Visaria and get directions from a convenient blind girl (Janet Warren) tending geese. While Ygor heads off to find Ludwig, the monster makes a bee-line for a group of youths tormenting a little girl named Cloestine (Janet Ann Gallow), helping her get a tether ball off a roof, and in the process scaring the hell out of the entire Visarian population, who think it's going to throw her off the building. It is swiftly captured and put in jail, and given a cursory inspection by the city prosecutor Erik Ernst (Ralph Bellamy), who determines that the large mute thing is plainly not a reanimated patchwork corpse - apparently, rumors from Frankenstein town don't get as far as an urban center like Visaria - but a mentally retarded brute, and he heads right over to Ludwig - whose daughter Elsa (Evelyn Ankers) is Erik's sweetheart, conveniently enough - for advice.

Ludwig agrees, very absently, to check on the prisoner, but no sooner does Erik leave than the doctor gets a chance to put the pieces together. Ygor shows up, announces that he has the monster, and if Ludwig doesn't help get to fix it, certain awkward facts about Heinrich and Wolf, and their infamous experiments, are going to make live in Visaria most unpleasant for the only Frankenstein who actually has a problem with trying to cheat death via piecing together dead bodies.

It's at this point that I start to lose track of the plot, exactly; The Ghost of Frankenstein is full of incident but light on well-ordered drama. In a nutshell, Ludwig wants to kill the creature once and for all by dissecting it bit by bit; and this idea seems even better after it escapes from the asylum in his huge manor home and threatens Elsa, before killing Kettering. Bohmer resists, thinking that Ludwig's plan is murder, plain and simple, and a visit from the ghost of Heinrich Frankenstein - played by Hardwicke in place of the now-deceased Colin Clive - convinces Ludwig that the better plan would be to replace its abnormal brain with a wise and noble and educated brain, like... like... Kettering's! Ygor doesn't like this idea as such, but he thinks a brain transplant is a fairly sound concept; what about the brain of a certain crippled killer who thinks that the monster is the one good friend he has in the world? Of course, Ludwig knows better than to make someone as crafty as wicked as Ygor an unstoppable monster with superhuman strength, but Ygor manages to prey upon Bohmer's latent resentment and get that doctor on his side. The monster itself, having imprinted upon Cloestine like a duckling, would much prefer to have the little girl's gentle, innocent brain to any other. So the stage is set for a mighty showdown that ends the only way such things can: with a Frankenstein household burning to the damn ground.

Setting aside how much of the back half of the movie really does feel like it was all crammed together just because stuff has to happen, The Ghost of Frankenstein isn't a bad '40s B-movie at all. In fact, the only angle by which it's a failure is as the fourth Frankenstein movie: continuity starts to get pretty damn wobbly, as does chronology (it's hard to square Ludwig's twenty-something daughter with Wolf's five-year-old son, especially since Wolf clearly ought to be the elder brother), and everything about this movie is much more pedestrian than its forebears: it has virtually none of the same visual panache, and hardly a trace of their thematic density (it's the first of the four to give no credit at all to Mary Shelley, for what it's worth).

But it's a fun enough little scrap of nothing, borne up by Hardwicke's appealing performance as Ludwig Frankenstein, and by Lugosi's credibly restrained return to the role of wicked old Ygor. The only point in the movie where he really drifts into outrageous, unsupportable camp is after the transplant, when his voice starts to come out of Chaney's mouth; and even this is not so silly as it easily could have been.

As for Chaney, he wasn't a tenth the actor that Karloff was, but he manages to do some good by the monster. With a persona that, as I've mentioned, is best thought of as "the big dumb gentle guy", he brought some of the simple humanity back to the character that was largely absent from Son of Frankenstein in the scenes with Cloestine, which were plainly meant to recall the little girl by the lake from the first Frankenstein, and are by far the most touching moments in the whole movie. At the same time, Chaney can't really stomp around snarling and threatening all that well - he did a far better job of that in The Wolf Man - making this the least effective of all the series as a straight-up horror film. Though it is to be acknowledged that the intended audience here was not the same as the others.

Producer George Waggner (who made the last truly good Universal monster film until the 1950s with The Wolf Man) and director Erle C. Kenton largely abandon the atmospheric pyrotechnics for which Universal horror remains best-known, and this certainly hurts the film, and leaves it rather desperately unmemorable, and undistinguished; hence I cannot claim in good faith that it's worth bothering with it for anyone but a Frankenstein completist. It's not loopy enough to be a good bad movie, and not accomplished enough for anything else. But it's an easy thing to watch, and it meets all of its hugely modest goals. However little it adds to the brand name of Frankenstein, you could never say that it's shameful. In just one short year, that would prove to be a more praiseworthy statement than you might think.

Reviews in this series
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

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