'The Ghost of Frankenstein' is the fourth in the long line of horror movies based upon Mary Shelley's creation, and is the first NOT to feature Boris Karloff as the monster. However, the film does assemble a stellar line-up of Universal favourites, including Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr as the Monster.
The movie involves Frankenstein's monster once again being reawakened from his sulphurous tomb, and, led by Ygor (in a wonderfully perverse portrayal from Lugosi), sets off to find the son of his creator (the previous film was actually called 'Son of Frankenstein', and the Frankenstein in 'Ghost...' is the brother of the other son). Before long, this other Dr. Frankenstein (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke) plans to replace the diseased brain of the Monster with the brain of a good person, curing the creature of its' evil. But Ygor, and the mislead Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) have other plans....
Unlike the previous three films, the plot here is decidely sillier and less important, and would set the scene for pretty much every sequel afterward. Mad scientists, incomprehensible science, and dead characters returning from the grave in ever more convoluted ways would become the standard. What matters here is less what happens, and more, how it happens.
Right from the off, the audience is drawn in to the so-called 'Curse of Frankenstein', with the ending of the previous movie explained away, and the return of the Monster from its' sulpher tomb dealt with just minutes after the opening credits. The angry mob, carrying their flaming torches and raiding a ruined castle to rid it of the evil within, has now become a staple of those old Universal films, and a cliche. It's a short-hand way of setting the scene and stirring up the action, and it is highly effective, if rather unoriginal.
Indeed, this film feels like a 'best of' of the Frankenstein films, with little in the way of totally fresh ideas. The Monster becoming friends with a little girl, for instance, is very similar to the 'flowers in the pond' sequence in the original, although there is no disturbing child death here. Saying that, the friendship between the Monster and the little girl (in a wonderful and honest performance by Janet Ann Gallow) is a beautiful sight to behold, and their initial meeting in the movie is one of the films' strongest moments.
Performance-wise, 'The Ghost of Frankenstein' is excellent. Bela Lugosi brings delightful menace to the character of Ygor, without going over the top. Seeing him play that peculiar horn in order to lure the Monster toward him is strangely fascinating, and his delivery of such poetic lines as, "Your father was Frankenstein, but your mother was the lightning!" is absolutely spot-on.
Indeed, despite the unoriginality of the plot, and the out-and-out lunacy of the brain-transplant idea (which comes to a head when Ygor has his brain put inside the Monster, so he can have a stronger body with which to rule the world!), Scott Darling and Eric Taylor conjured some gorgeous lines of dialogue in order to create a truly fantastical world, and it's something rarely seen in horror movies today.
As Ludwig Frankenstein, Sir Cedric Hardwicke is believable, mislead, and not at all as villanous as one might expect. He brings a dignity to the role, and a fallibility that allows the audience to sympathise with him. Frankenstein's motives here are totally good, to rid the Monster of its' evil, and Hardwicke emphasizes this with his performance.
Lionel Atwill, as the mislead Doctor Bohmer, is also believable, to a point. Once Ygor tells him that he has to put Ygor's brain into the Monsters body so he can rule all (without Frankenstein knowing, of course), you do have to wonder what Bohmer was thinking, going along with idea! But Atwill brings a nice edge to the character, and he also has a tremendous death scene as well, which is a nice plus.
As the 'good guys' of the film, both Ralph Bellamy (as town prosector Erik), and Evelyn Ankers (as Frankenstein's Daughter, Elsa), have little depth or much in the way of memorable dialogue. The film favours the villains, and so Erik is the do-gooder who saves the day, and Elsa Frankenstein just has to act anxious a lot, scream when she has to, and look good doing it (and miss Ankers is utterly stunning - it's very hard to take your eyes off her!). They fulfill a specific role, and that's all that can be said, really.
Lon Chaney, Jr, best known for playing the Wolfman, must have had the most difficult job. Boris Karloff had made the monster his own in three excellent movies, and yet, Chaney, Jr. takes on the role with gusto. Yes, he is perhaps the most miserable-looking of all the Monsters (which is no mean feat!), but he brings a touch of depth to the creature, particularly in the scenes with the little girl. He doesn't merely lumber around and roar, there's a subtle touch of substance that helps the audience relate to him. Lon Chaney, Jr. perhaps wasn't quite as good as Karloff in this particular role, but he does his best, and it's hard not to feel sorry for him when the angry civilians attack him (on more than one occasion!).
The climax of the film, all electric shocks and explosions, is very good, sharply directed by Erle C. Kenton, and not anywhere near as rushed as the endings of some later sequels. The production values in 'Ghost...' were not as great as the previous three installments', but Kenton, and producer George Waggner, ensured that they did the best with the resources they had at the time, and their ingenuity shines through.