Saturday, August 26, 1978: The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Synopsis: Times are hard in the village of Frankenstein, and a town hall meeting is being held to discuss the situation. The village’s reputation has suffered greatly since the events of Son of Frankenstein (1939) and now the inn stands empty, the children go hungry, and a general atmosphere of despair hangs over the town. What can be done to make life better for the citizens?

Well, not much, the mayor admits. But he allows the villagers to go blow up the abandoned castle of the Frankensteins, which they believe is still carrying the family curse.

Of course it can’t be a real Frankenstein movie without a torch-wielding mob, and this one races off to carry out its mission.

Meanwhile, we find that Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has remained in the old castle, playing a rustic horn (which sounds suspiciously like an oboe) by the sulfur pit where his friend the monster was destroyed in the previous film. When the villagers trigger the explosives and blow apart the castle, the monster is freed, and Ygor is delighted to find that he is still alive, though greatly weakened. The two of them flee the destroyed castle.

They make their way to the nearby village of Vasaria. But the monster is soon captured by the police and imprisoned, and the village prosecutor, (Ralph Bellamy) goes to the local psychiatrist, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) and asks him to come and assess this difficult case.

But before Frankenstein can do so, Ygor pays him a visit as well. He tells Ludwig that he knows something the people of Vasaria don’t know — that he’s the brother of the hated Wolf Frankenstein and the son of the even-more-hated Henry Frankenstein. Moreover, Ygor threatens to reveal this information to the locals if he doesn’t act to help the monster.

Compelled to hide the monster in his laboratory, Ludwig decides that it must be destroyed once and for all. He prepares to drain all of the electricity out of the monster’s body and disassemble it piece by piece, essentially reversing Henry’s installation instructions. But he is visited by the ghost of his father, who implores him to carry on his work and recharge the monster to full power….

Comments: In writing previously about Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I speculated that Elsa Frankenstein must have been the daughter of Ludwig Frankenstein, because (a) Wolf is in exile and (b) she came from Vasaria, just as Ludwig did. Seeing Ghost of Frankenstein again, I realize that Elsa was under my nose the entire time. In fact, she plays a prominent role in this film — she is clearly identified as Ludwig’s daughter. How could I have forgotten her?

The answer is simple, really. I’d forgotten her because she is played by Evelyn Ankers, who never leaves any impression on me whatsoever, either good or bad.

Ankers possesses a sort of generic prettiness, but her looks aren’t remarkable in any way. She is a reasonably good actress, but lacks a definitive style. She has just enough screen presence to be cast as the female lead in Universal horror films, but not quite enough to prevent her from fading into the background whenever the camera is pointed in her direction.

Compare her to Ilona Massey, who played Elsa in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and Anker’s shortcomings become clear. Massey is in every way a striking presence: she projects an aloof and aristocratic manner that barely masks her guilt and anguish over her family’s checkered history. Her Elsa is sharp-eyed and intelligent, someone who sees what is coming and cannot quite prevent it from overtaking her. While these attributes aren’t written into the script, they are evident in Massey’s face and delivery; these are the hints toward an interior life that good actors are able to communicate. Ankers is simply incapable of a performance of that caliber, and so her Elsa is entirely forgettable.

But Elsa’s character doesn’t have a lot to do here, so perhaps it’s unfair to blame Ankers.  This movie ultimately belongs to Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who plays Ludwig, and Bela Lugosi as Ygor.  The two actors are at the absolute top of their game, and particularly riveting in their early scenes together.  Ludwig has made a life for himself beyond the shadow of the Frankenstein clan, but now he is suddenly confronted by a man who can take all that away.  For his part, Ygor knows how much Ludwig enjoys the status and the prestige of his current position; furthermore, he knows that Ludwig’s family knows nothing of his father’s crimes.  Ludwig is a man with everything to lose, and therefore a tempting target for extortion. Had money been Ygor’s motive, things would have ended much more happily.

Ralph Bellamy appears as Vasaria’s prosecutor as well as Elsa’s love interest.  He’s strangely unengaging here, much as he was in The Wolf Man.  But he’s a great pro, and it’s lovely to see an actor in this sort of role who isn’t  Patric Knowles.

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