THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) 6th August 1977 22.50-23.55
‘You can make us one. We’ll be together always. My brain and his body. Together.’
Ygor (Bela Lugosi)
So after the enjoyable diversion into tortured lesbian vampires and Cornish zombies of the previous week, the following Saturday’s BBC2 horror double bill returned to the central spine of the season, Universal’s unfolding Frankenstein series with the next entry: The Ghost of Frankenstein.
It’s hard to argue too vigorously with the received wisdom that The Ghost of Frankenstein marks the beginning of the series’ downturn in quality. It’s an enjoyable, fast-paced and efficient little film, but it is a little film, both in the quite literal sense of its B movie-suitable 68 minute running time, making it the shortest film in the Frankenstein series, and in the evident lack of both the financial and the creative resources which had characterised the previous three films.
It’s not only shorter than the other films; it’s flatter. The set design, despite the presence of the brilliant middle European village which Universal was to use and re-use through its second wave 40s monster rallies, is neutral and anonymous when set against the lavish production designs of the earlier Frankenstein movies. The lighting and cinematography are also somewhat bland, and to demonstrate that this is not merely a case of judging a cheaper B-movie by the standards of its more expensive A-feature predecessors, compare Ghost of Frankenstein with its equally cheap and cheerful but richly atmospheric near-contemporaries, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The problems with Ghost of Frankenstein are due at least as much to a lack of imagination as a lack of cash, and they are thrown into even sharper relief by the inclusion of a flashback scene of footage from the original 1931 Frankenstein. It’s a bad sign for a film when its most impressive sequence is actually taken from another film made eleven years earlier.
The rather more uninspired, formulaic approach extends to the narrative itself, which begins with a group of disgruntled torch-bearing villagers storming a castle and ends with a different group of disgruntled torch-bearing villagers storming a different castle.
It also infects some of the performances. No-one is dialling it in exactly, but with the exception of Lugosi no-one seems able to bring more to the script than it deserves. Cedric Hardwicke is perfectly effective and assured as Ludwig, Henry Frankenstein’s other son, but his stolid respectability feels more than a little flat when measured against the manic, hysterical qualities both Colin Clive and Basil Rathbone had previously brought to the surgical table.
The always reliable Lionel Atwill – yes, he’s back again – lends some skilfully drawn elements of wounded pride, professional jealousy and low cunning to his role as Doctor Bohmer, but there is none of the wonderful inventiveness he leant to Inspector Krogh in the previous film. The equally reliable Evelyn Ankers is fine as Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter Elsa, but nothing like as affecting as she had been in The Wolf Man.
And to address the elephant in the room, there is a Karloff-shaped hole at the centre of The Ghost of Frankenstein which, for all his considerable bulk, Lon Chaney junior is unable to fill. In my mind, the film is closely allied to Dracula’s Daughter for the way in which both films, whatever strengths they may have to offer, are ultimately defined and dominated by the fact that their leading men – Karloff and Lugosi respectively – are missing from the film.
Chaney’s broader features present an immediate physical contrast to Karloff’s gaunt, haunted visage, but his largely immobile face also lacks Karloff’s expressiveness, and although I wouldn’t go so far as to say Chaney gives a bad performance, the lack of Karloff’s subtlety makes it an oddly hollow one. Chaney’s is a monster emptied of character. Moments obviously intended to give opportunity for some Karloffian nuance and pathos – the tenderness between Ygor and the monster, the scene where Chaney encounters a little village girl and carries her to a rooftop to fetch her lost ball – fall strangely flat here, and in these moments the absence of Karloff is a much more powerful impression than the presence of Chaney.
Not that the film has nothing to enjoy. There’s a particular thrill for the sharp eyed fanboy in noticing that the first set of villagers includes Dwight Frye, who had gabbled and giggled and chewed the scenery with the best of them as Renfield in Dracula and Fritz the hunchback in Frankenstein – his blink and you’ll miss him appearance here ready testimony to a career fall even more precipitous than Lugosi’s. Lugosi himself, reprising his favourite role as Ygor, introduced in Son of Frankenstein, effortlessly dominates the opening and is by some margin the best thing in Ghost of Frankenstein.
He’s given some great lines. ‘Your father was Frankenstein – but your mother was the lightning!’ is a belter which Lugosi relishes to the full. Ygor’s sly manipulation of the ‘educated and cunning but not quite as cunning as uneducated Ygor’ Dr. Bohmer works wonderfully and is beautifully played by both Atwill and Lugosi. But even Lugosi, magnificent though he is here, does not quite reach the standard he set in Son of Frankenstein, at least partly because in the crucial interactions, Chaney’s monster doesn’t offer him the kind of subtlety and personality to play against which he was afforded by Karloff.
The return of Ygor is certainly the most enjoyable element of a film which, whatever its shortcomings, remains intensely watchable, but the manner in which The Ghost of Frankenstein manages his return might itself be revealing.
I must admit to loving the cheerfully slapdash speed with which Ygor’s startling resurrection after being unequivocally shot to death by Basil Rathbone at the end of Son of Frankenstein is explained away with a portentous, and utterly nonsensical line of dialogue – ‘Ygor does not die that easily…’. Even so I can’t help wondering if it isn’t also the jump the shark point for the series; the moment where Universal begins to display a degree of contempt for its own output. How do you bring back a character from the dead? Who cares?
Ygor’s return from the undiscovered country from whose bourn only he, Jesus and Elvis have ever made it back alive has more than a hint of Bobby Ewing suddenly appearing in the shower; some sense of the screenwriters holding up their hands in surrender as though a white towel were being hurled at the feet of any last vestiges of credibility. A sense, in other words, that any old rubbish will do for an audience stupid enough to like this sort of thing in the first place.
Certainly the lack of respect for continuity irritated my twelve year old self (who in many ways was so much older and more earnest than the middle-aged child writing these words today) as he sat in front of the latest BBC2 horror double bill muttering his fanboy outrage about flagrant disregard for canon. He didn’t mutter for long, however, because he loved The Ghost of Frankenstein, uncritically and entirely.
The young adolescent is a strange audience. At that age I could be peeved by the lack of realism in the continuity, even though the result of it was that I got another fantastic hour of Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, but beyond that I simply did not register that, on the whole, the film just wasn’t as good as the others. The truth is that, watching in 1977, I didn’t notice the flat, unimaginative sets. I didn’t notice the lack of atmospheric, fog-enshrouded visuals once Ygor and the Monster had stumbled through a well-realised graveyard in the opening moments. I didn’t notice the flatness of Chaney’s performance. I didn’t notice that the Monster’s fondness for the little village girl here was any less convincing than Karloff’s affection for Donnie Dunagan in Son of Frankenstein. I didn’t notice that the narrative more or less went round in a circle, or that the ghost of Ludwig’s father didn’t look much – or at all – like Colin Clive. Perhaps above all, I just didn’t notice how much less complex, demanding and grown-up this film was than its predecessors.
All I saw, watching wide-eyed as The Ghost of Frankenstein flickered across the TV screen back in 1977, was that this was the next Frankenstein film and that as such it was, by definition, utterly and completely brilliant.
And some days, if I’m very lucky and the wind is in the right direction, there’s just enough of that twelve year old left in me that I can, sometimes, manage to relish the uncomplicated, undemanding, ungrown-up things that can be a part of what makes life worth living without feeling the need to analyse and dissect and unpack them until all the joy and wonder slips away through my tightening fingers. On those rare days, I still love The Ghost of Frankenstein – amongst other things – enthusiastically and breathlessly and whole-heartedly, and although age and experience mean I can’t be quite so blind to the flaws of the film or to the greyness of so much of existence as I once was, I can at least adjust the focus of my eyes a little to catch a fleeting glimpse of a film, and a world, that shines with child-like delight if viewed without cynicism.
Some of the best things of all in The Ghost of Frankenstein centre around the film’s approach to personality, identity and psychology in the brilliantly bonkers brain-swapping shenanigans that form the climax of the narrative.
It started in the very first film of course, with Dwight Frye’s butter-fingered Fritz dropping the handily labelled ‘Normal Brain’ intended for Henry Frankenstein’s creation and rapidly substituting it with the jar marked ‘Abnormal Brain’. Interestingly though, the original film doesn’t submit to an idea as deterministic as the fact that the Monster is dangerous because of a simple and physiological question of brain tissue and brain chemistry. Rather, Whale’s original 1931 masterpiece seems to suggest it is misunderstanding and mistreatment (as at the hands of the sadistic torch wielding Fritz himself, persecuting a cowering and whimpering Karloff) which prompts the Monster’s ferocity, not the mere unalterable fact of him getting the brain stamped ‘Abnormal.’
I was reminded of Fritz and his handy labels not long ago, when a colleague of mine came into the staff room clutching a 1960s teacher training text book which she had found in a clear-out of her stock cupboard. One chapter was titled How to spot a Mental Defective and was illustrated with a black and white photograph of an unfortunate child smiling at the camera accompanied by the helpful caption ‘A Mental Defective.’ I’d like to take this opportunity to offer a copy of the book in question to anyone who finds themselves overusing the phrase ‘Political Correctness Gone Mad’ to give vent to their irritation at the modern world, as a gentle reminder that there are worse follies than well-meaning if a little over-earnest attempts to make some of the ways in which we use language a bit less offensive.
If the original Frankenstein lights a subtle Bunsen burner under the test-tube debate surrounding identity, mental illness and the physiological versus the psychological, The Ghost of Frankenstein turns up the heat and watches gleefully with a maniacal cackle as it bubbles out of the test tube, across the laboratory table and over the floor.
To begin with, Ludwig Frankenstein is not a research scientist in the vein of his father, but instead runs a hospital for Diseases of the Mind. The asylum is of course, one of the archetypal settings for horror – perhaps initiated as such in literature by Dr. Seward’s sanatarium in Dracula, though there may well be earlier examples I’m forgetting. Pre-dating what we now think of as the horror genre of course, the depiction of insanity as a source of simultaneous comedy and terror is one of the key conventions of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy, but in the horror film it is the madhouse itself, as much as its inhabitants, which carries the power.
As such, Ludwig Frankenstein’s sun-drenched, rose-gardened hospital is considerably less overtly gothic than, say, Seward’s asylum in Badham’s 1978 Dracula, Boris Karloff’s institution in the 1946 Bedlam, or the eponymous Asylum from one of the best of the Amicus portmanteau films. Even so, it’s brightly-lit upper levels and clinical laboratories conceal a network of stone dungeons in the basement which Ludwig uses to conceal the Monster, and it can fairly easily be read as a metaphor for the conscious, rational mind above and the dark primordial chaos of the unconscious mind beneath.
The metaphor might be extended by seeing Hardwicke’s icily controlled Ludwig as the living embodiment of the disapproving superego , facing down the wild aggression of Chaney’s monster with no more than a stern look and a stiff upper lip. Atwill’s Dr Bohmer then becomes walking ego, serving his own ends through an entirely self-centred rationalism, with the Monster as pure Id, child-like in his appetites and instincts. Ygor, perhaps, sits somewhere between the two.
For many an English child of the 1970s though, the local mental hospital had attained a kind of mythic quality in real life rather than simply in old films. We all somehow seemed to live in the shadow of the ‘looney bin’ back then. Those old, often Victorian-built buildings lurked stonily in the corners of every major city, but they loomed just as large in the adolescent conversations and urban myths of the time as they did in the topography of the suburbs. Listening in to our ‘this really happened…true story…friend of a friend…’ narratives back then anyone would have been convinced there was a wild-eyed knife-wielding escapee around every corner, even before John Carpenter rendered the trope immortal in Halloween.
The truth about our own local institution was more benign, as I had every reason to know, since that was where my dad worked. He’d moved between jobs a fair bit as a young man, from the navy to the railways to the prisons, but from the point I begin to have any really continuous memory up until his retirement, a period of about twenty years, he was a maintenance electrician at St Andrews Hospital, a fifteen minute walk away from our house. For all our excitable adolescent urban myth whispering, there was never any real sense of threat about the place. It was a relatively open site, with voluntary and non-dangerous patients who were free, if they wished, to have a wander out of the grounds and up to the river or the local shops.
Mostly, there was just sadness. A sizeable number of the patients were Polish immigrants who had arrived during the war, some of them to fight against Hitler, and then, largely due to language difficulties and no-one really knowing where to put them when the war was over, they had been housed temporarily in the hospital, and twenty or thirty years later were too institutionalised to be anywhere else.
Occasionally, there was also laughter. I hope we weren’t quite like the fashionable Georgian ladies and gentlemen whose idea of an entertaining afternoon out was to nip down to Bedlam to laugh at the loonies, but Dad would sometimes have us in stitches with his accounts of some of the more bizarre behaviours he’d come across in his time there.
There was the little old lady who pretended to be asleep in an armchair and then, as soon as dad’s back was turned, leapt to her feet, scuttled across the ward, unplugged his drill from the wall, and then rushed back to the armchair and resumed snoring as though nothing had happened, repeating the whole exercise four or five times much to dad’s bafflement before he finally spotted her in the act. There was the patient who registered his protest against the rather demeaning uniforms the inmates were still being forced to wear in the early days of my dad’s time in the hospital by solemnly removing the much hated straw boater from his head, placing it on the floor in front of him, urinating copiously into the offending headwear, and then returning it to its rightful position.
As time went on and I got a bit older – by now the BBC2 horror double fan with whom you’ve become all too familiar – dad used to take me down to the hospital most Sundays for us to take advantage of the full sized snooker table in the recreation room, and on these jaunts I would often meet one or two of the patients whose personalities and peculiarities had assumed almost legendary status.
The one I remember best was a gentle giant of a man named Sid Stoneybroke, so called because whenever he saw any of the hospital workers he would stand stock still, arms outstretched like the crucified Christ and call out ‘Stoney Broke’ at which point my dad, or whoever happened to be on the receiving end of Sid’s dignified demonstration of tragic impecunity, would hand him 10p or whatever small denomination coin they had on them. These Sid would put together to buy his favourite delicacy, tinned spam. He would then remove the spam from the tin, storing the meat in the pocket of his jacket until it attained just the degree of sweatiness he preferred.
I think it’s a relatively typical sign of the times that Dad’s hospital, as I always thought of and referred to it, is no longer there. The hospital itself has long since closed down, its sprawling grounds, its cricket pitch and its bowling green ploughed up and built over, the whole site now just an ugly conglomeration of office blocks. It leaves me with slightly mixed feelings I have to say. On the one hand, those vast old residential institutions were a ghastly throwback to a Bedlam model of mental illness, and their closure in favour of the much more right-on sounding ‘Care in the Community’ programmes a cause for nothing but celebration. Even so, a progressive phrase like ‘Care in the Community’ can actually be a mealy-mothed euphemism for ‘Close that expensive institution, sell the site off to private businesses in a thinly disguised land-grab swindle and dump the residents onto the street,’ while Dad’s hospital, and the men and women who worked there, did at least offer some kind of security and safety to the patients who had ended up there.
I wonder where Sid Stoneybroke would find himself in today’s world.
I also wonder now, as I began to even then, what happens to explain how someone ends up slipping so far outside of society’s norms. Is this a matter of tablets, and chemicals, and concrete physical abnormalities in the brain, or is it simply a question of what Thomas Szasz, dismissing the very idea of mental illness, insisted were merely ‘difficulties in living.’ Where does our personality, our identity, lie? Is there a ‘mind’ which is somehow distinct from the simply physical ‘brain’? As Morrisey once elegantly had it – Does the body rule the mind or does the mind rule the body? I dunno.
The breathtakingly entertaining ending of Ghost of Frankenstein insists on a very simple and straightforward physiological resolution to the debate. Brain transplants. When Ygor’s brain ends up inside the Monster’s skull, the Monster speaks with Lugosi’s instantly recognisable voice. It appears the brain even transcends an entirely different set of lungs and vocal chords. Of course, Ygor is not the only contender for transplant in a filmic climax that might be subtitled ‘Whose Brain is It Anyway’?
Cedric Hardwicke’s Ludwig Frankenstein is persuaded out of his initial plan to destroy the Monster through dissection by the appearance of the ghost of his father – who interestingly looks and sounds like an out of focus Hardwicke himself rather than Colin Clive (who appears in flashback elsewhere in the film) perhaps seeming to suggest a subtler, more psychological and Freudian sense of different parts of the self talking to one another rather than the speedy brain-swaps of the film’s denouement. Instead he decides to replace the monster’s brain with that of his kindly colleague, Dr Kettering, recently murdered by Lon Chaney on the rampage. In this way, he is convinced, the Monster’s destructive tendencies, which are only there because of a diseased brain, will disappear.
The Monster himself, however, has a different candidate in mind. He fancies the brain of the little girl with whom he bonded over a ball on a rope, perhaps seeing in her grey matter the possibility of a return to a child-like innocence for himself. Karloff’s Monster was already a child-like innocent, able to convey this movingly in a gesture or two. Chaney’s Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein is essentially brutish, and can only aspire to innocence with the transfusion of a handy child’s brain. To this end he kidnaps the little girl, and when Ygor tries to persuade him to a different course he crushes his only friend behind a door.
Ygor has still other plans. As he tells Ludwig ‘Ygor’s body is no good. His neck is broken, crippled, and distorted. Lame and sick from the bullets your brother fired into me.’ As a result, he fancies the kind of strength and power he could achieve with his ‘sly and sinister’ brain in the Monster’s massive frame. Unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Ludwig, he works smoothly on manipulating Atwill’s Dr Bohmer, who surreptitiously substitutes Ygor’s brain for Kettering’s prior to Hardwicke transplanting it into the Monster.
In the end though, the film’s relentlessly physiological approach to identity is the undoing of the Ygor Monster. A matter of blood incompatibility renders him blind. ‘What good is a body without eyes?’ he cries. Then the second group of villagers launch their attack and everything blows up. Again.
Not necessarily influenced by The Ghost of Frankenstein, nor by Sid Stoneybroke and my dad’s place of work, nor even by my fear of becoming like Norman, the special boy in my primary school who used to do a strange dance and sometimes didn’t make it to the toilet, I used to genuinely fear as a child that my brain would stop working properly and I would become a different person. At one point I learned a new long word and carefully consigned it to memory as a way of reassuring myself that so long as I could remember that special word I knew my brain was still working. I’ve actually included it in this post, and there’s a special prize (not really) for anyone who wants to hazard a guess as to the identity of my talismanic ‘still not mental’ word. If you think you’ve found it feel free to offer a suggestion in the comments section below. Sort of like the crappest DVD Easter egg ever.
Even today though, losing my mind is my greatest fear. There may, admittedly, be more immediate ones. Heights terrify me. So does change. And so do thick set men with sticks. That last one dates back to high school hockey – all the same people I was scared of in rugby lessons, but now they were heavily armed. So perhaps if a thick set man with a stick took me to a high place and forced me to change, it’s conceivable that my fear of losing my mind might slip briefly onto the backburner, but in the ordinary run of things it’s the biggie.
I’m far more frightened by Alzheimer’s, for instance, than by cancer or heart disease. Don’t get me wrong – I have plenty of fear to go round, and I can devote hours of terror to a twinge in my chest, or a dull ache in my left gonad but, for me at least, dementia tops the lot. A heart attack, an inoperable tumour – they just take your life. But Alzheimer’s? It steals your soul and leaves you hanging around. That’s the last and nastiest twist of the knife – it kills you, absolutely; it utterly annihilates everything that you are, or ever were, or ever could be, but you’re still here.
That uncanny and problematic combination of absence and presence is right at the heart of horror, an insidious evil and a pervasive fear. The clown’s frozen face; the zombie’s shambling walking deadness. That which looks like us but isn’t. In horror’s animated corpses and doppelgangers, in its devil dolls and moving statues, we are trembling at an awful prefiguring of one possible future. That one day we will walk, and talk, and not be us at all; both present and finally, irrevocably absent.
An aunt of mine died recently, at the age of 91. No tragedy in that, certainly. It might almost be the definition of that proverbial ‘good innings’. The only tragedy was that she didn’t die three or four years sooner, before dementia had taken hold and siphoned her away in stages, leaving her an angry and increasingly emaciated zombie on a bed, shouting meaninglessly at the world around her. If I’d had the chance to offer her Ygor’s brain I’d have done it quicker than you can say ‘Hardwicke’, but unfortunately brain transplants are not yet available on the NHS, even if one of the workers in her care home did bear more than a passing resemblance to Lionel Atwill.