The Universal Monsters contained a troupe of players both behind and in front of the camera, many of whom performed double or triple duty by working on various entries in the sub-franchises. Think of how Boris Karloff played the Monster, a mummy, and a mad scientist, or how Bela Lugosi was Dracula, Ygor, and a lycanthrope in The Wolf Man. Yet it’s Lon Chaney Jr. that emerges as the lone actor who played nearly every major monster at least once, vampire in Son of Dracula, werewolf in The Wolf Man, the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb. The only parts he didn’t play were the Invisible Man, the Phantom, and the Gill-man.
Not too shabby for an actor to get a chance to run-through many of the major icons of horror cinema, but it’s a damn shame that his crack at the Monster is so poor. Chaney Jr. brought enormous amounts of tragedy and neurotic energy to his Larry Talbot, in the process he crafted a character and performance that stands besides the deservedly iconic work of Lugosi and Karloff in Dracula and Frankenstein. Here he seems to merely be hitting the same beats and poses as Karloff without bringing the same amount of interior conflict and carefully modulated sympathy.
It insist just the notable absence of Karloff that causes The Ghost of Frankenstein to go sideways, but the clear lack of funds on display and a script that’s as stitched together as the Monster work against it. The injection of footage from Whale’s 1931 masterpiece point out just how much is missing here. At least we’ve got Lugosi making his second and final appearance as Ygor, and he’s once again delightfully hammy in the part. He goes beyond Brechtian styles of performance and straight into flagrant disregard for the interiority and craft of acting while chewing the scenery. He’s entertaining to watch, far more than Cedric Hardwicke and Lionel Atwill who feel bland here. It’s not really their fault, though.
The Ghost of Frankenstein is all dressed up with nowhere to go. What do you expect from a film that introduces a secondary Frankenstein heir with flippancy towards continuity with the prior film? There’s the gloriously improbably story beat to place Ygor’s brain in the Monster’s body, this livens things up for a bit as it’s just so completely bonkers that your reaction to it is but a surrendering to its insanity. While The Ghost of Frankenstein is a disappointment, it has the courage to go down in outlandish self-immolation filmed in as generic a manner as possible.