The Ghost of Frankenstein is an intriguing film, which can be loved or not depending on the perspective from which is viewed. While a fast paced, entertaining B-movie on its own, it also shows how far the Universal Horror franchise had moved from its origins, in terms of both character and execution.
Set after the events of Son of Frankenstein, the previous film in the franchise (with a town meeting providing some handy flashback and plot info), the film starts with an angry mob blowing up Castle Frankenstein to finally draw a line under the Doctor's experiments, and those of his son. However, this (somehow) actually has the effect of freeing Frankenstein's monster (Lon Chaney Jr) from the sulphur pits that were trapping him. Frankenstein's assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi) has also, miraculously, survived and the two flee to the nearby town of Vasaria, where a second, previously unmentioned Frankenstein son lives. He is also a Doctor, working with his assistant Dr Bohmer (Lionel Attwill) on a method for transplanting brains. Seeing an opportunity to test his theories, Frankenstein arranges to replace the damaged brain of the monster with a healthy one – but Ygor and Bohmer have other ideas.
It is hard to criticise The Ghost of Frankenstein for being what it is – a fast moving, atmospheric, hokey piece of entertainment, with all the tropes we associate with the genre, such as monsters, scientists, laboratories, lightning and angry mobs. Despite a fairly high amount of expositional dialogue, the script races through the storyline, and at 67 minutes long, the film does not out stay its welcome.
The star of the show is definitely Lugosi, reprising his role from Son of Frankenstein, giving a playful performance that is great fun to watch. Less successful is Lon Chaney JR taking on the role of the monster, as he lacks the pathos that Boris Karloff brought to the role and the and self-awareness, leaving a creature who is no longer a tragic monster, but simply a monster. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Frankenstein as less manic and intense than his predecessors but still gives the character some dignity, while Lionel Attwill is underused, but still makes the most of his scenes, always at his best playing a slimy, power hungry villain.
The direction, by Erle C. Kenton, is competent if unimaginative (apart from a few interesting height perspective shots involving the monster and a little girl), and is certainly no match for the ground-breaking work James Whale did with Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, or the arch humour of those films. However, in fairness to Kenton, his budget was clearly no match either, and he still manages to produce some good model effects with Castle Frankenstein, as well as a laboratory full of gadgets, bubbling beakers and fizzing electrical coils.
One interesting new development from the previous films is the role of the lynch mob and the audience feeling towards this. Whereas it was possible to empathise with the Karloff monster when being hounded by a torch and pitchfork wielding crowd, the Chaney version is less sympathetic, so when a child is threatened and villagers killed by him, the anger and fright felt is more understandable than from those just lashing out at something that they do not understand.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of The Ghost of Frankenstein may depend on the context that you watch it in. Within the cycle of Universal Horror, particularly the Frankenstein series, it can be seen a sad comedown from the glory days of the Whale films. However, watched on its own terms it is still great fun, and a breezy slice of monsters, mobs, and mad scientists.