The Frankenstein family has always had a problem with one very specific aspect of the mad science arena. It’s that awkward game of musical brains. Take the brain out of patient A and place into the noggin of patient B, and all will work out fine, right? Well, not so much. Even with the best of intentions, the Frankensteins of both the Universal and Hammer film mythos always seem to stumble in that last lap of the brain-‐borrowing event.
In the fourth entry of Universal’s classic monster series, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN finds Ludwig (the second son of the original Baron) attempting to put right the chaos created by his departed dad’s creation. At this point the Monster has survived a burning windmill, an exploding laboratory, several gunshots to the heart and a swan dive into a pot of fresh sulfur soup, so it’s clearly time to consider some other options. The new plan is to replace the Monster’s abnormal brain with that of a much more agreeable fellow. Unfortunately for Ludwig, the Monster’s old buddy Ygor and a jealous colleague have their own ideas of whose ideas should inhabit the big guy’s noodle. This all leads to a rather surprising yet typically fiery climax.
Released in 1942, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN may not be as visually dynamic as the first three entries in the series, but it does have some nifty elements to offer. Director Erle C. Kenton was not exactly an “actor’s director,” but this cast is strong enough to fend for themselves within the constraints of the melodrama. As Ludwig, Sir Cedric Hardwicke makes a perfectly reasonable man of science, and gets to double as his own father’s ghost (the original Henry Frankenstein, Colin Clive, had died several years earlier). Bela Lugosi returns as the crafty Ygor, although he appears to have had a sweet makeover and some radical dental work done since the last film. Playing the treasonous Dr. Bohmer, Lionel Atwill is as deliciously unctuous as ever, and studio regulars Evelyn Ankers and Patrick Knowles are on hand to react and be pretty as needed.
Lon Chaney Jr. inherits the role of the Monster from three-‐time champ Boris Karloff, who cut the cord believing the character would be reduced to nothing more than a set piece in future episodes. But Karloff actually jumped the gun, because the Monster has a much juicier role here than in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. What Chaney may lack in nuance he makes up for in sheer power. His Monster is massive, forcible and eerily silent…which makes the big reveal in the last act all the more jolting.
Almost thirty years later, director Terence Fisher fashioned a formidable Frankenstein sequel for Hammer studios, the fifth installment in their colorful franchise. FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED brings reliable Peter Cushing back to the unregistered operating table as the titular Baron, this time attempting to save the brain of a dying colleague. Sounds like a noble quest, doesn’t it? Yes, but this Baron Frankenstein is as cold as ice, resorting to the blackmail and violation of a young couple, and naturally a few murders to achieve his goal. Along the way there is a raid on an insane asylum, a broken water main that unearths a ghastly surprise and a violent clash between a burglar and a masked monster.
This is Cushing’s show, and he owns it in every scene, alternately wielding contemptuous charm and ruthless determination. We laugh as the Baron dismisses a pack of pompous fops for their ignorance, and then shudder as he spontaneously executes one of his own team. The supporting cast may take a back seat to Cushing’s malevolence, but they all deliver winning performances. Simon Ward and the stunning Veronica Carlson play the reluctant accomplices to the Baron’s machinations, and Freddie Jones is particularly sympathetic as the unwilling new host of an old brain.
This is the most brutal of all the Hammer Frankenstein films. The gore content is particularly high, with disembodied heads popping out of hatboxes and severe-looking hand tools drilling through blood-soaked craniums. Pretty strong stuff for late 60’s matinee material, it was branded with an M (for “Mature”) rating at the time of its release.
Both FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN finish with a final confrontation between the doctor and the creation, and both go out in a blazing fury. Cushing would return (slightly more subdued) as the Baron one more time for Hammer. The Universal Monster would change actors twice more and basically become the third act of the “monster mashup” sequels that followed. If we have learned anything from the cinematic grafting of grey matter, it is certainly this: As long as there are Frankensteins, there is bound to be the bumbling of brains… followed by an impromptu barbecue.