Bela Lugosi needs no introduction among horror enthusiasts. Forever more will he be associated with the nocturnal Prince of Darkness, Count Dracula, for his phenomenal portrayal of Bram Stoker’s titular character. Laying the foundations for the future of talking horror flicks to follow in his haunted footsteps Lugosi also ensured the future of Universal as the House of Horrors.
Doubtlessly whenever his name is mentioned people primarily associate the late actor with his immortal vampire role. Moldy castles, gargantuan spider webs, capes, shadows, and those piercing eyes are forever etched in the edifice of horror history. Had the man played only one role – that of Dracula – it is for certain he would have secured a timeless legacy.
What many people sadly miss out on though are the other horror roles Lugosi likewise immortalized by that devilish charm and uncanny of his. Briefly, I am obligated to mention his monstrous role played in Island of Lost Souls, a retelling of the Island of Dr. Moreau, where Lugosi chews up his scenes with feral passionate intensity.
And then there’s today’s topic at hand – the one and only Ygor, the lumbering grave robber who sensationally steals the show in the third installment of Universal’s Frankenstein legacy, Son of Frankenstein. Critics and horror enthusiasts alike praise James Whales’ horror legends Frankenstein and its celebrated sequel Bride of Frankenstein. Sadly though that’s usually where people stop watching the legacy. Probably assuming nothing that followed could match up to the two remarkable films Whales accomplished to make. Daring, frightening, and downright shocking were the first two movies. So much so that when Boris Karloff’s face was first revealed as the monster people hid under their seats in the theater.
The third installment not only holds up but is just as magnificent as its prior movies. Mainly due to the combined charisma of Karloff and Lugosi working together. Both playing monsters, both shining with macabre excellence, but, if we’re being fully honest here, it is dear ol’ Bela Lugosi who steals the movie and brilliantly outshines Karloff’s uncanny monster.
Karloff fought to get Lugosi in the role and insisted the man share in the top billing. Thankfully he won because otherwise the world would have been robbed of one helluva monstrous character! So iconic is Lugosi’s Ygor that to this very day people assume all hunchback lab assistants in gothic horror tales are Ygor.
The truth is the hunchback assistant in the first movie is called Fritz and there was no hunchback in the original novel at all. However, Lugosi immortalized the monster and cemented his hideous grin all across horror history. Making him a gothic staple just as much as windmills, cemeteries, and crumbling castles.
Whereas Dracula was played seriously, grim, and downright dapper Ygor is polar opposite the image. Ygor is grungy, smells like deep earth from the graves he robs, dirty, and hairy. He was hanged from the gallows but didn’t stay dead, a fact to which Ygor gleefully gloats about in the film. “They die, dead! I die, live!” he says with a devilish smile.
In the film, Basil Rathbone plays the son of Frankenstein returning back to his family castle where the village people are not too happy to have another Frankenstein in their midst. There Wolf Frankenstein (can we please take a moment to marvel at how METAL that name is) is met by a snooping Ygor who enlists the young doctor into reviving the old monster of his father’s making. Reluctant at first, Wolf finally agrees unable to pass up the chance to improve upon his father’s work. Meanwhile, Ygor has befriended the monster and uses him to kill the men who found him guilty and sentenced him to death. So on the one hand Ygor is using Frankenstein to revive his buddy the monster. And on the other, he’s using the monster to avenge his enemies. Ygor is the devil sitting on everyone’s shoulder instigating and manipulating as he wishes. And he’s laughing his ass off as he does it.
Someone said that Ygor is the instigator among all the Universal Monsters and I like that image. I like to think he lumbers around and stirs up mischief among the Mummy and the Gillman. He would steal the Wolfman’s bone and hide it in Dracula’s coffin as a way to make the two fight. Crazy shit like that and if confronted about it he’d just put his hands in the air, shrug his shoulders, smile, and say “Ygor not do wrong. Ygor was gone fishing.” Or something like that.
Neca’s been releasing the Universal line right now and I’m hoping someone there has the foresight to make us a proper Ygor figure. I’d throw money at that quick as a lightning bolt.
So here’s to Bela Lugosi and the marvelous monsters and giddy ghouls he gave us. If you’ve not seen Son of Frankenstein this Halloween would be a good time to correct that. It’s also the final time Boris Karloff would play the iconic role of the monster and does so beautifully.