Part 2: Ygor and the Houses of Hunchbacks

Don’t miss the first part of this essay, covering early dramatizations of Frankenstein and the influence of Dwight Frye!

In the early 30s, Dwight Frye played several subservient characters in Universal’s horror films, but it was his 1931 role as the hunchbacked Fritz in Frankenstein that was the first popular portrayal of the “Igor” archetype onscreen. Throughout the late 30s and 40s, more characters would make significant contributions to the “Igor” archetype as well, starting with Universal’s third Frankenstein feature in 1939. This new installment, Son of Frankenstein, would be done with a new writer and a new director: Wyllis Cooper and Rowland V. Lee. This new era of Frankenstein films, one without John L. Balderston and James Whale and soon to be without Boris Karloff, would be denoted by a gradual demotion to B-movie status and, most noticeably, by a hell of a lot more hunchbacks.

Bela Lugosi as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Taking place one generation after 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein depicts the return of the doctor’s son, Wolf Frankenstein, to the family castle, where he discovers the comatose monster. In his absence, the ruins of his father’s laboratory have become the hideout for the scheming hermit Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi. Despite his gnarled appearance, Ygor is not actually a hunchback. He has a twisted neck and spine, but as the result of a botched hanging, not a case of kyphosis. He has no actual hump, and poor posture alone a hunchback does not make. Furthermore, although Ygor does work with Wolf Frankenstein in the lab, his relationship to the doctor is hardly subservient, or even amiable. Ygor manipulates and extorts Wolf into reviving the monster for his own nefarious purposes: revenge on the jurors who hanged him. Dwight Frye’s Fritz, although monstrous in his own right, is very loyal to Dr. Frankenstein, unlike the treacherous Ygor.

Excerpt from Charlie Ellis’ review of Son of Frankenstein in the 2/2/39 edition of the Abilene Reporter News, referring to Ygor as Igor (courtesy of Classic Monster Kid Horror Forum)

Despite being less devoted of a servant than Fritz was, Ygor was very pivotal in developing the archetype of “Igor.” The name is the most obvious step forward; Ygor and Igor are just alternative spellings of the same name, like Steven and Stephen. Igor is arguably the more well-known version – as in “Igor Stravinsky” – and a 1939 review of the film from the Abilene Reporter News even calls Lugosi’s character “old Igor.” The first use of the Ygor/Igor name in the Frankenstein mythology, then, is owed to Son of Frankenstein, and mass misremembering may be the culprit for its popularity. Ygor is a very prominent character in Son of Frankenstein and his twisted back is easy to mistake for a hump, while the more archetypical Fritz has a smaller and more diminished role. John Q. Public, when pressed to remember the name of “the hunchback from the Frankenstein movies,” may default to Ygor/Igor while thinking of Fritz, or while combining attributes from the both of them, while not remembering that there were several different hunchbacks and assistants. Lugosi would reprise the role of Ygor in the next film in the series, 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein, but in an almost purely antagonistic role unfit for a subservient “Igor.” In Ghost of Frankenstein, while now extorting Wolf’s brother Ludwig Frankenstein, Ygor machinates for his brain to be transplanted into the monster. This scheme is an early example of another frequent plot between an “Igor” and their employer: in one way or another, the hunchback is often working with Dr. Frankenstein as a means to have his condition cured.

house of frankenstein
Fourth head down: J. Carrol Naish as Daniel on the lobby card for House of Frankenstein (1944)

After Ghost of Frankenstein, Universal began producing several crossover films to take advantage of their monster stash and reignite public interest in horror. The first of these films was 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and after its success came House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). These films advertised that the studio’s monsters were “all together,” and archetypes of the “mad doctor” and a “hunchback” had the same billing as Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolfman. This approach to building an ensemble was a nod to the significance of characters like Fritz and Ygor in the Frankenstein films, and affirmed that the mad doctor and his hunchbacked assistant were as iconic of characters as the monsters that could carry their own films. It also suggested that while hunchbacks are typically associated with Dr. Frankenstein, they could naturally cohabit with mad doctors in general, like filter fish on an ocean grouper.

The hunchback in the first film, House of Frankenstein, was named Daniel, and instead of Dr. Frankenstein, he served a new character named Dr. Neimann. These two roles were played by J. Carroll Naish and Boris Karloff, respectively. Expanding upon the plotline put forth in Ghost of Frankenstein, Daniel’s loyalty to Dr. Neimann stems from the doctor’s promises to give him a new body. This desperation to be cured is what makes Daniel so complicit in Dr. Neimann’s crimes, even going so far as to murder on command. When they discover the frozen Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster, however, Dr. Neimann neglects his promises, and furthermore, the woman Daniel loves spurns him in favor of the lycanthropic Larry Talbot. Wrought with loneliness, heartbreak, and indignation, Daniel attacks Dr. Neimann at the film’s climax before being lethally defenestrated by the reanimated monster. Meek, yet quick to anger and violence, Daniel joined Fritz and Ygor in contributing to the “Igor” archetype, adding sympathetic elements that hadn’t been present in earlier portrayals.

Jane Adams as Nina in House of Dracula (1945)

Universal’s next crossover was House of Dracula, which again advertised a “mad doctor” and a “hunchback” in its devil’s brood of monsters. As far as “Igors” go, House of Dracula is particularly unique. For the first time in Universal’s Frankenstein franchise, the hunchback is a woman, played by Jane Adams, and also a completely sympathetic and tragic character. Preceding “Igors” were sadistic grave robbers at best or murderous manipulators at worst, but this hunchback, named Nina, remains totally innocent, expanding on the themes of isolation and self-consciousness present in House of Frankenstein’s Daniel while remaining moral and naïve. Subservient and loyal, Nina stands out as the most endearing of Universal’s “Igors” and is fascinatingly innovative, given that House of Dracula as a whole, being the penultimate film in the franchise, is severely hampered by a clear lack of originality.

Lionel Atwill as Ivan Igor in Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

Although Universal’s Frankenstein films popularized the notion of a hunchbacked assistant, the actual name Igor has roots in other formative horror films. In 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum, Lionel Atwill plays a murderous museum curator named Ivan Igor who turns the bodies of his victims into wax sculptures. Like Ygor in Son of Frankenstein, this Igor is not a hunchback, but still deformed – Ivan Igor’s face had been disfigured by fire and he covers up his wounds with a wax mask.

Charles Bronson as Igor in House of Wax (1953)

In 1953, the film was remade as House of Wax, and Ivan Igor was reinvented as Dr. Henry Jarrod, played by Vincent Price. Jarrod, however, had a servant named Igor, played by a young Charles Bronson. House of Wax’s Igor is deaf and mute, but not visibly deformed like Fritz or Ygor. Regardless, this incarnation of the character furthered the trope of “Igor” as a subservient assistant, and alongside Ivan Igor, helped attach the name to the horror genre.

On right: Peter Lorre as Dr. Herman Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Other now-staples of the “Igor” archetype have come from surprising sources. In 1939, the dark comedy Arsenic and Old Lace took over Broadway, and was made into a film directed by Frank Capra in 1944. The plot revolves around the dysfunctional Brewster family and their attempt to cover up various murders committed in their house. One of the family is Jonathan Brewster, played by Boris Karloff in the original Broadway cast, who (in a brilliant casting gag) bore Karloff’s likeness after receiving drunken plastic surgery from his meek accomplice Dr. Herman Einstein. In the film, Jonathan is played by Raymond Massey (Karloff was committed to the play, which was still running while the movie was filmed) and Dr. Einstein was played by Peter Lorre. Although not an adaptation of Frankenstein, various characters pointing out Jonathan’s resemblance to “Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein films” is a running joke.


On left: Peter Lorre as Arthur Lorencz in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942)

Throughout the 40s, Karloff played a variety of mad scientist characters, including Dr. Neimann in House of Frankenstein, which came out the same year as Arsenic and Old Lace. But two years earlier, in 1942, Karloff and Lorre starred together in The Boogie Man Will Get You, where Lorre actually was the sniveling assistant to the real Karloff’s mad doctor. Lorre’s roles in Arsenic and Boogie Man were both subservient wimps to a (big quotes) “Frankenstein” character, and as mentioned in the first part of this survey, when an “Igor” is voiced, it is often with either a breathy tone like Dwight Frye’s Renfield from Dracula, nothing but feral growls, or a Peter Lorre impression. Arsenic was a runaway hit, and from how it coincided with Bela Lugosi’s twice-played Ygor, the hunchbacks of Universal’s House crossovers, and an “Igor”-esque role in Boogie Man, one can see how Lorre’s iconic voice became associated with servants of mad scientists. Lorre even graduated from being an assistant to being a mad doctor himself in two famous Looney Tunes shorts, Hair-Raising Hare (1946) and Birth of a Notion (1947), which caricatured his iconic likeness and voice.

Peter Lorre caricatured in Hair- Raising Hare (1946)

As the 40s waned, so too did Universal’s Frankenstein series. It concluded with 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, burning out after seventeen years, eight films, and a gradual decline into B-movie status. True to its nature, though, Frankenstein’s monster would soon rise again, this time brought to life by Hammer Studios in England. If Universal is synonymous with horror from the 30s and 40s, Hammer’s contribution to the genre is of equal significance for the fifties and sixties. They borrowed heavily from their predecessor: Hammer produced several new but equally iconic takes on old monsters like the Mummy, Dracula, and of course, Frankenstein. Hammer catapulted the famous monster into color for the first time with Curse of Frankenstein in 1955, and it would bear six sequels through 1974.

Oscar Quitak as Karl in Revenge of Frankenstein (1958)

A hunchbacked lab assistant to Dr. Frankenstein appears in the series’ second film, 1958’s Revenge of Frankenstein. This character is named Karl, played by Oscar Quitak, and his loyalty to Dr. Frankenstein is motivated by promises of a new and healthy body. Sharing a name with Dwight Frye’s character from Bride of Frankenstein and the same motivation as Daniel from House of Frankenstein, Karl is patchwork of different traits from earlier “Igors,” but he’s unique in his individuality; Revenge of Frankenstein is the only film in the Hammer series to feature a recognizable attempt at the “Igor” archetype.

With Karl as Hammer’s only “Igor,” Universal’s horde of hunchbacks – Fritz, Ygor, Daniel, and Nina – still lingered in the pop culture landscape. But between two major studios’ Frankenstein franchises and over forty years of cinematic history, there was yet to be a Frankenstein film with a hunchbacked assistant to Dr. Frankenstein actually named Igor (sorry Lugosi, but we’re looking for Igor with an “I”). However, the popularization of television and other home media in the 50s kicked off a fad of monster madness, where classic horror was in vogue and everyone was cashing in on creepy. The entertainers of these times were those who had grown up on the classics and were now poised to reference, reinterpret, and reinvent them. “Igor” may have mostly disappeared from mainstream movies, but as monster madness exploded in the 50s and 60s, the archetype began to coalesce outside of the mainstream in the wide, wide world of parody.

Next: Parody, Pastiche, and Monster Madness


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