Frankenstein (1931, 1h 9m) – This is about as pure as it gets. Straight up gothic horror, undiluted and free of any outside influences like a newborn who has yet to have the afterbirth wiped from its eyelids. That’s not to say director James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1816 novel did not go without its exposure to any Laemmle influence at Universal, I’m merely trying to point out that it’s a film that carries no agenda. It’s not trying to sell me clothes, a soda, a desperate-for-attention pop star or even a soundtrack. This is a film made before all that bullshit. It’s primary goal is to scare the beejeezus out of ya while – get this, folks – tell a good story sparking not only the good Dr. Frankenstein’s science project but your intellect as well. (Lordy!) Frankenstein continues to survive as a macabre marvel to behold. Grandiose interior sets of wood and stone menace the heavens with foreboding shadows and, in Henry’s lab specifically, crackling and spinning contraptions. Quirks in every performance make each actor unforgettable, like Fritz (Dwight Frye), who takes a moment to hike up his sock before ascending a flight of stairs, or the hand gestures of the sympathetic and confused monster who yearns for a longer glimpse of daylight.
There’s a reason why this movie’s a classic and Universal has treated it as such with a disc that provides us a good lookin’ transfer (similar, if not the same, to their first presentation in 1999) and an impressive mono soundtrack. Bow down before Frankenstein.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935, 1h 14m) – Crazy to think that Whale almost didn’t direct this follow-up. It’s equally wild to know that Universal actually toyed with the following pair of zany Bride treatments: One that found Henry Frankenstein traveling with a freakshow, the other centered on the good doctor’s invention of a death ray and the world power struggle that ensued to get the device. Luckily Whale came to his senses and created something similar in visual tone to his original film but this time imbued it with a wit that’s prone to biting you in the ass when you least expect it. Karloff and Colin Clive return in their respective roles as the monster and Henry, the latter stepping out of the spotlight somewhat to make room for Ernest Thesiger’s flaming, one-of-a-kind, Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester’s double turn as both the “Bride” and Mary Shelley. Bride, to be cliché, is one of those rare instances where a sequel is on par with its predecessor. It’s also a film that stands on its own and can be seen by the uninitiated who’ve never checked out Frankenstein. But I’m not going to recommend that.
Again, a beautiful print from Universal that pleases despite a few blemishes. Sound, in all its mono glory, is competent but lacks the strength the original film’s presentation carried.
Son of Frankenstein (1939, 1h 39m) – Here’s the first of the two sequels that followed Bride, each of them feeling like the Halloween 4 and 5 of the Frankenstein franchise. They diminish a bit in quality but ambitiously struggle to stay fresh by creating a new story arc. Here we’re introduced to Frankenstein’s son, played by Basil Rathbone, and Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, a renown body snatcher who was hung by the local villagers and managed to live through the ordeal. Later, he befriends the monster who has assumed the role of his regular mute self (unlike his chatty nature in Bride) and is in need of a serious electrical recharge. Together this pair who’ve defied death seek out Rathbone’s young Frankenstein, a man presented with the opportunity to redeem his family’s name. Lugosi, Universal’s first choice to play the monster back in ’31, rises, even beyond Karloff’s third outing beneath the makeup, as Son‘s true star. He’s closely matched by Lionel Atwill playing an inspector forced to wear a wooden arm after having his own torn out, as a child, by the monster. It’s dark details such as this, a morbid sense of humor, and an injection of amusing characters that all make Son a gem in and of itself.
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, 1h 7m) – This is where the series starts taking some fatal hits. Lon Chaney, Jr. appears to be going through the paces as the monster who we find back with the ultimate manipulator, Ygor (Lugosi again), and tracking down another Frankenstein – this one played by no-nonsense Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Ygor’s master plan is to have his own brain transplanted into the monster so he sways Lionel Atwill, now in the role of Frankenstein’s assistant, to help him out. Garnering indestructible power is the motivation behind Ygor’s scheme but when the operation finally comes about, it’s way too funny to be taken seriously. Ghost is a hoot yet it’s an unnecessary chapter that reveals Universal was really trying to milk the money maker they had.
House of Frankenstein (1944, 1h 11m) – Based on an idea by Wolf Man scribe Curt Siodmak, House is the most unfocused chapter of them all. Karloff is sicko scientist Gustav Niemann, jailed for his unholy experimentations that weren’t just limited to switching the brains of a man and a dog. With his hunchbacked pal, Daniel (J. Carrol Nash), they break out of jail in search of Henry Frankenstein’s notes that may have been washed away by the flood that concluded Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Hopes high, they set off for the village of Frankenstein along the way picking up Dracula (The Howling‘s John Carradine) for a brief jaunt, the monster, Larry Talbot, and a gypsy girl who, by today’s standards, is quite a hoochie. I remember liking this installment when Universal first released it on disc, but when you watch all of the films together House’s weaknesses are too glaring to ignore.
Less than five years have passed since the Frankenstein series was first released on separate, at first, single and then later double-bill DVDs so it was only natural for Universal to revisit the films and spruce up the packaging at a time when they’re “classic monsters” are being thrust back into the spotlight courtesy of Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing. In a shameless bit of cross-promotion they’ve included the featurette Stephen Sommers on “Universal’s Classic Monsters: Frankenstein’s Monster” (6m 6s), the only slice of Bonus Material obviously not carried over from the original Universal discs. Sommers delves into the inspiration behind his look for the monster citing the creativity, motivations and imagery apparent in Whales’ film all the while hyping his own. There’s a few decent movie clips along with interviews with actor Sam West Van Helsing‘s Dr. Frankenstein, the monster Shuler Hensley, and other cast and crew members.
Also included in this package are trailers for the films Frankenstein (1m 38s), Bride of Frankenstein (1m 29s), Ghost of Frankenstein (1m 56s), and House of Frankenstein (1m 42s). A Son trailer being the only absentee. There is also the “Frankenstein Archives” (9m 24s) and “Bride of Frankenstein Archives” (13m 9s), montages of poster art and stills presented in narrative order. Key musical themes play over both blends to set the mood. It’s a unique way to present what might ordinarily be a boring photo gallery, and some of the behind-the-scenes stills on display give you an even better sense at the work and detail that went into both productions.
“The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” (44m 47s) is horror film historian David Skal’s baby, a loving accumulation of interviews and anecdotes. Skal hosts this docu providing a brief intro before letting his fellow colleagues take the floor at times making room for Sara Karloff (daughter of Boris) and Dwight Frye’s kid so they can interject their own remembrances. What’s most interesting is hearing all of the tales of “what could’ve been.” Lugosi had actually been thrown into test makeup for Frankenstein‘s initial director Robert Florey. Footage was shot, and has since been missing, but Lugosi apparently looked more like Der Golem than what Jack Pierce later conceived.
A similar documentary format is used for “She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein” (38m 49s) hosted by Joe Dante and overseen by Skal. Karloff’s disdain for a talking monster, Elsa Lanchester’s inspiration for her famous “hiss,” and James Whale’s fight with the board of censors are just some of the topics covered by the historians now joined by Clive Barker and Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters). And if you’re in for two more helpings of film theory and Frankenstein factoids then you’ve got the option to listen to film historian Rudy Behlmer’s audio commentary for Frankenstein and Scott MacQueen’s commentary accompanying Bride. Both tracks have an air of being pre-scripted and are sometimes read dramatically like sermons, but I’ll be damned if they don’t cover a lot of ground like Whale’s casting choices (substituting Mae Clarke for the 17-year-old Valerie Hobson in Bride) to excised lines that appeared in early script drafts. Behlmer in particular draws attention to the parallels and differences between the Universal film and Peggy Webbling’s London play which came before it. These are some fascinating commentaries recommended for the hardcore Frank fans out there.
Last but not least we’ve also got short film called Boo! (9m 29s), a “Universal brevity” that combines a narrator’s comedic story to some manipulated, spliced together footage from Nosferatu and Frankenstein with a little original material thrown in for good measure. Hokey and innocent, there’s some genuine laughs to be had here. If anything it’s a true testament to the fact that jokes surrounding politics (the narrator takes a few stabs at the United States Congress) and women drivers never grow old.
Pictures don’t do the packaging justice because what you don’t see is that this two-disc set comes in a sturdy, book-like package and a slipcase featuring a clear window with its own unique design separating it from the other Legacy titles. It’s a beauty.
I’m a sucker for new stuff so even though I own all of Universal’s original Frankenstein discs I’m fairly satisfied with this Legacy set. There’s a sense of convenience to be had when all the films are together like this. As for the new bonus material I can’t see how much further they could’ve gone unless someone decided to cook up a look at the history of the Frankenstein monster over the decades and its impact on pop culture (Frankenberry cereal, baby!). But what’s done is done. If you missed out on the initial run of these flicks years back, the Legacy Collection is ideal way to make up for that mistake.
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