Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Frankenstein: Classic Monster Collection (1931)
Studio Line: Universal Studios

Boris Karloff stars as the screen's most memorable monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with the life and death by creating a human monster (Karloff) out of lifeless body parts. It's director James Whales' adaption of the Mary Shelley novel blended with Karloff's compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity that makes Frankenstein a masterpiece not only of genre, but for all time.

Director: James Whale
Cast: Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated NR; 75 min.; $29.98; street date 10/19/99.
Supplements: "The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster" Documentary; Audio Commentary by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer; Production Stills; Advertising Materials; Bonus Short Film "Boo!"; Production Notes; Talent Bios; Film Highlights; Theatrical Trailer; Web Link; DVD-ROM Features.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - Mary Shelley

Picture/Sound/Extras: D+/B/B+

Few films have permeated the public consciousness as completely as 1931's Frankenstein and its 1935 sequel The Bride of Frankenstein. At this point, actually, the two have become melded within the general view; many people think of scenes from Bride as having appeared in the original, such as the bit where the monster meets the blind hermit.

While Bride is generally thought of as the superior of the two films - it frequently appears in discussions of movies where sequels are thought to surpass the originals - I think that while the two pictures are clearly quite similar, enough differences exist to make comparisons verge upon "apples-oranges" territory.

I found Frankenstein to offer the more somber and straight-forward experience of the two. While some of the acting displays the broad theatrics we expect of performers from the period, I thought their work seemed surprisingly subtle and restrained for the most part. Boris Karloff justifiably earned legendary status for his affecting performance as the monster, and the remainder of the cast display strongly involving work. I especially liked the gruffly comic performance from Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein, the father of creature creator Victor (Colin Clive).

The acting in Bride definitely veers toward broader, campier work. It also provides more action and thrills and humor; in Frankenstein, director James Whale used a fair amount of restraint, but he goes completely over the top in the sequel as he aims for the fences. The actors really deliver tremendously wide performances. Ernest Thesinger's wickedly ominous Dr. Pretorious and Una O'Connor's wild-eyed and shrieky Minnie seem most active, but everyone's pretty broad; even Clive appears to emote more strongly than he did during the first movie.

One other acting difference between the films comes from Victor's fiancee Elizabeth. In the first film, we saw blonde Mae Clarke in the role, but brunette Valerie Hobson appears in the second picture. (Apparently Clarke was too ill to star in the sequel so the part was recast.) In keeping with the difference in the film's tenor, Hobson's much broader than the fairly subdued Clarke.

Both films clearly show some age, since film styles have changed so much over the intervening decades, but I found both to be very entertaining and effective. Karloff remains effective and engrossing as the monster, and Whale makes both stories come alive in exciting and dramatic ways. Despite the fact most people have an extreme familiarity with the stories, the executions works well and makes them both very compelling.

The DVD:

Frankenstein appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; because of those dimensions, neither disc has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While it looks about the way you'd expect such an old movie to appear, that doesn't mean that I can discount the wide number of flaws and generally weak pictures I found.

The picture generally seemed decently sharp, though it tends to look fairly soft at times. No moiré effects or jagged edges appear, but the print used was in fairly bad shape; though it's not horrible. I noticed lots of speckles, scratches and streaks, and a fair amount of grain as well. Still, it could have been much worse

Black levels appear a bit washed-out but they're generally acceptable. Shadow detail seemed too heavy for the most part and too much of the image looked overly opaque. While the picture seems perfectly acceptable for nearly 70-year-old movie, it's simply not strong objectively.

Frankenstein offers monaural audio that's not bad for its age. The dialogue sounded surprisingly natural and warm. Actually, the audio often was almost too clean; it seemed like it had been dubbed years later in a misguided attempt to "fix" the mix. I don't think that's the case, but the surprisingly high quality for such an ancient film made me wonder.

Whatever the case, it's a quite impressive track for its era; effects were a bit too subdued for much of the film, which created a rather sterile impression, but they seemed decent other than that. No score appears during the film; we hear music at the start and at the end and that's it. Really, the only major flaw in this mix came from high amounts of distortion; dialogue and effects both became shrill fairly easily. The track remained very clean with no background noise - again, almost too clean - and overall stands as a strong mix for its age.

Although not explicitly billed as a "special edition", Frankenstein should qualify since it provides some very good supplemental features. We begin with a solid audio commentary from film historian Rudy Behlmer. Really, this track seems less like a traditional "screen specific" track and more closely resembles an audio essay. Behlmer thoroughly covers the history of the story and other productions - both on stage and on film - of Frankenstein that preceded this movie. He discusses the ways these versions of the tale influenced the picture and really lets us know a lot about that aspect of the film. Behlmer also provides useful tidbits about the actors and other background information on the shooting of the film, such as details about censorship. It's a terrific piece that added a lot to my appreciation of Frankenstein.

Next up is a 45-minute documentary called "The Frankenstein Files". Created and hosted by David J. Skal, this piece offers a nicely comprehensive and broad look at the film's history, creation and legacy. Since the movie's so old, we unfortunately can't hear from any of the original cast or crew, but this factor is made up for by interviews with their family members, other film historians, and experts like makeup artist Rick Baker. The program covers much of the territory from Behlmer's commentary but looks at it from different angles and remains fresh. Really, the only fault I found - other than wishing the show were longer - comes from the discussion of the film's legacy; it remains firmly rooted toward properties owned by Universal, so it completely ignores movies like the 1994 version with Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh. Despite that, I really liked this program; it added a lot to my knowledge of the project and the story.

"The Frankenstein Archives" offers the usual conglomeration of film posters, lobby cards, and production photos but it does so in an unusual manner. Normally these would appear as still frames, but in this case, the entire program runs as a video, with pans in and out from different images, and all accompanied by film audio that corresponds to the various pictures. I like this presentation; it may ultimately be a little more awkward than the usual frame-by-frame access, but it shouldn't be a problem so one can easily fast-forward through the show, and I think the addition of the audio makes it a more dynamic and involving process. The total running time goes for about nine and a half minutes.

Next up is "Boo!", a stupidly amusing nine and a half minute short film from 1932. This odd little sucker splices together clips from Frankenstein and the 1922 version of Nosferatu. A narrator adds comments that attempt to make the whole thing humorous, which it is, in a moronic way. I laughed a few times in spite of myself. It's definitely a fun extra - even though it's only sporadically funny - and it makes for a nice addition.

We also find some pretty good biographies of six actors and director Whale. While these provide some contradictory data - actor John Boles' listing says he died in 1969 in the text but lists 1969 as the date of death in a line on the top of the screen - and the comments could have been a bit more detailed, they're still better than average and are worth a read.

Even better are the surprisingly long production notes on the DVD. Since these consist mainly of quotes from the actual cast and crew, they offer information we didn't hear elsewhere and they're quite interesting. Surprisingly, the DVD's booklet contains no production notes.

Finally, we get a trailer for Frankenstein. Although the DVD case states that it's the original theatrical trailer, it's clearly not; for one, it mentions that "millions have been thrilled", and it also states that it's a re-release on the end title screen. I don't know from what year the trailer dates, but it's clearly pretty old. Anyway, it's a nice addition, though it's too bad they didn't include the original preview.

It's been nearly 70 years since Frankenstein hit movie screens, and while it may not shock and terrify audiences like they did back then, it remains very entertaining and compelling films. Universal does a great job of bringing it to DVD, although the visual quality lacks polish and contains a high number of flaws. Still, the picture doesn't seem inappropriate for a film of this vintage, and it offers decent sound quality and some excellent supplements. Frankenstein comes highly recommended.

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