Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Frankenstein: Universal, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: French, single side-dual layer, 16 chapters, rated NR, 71 min., $29.98, street date 8/17/99.
Supplements: Production Notes; Talent Bios; Film Highlights; Theatrical Trailer; Web Link; Documentary "The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster"; Audio Commentary by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer; Production Stills; Advertising Materials; Bonus Short Film "Boo!"; DVD-ROM Features.
The Bride of Frankenstein: Universal, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: French, single side-dual layer, 18 chapters, rated NR, 75 min., $29.98, street date 10/19/99.
Supplements: Production Notes; Cast/Crew Bios; Film Highlights; Theatrical Trailer; Documentary "'She's Alive!' Creating the Bride of Frankenstien"; Audio Commentary with Film historian Scott MacQueen'; Production Stills; PC DVD-Rom Interface.
Frankenstein: Directed by James Whale. Starring Boris Karloff, Mae Clarke, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan.
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.
The Bride of Frankenstein: Directed by James Whale. Starring Boris Karloff, Gavin Gordon, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Sound, 1936.
One of the most popular horror classics of all time and an acclaimed sequel to the original Frankenstein. The legendary Boris Karloff reprises his role as the screen's most misunderstood monster who now longs for a mate of his own. Colin Clive is back as the overly ambitious Dr. Frankenstein, who creates the ill-fated bride (Elsa Lanchester). Directed by the original's James Whale (his last horror film) and featuring a haunted musical score, The Bride Of Frankenstein ranks as one of the finest films not only of the genre, but for all time.
Few films have permeated the public consciousness 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 who offer sequels that 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.
Both Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein appear in their original theatrical aspect ratios of 1.37:1 on these single-sided, dual-layered DVDs; because of those dimensions, neither disc has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While both films look about the way you'd expect such old movies to appear, that doesn't mean that I can discount the wide number of flaws and generally weak pictures I found.
For Frankenstein, 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.
Similar comments apply for Bride. Sharpness appeared slightly softer overall during it; it wasn't terribly fuzzy, but the movie seemed hazier than it should. I still noticed no moiré effects or jagged edges, and Bride actually showed fewer speckles, scratches or similar flaws; they're there, but not to a significant degree. However, grain is a major problem during Bride; it's nearly omnipresent and it really has a negative impact upon the picture.
Black levels appeared mushier and grayer than those seen in Frankenstein. Shadow detail again seemed too heavy and made the image somewhat difficult to watch at times. For an ancient film, the image subjectively looks okay, but it still seems pretty bad in objective terms.
Both movies offer monaural audio that's not bad for its age. For Frankenstein, the dialogue sounded surprisingly natural and warm. Actually, the audio often seemed almost too clean because it sounded 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, although effects seem a bit too subdued for much of the film, which created a rather sterile impression but 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 comes from high amounts of distortion; dialogue and effects both go shrill fairly easily. The track remains very clean with no background noise (again, almost too clean) and overall stands as a strong mix for its age.
In regard to Bride, the audio seems more along normal lines of a film of this era. The sound seems pretty thin but consistently remains listenable. Dialogue appears clear ad intelligible but sounds tinny, and the effects seem a bit harsh, although pack a surprising punch, especially during scenes such as the Bride's "birth." This film offers a score - they became the norm in the four years between films - and while it sounds thin and flat, the quality seems typical for the era. This track presents much less distortion than I heard in Frankenstein, but it provides much more background noise. It's also an acceptable soundtrack for a film of this age, but it's not as good as that of its predecessor.
Although neither film is explicitly billed as a "special edition", both should qualify since each provides some very good supplemental features. Frankenstein starts with a solid audio commentary from film historian Rudy Behlmer. Really, this track less resembles traditional commentaries and seems more like 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 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 takes 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. 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.
That sums up the contents of Frankenstein - now onto the sequel! Bride leads off with an audio commentary from film historian Scott MacQueen. His track provides a wealth of information about the movie but doesn't seem quite up to the level of Behlmer's track for the first film. This may be because the sequel's a tougher road to hoe; there's a lot more history behind the lead-up to Frankenstein so Behlmer had more territory to explore. Still, MacQueen does a nice job of discussing the actors and the production. I would have liked more analysis, since Bride is the deeper film of the two, but it's nonetheless a very worthwhile track.
We next find a good documentary called "She's Alive: Creating The Bride of Frankenstein". Hosted by filmmaker Joe Dante, this 39-minute piece resembles the program found on the first DVD and is also terrific. It lacks the historical scope of "The Frankenstein Files" but that's fine since the details of Bride don't offer themselves for the same broad coverage. Many of the same participants appear here, plus folks like filmmakers Clive Barker. It's another very interesting program that sheds a lot of light on the production.
The Bride of Frankenstein archive works along same lines as that for the first film: it's a mixture of posters, lobby cards and production photos accompanied by the soundtrack to the movie. This one runs a little more than 13 minutes.
The remainder of the Bride DVD also follows along lines similar to the Frankenstein disc. We get good biographies for eight actors and Whale. We also find some more excellent production notes plus a re-release trailer for the film. Good stuff!
It's been nearly 70 years since Frankenstein hit movie screens, and while it and its sequel -The Bride of Frankenstein - may not shock and terrify audiences like they did back then, they both remain very entertaining and compelling films. Universal did a great job of bringing them to DVD, although the visual quality lacks. Still, the picture doesn't seem inappropriate for films of their vintage, and both offer decent sound quality and some excellent supplements. Both DVDs come highly recommended.
Current as of 4/4/2000
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