Universal // 1931 // 71 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // January 15th, 2000
The man who made a monster.
This is more than just a great restoration of a classic horror film, it is everything you would want as a collector of film history. This is what people buy DVD's for; to have the film with everything you could want all in one disc.
Like many of you, I watched classic monster movies on Saturday nights as a child. For me it was "Creature Features" and "Screaming Yellow Theatre" on the local Chicago stations, but most towns had such a show. At first they were truly scary, then as I grew older they became more campy and dated. Considered tame by today's gory standards, as an adult I appreciate them in a different way now. Frankenstein is one such film which has withstood the tests of time. This timeless tale of a scientist who builds a man from spare parts and imbues it with life has been shown countless times, sequeled, re-made, and adapted throughout the years. I believe what has kept this tale from becoming part of film's forgotten lore is the appeal of the creature Frankenstein created. Unlike today's mindless slashers, Karloff's monster was a tragic figure, who was truly innocent even as he committed unspeakable acts.
For the few people so sheltered they actually have never heard the story, the basic plot is that Dr. Henry Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, has become obsessed with the subject of what it is that creates life. Intent on proving that he can create life itself, he and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye, who also played Renfield in the first Dracula) have been digging up corpses from graves and pulling corpses down off gallows to assemble a man from parts, with the intent of using his knowledge of electricity and galvanic response to bring it to life. This film is more than just such an exposition, however; it really symbolizes the question of life and death, and man's place in creation. When in an early scene we see Dr. Frankenstein digging up a grave, his first throw of dirt from the shovel hits a statue of the Grim Reaper in the face. He is already showing his disdain for death and his perceived superiority. By the way, this scene is still worthy of giving a chill.
Some would argue that some of the performances are, shall we say, overly melodramatic, and they would have a point. I think the over-the-top acting just gives this early film part of it's charm though. When Frankenstein first sees signs of life from his creation, he goes wildly hysterical, proclaiming "In the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!" a line many may not have seen on television, but present in this fine restoration.
In a last minute change to the script, it was decided that Fritz would steal a brain from a criminal after dropping the normal brain, to help expose the horrific nature of the monster that was using it. I personally don't agree with the choice, as the monster doesn't initially show the traits of an evil man. Horrific in his visage, to be sure, but at the beginning he is almost childlike as he sees the sun for the first time and reaches up as if to touch it. Only when Fritz comes too close with a lit torch, driving the creature into a frenzy of fear, do Dr. Frankenstein and his friend Dr. Waldman (who played Dr. Van Helsing in the first Dracula) believe that the creature needs to be confined. Chained like an animal, and tormented ceaselessly by Fritz by whip and torch, the creature becomes feral, and the audience can understand why he would become so. Instead of the mindless killer, the creature becomes an object of pity.
Unknowing of the ways of the world; seeing only torment and a need to defend himself, the creature first kills Fritz, and later Dr. Waldman just as the latter was about to dissect him alive. Dr. Frankenstein by this time had collapsed from nervous strain and exhaustion, and was at home away from his laboratory, with his fiancé Elizabeth, played by Mae Clarke. One of the many astute directorial decisions by James Whale, depicted in another film Gods and Monsters, was to intersperse very tense scenes with the creature with very calm and serene scenes away. In one such Henry and Elizabeth are planning their wedding, believing the horror of the monster to be over. Little do they know that the creature has escaped the laboratory and is now wandering alone. In a poignant scene he comes across a little girl by a lake, the first person who has not recoiled in terror from his appearance. The monster actually smiles and enjoys playing with the girl, as she shows him that flowers thrown into the lake float. In his innocence and naïveté, he believes he can watch the little girl float with the same beauty, and throws her in. She does not float. This drowning scene was also cut from the film and many have never seen it. It is this wonderful restoration by Universal that it is brought back in it's entirety. This scene, as in several others, was considered too terrible to be shown in many cities, and for years was missing.
You've heard me keep talking about this restoration. That is what I'm going to talk about now; as I'm not going to give away any more of the story. Watch it yourself. This film is almost 70 years old, and it is amazing they were able to restore it to look as nice as it does. There are some places where the screen flashes a little, and certainly some nicks and blips from the film stock, but it's never looked better in my lifetime. Black levels are dead-on (no pun intended) and the long shadows in the many gothic scenes are crisp, as are the details of the image. The sound is just as well preserved. The Dolby Digital 2 channel mono track is clear throughout, with a low noise floor. Certainly the sound gets a little shrill or harsh at times, but you never lose any dialogue, and considering both the sound techniques of the time, and the age of the film, completely forgivable. You never heard it this well on television.
It is in the area of supplements that this disc really shines however. You know you're going to get a lot when this black and white 71 minute film comes on a dual-sided disc. Contrast that to my last review of Crimson Tide which was longer, in color, with multi-channel surround , and on a single sided disc. There are numerous extras that each add something great to the value of this disc, as well as a complete education on the film. The two biggest are the 45 minute documentary "The Frankenstein Files" by David J. Skal, along with several other film historians, and a feature-length commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Both of these give extensive history of Frankenstein, from the book to the stage plays to the film and it's sequels, along with a wealth of other information on the film itself. In addition there are production notes and the theatrical trailer. Extensive biographies and filmographies of the stars are also included. I learned that Karloff was in more than 170 pictures in his lifetime, and Frankenstein, the film which made him a star, was his 81st! If that weren't enough, there is a ten minute short film using scenes from Frankenstein, Nosferatu, and Cat and the Canary done with period humor and satire for the soundtrack. If THAT is still not enough, there is a film highlight reel, showing stills from the film in chronological order along with sound snippets from each part. To end this extensive list of extras is the Universal web-link, which fortunately you don't have to have a DVD-ROM drive to see. These extra supplements turn what would have been a great restoration of a classic film and turns it into a volume of film history.
I am tempted to just tell the prosecution to sit down and shut up, but I'll give them their weak protests. There are a few holes in the plot on this film. The father of the drowned girl somehow knows she was murdered, without having seen the creature; he just found the girl in the lake. How Dr. Waldman's body was discovered to create the real alarm is not revealed. The scene where the monster invades Frankenstein's home is given no reasoning, although the novel does. This film doesn't even try to be faithful to the novel which is a good thing in my opinion. Whale just needed to give us a little exposition on how and why the monster was there. Certainly none of these holes were noticed by the horrified viewers in the 1930s, and it's a bit picky of us to mention them now.
A less excusable flaw is in the packaging. The back of the case claims there are more than one trailer and documentary included, and I could not find them. If I'm missing an Easter egg, and I've looked, then someone let me know. Otherwise the back of the packaging is up to Universal's normal high standard, with all the technical aspects of the disc easy to find. Universal does the best job on their packaging of any studio in general, I just wish this one accurately gave what is on the disc. I'm not complaining for the lack of any more supplements, just that the packaging says they are there.
Buy this disc, by all means. No qualifiers, no second thoughts, buy it. It is available for just over $20 online, and you owe it to yourself to include this one in your collection. Congratulations to Universal for a fine job, and I look forward to reviewing The Mummy soon.
It has been my pleasure to review the evidence, and to drop all charges against this fine film and disc. I sentence Universal to keep sending me discs like this to review, and they are assured I will award them damages for any slander against such.
Review content copyright © 2000 Sean McGinnis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 71 Minutes
Release Year: 1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Commentary Track
* Theatrical Trailer
* Highlight Reel
* Talent Bios
* Production Notes