Grr! Arr! Judge Bill Gibron review!
A monster science created…but could not destroy!
It's rare in the litany of a writer to create a classic character. Most scribes spend their entire careers looking for an audience, no matter the size, that will simply embrace their work. They never imagine that they will find a way, through imagination and invention, to carve a myth or icon out of mere words.
In the realm of horror, two definitive examples come to mind: authors who turned tales told by campfires or near the home hearth into spine-tingling testaments to evil's presence in and around mankind. Bram Stoker took a Transylvanian saga of an enigmatic nobleman—a fiend so bloodthirsty he enjoyed the coagulating claret of his victims—and, in combination with the considerable Gothic grandstanding of industrial age England, crafted a clever commentary on old vs. new world ideology. Stoker's Dracula transcended its literary foundation to become the Necronomicon for all neckbiters to come.
But almost 75 years before, a far less seasoned storyteller set the stage for all mythical macabre to come. Mary Shelley's ghost story offering to a party of her pals is a fable so well known today that to repeat it seems foolish. But the tome Shelley created on that dark and stormy night would lay the groundwork for countless monster and morbid manuscripts. Along with the caped Count, the modern Prometheus—Frankenstein's reanimated corpse creation—is a universal icon to man's arrogance in the face of nature's mystery. It represents humans playing God when they have none of the ethical or ethereal elements with which to do so. Even more than Stoker's stalker, the entity at the center of Frankenstein symbolizes man's debate with his transience, a chance to witness immortality and all the consequences.
The films Universal Studios created from this story in the 1930s and '40s are now available on DVD as part of its Legacy Collection. These cinematic classics provide tantalizing interpretations of this monster melodrama, differing views of the beast as mirror of our inherent nature. While some are much more successful than others, there is one certain thread running through each production. The creature Shelley created is timeless, a truly eternal entity.
Facts of the Case
Over the course of two DVDs (one single-sided, the other a double-sided flip disc), Universal unspools five movies in its canon of Frankenstein fright films. Discussed individually we begin with the big daddy that started it all:
• Frankenstein (1931)
• Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
• Son of Frankenstein (1939)
• Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
• House of Frankenstein (1944)
As a series, the Frankenstein movies come with a great deal of baggage. Thanks in great part to Forrest J. Ackerman and his perennial publication of the '50s and '60s (fan favorite Famous Monsters of Filmland), Karloff's classic façade—flat head pasted with dull, dark hair and metal bolts beaming from either side of its neck—became something of a pop icon. Frankie, as he was often called, was merchandised and modernized, finding an ironic image in everything from a sitcom (The Munsters) and a cartoon (The Groovie Goolies) to model kits and piggy banks (a famous one featured a red-faced fiend, embarrassed that the coin you dropped caused his pants to do the same). Attempts to rebuild the monster's revulsion level in the '70s met with some success (Hammer's horror shows), but mostly, as time went on, the results grew more and more mediocre. (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, anyone? Thought so.)
Going back to the originals, it's easy to see where the beast fell off the baneful bandwagon. Chasing the cash as most good businessmen do, Universal enjoyed undermining its entity by consistently placing it in crappier and crappier films. Similar to what happened to a certain knife-fingered child-killer called Krueger, the more and more movies that were made about this man-made maniac, the less and less effective his cinematic scares became. Around the time Abbott and Costello meet him, and/or he battled the wolf man for supernatural supremacy, Frankenstein's fear factors were all spent. He was a lumbering load, a vile visage with little horror left intact.
So it's a true eye-opener to go back and actually look at the original films after so many wildly varied derivations of Shelley's story have been struck. Needless to say, James Whale's original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein stand the test of time as brilliant, near-genius exercises in expert Hollywood craftsmanship. The remaining films (featured here as glorified extras) begin the process in the law of diminishing returns. Dealt with individually to get a better idea of the pros and cons, the monster movies here are:
• Frankenstein (1931)
It's hard to argue with the eerie depravity of Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz's grave robbing expedition: images of greedy faces waiting for the funeral to be over; men merrily cutting down a corpse from the gallows. Or how about the much-imitated creation sequence, electricity arcing and sputtering as determined figures try to raise the dead. Then, there is the fragile tragedy of the little girl down by the lake, reaching out to the monster and meeting her Maker as a result. Yes, there are elements here that make Frankenstein feel like a badly translated stage play—too many shots of actors walking stage left and posing. But Frankenstein is no different in that respect than any other movie of its time. It is, however, definitely unlike anything Hollywood had attempted before in its fearless visual splendor. Director James Whale places his scarefest in a world existing of Bavarian textures and German expressionism. Sets are opulent and askew. Mountaintop laboratories look like huge mausoleums, monumental markers for the upcoming death (and rebirth). Forests are filled with tall, foreboding trees, and the now-familiar old windmill is as stunning as any work by an old master. Combine these factors with Boris Karloff's evocative turn as the monster and Colin Clive's fanatical physician, and you've got a film that deserves its status as a classic. While it may not exactly follow Mary Shelley's monster yarn, Frankenstein sets the tone for all Hollywood horror for decades to come.
At 73, Frankenstein has aged well. Visually, the print provided by Universal is better than expected. Gone is the faded, washed-out imagery of the past, and a fairly clean and clear transfer is provided. There are still a great many defects: dirt, splices, negative tears, and scratched elements. But when matched against other movies from the same time, the preservation of this monochrome masterwork is marvelous. Also impressive are the audio elements. Most post-silent movies were just learning how to use sound, keeping it for mandatory moments (dialogue, action). Frankenstein features no score, and this gives the movie an authentic, if rather stagy, sonic quality. The distortion and dissonance one expects from an old-fashioned Hollywood film are missing here, however. The sound spectrum is limited, but very effective.
• Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
This twisted take on the original story is the perverted distant cousin of the modern horror movie, a link between the stagy sensibility of Dracula or Frankenstein and the surreal surety of the '50s and '60s. Whale was so far ahead of his time (check out Gods and Monsters to see why) that an argument could even be made that his anarchic tone and droll humor influenced such future films as Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator. Free to do what he wanted, as long as he provided a sequel, Whale really goes wild here, leaving his indelible mark on movies for all time. He shows a brilliance behind the camera that was only hinted at in the original. Religious iconography fills the screen, from the ever-present cross to the cruel "crucifixion" of the monster when he is captured. Keeping the pace so brisk you can barely catch your breath, Whale turns Bride of Frankenstein into a great big cinematic dark ride, a vision of something strange around every unknown corner. And he delivers every time.
The first jaw-dropper occurs when Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesinger) shows Dr. Frankenstein the efforts of his "experiments." Not to spoil the surprise, but they (a) are not what you think, and (b) comprise some of the most amazing special effects a 1935 film can register. Then there are the sorrowful sequences with the blind man, overflowing with oddly moving passion between hermit and homunculus. And who could ever forget Elsa Lanchester as the once and future queen of the fright wig. Between the pitch-perfect acting, multi-layered narrative, intriguing introduction (featuring Byron and Shelley coaxing the poet's wife into telling more of the monster's tale), and slapstick silliness (Millie the maid is far more manic and bug-eyed than Marty Feldman ever was), Whale sets up the pedestal for his formidable star to sit upon.
And what a sit it is. Karloff is the only true superstar here. In Frankenstein, he was acting through make-up and carefully crafted hand gestures. Here, he is in fully poignant form, given a voice and thoughts (he speaks thanks to the efforts of that infamous blind hermit), the ability to reason and understand, and a heart bursting with unfulfilled desires. If you're not moved by the end of his stay with his "friend," his reaction when rejected by the "bride," or the final pronouncement of his own death, then you've missed the point (and one of the best beast performances ever). Funny, frightful, catty, and crazy, the Bride of Frankenstein circumvents that now-clichéd adage that the sequel never surpasses the original. As good as it is, the doctor's first experiments in the unknown cannot match this masterpiece of visuals and variations.
Wow! The Bride of Frankenstein looks almost brand new in this black-and-white wonder of a transfer. Retaining the 1.33:1 aspect ratio and cleaning up most of the messy moments (there is still some dirt and grain left), the image is striking in its clarity. And like Frankenstein before it, the sound is also top notch. Sure, the range is limited by the technology of 69 years ago, but the score is superb (hats off to Franz Waxman) and blends with the other aural elements expertly.
• Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Visually, new director Rowland Lee overhauls the entire Frankenstein universe. Perhaps best known for a series of unexceptional low-budget B-films, you can feel the auteur expanding his canvas on this third go-around with Shelley's sensation. The family now lives in a dwelling that could best be described as a cross between a mausoleum and a far less opulent version of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu. An elaborate set resembling the ruins of the exploded watchtower (from Bride) functions as a sensational set piece. Lee's reworking of the old lab features expressionist holes in the walls and a bubbling pit of sulfur in the basement. Sadly, his stamp is also all over the less-than-impressive makeup Lugosi and Karloff are forced to fidget under. Lee's camera is also very static. He loves long shots and holds on them for untold minutes as actors pass back and forth. All this pedestrian sturm und drang is offered in a nice, clean 1.33:1 full screen image that's nearly perfect in its production elements, but less than involving as an entertainment. Sonically, Son also sounds excellent. While the music is melodramatic and campy, the aural aspects are all captured in Dolby Digital Mono clarity.
• Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
There is not a lot of philosophy or idealism in this film. As much as Sir Cedric Hardwicke argues with his conscience about tampering in God's domain, he readily jumps into the cadaver carnival. Bela Lugosi is chewing even more of the scenery here than in his previous Ygor moments. Since Karloff was a no-show as the monster (Lon Chaney Jr.'s one-note grunting as the fiend is laughably bad) and without another crazy character to top him, Bela is in full bats-in-the-belfry mode. The plot really doesn't make a lot of sense (Ygor wants to protect the monster so that his brain can be transplanted inside him…huh?), and there are a lot of times when it seems the narrative motivation takes a backseat to all manner of stereotypical fright flick moves. Still, the fast pace and plot twists keep the movie from getting bogged down in Son of Frankenstein's incessant talking, and provide a few cheesy laughs along the way.
Erle C. Kenton, a true journeyman studio director, tries to add some elements of sensation into his scattershot story. The initial sequence at the castle works well, as does the closing fire in the Frankenstein house. But when the monster makes nice with a little girl in an overly obvious way, we can sense the strained scent of forced sentimentality. Kenton often relies on that old-fashioned shot of his actor or actress holding a pose for just an instant before reacting, and a little of this static style goes a long way. Still, he crafts a fine-looking film that Universal offers in a nice, 1.33:1 full screen monochrome image. The Dolby Digital Mono is also very nice. You will have a problem, though, with the almost constant underscoring in the film. By 1942, movie music had arrived, and every action, every gesture, every dialogue scene has overly prissy orchestration accompanying it. Just as it doesn't know how to stop careening toward its ending without taking a breath, Ghost of Frankenstein never lets the atmosphere or mood develop over its nonstop cacophony of music.
• House of Frankenstein (1944)
Typical to its "B" production properties, House of Frankenstein looks cheap and tawdry in the dull, lifeless 1.33:1 full screen black-and-white transfer. There is no clarity or vibrancy, with contrasts and details as foggy as the woods surrounding these scenarios. Occasionally, during indoor action, the picture improves. But overall, the image here is riddled with defects. The sound is also problematic. Occasionally too low, but sometimes so overmodulated as to cause near distortion, you'll find the aural offering wanting.
Minus Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (more on that below), we have the entire bell curve of Frankenstein films represented in this set. We can watch the bold beginnings, sublime sequel, and the eventual fall-off as horror became humor and creepy turned to campy. Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are more than enough to recommend this entire set, and there will be fright fans out there who will appreciate the efforts represented in Son, Ghost, and House. Each has its own charms, and none are ever truly dull or derivative. Up until the late '40s, Frankenstein was still a franchise being experimented with, tweaked and toned to fit the time. Certainly, without Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, or Ernest Thesinger, the latter movies were missing essential building blocks to greatness. But they at least were trying to preserve the monster's mystique, hoping to keep him from turning into a living-dead joke. Alas, Frank's fate was like that of most horror icons. As bigger and better scares came along, their ability to frighten was mitigated, until all they had left was their pop culture iconography. Thankfully, the monster has one of the most memorable mugs of all time, and it's this immortal quality, plus the genius of James Whale, that makes Frankenstein a classic character and film subject.
Aside from the mostly exceptional sound and vision presentation on each film as discussed above, Universal loads this DVD set with some sensational extras. The best by far are the two commentary tracks (one for Frankenstein and one for Bride) by historians Rudy Behlmer (#1) and Scott MacQueen (#2). Behlmer delivers the most information-laden and delightful alternative track as he speaks, almost nonstop, about all aspects of the production. His insights into the differences between Shelley's story and the movie version are wonderful, as are his comparisons to various stage productions that influenced the film, some dating back to the 1840s. Quick with an anecdote or a list of credits, Behlmer is the polar opposite of the learned and dry MacQueen. The latter's commentary is kind of a letdown, considering how great Bride of Frankenstein is, yet his details—when presented—are very intriguing. The various sequel ideas are discussed, as well as the thoughts Karloff had on giving the monster dialogue. MacQueen also elucidates on Colin Clive's personal demons and Ernest Thesinger's infamous eccentricities. Much more sporadic and droll than the Frankenstein track, we still learn a great deal about an even greater film during MacQueen's discussion.
The featurettes included (all located on Side Two of the flip-disc DVD) are a mixed bag. Steve Sommers is very presumptuous in his obvious tie-in publicity piece for Van Helsing. He pays some basic lip service to the Universal monsters, then discusses how he "reimagined" Frankie for his big-budget summer blockbuster popcorn calamity. Much better is The Frankenstein Files, a brisk overview of the story behind the making of the first marvelous monster movie. Several of the same talking heads appear on the documentary She's Alive: Creating The Bride of Frankenstein, and the depth of the discussion is very nice. It's fascinating to see modern horror names (Clive Barker, Joe Dante) paying homage to this special film, and the discussion of shot selection and compositional issues is engaging. Along with slide shows of stills, a set of trailers for each of the films, and a strange Borscht Belt short subject featuring a clipfest of various horror films (Nosferatu and Frankenstein, among others) set to a semi-humorous narration, this DVD set features some fine material. But there is also a slight smirk to the material here, a dim dismissal of the material because it is part of the horror genre. It would be interesting to see how a studio like, say, Criterion, would handle the release of a title as spectacular as Bride of Frankenstein. One gets the feeling there'd be an equal amount of coverage, but a considerable increase in respect shown.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're going to go in some manner of order and try to encompass the first few Frankenstein films in your canon, why skip Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? It follows the events of Ghost of Frankenstein (Ygor's brain in the monster's body) and leads directly into the weird events of House of Frankenstein (like the frozen bodies of both beasts being found together). Its exclusion makes little or no sense. Also, with the amount of talking head time devoted to the first two films (obvious bonus elements made for the initial DVD release of the titles), would it hurt to discuss the decline of the Frankenstein franchise in a little more detail? The list of laughable movies made from this classic creature deserve more than a mere mention toward the end of the Frankenstein featurette.
The nod to Van Helsing before connotes a certain sameness that has crept into the canon of the Frankenstein monster in modern times. Either viewed as a gigantic supernatural superhero (as in Sommer's dumb, silly epic) or a big old softie of a pussycat (The Monster Squad's kid-friendly fiend), the cruel creation caused by one man's desire to play God has almost been lost for the ages. The pop icon has subsumed the original intent and produced a usually pathetic shadow of its former self. That is why a release like The Legacy Collection is vital. It helps to reestablish for film buffs and cinematic upstarts what made indelible images like Karloff's fiend so famous. Sure, the bolt-necked flathead is about as far away from the myth created by Mary Shelley as Dr. Pretorius is from heterosexuality, but the resulting mishmash of stage, story, and screen invention has undoubtedly unleashed a being far more influential and famous then had Shelley's erudite entity been the basis for these films. Indeed, over the course of five years and two exceptional movies, Hollywood did what it always does best: craft the visual equivalents of classical cultural images. From Lon Chaney's Hunchback and Phantom in the silent days, to the dopey drive-in denizens like the Blob and the Gill Man from the Black Lagoon in the funky '50s, Tinseltown set the tone for both creature and feature.
In 1931, two of the most memorable monuments to the macabre were born out of a chaotic combination of author and artist. For Dracula, Tod Browning's delirious dementia made Stoker's symbol of sexual and civilized repression exude a certain sinister sensuality. And in the more than capable hands of James Whale, Frankenstein flourished, becoming less of a philosophical dandy and more of a maxim to man's fear of death (and the lack of life after it). In the pantheon of the everlasting, Mary Shelley crafted one of the mother sauces of storytelling. But it took celluloid and spirit gum to make her monster an archetypal symbol.
Not guilty! Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection—even with some minor faults—is free to go and should be purchased by any fan of horror films as a primer on the power of early Universal fright.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary on Frankenstein by Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.