Frankenstein 75th Anniversary Edition DVD Review
PictureWith a higher bit-rate than the previous remastered edition from the Monster Legacy, Whale's masterpiece does reveal a little more detail than I have seen before, with an image that is sharper and better delineated. However, this new transfer comes with a penalty - the picture now appears grainier than previously. But, and let me stress this, the overall image is certainly an improvement. Close-ups are startlingly good, with great detail on the character's faces - particularly Karloff, Colin Clive and Dwight Frye - and backgrounds now reveal a wealth of minutia, from the meters, gauges and generators that decorate the laboratory to the costumes and assorted paraphernalia of the revellers in the street party.
The sides of the image can sometimes appear quite softened and blurred, though, giving a very slight fishbowl effect to the picture - though this was apparent on the other incarnations, as well. Black levels aren't exactly the deepest you are likely to see, but this is down to the film stock that was used which, even before the inevitable deterioration of the print set in, would have veered more towards murky grey. However, this transfer does a very good job of keeping the balance of light and dark in order, with the shadows much less muddy than before and the shining white of the cast's faces less prone to glimmering. On a 44 inch screen, this showed no signs of ill-compression, edge enhancement or artefacting and held an image that was solid and stable and eminently atmospheric.
Print damage is unavoidable and there are numerous nicks and scratches and dancing vertical lines - but these are all faint and do not, in any way, detract from the pleasure of watching the film.
SoundThe 2-channel mono track from the previous release has been retained and does its job with distinction. For a movie that is seventy-five years old, there is precious little to complain about, with no disruption from background hiss, crackle or pop. Voices have a solidity and presence that has them bouncing forth with life, the ambience of the storm has depth and weight that brings the birth sequence to a howling crescendo with Henry's cry of “It's alive! It's alive!”, and the frequent clattering of feet still sounds terribly stage-bound - which alongside the overly-theatrical acting style helps conspire to lock in the action and drama of the spectacle with a fairytale-like audio dynamic. Colin Clive's clipped diction is well presented, as it the Monster's growling and feral hiss.
I have certainly heard movies from the period in much worse condition - White Zombie and The Ghoul, for sure.
ExtrasEssentially, what we have here are the extras that adorned the previous edition from the Monster Legacy boxset, minus the Stephen Sommers featurettes. However, a very worthy addition to the already not-inconsiderable roster of features is the commentary from film historian Sir Christopher Frayling. And, if, like me, you only had the R1 set then you will also be pleased to know that the Universal Horror documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, has now been incorporated as well. Previously, this was only on the R2 version of the boxset.
Disc One features the movie, two chat tracks and a Monster Pop-up Trivia Track. The first commentary is from esteemed and enthusiastic film historian Rudy Behlmer and, whilst fact-packed, in-depth and comprehensive, feels a little dry. Behlmer knows his stuff, of that there is no doubt - but he lacks the spark to keep the listener constantly engaged. I found it easier to listen to in little sections, rather than a full-on experience. The second track, from Sir Christopher Frayling, is much, much better. If you read my review for The Magnificent Seven, you may remember how much I loved listening to Frayling's clever, witty and insightful dissection of the film, effortlessly managing to be educational and entertaining at the same time. He had already covered the Frankenstein story in his brilliant TV series The Birth Of Horror some years ago, but his passion, knowledge and considered use of opinion here is a terrific extension of that work.
Also contained on this Disc is Karloff: The Gentle Giant which runs for around 37 mins. This is gem of a documentary featuring input from authors, historians, screenwriters and a director, to two. Among the participants to discuss the career of Boris Karloff are Sir Christopher Frayling, Kim Newman, Stephen Jones, Pete Atkins, Joe Dante and horror writer, and neighbour of mine, Ramsey Campbell. The versatile character actor's success as the Monster transformed him overnight from gangster heavy into Karloff The Uncanny, and his many wonderful performances are chronicled with respect, admiration and some sly humour. It's not as in-depth about his many, many other classic roles, but with copious relevant clips and stills, this doc does make a fair overview of horror's greatest poster boy.
“These movies superseded their literary sources and became something else ... they became a myth,” says Sir Christopher Frayling, and I can't agree more.
Disc 2 features some great stuff, too. First up is Universal Horror, which is a very entertaining look at the history of the famous studio, paying particular attention to its Golden Era of chillers. Running for a satisfying 95 mins, the documentary is narrated by Kenneth Brannagh - no stranger to Frankenstein, himself - and contains many wonderful interviews from the likes of film historian and author David J. Skal, Rudy Behlmer, Karloff's daughter Sara, author Ray Bradbury and actors James Karen and Gloria Stuart, who was so gorgeous when she starred opposite Karloff in Whale's The Old Dark House (reviewed separately). With an amazing amount of clips from their own movies and those that inspired their directors - The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu prominently - we are also treated to many stills from behind the scenes and a vast assortment of anecdotes. Universal's key producers and studio heads are covered in detail and the influence of their classic output during this period is discussed with respect and high regard by all concerned. It is nice the way that the participants convey their memories of first seeing these films and the profound effect the experiences had upon them. An excellent documentary that only comes undone with the fact that it has no archived interviews with the big hitters themselves, people like James Whale, Karloff and that other Titan Of Terror, Bela Lugosi - although they are quoted often.
The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster is another fairly meaty documentary (around 45 mins) that, as the title implies, focuses on the transformation of William Henry Pratt from bit-parting heavy in gangster flicks to Boris Karloff, the undisputed King of Horror and his string of performances portraying Frankenstein's creation. Hosted by David J. Skal, posing alongside an awesome life-size replica of the Monster, this features input from makeup supremo Rick (American Werewolf) Baker, among others, who provides a great viewpoint from a man who was so clearly influenced by the amazing results that Jack P. Pierce achieved all those years ago. It is also nice to see the little test reel of colour footage from Son Of Frankenstein depicting the Monster menacing his real creator, Pierce, in a bit of vintage fun. Great to actually see his ghoulish green skin - something that the black and white films sadly denied us. Inevitably, some of the same ground is covered in Universal Horror, but this is still another excellent feature that is worth returning to.
The Frankenstein Archives is a marvellous collection of posters - including the bizarre one that depicts a giant-sized, tousled-haired Monster with laser beams coming out of his eyes that was produced when Bela Lugosi was still being considered for the part. Running for 9.23 mins this little feature then spins out the entire movie for us via scene-by-scene stills, all set to the original source music, dialogue and effects. Nicely done.
Boo! A Short Film is 9.30 mins of vintage oddball narration detailing how to obtain the perfect nightmare. Incorporating a lot of clips from Nosferatu, Frankenstein and The Cat And The Canary, this is seriously of the one-watch-only variety.
Then we get the wonderful original theatrical trailer for Frankenstein, which runs for 1.41 mins.
Mention must also go to the lavish packaging design for this release. The distinctive book-style jacket is a lovely, antiquated brown, with wonderful imagery of Karloff's Monster, front and back. Inside is another wide still from one of the dungeon scenes. I liked the ghoulish green look of the Monster Legacy artwork, but this feels, somehow, more atmospheric. Well done.
An excellent package. All we need now is the 75th Anniversary Edition of Bride Of Frankenstein. Hmm ... still a few years to wait for that one.
VerdictWell, the simple fact is that Frankenstein is an absolute classic, a true landmark motion picture that set the tone for the visual style and feel of the horror film as a distinct and recognisable genre in its own right. Often criticised for his overtly-theatrical style and static camera, I hope I have pleaded the case for what is, in actuality, James Whale's marvellously cinematic endeavour to bring gothic suspense to the masses. He surpassed himself with his own sequel, Bride Of Frankenstein, but this remarkably effective chiller broke the ground that Tod Browning's Dracula only tentatively prodded. Even today, the movie has an audaciously up-front theme and a tremendous sense of atmosphere that, coupled with set-pieces that are stamped indelibly upon our culture, create an iconic masterpiece.
And, of course, it introduced Boris Karloff into the collective consciousness.
This 75th Anniversary Edition is a superlative package and a very worthy addition to any film collection. Double up with the equally respectful and remastered 1931 Dracula and you have the perfect tribute to the birth of cinematic horror. If you already own the Monster Legacy edition, then you are already a fan and won't think twice about putting this further release alongside it. With this you will gain the excellent Christopher Frayling commentary and a spruced-up transfer. If you don't have any copy of the film at all, then it is worth remembering that with the Monster Legacy - depending upon which version and region you opt for, you also get the film's sequels, as well. Either way, Frankenstein is very highly recommended indeed and deserves a place in everyone's DVD collection.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £16.73
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