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FRANKENSTEIN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Dwight Frye
Director:  James Whale
Audio:  Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono
Video:  Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  71 Minutes
Release Date:  August 17, 1999

Film ****

Perhaps no other horror movie has been as indelibly etched into our American culture as Frankenstein.  At any rate, the famed image of the great Boris Karloff in full make-up, complete with the electrodes in his neck and the flat head, is one of the most easily recognizable images of the 20th century.  And maybe most importantly, famed director James Whale was able to create a piece of cinema that could endure and captivate long after it had lost its ability to scare and thrill.

The novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley is one of the most successful ever penned, having enjoyed many printings, and continual re-telling through plays and films.  It was a true gothic success, not so much for creating a horrifying monster tale, but for delving into one of the most disturbing psychological profiles in literary history…that of Dr. Frankenstein, the man torn between genius and madness, and between making a discovery that could benefit all mankind and playing God.  Like Faust, he meddles with forces that everyone around him knows he should let alone.

He is played in this film by Colin Clive, a long time friend and frequent collaborator with Whale.  In the heart of one of the most beautifully and meticulously constructed sets for a film, he brings life to a creature he created by piecing together bits of corpses and installing a new brain (an abnormal one, it turns out).  And the creature, of course, is played to perfection by Karloff, in one of the most enduring and memorable screen performances. 

Though this film was intended to, and may have, shocked and terrified audiences in its day, time has not been kind to its power to scare.  There’s really nothing in the picture that will give modern movie goers so much as a gasp.  But the film’s true potency lies not in its horror, but in the pathos generated by the creature.  Unlike other horror film monsters, Karloff’s character is highly sympathetic.  He was brought into a world where there was no place for him.  He was not created in order to know joy, or love, but rather, in vanity by a scientist who merely wanted to see if he can do it.  He reacts instinctively, but often without rational thought.  No one has trained him how to behave.  When he does something terrible, it’s not a deed born of an evil heart, but rather a confused and lonely one.  The final scene of him trapped in the burning windmill is heartbreaking, and credit should go to where it is most deserved…without a word of dialogue, Boris Karloff created a living, breathing character that transcended the famous make-up and won a permanent place in the hearts of film fans.

Director Whale should also be given special note.  He was clearly one of the best and most influential directors in the early years of Hollywood talkies, and as I’ve mentioned in my review of The Old Dark House, this was largely due to his camera work.  When most films of the early 30’s were static because of the delicate sound recording instruments, Whale’s camera stalked, panned, tracked, rose and fell with the action on screen.  I’m convinced that’s a principle reason why his films have aged better than so many other movies of that period.  Also, his ability to draw on the influence of early German expressionistic films to create atmosphere by lighting and shadows, and by relishing in rather than shying away from the grotesque, helped take cinematography to new and more expressive levels of artistic achievement.

One additional side note…fans of the film will be very pleased to know that with this DVD, Frankenstein is finally complete…Universal has restored the long cut line spoken by Clive, “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”  And now I know what it feels like to see this movie the way James Whale intended.

Video ***1/2

Interestingly enough, the weakest parts of the transfer are early on in this picture.  Some of the graveyard scenes are soft, grainy, and with noticeable scars.  I thought at the time, oh well, this is to be expected from a nearly 70 year old film…but then the rest of it was considerably better:  cleaner, crisper images, with great light and shadow contrast, and much less signs of aging.  See, for example, the scene of the wedding revelry that immediately follows the drowning of the little girl…incredible! 

Audio ***

The soundtrack, though obviously old and in mono, is amazingly free of noises and pops.  Dialogue is always clear, and the many creative uses of sound employed by James Whale come through beautifully:  the noise of the electrical equipment, the raging fire, and the dirt hitting the coffin lid as examples.  If this disc is indicative of what the entire series of Universal classic horror films will be like, then fans, rejoice!

Features ****

This disc boasts an impressive package.  There is a well made 45 minute documentary on this film and the history of Frankenstein in literature, plays, and film, a short film spoof called “Boo!”, a commentary by a film expert, the reissue trailer (the box says there are two; I only find one), production notes, cast and crew bios, a 10 minute film showcasing the publicity of the movie, and some very nicely done animated menus.

Summary:

Frankenstein is not so much a horror story as it is a terrific literary classic, and as such, this film has endured in popularity through the years without being very scary anymore.  The wonderful photography and set designs, the legendary performance by Karloff, and the brilliant vision of James Whale combined to create a truly landmark piece of cinema.