FRANKENSTEIN LEGACY COLLECTION
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Boris Karloff, Bela
Lugosi, Colin Clive, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone, Glenn Strange, Elsa
Lanchester, Valerie Hobson
Directors: James Whale, Rowland Lee, Erle Kenton
Audio: English 2.0 mono
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-screen
Features: Two commentaries, two documentaries, Van Helsing promo, trailers, two art galleries, Boo! short film
Length: 384 minutes
Release Date: April 27, 2004
"It's alive! It's alive! IT'S ALIVE!"
Films *** ½
James Whale's 1931 classic Frankenstein hardly needs an introduction. It is easily the most famous film adaptation ever of Mary Shelley's Prometheus tale about the hubris of a man aspiring to be God. Frankenstein's sequel, 1935's Bride of Frankenstein, also directed by James Whale, is arguably superior to the original and is perhaps the best of all the various Frankenstein films over the years.
Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection amasses five Universal films which comprise an "official" canon of the Frankenstein story. The films included in this set are Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein as well as Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and House of Frankenstein (1944). Read on below for brief descriptions of these five vintage horror films:
1) Frankenstein (70 min.)
"In the name of God, and now I know what it feels like to be God!"
There's really no need to summarize this very familiar tale, although James Whale's version of Frankenstein was not the first cinematic take on the Shelley tale. A silent Thomas Edison version, once assumed lost, still exists (good luck tracking down a copy of this exceedingly rare film, however). The Whale version draws some inspiration from this silent effort as well as from a popular 1920's Peggy Webling stage production of Shelley's novel. Originally, Robert Florey was to have directed Bela Lugosi as the Monster, but Florey and Lugosi were eventually replaced by Whale and Karloff, respectively (ironically, Bela Lugosi would later get his turn to portray the creature after all in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). Whale retained some of Florey's creative ideas but infused the film with much of his personality, too.
Furthermore, while Frankenstein is clearly a sound film, it still adheres to many of the conventions of the silent era. Its images are startlingly evocative with their play of light and shadows. The visuals, rather, than the dialogue, tell the story and are what make Frankenstein so memorable - the wonderful gothic set design, Jack Pierce's legendary Monster make-up design, the unforgettable lightning experiment that begets the Monster, Karloff's initial dead-eyed appearance as the Monster itself, the Monster's anguished confusion at the fear or destruction wracked by its actions, and of course that burning windmill finale.
The restored version that appears in this collection is a windfall for fans who have only previously seen the film in a truncated form. Restored are dialogue and sequences frequently excised from television broadcasts. We hear famous lines once considered too blasphemous by the censors. The fateful encounter by the waters between the Frankenstein Monster and an innocent little girl is now presented once more in its entirety.
Boris Karloff injured his back during the production of Frankenstein due to the intensively physical demands of his role. Recurrent back problems would plague Karloff for the remainder of his career.
BONUS TRIVIA: Mae Clarke, who portrays Frankenstein's bride, is most famous for having a grapefruit mashed into her pretty face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy.
2) Bride of Frankenstein (75 min.)
"To a new world of gods and monsters!"
This superb sequel, also by James Whale, surpasses even the original Frankenstein for gothic imagery and evocative chills and thrills. Bride of Frankenstein opens with a short Mary Shelley prelude, and thereafter, picks up the storyline immediately following the collapse of the windmill (as seen in the climax of Frankenstein). Contrary to appearances from the previous film, the Frankenstein Monster did not perish in the all-consuming flames of the burning windmill. Instead, it has fallen into a pool of water beneath the mill's foundation and has survived to terrorize the local countryside once more.
Henry Frankenstein has somehow survived his rigorous ordeal as well. Convinced of the errors of his judgement and hubris, he vows to shun his experiments...until the mysterious Dr. Pretorius arrives to excite Frankenstein's scientific curiosity. Pretorius has devised a way to create life as well. Together, the two men can perfect the creation process and, perhaps, can make a mate for Frankenstein's Monster!
Universal spared little expense in producing this film, and the results are undeniably stunning. From the film's expressionistic sets and eerie lighting effects to its classic score and superb cast, Bride of Frankenstein stands proudly as one of the greatest horror films ever made. While its power to frighten has diminished over time, there can be no arguing its considerable ability still to thrill the senses and to touch the heart, particularly given Boris Karloff's achingly poignant performance as the misunderstood Monster. Silent in the first film, the Monster has now been given a voice, which allowed the stage-trained Karloff even greater latitude to fully express the inner anguish of the Monster, a creature who simply desires nothing more than a friend.
3) Son of Frankenstein (100 min.)
"One does not easily forget, Herr Baron, an arm torn out by the roots."
Contrary to popular belief, Henry Frankenstein never had an assistant named Igor. However, a crippled madman named Ygor (Bela Lugosi in one of his finest performances) does play a pivotal role in Son of Frankenstein and in his own fashion, after his own agenda, serves another Frankenstein.
As the film opens, Henry Frankenstein is long dead, but his memoirs and his notes survive. Now, his son is returning from life abroad to revisit the ancestral castle. Does he mean to reclaim his heritage or perhaps to continue his father's work? Little does this young scientist, Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), realize that by tampering with forces of creations, he too like his father will unleash a terrible reign of terror and death once more upon the local countryside.
Somewhere, deep within the ruins of the old Frankenstein laboratory, the Monster endures in a dream stupor. Years have transpired since it supposedly died within the crumbling ruins of Frankenstein's lab, but befriended by Ygor and nurtured in its ill-health, the Monster awaits a new father...or creator.
That savior is Wolf von Frankenstein, who like his father becomes seduced by the potential power of creation. Beseeched by Ygor to restore the Monster's strength, young Frankenstein re-assembles his father's laboratory and begins the task of restoring the Monster, little realizing Ygor's deviant plans for the creature.
4) Ghost of Frankenstein (68 min.)
"Would you destroy that which I, your father, dedicated his life to creating?"
For the first time in a Universal film, the Monster is not portrayed by Boris Karloff. Instead, Lon Chaney (of Wolfman fame) dons the big suit and make-up. Later installments in the Frankenstein series would also find Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange in the role of the Monster.
For now, Bela Lugosi returns again as Ygor, a twisted criminal seemingly as impervious to death as the Monster. Ygor has recovered from grave injuries incurred in the previous film and still haunts the old Frankenstein laboratory. He awaits the day the Monster will return from the sulfuric depths of its latest, apparent demise.
Sure enough, the Monster raises from the dead, although in a weakened state. Ygor takes the creature on a voyage to the hometown of Ludwig Frankenstein, a second son of the infamous Dr. Henry Frankenstein, in the hopes that the Monster's vitality may be restored. This new Frankenstein initially wants nothing to do with his father's evil creation. However, a ghostly visitation by his father's apparition convinces him otherwise. In a change of heart and a desire to restore his father's good name, Ludwig Frankenstein decides to remove the Monster's criminal brain and to replace it instead with a good brain. By doing so, Frankenstein hopes to proof the validity of his father's experiments and theories. After all, these experiments only failed because a flawed brain was used. Surely substituting a healthy brain would provide vindication, but where to find such a brain...or a willing donor?
Ghost of Frankenstein offers a few startling surprises along the way to its inevitably fiery conclusion. In the end, the Monster seemingly succumbs to a flaming demise, but we all know that movie monsters never really die, right?
Sadly, this film suffers from the absence of James Whale's direction and marks the start of the franchise's slow decline. The film's imagery is somewhat staid and the story merely plain. Ghost of Frankenstein also lacks the pathos and heart of the first two installments, and the Monster has been dumbed down to the point where it is more like a walking brick wall than a living tragic character. Still, the film features another solid performance by Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney is decent filling in Boris Karloff's shoes as the Monster.
5) House of Frankenstein (71 min.)
"He wanted life and strength. I wanted only death."
By the mid-1940's, the rehashed stories for Universal's three staple horror franchises - Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman - were becoming stale and repetitive. So, what better way to lure audiences back for continued chills and thrills than to offer three monsters together for the price of one?
House of Frankenstein was the first of three films to feature all three of Universal's top film monsters together. It was actually a sequel to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in which the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolfman clashed and presumably perished together in a flood that destroyed Castle Frankenstein. But as horror fans all know, unless you see a rotting body, the creature ain't dead!
The story this time focuses mainly on Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) and the hunchback, Daniel. Shortly after breaking out of prison, the mad scientist and his assistant make for the town of Frankenstein. Niemann is determined to continue Dr. Frankenstein's old research. Along the way, the traveling companions come across Dracula's remains and recruit the Count to their cause. However, the vampire count, most forgettably played by John Carradine, serves only a minor perfunctory role and soon disappears from the film long before Castle Frankenstein is within sight. Even the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange), when discovered, spends much of the film in a comatose state until the finale.
When Niemann and the hunchback reach Castle Frankenstein, they discover within the icy depths of its underground ruins the frozen remains of the Monster and the Wolfman. Once freed from his icy confines, the Wolfman transforms back into his alter ego, Larry Talbot. Niemann convinces the cursed man to reveal the hidden location of Frankenstein's old notes in exchange for a promise to cure Talbot finally of lycanthropy. In the meantime, Niemann peruses the Frankenstein notes to devise a way of restoring the Monster's life and strength. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, for when the moon is full once more, Talbot will transform into a murderous Wolfman and threaten all near him.
There is a romantic sub-plot involving a lascivious gypsy girl, but she serves little purpose in the film other than inspiring a jealous rivalry that drives the film to its inevitable conclusion, in which pretty much everyone perishes. Rest assured, however, that our monsters will find a way to return to life. And the world is never short of mad scientists ready to pick up the banner and follow the footsteps of Frankenstein!
Frankenstein has been released at several times on DVD. However, The Legacy Collection remains the only DVD compilation of the essential films of the Frankenstein canon. The few remaining films can be found on separate Universal box sets. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is included on The Wolfman Legacy Collection. House of Dracula is included on The Dracula Legacy Collection. And the curtain call for Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), can be found on The Best of Abbott & Costello, Volume Three, of all places.
Horror film enthusiasts sometimes lament the decline of these once-proud horror franchises to the level of slapstick comedy by this final installment. However, many overlook the fact that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is actually a highly entertaining film. It is certainly an improvement over the woefully inadequate, prior entries in these various franchises. Furthermore, a film that features Bela Lugosi in his final appearance as Dracula more than qualifies as a fitting bookend to the Universal golden era of classic horror.
Video ** ½
Given the extreme age of many of these films, a certain degree of age-related damage is to be expected. Beyond some inevitable speckles, dust marks, and minor scratches, these five films look decent, with the later films obviously faring better than the earliest films. The early films are somewhat grainy with a few instances of washed-out contrast levels, but otherwise, they are easily watchable.
Audio ** ½
Expect a good deal of hisses and crackle on the Frankenstein soundtrack. The later films sound better, but again, expect some limitations in the dynamic range or these films. Astute listeners may also note that the original Frankenstein possesses almost no musical score; this was a common trait for early films of the sound era.
The Legacy Collection is contained within attractive packaging which also includes an insert detailing summaries and production notes for all five films in this set. These films are divided between two discs. Disc One holds Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The disc also offers individual commentaries and trailers for each film as well as a slideshow art gallery (13 min.) for Bride of Frankenstein. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the various lobby cards, poster art, and production stills which are revealed in a slideshow format. Accompanying the visuals are sound clips from Bride of Frankenstein, providing a general synopsis of the entire film while the production stills unfold.
The enthusiastic Frankenstein commentary is by Rudy Behlmer. He describes many post-production changes or restorations to this version of the film and references significant differences between the novel and its sundry stage and film adaptation. A few words are provided about each of the main cast members as well as the 1816 origins of the novel at the prodigious hands of 19-year old author Mary Shelley. The scripted Bride of Frankenstein commentary is provided by Scott MacQueen. It is informative and generally more scholarly in tone than Behlmer's commentary if somewhat rapidly presented.
Disc Two, Side A contains Son of Frankenstein and Ghost of Frankenstein as well as a trailer for the latter film. Side B contains House of Frankenstein and the remainder of all the bonus features.
Stephen Sommers speaks in a short six-minute featurette about his love for the original film. He likens the Frankenstein monster to a misunderstood freak, like the Elephant Man. This featurette is a bit of a promo for the film Van Helsing, too.
The Frankenstein Files (44 min.) examines the making of Frankenstein, from its cinematic influences to the contributions of key cast and crew members. Differences are pointed out between the source novel and the Universal film, and similarities are noted between the film and antecedent efforts such as Thomas Edison's Frankenstein or German expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Fans wishing to learn a bit more general background about Boris Karloff can find that information here. Overall, this documentary is very entertaining, but I recommend viewing all the films in this Legacy Collection before watching the documentary, which closes with brief recaps of all the Universal Frankenstein films, as well as other related films such as the Hammer productions or the James Whale bio-pic, Gods and Monsters.
She's Alive! (38 min.) examines the making of Bride of Frankenstein. It is ideal for first-time viewers curious about in the backstory behind this crowning achievement in Universal horror. The long production history of the film is detailed, and short James Whale filmography is provided, too. Much of the documentary is accompanied by rare behind-the-scenes production stills from the film. On an interesting note, this documentary mentions various deleted scenes or sequences considered too scandalous by the censors of the day.
Next, there is Boo!, a short nine-minute film about a recipe for nightmares. Clips from various films, including Nosferatu and Frankenstein, are played for purely comic effect in this tongue-in-cheek skit.
Lastly, there is a second slideshow art gallery (9 min.), this time for Frankenstein, as well as a trailer for House of Frankenstein, too.
While some of the films in Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection are available individually, this set is ideal for fans of the Universal films who want a compilation of the best Frankenstein films together. Re-visit these vintage treasures from the crypt and re-discover the tragic miracle of the Frankenstein Monster!