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10 October, 2009

DVD Review: FRANKENSTEIN—75th Anniversary Edition

Title: FRANKENSTEIN—75th Anniversary Edition

Year of Release—Film: 1931

Year of Release—DVD: 2006

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

It is by no means hyperbole to describe James Whale’s 1931 classic FRANKENSTEIN as the most important Horror Film in the genre’s history. While the release of Tod Browning’s DRACULA nine months previously had created the American Horror Film, as well as established Universal Studios as the Horror studio, it was FRANKENSTEIN’s release in November 1931 that gave the genre what it needed for lasting permanence… a cinematic masterpiece.

Though I love the Browning DRACULA, and recognize its importance, it doesn’t compare to FRANKENSTEIN in terms of script and direction. Whale’s direction has a style, a fluidity, and a power that is missing from Browning’s wooden, stagey direction on DRACULA.
A comparison of the scenes that serve to introduce us to the respective monster in each film illustrates the difference in directorial style. In DRACULA, we first see Lugosi as the Count as he greets Renfield at the top of the stairway. The scene is static and uninvolving; it is left to the power of Lugosi’s performance and presence, and one line—“Listen to them… children of the night. What music they make!” to impress upon the viewer a sense of the impending evil about to descend upon poor Renfield.

Whale, conversely, was able to project the power and significance of the moment well before his creature even entered the scene. As Henry Frankenstein and Dr. Waldeman converse quietly about Frankenstein’s “failure” with the monster, you hear, softly at first, in the background, but growing louder, the shuffling footsteps of the monster. Where Browning treated sound almost as an afterthought on DRACULA, Whale wove sound into the fabric of the film, making it part of the experience. Then the door opens, and a huge, misshapen figure lumbers into the chamber, and his face is revealed in a series of increasingly close jump cuts. When originally shown, this was considered so frightening that theaters warned those with weak constitutions to avoid the film. While that was largely marketing hype, 1930’s style, there’s no denying the power and impact of the scene, even 75 years later. Nor can you deny the effectiveness and quality of the film as a whole.

There’s nothing to say about this two-disc set that I haven’t already said about its fraternal twin, the DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition. The artwork on the case is gorgeous; the print is beautiful; it’s truly a great set.

While not as loaded as the DRACULA 75th Anniversary Edition, fans have plenty to choose from in this two-disc set. The best of those choices is the documentary KARLOFF: THE GENTLE MONSTER. This biographical look at Boris Karloff is far too short to do justice to its subject, but you do get a good sense of Karloff, the actor. I wish they had spent some time exploring William Pratt, the cultured son of British aristocrats, and how he became Horror’s most recognizable and revered icon.

Also included is the Monster Tracks feature that I discussed in the DRACULA review, as well as UNIVERSAL HORRORS, the Kenneth Branagh-narrated documentary that explores every facet of the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Other features from the FRANKENSTEIN Legacy set are included, guaranteeing you get your money’s worth on this set.
This is without question the ultimate DVD treatment of Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN thus far released, and is a superb example of just what can be done with a 75-year old film. This is almost universally recognized as the greatest Horror film ever produced, and you cannot consider yourself even a casual fan of the genre if you don’t have this film in your collection. While the $26.95 list price is expensive, at least by my standards, its well worth the price to own this movie, and you can find it cheaper. Deep Discount has it for less than $20, a significant savings.

Whatever the price where you find it, buy it. No one should miss seeing, or owning, this movie.

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