A long time of waiting is coming to an end for countless fans of classic horror films as Universal Home Video is releasing the films that built the foundation for the studio as we know it today, pulling out the Universal Classic Monsters. Preparing all these films as Collector’s Editions, James Whale’s 1931 classic "Frankenstein" is the first in a series of releases that will eventually bring all the Universal monsters to DVD. Originally released shortly after Todd Browning’s unexpectedly successful "Dracula" in 1931, "Frankenstein" was the second film in the annals of Universal’s classic monster movies. Shot on a budget of less than $300,000 dollars, "Frankenstein" helped immensely to bring Universal back on track in 1931, at a time when the studio was writing nothing but red ink. In retrospect it is clear that these films have not only saved the studio at the time, but have also become integral part of popular culture for generations to come. Even today, almost 70 years after the original release, everyone is familiar with Boris Karloff’s bulky appearance as the Frankenstein creature.
Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is a scientist on the verge of a medical break-through for mankind. His dream to artificially create life finally comes to fruition when one stormy night he manages to breath the spark of life into a lifeless creature (Boris Karloff). Scavenging the graveyards at night, Frankenstein has assembled the creature from body parts of the dead and has given him the degenerated brain of a criminal. But when the creature comes to life it finds nothing but appalled reactions to its monstrous looks and the constant torture by Fritz (Dwight Frye), Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant. Frightened and lonely the creature breaks free and attacks its oppressors. Roaming the local woods it eventually stumbles into a little girl playing by the lakeside. Enjoying the girl’s company the two watch daisies floating in the water. To show his gratitude the creature tosses the girl in the lake to make her float too, only to see her drown in front of his own eyes. Frightened and confused he retreats into the woods once again but soon a mob of villagers, lead by Henry Frankenstein himself, follows his trail to put an end to the presumed monster.
Misunderstood and misinterpreted for a long time, "Frankenstein" has long been classified as a horrific movie with a frightening monster. Interestingly this is not entirely true as we all know today. The creature is a victim of circumstance and chased for its monstrosity and is not implicitly scary by itself - although the heavy make-up has certainly had a different effect on theater going audiences in 1931.
On this disc you will be able to behold a completely restored version of "Frankenstein", including the previously removed "Now I know what it feels like to be God" scene as well as the scene when the creature is unsuspectingly throwing the little girl into the lake. The transfer itself is simply spectacular. Although containing a number of visible film deficiencies, the image is stable throughout, very clean considering the film’s age and most importantly superbly detailed. You can see details in the props that have never been visible before and you will be able to see every little mark on Boris Karloff’s skin. With clearly defined, sharp edges the film also has an astoundingly balanced look. Blacks are solid black, and highlights are natural without any signs of overexposure. As expected the compression on this disc is meticulous and there are no signs of compression artifacts visible anywhere. When it comes to a DVD presentation of a classic black and white film, Universal has just raised the bar with this release. It is amazing how well the film looks despite its age.
The audio on the release is just as well transferred. Presented in a monaural 2-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack, the audio is surprisingly natural in quality. Although flat and sharp sounding at times, the soundtrack never sounds really muffled or distorted by age as you can witness on countless other releases through to the 50s and 60s. The noise floor is dramatically low, leaving much of the original ambience of the film fully intact. Apart from the original soundtrack the disc also contains a commentary track by film historian Rudy Behlmer. This commentary will literally flood you with details about the film, how it came about, the background and the people involved. Behlmer covers almost the entire filmographies of all the actors involved, not to mention his extensive excursion into James Whale’s life and work. The commentary is not overly entertaining but extremely informative instead. Only during a handful of key scenes will the commentary stop to allow viewers to experience the scene, now with knowledge of it’s background as discussed by Behlmer. For every fan of the film, this track is a treasure chest with a wealth of historical facts about "Frankenstein" the movie, the novel, the myth.
Universal’s Collector’s Edition of "Frankenstein" also contains a wealth of special features, which is very surprising given the film’s considerable age. A new documentary by filmmaker and Universal horror specialist David J. Skal can be found here and it exhausts the film, its background and the people involved in quite some detail. Interview segments with Boris Karloff’s daughter Sarah paint a very warm, loving and pleasantly vivid picture of the man behind the make-up. Much has been said and written about this talented actor but hearing anecdotes first-handedly from his daughter and some of his friends makes quite a difference. The featurette exhausts many of the questions that came up over the years and have been covered in numerous publications. Having it all in such a concentrated form in this featurette makes it a great addition to the release. As a sidenote, take a look at the footage from "Frankenstein" in this particular segment and you will get an idea how badly speckled and damaged the untreated version of the film looked. It’s a great comparison to see how fantastic the fully restored, cleaned-up version presented by Universal on this release actually turned out.
More on the funny side is "Boo!" a 10-minute short film that spoofs the early horror genre. Utilizing footage from "Frankenstein", Murnau’s "Nosferatu", and "The Cat and the Canary" it cuts elements of these film together over an ambiguously funny narrative voice-over. It contorts the actual scenes and contents of the source material and makes up a completely new and hilarious film itself with it. Don’t miss it!
After watching the entire content of this great Collector’s Edition from Universal Home Video I had the satisfying feeling that the content answered everything I ever wanted to know about the movie. Although I have been a fan of the film for a very long time, savoring information as I managed to gather it, David J. Skal’s documentary and the details delivered on the commentary track still filled in many gaps I had not known were there. It doesn’t happen very often that a special edition can be that complete and in this particular case it certainly helps a lot that we have a lot of common knowledge about "Frankenstein", its sequels, the novel and much more. Nevertheless the commentary track, the production notes and the featurette helped immensely to piece it all together to make the myth more tangible. As a true fan of classic B-horror films, this Collector’s Edition from Universal is a heaven-sent. No matter how often you have seen the film, this disc has to go into every DVD owner’s library!