|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 17 August 1999|
For years, Universal studios treated their classic horror films as something of an embarrassment. Sure, they made money whenever they were reissued, including on video, but the studio chiefs seemed to feel that they had risen above these classics -- which had saved the studio time and time again.
But recently, someone or something changed their minds. In 1999, a big-scale remake of The Mummy was released, and did great business. But more importantly for film buffs, an ambitious program of DVD releases was begun. The best available prints were used (though in some cases this didn't mean a great print), supplementary materials were unearthed, documentaries were produced, and the film was provided with interpretive narration. The results have been outstanding, the best DVD series so far, this will remain the standard by which any other such attempts will be judged (and most likely found wanting).
For example, with Frankenstein, David J. Skal, the film scholar behind these DVD releases, had the original film restored. Very strong stuff for 1931, it ran into censor problems upon its initial release, and when reissued in the mid-30s, several scenes were cut and discarded altogether. Earlier video releases have included these scenes, but Skal went further, and found a key line ("In the name of God, I know what it's like to BE God!") that was missing for many years was restored. The print itself is by very far the best available on video; the film looks like it could have been shot last week: it's crisp, sharp, with strong contrasts and pristine clarity.
The narration is by film historian Rudy Behlmer, and while there are a few odd glitches (the repetition of a few sentences, for example), it's rich with information about Mary Shelley's original novel, the stage adaptations, and the making of this movie. The documentary, hosted by Skal himself, features many experts in the field, including Forrest J Ackerman, Bob Madison, Don Glut and Rick Baker, whose comments on Jack Pierce's magnificent makeup for the Monster are particularly worthwhile. There's also an extensive selection of stills, production notes and trailers.
This DVD release of Frankenstein set new standards -- which Skal has lived up to in the subsequent releases of the original The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, with more to come.
The movie itself is worthy of all this. In the 1930s, horror movies were made for adults, not teenagers, and Frankenstein is grim, purposeful and intelligent. The dialog is eloquent, particularly in a speech evidently written by director James Whale, and while the film is unquestionably dated, it is also unquestionably a classic, one of the best horror films ever made. (But Bride of Frankenstein is even better.) Colin Clive, as Henry Frankenstein, is at once sensitive and heedless, the very image of a scientist crossing forbidden barriers. But of course, the actor who was made a star by this film was Boris Karloff, whose performance as the Monster is ferocious, touching, amusing, child-like and terrifying. To Karloff's credit, he never repudiated his beginnings, and to the end of his long life, always considered the Monster his "best friend."
Don't be misled: this is not a "campy" movie at all; unlike Dracula, though the movie is definitely a product of its period, there's a timeless quality to Frankenstein. We follow Henry Frankenstein and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) as they steal bodies to shape into a man that Frankenstein hopes to bring to life. His fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) is troubled, turning to her former beau Victor (John Boles) for help. In turn, they seek the advice of Henry's mentor, Dr. Waldman (Edward Van Sloan, also in Dracula), and the three visit Henry in his laboratory, housed in an old watchtower. This three "very sane spectators" watch as Frankenstein sends his pieced-together body up into the lightning while Kenneth Strickfaden's wonderful machinery crackles and sparks around them.
The Monster comes to life -- but unknown to Henry, the brain Fritz stole from Waldman's school was that of a madman....
There's something haunting about Frankenstein, even more than Bride, a richer, more mature film. Whale's famous arch humor doesn't turn up much here (though hunchbacked Fritz does fastidiously pull up a sock at one point); instead, he's intent on telling a powerful story in as compelling and frightening a manner as possible. It's a movie created by a talented team of filmmakers, and there were precedents for some of what we see. But the movie transcends these precedents; it even transcends itself. The idea of the Monster killing a child out of an appreciation of beauty, of Elizabeth in her silvery white gown menaced by the Monster, clad in black; the final confrontation in a burning windmill -- all these seem to have come out of a kind of Jungian racial memory, not the mere minds of men. Bride of Frankenstein is a better movie, maybe the best horror movie of all time, but Frankenstein has its own dark power. Thanks to Universal Home Video, his fascinating performance and James Whale's magnificent film haven't looked this good in decades. And thanks to David J. Skal, the supplementary material is respectful, and worthy, of Frankenstein itself.