As the second half of the one-two punch that started the Universal horror cycle of the 1930s (the initial blow belonging, of course, to Dracula), Frankenstein not only saved the studio from bankruptcy, it also started an astounding tradition among horror movies. Mary Shelley would be hard-pressed to recognize her famous character among the hunchbacked assistants, sputtering electrical equipment and the body stitched together from corpses. But this version, adapted from several stage plays, has become Canon, and for the next half-century not a single mad scientist with a name ending in -stein could do without the trappings of this 1931 film.
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a promising young medical student, leaves his studies to concentrate on "his work" - nothing less than creating life from inanimate matter. His fiancee (Mae Clarke), best friend (John Boles) and mentor (Edward van Sloan, Van Helsing in Dracula) track him to his crumbling remote laboratory on the storm-ridden night he imbues his creature (Boris Karloff) with life. Things go rather downhill from there.
As said before, this movie defined the look of gothic horror films for some time to come. James Whale pulls off some incredible set pieces, heavily influenced by German expressionist movies. But it is Karloff's performance, in tortuous Jack Pierce makeup that still allowed him an astounding degree of facial expression, that gives the movie its staying power. The creature, newly minted, is like a child; tormented by the hunchbacked Fritz, misjudged by a reactionary doctor, abandoned by the only parent it knows, it is small wonder the creature lashes out at the world. Its final moments, shrieking in terror as it flails about a burning windmill, do not engender a feeling of victory, but almost one of shame.
Of infinite value is the fact that this print is fully restored, with Frankenstein's controversial cry of "In the name God, I know what it is like to be God!" and the drowning of the little girl (more accident than anything else) preserved.
We'll start by saying that the picture quality of the source print for this movie was a distinct improvement over that for Dracula. But the most wondrous thing I discovered when I put this disc in my player was the audio. In a pre-movie curtain speech, Edward Van Sloan warns the audience about the terrors and controversies of the story they are about to see... and he sounds like he is in the room with you! Though the volume is low, the audio track has completely eliminated the constant hiss that is the usual bane of movies this old. Frankenstein has certainly never sounded better.
To return to the picture, the print is surprisingly clean, though there are dust spots and occasional lines. The image, however, is wonderfully clear and strong. Take a close look at the peasant costumes during the village's celebration of Henry's wedding: did you ever know there were that many shades of gray?
The Classic Monsters Collection has set a pleasantly high standard for bonus materials, and this disc is no exception. "The Frankenstein Files" is an original documentary once more hosted by David J. Skal, which employs the scattershot method (also apparently a tradition in this series) of interviewing practically anyone about the movie - which doesn't mean it's not entertaining or informative. Those wishing a more coherent background can check out the "Production Notes" text feature, which actually manages to include facts not covered in the featurette! The audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer is similarly educational, especially when he speaks of Whale's directoral flourishes.
The "Cast and Filmmakers" section is also far more complete than is usual for these sections, giving not only nice bios and filmographies for Karloff and Whale, but also the more forgotten actors, like Clarke and Boles. The "Theatrical Trailer" is from the re-release, and is in good shape. "The Frankenstein Archives" presents a parade of pristine publicity materials and photos, backed with an excerpted soundtrack from the movie.
Finally, "Boo!" is an oddity, a "Universal Brevity" that uses footage from Nosferatu and Frankenstein with a wisecracking narrator to supposedly comic effect. Though the short possesses some curiosity value, it wears out its welcome very quickly.
Overall, a fine presentation of a classic movie; Henry Frankenstein created more than this one, lonely creature - he created an entire genre, and this disc lavishes upon this movie the attention it deserves.
Dr. Freex, 10/30/00