Saturday, June 13, 2009

Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection

Perhaps the very best entry in Universal's "Legacy Collection" of DVD multipacks compiling their classic monster movies in handsome, archive-quality packages, is the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." In this post, I review the five films included in it and offer some brief commentary on the set in general.

"Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection" contains two of the great foundation stones of the horror movie genre--"Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein"--the two great classic movies directed by James Whale--the almost equally great sequels "Son of Frankenstein" and "Ghost of Frankenstein," and one the Wolf Man cross-overs, "House of Frankenstein." All five films are among the best of Universal's output from the 1930s and 1940s, and they're all films that lovers of classic horror films will want to have in their personal collections.

The Legacy Collection is even more worth having due to commentaries by film historians on the SAP tracks on "Frankenstein" and "Bride of Frankenstein,"; two very excellent documentaries on the creation of the movies; the inclusion of the original theatrical previews of the films, the poster and still galleries; and the quirky little short film "Boo."

Frankenstein (1931)
Starring: Colin Clive, Boris Karloff, Mae Clark, Dwight Frye, and John Boles
Director: James Whale
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Henry Frankenstein (Clive), a true madman with dreams of "knowing what God felt like" when he created life, successfully animates a monster made from parts taken from several corpses. Unfortunately, abuse heaped on his creation by an idiot assistant (Frye) and Frankenstein's own missteps causes the creature (Karloff) to go bezerk and flee into the countryside. Soon, Frankenstein's Monster comes back to haunt him and those he cares about.

"Frankenstein" is one of the great monster movies that started the horror genre, so I feel a bit awkward about not liking it more than I do. I feel like I should be giving it a rating of 8 or 9, but all I feel it deserves is a low 7.

That is not to say that the film doesn't have some great moments. Boris Karloff gives a great performance as the creature who is clearly yearning for the sort of comforts every human being wants, but receives nothing but abuse. It's truly the only film portrayal of the Monster that made me feel sorry for it. The sets are also spectacular, the lighting and camerawork fantastic, and all the actors give excellent performances (but Karloff truly excels).

Where the film doesn't work for me is on the level of script and character interaction. I find it impossible to believe that Frankenstein's fiance Elizabeth (Clark) would want to go with a walk in the park with Frankenstein after the raw, total madness she witnessed when he brought his creature to life,and I find it even harder to believe that their mutual friend Victor (Boles) wouldn't be doing everything in his power to keep her from the marriage. I understand that horror movies Back In The Day tended to move rather swiftly along as far as characters go, but the lack of reaction to Henry's insanity really ruined the entire picture for me.

I think this movie is a must-see for anyone who considers themselves a film-buff or a fan of the horror genre, as it (along with "Dracula" and "White Zombie") set many of the ground-rules for horror films that persist to this day. However, as gorgeous a film as it to look at, as great as all the actors are, it suffers from some major story issues that may get in the way of your enjoyment.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, and Elsa Lanchester
Director: James Whale
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

As monster-maker Henry Frankenstein (Clive) is recovering from the near-fatal injuries he received at the hands of his monstrous creation, he is approached by the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Thesiger). Pretorius is a mad scientist, who, like Frankenstein, is obsessed with creating life. He has allied with Frankestein's creation (Karloff) in order to force Frankenstein to create a mate for it, so that Pretorius may learn Frankenstein's techniques. Frankenstein must create this other creature, or his own wife (Hobson) will be killed.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is presented as a direct sequel to the 1932 film "Frankenstein", but is somewhat divorced from that movie. First off, it's set up like a fictional story being told by Mary Shelley (Lanchester). Second, the film has a higher comedy element than the original. Third, a number of characters are somewhat different than they were in the first film, with Frankenstein being less of a complete lunatic, who actually wants to give up the whole monster-making gig until Pretorius and Frakenstein's Monster force him to make a mate for the original creation; and Frankenstein's Monster, who has grown in intellect while wandering injured in the wilderness.

What remains the same, however, is the tragic quality of the Frankenstein's monster. While the monster commits acts of genuine evil--where in "Frankenstein", he was mostly acting out of ignorance or self-defense--these are balanced by the presentation of the monster as a deeply lonely, unhappy creature who has no place in, purpose in, or connection with God's creation. The fundementally tragic nature of Frankenstein's creation, and the fact that the most evil players in the story are Frankenstein and Pretorius, has never been driven home in any other Frankestein film than in the final ten minutes of "Bride of Frankenstein." That final reel is one of the greatest horror sequences to ever appear on screen.

"Bride of Frankenstein" is also remarkable for the amazing sets and camera work. The fantastic use of lighting and quick cuts, and the twisted angles in the buildings serve to underscore both the horror and some of the scenes of absurd humor in the film.

Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Starring: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Josephine Hutchinson, Edgar Norton and Boris Karloff
Director: Rowland Lee
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

Wolf von Frankenstein (Rathbone) returns with this family to his ancenstral home in the hopes of rehabilitating his father's name. His high hopes soon turn to bitter ashes as the villagers refuse to give him a chance--except for the police captain (Atwill) who has more cause to hate the Frankenstein name than any of the others--and he is soon drawn into a sinister scheme launched by psychopathic former assistant of his father (Lugosi) to restore the Frankenstein Monster (Karloff) to life.

"Son of Frankenstein" is one of the true classics among horror films. As good as "Frankenstein' and almost as good as "Bride of Frankenstein", it features a top-notch cast, great camera-work, fantastic sets, and a story that's actually better constructed than any other of the Universal Frankenstein movies.

Particularly noteworthy among thge actors are Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone. Lugosi is gives one of the best performances of his career, and as I watched, I once again found myself lamenting that he didn't do more comedic roles than he did. He manages to portray the crippled Ygor as funny, pitiable, and frighteing, showing greater range in this role than just about any other he played. The funny bits show a fabulous degree of comedic timing that Lugosi only had the opportunity to show on few other occassions. Rathbone is also excellent, as the high-minded dreamer who is driven to the edge of madness by frustration, fear, and guilt. (He may be a bit too hammy at times, but he's generally very good.)

Lionel Atwill is also deserving of a praise. I think he is better here in his role as Krogh than in any other film I've seen him in. In some ways, "Son of Frankenstein" is as much Krogh's tale as that of Wolf von Frankenstein so pivotal is his character to the tale, and so impactful is Krogh's eventual confrontation with the monster that tore his arm off as a chld. Atwill also manages to portray a very intelligent and sensitive character--perhaps the most intelligent character in the entire movie.

One actor that I almost feel sorry for in this film is Boris Karloff. The monster has very little to do... except lay comatose and go on mindless rampages. ANYONE could have been in the clown-shoes and square-head makeup for this film, because none of the depth shown in the creature in the previous two movies is present here. (While the whole talk about "cosmic rays" and the true source of the creature's lifeforce is very interesting, the monster isn't a character in this film... he's just a beast.)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr, and Evelyn Ankers
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

The evil Ygor (Lugosi) resurrects the Frankenstein Monster (Chaney) and forces the second son of Baron Frankenstein (Hardwicke) to "fix him." Frankenstein resolves to give the monster the mind of a decent man, but Ygor and Frankenstein's jealous collegue (Atwill) have other ideas.

"The Ghost of Frankenstein" is a good, workman's like horror flick. The sets are decent, the acting is good, and the script moves along briskly and makes sense (within the context of manmade monsters and full brain-transplant operations). However, the film lacks the style and atmosphere of the previous three films in the series. Gone are the sets with the disturbing angles and sharp shadows. We've also got more subdued, more realistic acting on the part of the cast--and this is a great shame as far as Lugosi's Ygor character goes. Virtually all the humor and quirkiness that made this such a great character in "Son of Frankenstein" is gone, although there is still plenty of menace here.

Speaking of menace, a strong point of this film is that the Monster is actually put to good use story-wise, and the demand he places on Frankenstein is truly monstrous. It's not the character we saw in either "Frankenstein" or "Bride of Frankenstein", but it is an evolution that makes sense; it's as if the Monster wants a fresh start, but that the evil influence of Ygor has leeched away even the slight decency he showed in "Bride."

This may not be the high point of classic horror, but it's a fun flick and one you'll be glad you saw.

House of Frankenstein (1944)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, J. Carroll Naish, John Carradine and George Zucco
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

After escaping from prison, mad scientist Gustav Niemann (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge on those who helped imprison him, and to find the notes of the legendary Dr. Frankenstein so he can perfect his research. Along the way, he accidentially awakens Dracula (Carradine) and recruits him to his cause, as well as uncovers the frozen bodies of Frankenstein's Monster and Larry Talbot, the unfortunate wolfman (Chaney) and and revives them. Cue the torch-wielding peasant mob.

"House of Frankenstein" is one of three movies released in the 1940s that featured the latest addition to Universal's monster pantheon, the Wolf Man, teaming up with/battling the studio's two monster greats, Dracula and Frankenstein's Monster. As such, it is a sequel not only to "Ghost of Frankenstein," but also to "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man."

So, if you're confused about how the Monster from the fiery pit at the end of "Ghost of Frankenstein" to the ice floe here, you didn't skip a movie--events transpired that aren't found in this set. (I'll have more to say about the editorial choices made by Universal in compling the packages that make up the Legacy Collection when I post about "The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection," but the bottom line is that I think "House of Frankenstein" should not have been included in this set as it's more of a Wolf Man movie than part of the Frankenstein's Monster series.)

"House of Frankenstein" unfolds in a very episodic way, with the part of the film involving Dracula feeling very disconnected from what comes before and what comes after. The main storyline sees Karloff's mad doctor questing for revenge while preparing to prove himself a better master of brain-transplanting techniques than Frankenstein, and the growing threat to his cause by his repeated snubbing of his murderous assistant (Naish). The whole bit with Dracula could easily be left out, and the film may have been stronger for it.

This is a very silly movie that is basically a parade of gothic horror cliches--I thought maybe I was having some sort of hallucinatory flashback to my days writing for the "Ravenloft" line--but it moves at a quick pace, and it features a great collection of actors, has a nifty musical score, and features great sets once the story moves to the ruins of Castle Frankenstein.

"House of Dracula" is one of the lesser Universal Monster movies--it's not rock-bottom like the mummy films with Lon Chaney, but it's almost there. The film is, to a large degree, elevated by the top-notch performers and it's almost too good for what they give it. (But it is interesting in a breaking-the-third-wall sort of way to see the actor who started the series as Frankentein's Monster come back to it in the role of a mad scientist.)

If you would like to add these films to your own collection, they are avaiable on DVD for reasonable prices at The best value is, naturally, the "Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection." Click on the cover images below for details.

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