About a year or so ago, Universal made the odd decision to retire their Classic Monsters line of DVDs, despite the fact that there has always been a strong following for these films and that they contain some of the most beloved characters and performances in the history of American cinema. Now though, just in time to tie in with their reincarnations (appearing soon at a theater near you to do battle with Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing), the films have been re-issued in box sets as part of the Legacy Collection.
Frankenstein (1931) -
Colin Clive plays Dr. Frankenstein – a scientist obsessed with creating a living creature from various body parts salvaged from the dead. After a few failed attempts, he finally achieves his goal but unfortunately his creation (Boris Karloff) isn't quite stable and is seen by the townspeople as a monster. Ultimately, because of this, Frankenstein shuns his creation him and the monster makes a run for it, wreaking havoc along the way and culminating in a showdown with the inevitable angry mob that occurs when you accidentally drown a little girl.
Directed by James Whale, Frankenstein is arguably the most recognizable of all the famous monsters and Karloff's image is the one most associated with the character. He brings a sense of menace to the proceedings when he needs to, swinging his arms around and demonstrating the monster's great strength, but also a sincere sense of pathos as well, in scenes where he's attempting in his own pathetic way to reach out and make friends in the only way he knows how.
The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935) -
The Monster Demands A Mate! Or so the tagline for this exceptionally good sequel to the original Frankenstein would have you believe. Karloff and Clive resume their roles as monster and creator respectively when it's revealed that both the monster and the doctor are still alive after the events in the first film. The good doctor wants to get out of the mad scientist business and tries to make a clean break from his past, but he's pulled back into the thick of things once more when the sinister Doctor Pretorius kidnaps Frankenstein's wife. Pretorius forces Frankenstein into agreeing to help him his evil scheme. What is that scheme, you may ask? Why, to create a mate for the monster! Thus, The Bride Of Frankenstein (played wonderfully by Elsa Lanchester – who also plays Mary Shelley in the film!) is born, but we all know that these things never work out.
Following the path of horror and sympathy that the first film laid out so effectively, James Whale gets behind the camera once more to helm this sequel which many horror movie fans feel betters the original (I disagree – I still think the first film is the best!). Once again, the sets are terrific, the performances stellar (you've got to love the interaction between Karloff and Lanchester) and the direction picture perfect.
Son Of Frankenstein (1939) -
This time out, Basil Rathbone (best known for his Sherlock Holmes films) plays the role of Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein – the son of the original Doctor Henry Frankenstein from the first two films. Along with his wife, Wolf returns to the family estate to receive his inheritance but when he arrives, is shocked to get an extremely cold reception from the townsfolk. One night, while digging around his late father's lab, he meets Ygor (Bela Lugosi) h is father's old assistant and a man with less then moral intentions. Ygor talks Wolf into resuming his father's work and reviving the comatose creation, once again played by Karloff. He thinks he fails when he tries to bring the monster back to life, but those dead townspeople may be able to prove otherwise! Once Inspector Krogh is on the case he finds that Ygor is using the monster to do his dirty work. When Wolf finds out, he kills Ygor in a fit of rage, sending the monster on another spree as he believed Ygor to be his only friend, ignorant of how he was being used.
This time out, Rowland Lee gets behind the camera and while this film doesn't quite hit the levels of posh visuals that the first two entries had going for them, it still looks great, especially the lab scenes. It's always fun to see Karloff and Lugosi on screen together – throw Rathbone into the mix and you've got a winner.
Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942) -
Bela Lugosi resumes his role as Ygor, having survived the events in Son Of Frankenstein after all. He resurrects the monster once more (played by Lon Chaney Jr. this time out), and tracks down Henry Frankenstein's other son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke), in hopes of having him restore the monster to a more powerful state. Ludwig initially doesn't like this idea but once Ygor blackmails him, he really has no choice but to help out. Ludwig soon realizes that the monster can never be anything but evil and wants to put a stop to him before he goes on yet another murderous rampage. Life is sacred to Ludwig though, and he must overcome his aversion to killing in order to halt the monster once and for all. He decides that rather than kill the monster, he can simply replace his evil brain with the brain of the recently deceased Doctor Kettering, a noble and gentle human being. Ygor is smarter than Ludwig gives him credit for, though, and has yet another doctor, Bohmer (Lionel Atwill), replace the monsters brain with his own! With Ygor's brain inside the monsters brawn, is there anyway Ludwig can stop the madness?
Ghost Of Frankenstein is a fun monster romp with Chaney doing a good job in Karloff's shoes, but really, the role belongs to Boris and it is just not the same without him under the make up. Erle Kenton does an admirable job behind the camera but the plot lacks some serious logic and this one chalks up to the worst of the series in my opinion. That being said, even mediocre Frankenstein is better than none and there's enough monster action going on to keep the movie going, even if it's in too many directions at once.
House Of Frankenstein (1944) -
The fifth and final film in the set brings Karloff back into the picture, but not as the monster we all know and love. This time out, Karloff is the insane Dr. Nieman, a recently escaped mental patient who, along with his assistant, Daniel (J. Carrol Naish), attempts to revive Dracula (John Carradine). But he's not going to stop there, he's also going to revive the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr.) as well! Why on Earth would someone want to resurrect so many evil monsters? Because he's made a lot of enemies over the years and what better way to get back at them then by bringing in the big guns or horror to take them all down!
Erle Kenton once again directs and this time turns in the silliest of the five films so far in the franchise. But, silly as it may be, there is no denying how much fun this movie is. Thanks in no small part to a terrific cast of horror movie legends, House Of Frankenstein is a fast paced monster-mash of epic proportions! Well, maybe epic isn't the right word but the movie is truly a blast and it's never anything less than pure fun watching the cast interact in front of some great sets delivering some wonderful lines.
All five of the films hold up very well. Sure, some of the appeal is nostalgia, a lot of us grew up on these films or were introduced to them as children as they were easy to get a hold of and, of course, suitable for younger viewers. But more of their appeal comes from the fact that they are truly great movies. The performances are possibly a bit dated but that doesn't make them any less charming or captivating. The set design and attention paid to detail in the background of sets like the laboratory or the windmill make them visually appealing and the direction is slick and professional.
All films are, as they should be, presented fullframe. Compression issues are virtually non-existent and there is, considering the age of the films, very little print damage to complain about. The black and white photography looks excellent on all five films and while there are some scenes that are a little grainier than others, the overall quality of these transfers is very nice. The framing issue on Bride Of Frankenstein has been corrected as well (you can see the credits, the certificate is there, and the framing is improved and the image is cleaner than on the previous release).
All five films are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono mixes. Background noise, aside from what is supposed to be there, is minimal and while there is some hissing and popping throughout most of the films, it's minimal. Dialogue and music are clear sounding and considering the age of the source materials used in this set, the audio is quite good. There's really very little to complain about and those who were disappointed by the clean up job that Universal did to Frankenstein when the first DVD came out a few years back will be happy to know that the original sound mix is back in this set.
Well, there's not much here in the way of new extra features. The only supplement we haven't seen before is a six minute long piece entitled Stephen Sommers On Universal's Classic Monsters - Frankenstein. This is basically a glorified commercial for the upcoming Van Helsing and doesn't have a whole lot to do with the classic monsters at all. It's mildly interesting, worth watching once, but I can't see myself revisiting this piece again.
Luckily though, Universal was wise enough to port over all of the extra features from the first pressings of these films. Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein both have excellent commentaries from Rudy Behlmer and Scott MacQueen respectively. There's a wealth of great information on these tracks and anyone who enjoys these films will want to sit down and spend the time listening to the tracks if they haven't already heard them.
Moving along to what resides on the second disc, you'll find The Frankenstein Files – How Hollywood Made A Monster (thirty-nine minutes in length) and She's Alive! Creating The Bride Of Frankenstein (forty-five minutes in length). Both are great documentaries that provide a pretty in-depth look at just what went into getting these films made. They may seem commonplace or even somewhat cliched nowadays but these documentaries do a pretty nice job of bringing you back in time with the movie makers and putting it all into an historical context. David Skal directed both pieces and his love and enthusiasm for these films shines through in the attention to detail on display here and the respect with which he treats not only the characters but the actors who portrayed them as well.
Minor supplements include a vintage short film entitled Boo! from 1932 that takes a humorous look at the Universal Monsters, the nine minute Frankenstein Files which displays a wealth of promotional materials for the film, and a theatrical trailer for each of the movies included in this set.
Finally, while the menus are bland and nearly static (not to mention confusing to navigate – you have to turn over the discs periodically and to access some of the features for Frankenstein and Bride Of Frankenstein you have to go into the special features section of the second disc) they look quite slick. Likewise, the packaging is very nice with both discs housed inside of a hard cover digipak which in turn slides into a slipcase style cover creating a nice effect with the artwork (which is a really nice painting of Karloff in full on monster makeup).
At a suggested M.S.R.P. of only $26.98 (with many places offering the set for sale considerably cheaper – or you can get it bundled with the Dracula and Wolfman sets), Universal is practically giving these films away. Plenty of nice extras, solid audio and video, and of course, the classic films themselves make this purchase a no brainer. Frankenstein – The Legacy Collection is highly recommended!
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.