Combustible Celluloid
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With: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris
Written by: John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, Robert Florey, based on the novel by Mary Shelley and the play by Peggy Webling
Directed by: James Whale
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 71
Date: 21/11/1931

Frankenstein (1931)

4 Stars (out of 4)

It's Alive...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Of the fourteen films contained in Universal's three Monster Legacy Collection box sets, the Frankenstein box contains the best one: Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After the success of the original 1931 film, director James Whale convinced the studio to let him make the sequel his way, with a sophisticated yet smarmy sense of humor. The film benefits not only from the presence of Boris Karloff as the monster and Elsa Lanchester as the bride, but also from Colin Clive as the mad doctor and Una O'Connor as the town busybody, who always comes up with a delightful look of shock whenever she's offended. This film seems absolutely ageless and is just as capable of winning new audiences today as it was back then.

Of course, the 1931 original is nothing to sneeze at. Whale played up the male need to compete with female reproduction as no other director could. He came up with a touching, slightly wry adaptation of Shelley's novel, first published in 1818. Karloff turns in a remarkable performance as the monster, more soulful than scary. The film has a touching, almost childlike humanity that allowed audiences to actually identify with the monster. Frankenstein came a few months after Dracula, and the studio was originally interested in having Lugosi play the monster. But according to legend, Lugosi turned it down, claiming that it took no acting talent to play a grunting, shambling beast.

Karloff returned for the third film in the series, even though Whale had moved on to other things. Son of Frankenstein (1939) is actually very entertaining and visually striking, and retains much of the humor from the first two films. Fans of Mel Brooks will notice many elements in this film inspiring Young Frankenstein (1974). Lugosi also turns up here, giving a very fine supporting performance as Ygor, the assistant with the twisted, broken neck.

For the fourth film in the series Lugosi reprised his Ygor role with less success and the monster was taken over by Lon Chaney, who could not do it the same justice that Karloff did, especially with thin material like Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

Karloff returned in a different role for House of Frankenstein (1945), as a scientist who brings Dracula (John Carradine) back to life, followed by the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). But his plan is upended when his hunchback assistant (J. Carrol Naish) falls in love with a gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo).

The Frankenstein box comes with audio commentary tracks on the first two films, from Rudy Behlmer and Scott MacQueen, respectively, featurettes, trailers and a short film, Boo! It also contains a pretty good featurette on the making of Bride of Frankenstein, hosted by filmmaker Joe Dante.

The overall quality of the films is excellent, but this, as well as the other box sets have a few small problems. Universal is shamelessly using them to promote its horrible big summer movie Van Helsing, and so hack director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) keeps popping up to talk about how these old movies inspired him. Hopefully these box sets will remain a staple of any DVD library, but a year from now those segments are going to look ridiculous.

In addition, the menus can be confusing. Each set comes with two discs. The main feature is on a beautiful one-sided disc with a picture on the front. The bonus features are scattered on both sides of the second disc. On each disc the menu comes up exactly the same, forcing the viewer to guess which disc the chosen movie might be on.

Those quibbles aside, I'm absolutely thrilled to add these chilling films to my library.

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