With Van Helsing set for release May 7, Universal Studios has released a box set celebrating their groundbreaking monster movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. My overview of the series may be found here. Meanwhile, I’ve just finished the Frankenstein DVDs.

Cost: $55.99 U.S., $77.59 Canadian.

Purchase here or here

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Director (first two films): James Whale.
Original Make-up: Jack Pierce.

Significant actors:

Boris Karloff: the Monster (in the first two, Dr. Niemann in House).
Colin Clive.
Elsa Lanchester.
Bela Lugosi.
Lon Chaney, Jr..
Dwight Frye.

Premise:

A scientist’s experiment gives rise to a cultural phenomenon!

Frankenstein (1931): based on the novel by Mary Shelley, this film tells the story of a scientist who makes a living being, with disastrous results.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935): a superior sequel in which the Monster realizes his profound loneliness. Dr. Frankenstein, blackmailed by the sinister (and often hilarious) Dr. Pretorius, creates a memorable mate for his creation.

Son of Frankenstein (1939): Karloff has relatively little to do in this sequel, in which the son of Dr. Frankenstein, his wife, and their hideously precocious child, a sort of male Shirley Temple, inherit the ancestral castle and the Monster. Complications arise in the form of the Monster’s only friend, Ygor. Bela Lugosi shines in this role, a man warped in body and mind.

Ghost of Frankenstein (1942): Lon Chaney, Jr. takes over the Monster in this sequel, which features better plotting than its predecessor. A still-living Ygor and Dr. Frankenstein’s second son complicate continuity somewhat.

House of Frankenstein (1948): Possibly the worst film in the series, this monster rally features Dracula, the Monster, the Wolf Man, a mad scientist, a gypsy girl, a hunchbacked assistant, and some very poor writing.

Special features include commentary tracks and poster/photo archives for the first two films, various theatrical trailers, a documentary on the Frankenstein phenomenon, another on the making of Bride of Frankenstein, a short video featuring the director and several actors from Van Helsing, and Boo!, a stupid 1930s short which uses film clips from Frankenstein.

High Points:

Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein made Boris Karloff a star, created the definitive pop-culture look for the Monster, and established, even more than Dracula, the look and feel of the classic Universal horror movies: moody, painted skies over ancient cemeteries, cannibalized equipment in mad laboratories, crumbling castles constructed by apparently psychotic architects, and flaming torches carried by angry villagers. These films are classics of the era and the genre. Bride works particularly well, because the success of the first film meant that James Whale, a brilliant director who had made some exceptional non- genre films, had significant creative control, which he used to great advantage. The script also develops Mary Shelley’s original themes better than the first film, and boasts some surprising subtext.

While there’s little specifically new in the various documentaries (and much which is repeated), they’ve assembled an impressive assortment of talking heads who provide an exellent overview of the series. Universal keeps the expected promotional for Van Helsing to a minimum.

Low Points:

Listing every film save Frankenstein as a “Bonus Film,” as if we paid the big bucks thinking that we were only getting that movie, and will be delighted that they’ve slipped on four others as a special favour.

House of Frankenstein, first of the all-star monster rallies, features the Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, a mad scientist (played by Karloff), and a hunchback. It also features the acting, pacing, and budget of a period serial. Dracula dies early on, the Wolf Man spends more time brooding than prowling, and the Monster lumbers into quicksand moments after being revived. However, the saga would not be complete without this film.

Why, then, is Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein nowhere in the Legacy Collection? It’s as much in continuity as the others films, and it represents the only other time Lugosi played Dracula for Universal.

Boo!, a Universal short from the 1930s, features clips from Frankenstein, Nosferatu, and other films with “comic” narration added. I suppose it has some historical interest, but it’s not very funny.

The Scores:

Originality: 5/6 Even for adaptations, the first two films prove highly original, and, as I’ve already discussed under High Points, they created a look for that became so recognizable that Ghost of Frankenstein runs its opening credits over a typical Universal Horror Movie Forest– and if there were neither credits nor ominous music, we would instantly know the genre.

The films grow less inventive over time but, until the end, they still hold surprises.

Effects: 4/6. The live effects of Hollywood’s Golden Age hold up, and the painted backdrops and artificial sets actually suit these films. House, however, suffers from inferior matte paintings and unbelievably poor animated effects used for Dracula’s transformation into a bat. A better low-budget transformation from the same film is Lon Chaney’s: we simply follow his footsteps as the go from human to lupine, and then the camera pulls back to reveal the Wolf Man in his hirsute glory.

Story: 4/6: This varies from film to film.

Acting: 4/6. The highly stylized performances often work very well. Lugosi steals the show as Ygor in Ghost…, and Ernest Thesiger‘s Dr. Pretorius in Bride… may be the most original mad scientist in cinematic history. The memorable performance is Karloff’s as the Monster, particularly in the second film. The scene with the blind hermit is heart-breaking.

Later films, sadly, become dominated by overly melodramatic period acting by lesser performers.

Production: 4/6 Extraordinary for the first two, passable for Son and Ghost, and subpar for House.

Emotional Response: 4/6 See “Production.”

Overall: 5/6.

This scoring system doesn’t quite do an eclectic DVD set justice, so I’m adding a +3 bonus for some strong extras and inherent coolness.

In total, The Monster Legacy Collection: Frankenstein receives 33/42.

Additional Comments:

The mini-bust of the Frankenstein Monster is fairly high-quality. I have one minor quibble. As any horror-film buff will tell you, and as two of the DVD’s documentary features remind us, make-up artist Jack Pierce painted Karloff green because it photographed grey and corpse-like. While some poster artists painted him green, promotional colorized photographs and most poster art gives him human flesh-tones. In short, the Monster isn’t supposed to be green. Why then has the bust been given green flesh?

Please return for upcoming reviews of the Wolf Man DVDs and the Dracula DVDs– the latter, hopefully, to be viewed with a couple of vampires.