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Laramie Movie Scope:
Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection

A collection of classic Frankenstein films

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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January 30, 2007 -- For Christmas, I picked up a couple of packaged collections of old monster films from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. One of these is titled “Boris Karloff Frankenstein The Legacy Collection,” consisting of two DVDs in a glossy cardboard pack with a very nice green-tinged image of Frankenstein framed through a translucent window on the front of the box. This is part of Universal Stuido's Legacy Collection, which includes packages of “The Wolf Man,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Creature of the Black Lagoon.” This particular package includes the films “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein,” “Son of Frankenstein,” “Ghost of Frankenstein” and “House of Frankenstein.”

When I was growing up, Universal was my favorite movie studio because they had all these great monsters and they specialized in science fiction and horror films, which were my favorites. I still like science fiction, but I got tired of horror films when they started turning cruel. Back in Universal's heyday, however, the monsters weren't all that threatening and they were even portrayed with some sympathy. Bill Cosby had a great comedy routine about how monsters like Frankenstein and the Mummy were the “slowest monsters in the world,” yet they always caught their dumb victims. Later, in one of the funniest movie spoofs in history, Mel Brooks expertly skewered the Frankenstein genre with his classic comedy film “Young Frankenstein,” starring Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein, the late Peter Boyle as the monster and Marty Feldman as Igor.

Watching this legacy collection, you can see where Brooks got all of his ideas for his classic spoof. Disc one has the original Frankenstein (1931), directed by James Whale, who also directed “Bride of Frankenstein” in 1935 (also on disk one), both are classics of the horror genre. Whale, who himself was the subject of a movie, “Gods and Monsters” in which Whale was played by Ian McKellen of the “Lord of the Rings” and “X-Men” movies. The two films directed by Whale are both adapted from Mary Shelly's novel “Frankenstein.” Bride is simply a continuation of the story started in the first film. Most later adaptations strayed much farther from the book. The basic story is a powerful parable about the dangers of misused science and technology. As such, the story remains potent today.

Although the story is crudely framed in religious terms of man trying to upstage God with his own creation, the real power of the story is how it shows that science and technology can be evil and have tragic consequences if they are not regulated in a way that curbs their excesses. The modern debate over human cloning, stem cell research and other similar debates about genetic research are all haunted by the story of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff played the monster, and became typecast as a horror film actor for years. He got the part primarily because the structure of his face was conducive to the distinctive make up of the monster, according to one of the documentaries in the legacy set. Some of these documentaries are quite good, others are just excuses to promote other films, like “Van Helsing” and “Gods and Monsters.”

Probably the best of the documentaries are on the second disc (two-sided). They are “She's Alive: Creating Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” these two documentaries are similar and both have most of the same talking heads, video clips and stills. Among those interviewed in the documentaries are Sara Karloff (Boris' daughter), Dwight Frye (son of the actor Dwight Frye who played the role of the hunchback laboratory assistant Fritz in “Frankenstein”), veteran horror writer and director Clive Barker, uber makeup artist Rick Baker (“Star Wars,” “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Hellboy”), Joe Dante, Christopher Bram (author of Father of Frankenstein), film historians Bob Madison, Gregory Mank and Scott McQueen, along with Bill Condon, writer and director of “Gods and Monsters.”

The various film historians talk about the beginnings of the Frankenstein film, starting with the book and continuing on with stage plays and a 1910 Edison silent film version of the story. Visionary director James Whale, who directed the first two films in the series, “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” is discussed at length in the documentaries, along with Boris Karloff, who played the monster, and Frye, who played Fritz (Frye also played the memorable character Renfield in the classic 1931 horror film “Dracula,” starring Bela Lugosi). Elsa Lanchester, who played both Mary Shelly and the bride of Frankenstein is discussed along with the tragic Collin Clive, who played Dr. Henry Frankenstein in both of the Frankenstein films directed by Whale.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion is provided by makeup artist Rick Baker who talks at length about the techniques, artistry and peculiarities of Universal's top makeup artist, Jack Pierce. Pierce created the iconic makeup styles of Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and all the classic Universal monsters. There is also some discussion of Kenneth Strickfaden, a Santa Monica inventor who came up with the impressive-looking machines used in Frankenstein's laboratory. Strickfaden, who built fantastic-looking machinery for some 100 films, is the subject of a book, “Dr. Frankenstein's Electrician.” Other extras include the Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein archives (posters), an audio commentary track on Frankenstein by film historian and author Rudy Behlmer and a Bride of Frankenstein commentary track by Scott MacQueen, film historian and preservationist. There is also a short film called “Boo!” which is sort of like a mildly amusing “Mystery Science Theater” tour of horror films.

Of the five films in the package, probably “Bride of Frankenstein” is the best with its sardonic humor and its interesting characters, particularly Dr. Pretorius (played by Ernest Thesiger). Dr. Pretorius is the classic mad scientist. He makes Henry Frankenstein look positively responsible by comparison. Elsa Lanchester is very good in her dual roles and Colin Clive is solid as the tortured Henry Frankenstein. Boris Karloff is also excellent as the monster. I think the reason I was never scared of the Frankenstein monster as a kid is that this monster has a kind of childlike innocence, and he is more victim than evil aggressor. Karloff played the monster in three films, the first three in this package, “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “Son of Frankenstein.” This last film is interesting mainly for its expressionist production design, influenced by earlier German expressionist films such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920). Shadows are used to good effect, along with some stunning sets, including the weirdest walk-in fireplaces I've ever seen.

One of my favorite movies as a kid was “House of Frankenstein,” because it is three for the price of one. In one movie, you have three of the classic Universal monsters, Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman. There is even a battle between the Wolfman and Frankenstein's monster. What more could you want? John Carradine plays Dracula. He would go on to have a long film career, eventually playing a very funny mad sex scientist in Woody Allen's “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask.”

“Ghost of Frankenstein” features Lon Chaney Jr. (who also played a werewolf in several classic monster movies, including “House of Frankenstein”) as the monster. That old blood-sucker Bela Lugosi plays the evil Ygor, as he did in “Son of Frankenstein” (he also played Frankenstein's monster in “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man”). A couple of other actors who had long, successful film careers, Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Ralph Bellamy are also in the film. Hardwicke plays Frankenstein. Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi all went on to have long careers in film. Mostly, they were typecast as monsters or mad scientists, but Chaney's career was a bit more varied. He appeared in “Of Mice and Men” and “High Noon,” among other classic films. “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” both rate as top notch A films. “House of Frankenstein” rates a C+. The rest are about C quality. The overall quality of the package is B+. You should check for small defects in the plastic holding the DVDs and smooth them if you find them, otherwise, the DVDs could be scratched.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics, theater tickets and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2007 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)