Frankenstein – The Restored Version (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 70mins – 1931 – B&W


MAKING A MONSTER

Released to cinemas just nine short months after Dracula’s Valentine’s day bow, Universal soon realised they had another monster hit on their hands with this loose adaptation of Mary Shelley’s iconic morality tale about “The Modern Prometheus”, which would go on to produce a further seven direct sequels – and influence a whole lot more.

For all of Frankenstein’s variations from the gothic source material, this film has become just as culturally significant in its own right. Many of the striking make-up, lighting and cinematography choices director James Whale’s film conjures up (from the creation of a hunchbacked assistant to Boris Karloff’s flat-headed, bolt-necked Monster and his lightning-powered rebirth) have become stock horror tropes to this day, synonymous with the legend.

Opening with a fourth wall shattering “friendly word of warning” to the audience from Von Helsing himself, Edward Van Sloan, we are then transported to an unspecified European village to find controversial scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his obedient assistant, Fritz (Dwight “Renfield” Frye) robbing the graves of the recently deceased to help in their creation of life from death.

Aesthetically resplendent are the many diverse set changes, from medical lecture halls to hill-top laboratories racked with storms so to embrace “all the electrical secrets of heaven”. However, a number of dialogue-heavy and overtly-expository scenes delivered with grave sternness to reiterate “Herr Frankenstein’s mad dream” slow the pace to a crawl before we’ve even reached those two most crucial words… “It’s Aliiiiive!”

The same diminishing effect is also brought about by later scenes of the eponymous scientist’s exuberant wedding festivities. As smart as it is to inter-cut joy with the escaped Monster’s tragic drowning of an innocent child, too much filler does zap any flow from the narrative, dampening the cumulative effect of the horror and leading to a thoroughly lacklustre and uneven plot.

The townsfolk converging into a pitchfork rabble to hunt the dangerous creature to a fiery windmill crescendo is effectively tense and climatic, particularly the Monster’s throwing of his (ragdoll) master onto the spinning blades, however I never felt like Karloff’s lumbering undead oaf was ever successfully established as a tender or misunderstood naïve, rather as a snarling, heavy-handed mute brute with an “abnormal brain”.

I accept that he did not ask to be brought into existence, or to have the brain of a criminal, however you never really pity the tormented individual like you should. Furthermore, the epilogue baiting an heir to continue on Frankenstein’s work feels horrendously tacked on and disappointingly commercialised, leaving me with the overall opinion that for all of its undoubtedly iconic imagery, Frankenstein is a flawed and uneven early creation – ironically much like its monster.

CR@B Verdict: 3 stars

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Dracula – The Restored Version (Blu-ray Review)

PG – 74mins – 1931 – B&W


WALPURGIS NIGHT

Excluding a silent take on The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 (which would be remade two decades later to great Oscar success), Tod Browning’s gothic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s immortal bloodsucker is often credited as the first in a seemingly never-ending production line of popular monster movies from Universal Studios throughout the 30s, 40s and 50s. It also occupies the first disc in a digitally restored high-def. box set of eight of the studio’s greatest genre flicks called Universal Monsters – The Essential Collection (2012), which I have gluttonously devoured recently.

Donning the now instantly recognisable cape and perfecting a hauntingly hypnotic stare, screen legend Bela Lugosi curls his Hungarian tongue around the Stoker-inspired script (“I never drink… wine”), which was actually adapted from a 1927 Broadway stage play, rather than straight from the page. This explains some of the more curious alterations from the 1897 source material – most obviously, it is Renfield (Dwight Frye) we follow on his business trip to Transylvania instead of Jonathan Harker (David Manners) at the film’s opening.

Nevertheless, the terse narrative still gallops apace, and Frye’s transformation from sound and logical solicitor to insipid, crazy-eyed, fly-craving vampire’s “pet looney” is scene-stealing. Also impressive are the vast gothic sets and the fog-shrouded portrayal of London’s cobbled streets. Such pitch-perfect atmosphere more than makes up for the plastic “bats” on strings and armadillos (!!) scuttling about Dracula’s shadowy castle, as well as a near-complete absence of score (besides an aged hiss).

“There are far worse things awaiting man… than death.”

Screenwriter Garrett Fort’s dialogue is also remarkably colourful and descriptive, perhaps knowingly making up for the budgetary and special effects limitations of the time. “Rats, rats… millions of them!” we are told, but most of the movie magic takes place off-screen, leaving us with an aptly stagey production comprising of long, largely static shots.

For this reason, the newspaper headline inserts upon the seafaring Demeter’s Vesta’s crash-landing on British shores impressed me by varying the delivery of exposition in a very postmodern manner. However, the curt and tension-less conclusion left me cold and craving a more satisfying resolution, reminded me how few classic films employed epilogues in their sprint for completion.

CR@B Verdict: 4 stars