By BOB MADISON
Here, in one volume, are five of the classic Universal Frankenstein
films: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein
(1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein
(1942) and House of Frankenstein (1944). Universal's
Wolf Man Legacy Collection contains Frankenstein
Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and Abbott and Costello
Meet Frankenstein (1948) can be found on a separate DVD,
part of the Abbott and Costello collection.
There are also a host of extras on this two-disk set --
but more of those in a moment.
What is there to say at this late date about Universal's
Frankenstein series that has not already been said? Whether
the commentary is spot-on or ridiculous, film scholars continually
return to the Universal classics, specifically the Frankenstein
films. The first three films in the series are arguably
the greatest horror films ever made, and the Frankenstein
Monster is one of the most universally recognized characters
in the history of film. The Frankenstein films have survived
imitation, parody, remakes, shoddy marketing ploys and,
yes, even serious film criticism. Like the Monster itself,
they are well nigh indestructible.
To throw my own two cents into the ring, while I recognize
Bride of Frankenstein to be the best film of the
bunch, Son of Frankenstein has always been my particular
favorite. While Karloff is pushed off to the sidelines a
bit, he is in excellent company, with Basil Rathbone, Lionel
Atwill and Bela Lugosi providing magnificent performances.
Rathbone (easily the most gifted actor to work in genre
films) is particularly fine -- mixing ham, brio and even
a fine sensitivity. Sure, Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill are
over-the-top, but that's perfectly in keeping with the high
Gothic sensibility. Son of Frankenstein is irresistible.
Things decline rapidly after Son. Ghost of Frankenstein
is a remarkably lackluster affair -- it seems as if even
Lugosi's Ygor lacks his customary energy. Chaney (to go
from the sublime to the ridiculous) brings nothing to the
Frankenstein Monster other than size; it is one of the most
pedestrian performances in the entire series. Glenn Strange
fares slightly better in the regrettable House of Frankenstein
-- he sure looked better in the make-up -- which came long
after the spark of creativity had left the series. I have
a sneaking affection for House, but it's a guilty pleasure,
like eating Miracle Whip out of the container.
The DVD transfers look terrific -- and Bride of Frankenstein
looks to me like a better transfer than its initial DVD
Even if you own these films on VHS, they are worth it
for the extras alone. Frankenstein and Bride
boast audio commentaries by Rudy Behlmer and Scott MacQueen,
respectively, and they do a great job. MacQueen's knowledge
of music is particularly insightful, illuminating key points
of Franz Waxman's score.
The bulk of the other extras are placed, somewhat counter-intuitively,
on the House of Frankenstein page. (Why after House?
It's like getting to dessert after the unpleasantness of
beets.) However, despite the initial problem of finding
them, they pay the viewer back in major ways. (Full disclosure
-- I appear as one of the "talking heads" in the Frankenstein
and Bride documentaries.)
The two key documentaries are The Frankenstein Files:
How Hollywood Made a Monster, and She's Alive! Creating
the Bride of Frankenstein. Both were conceived by eminent
film historian and documentary maker, David Skal (Hollywood
Gothic, The Monster Show, Screams of Reason, among other
books invaluable to monster fans). Skal is the host of the
former, and does a terrific job, balancing solid film scholarship
with a light touch. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins,
Looney Tunes Back in Action) narrates She's Alive!,
and makes a strong impression. A host of top-drawer film
scholars and personalities appear in both, including authors
Greg Mank and Paul Jensen, filmmaker Richard Gordon and
family members Dwight Frye Jr. and Sarah Karloff.
of these documentaries are classic case studies in how to
do these things right. They move quickly, are densely packed
with information, and written and cut in an entertaining
manner. They would please both fan and non-fan alike, a
rare balancing act that Skal seems to manage effortlessly.
They are worth the price of the set alone.
Along with theatrical trailers and photo galleries is
Boo!, and short film from 1932. It is no more than
a historical curiosity; but these are the gems that film
buffs savor. (That's not to say that it's good -- it sure
isn't. But it is interesting.)
The packaging also boasts one of the more interesting
additions to the set: "Van Helsing director Stephen
Sommers hosts an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how
these original Frankenstein films inspired his motion picture
In fact, this "exclusive, behind-the-scenes look" lasts
around five minutes. It comprises little more than a few
clips from the classic films, juxtaposed with snippets of
Van Helsing and some videotaped footage of the movie
being shot. Sommers talks about the influence of the classic
films on Van Helsing, demonstrating that he's a much
better filmmaker than talker -- his (very) brief comments
are no more interesting than the schoolyard chatter monster
fans made back in the third grade. Shuler Hensley, the actor
who plays the Frankenstein Monster, appears to be a nice
guy (for what that's worth); and Samuel West, who plays
Dr. Frankenstein, seems both intelligent and prepared. (He
actually says something fairly substantive about Clive's
performance in the original.)
This brings us to the motion picture event itself, Van
Helsing. The Frankenstein Legacy Collection is,
really, little more than a marketing tool to promote the
new film. This is not a bad thing at all, and it's actually
a gift to monster fans who want the core films, these terrific
extras and bonus materials in well-packaged, affordable
sets. But is the reimagining of the Universal's monsters
worthy either of the hype or comparison to these classics?
First, let's stand back for a little perspective. When
word of Van Helsing came out, followed by concept
designs and some of the screenplay, many monster fans behaved
as if Universal took the only remaining prints of the originals
and covered them with the most obscene graffiti. This is
not the case -- no remake or reimagining ever diminishes
the integrity or luster of importance of the original. Don't
believe me? If you hate Van Helsing, go home and
watch the original Universals. They are still the same films,
and no one has taken anything away from you. The classic
monsters survived worse than this -- one has only to think
of Hammer films to realize that these characters are hard
to ruin permanently.
Frankly, I enjoyed Van Helsing. There were things
that I did not like about it (for example, why do all the
people dress like the 1680s rather than the 1880s in any
scene with Kate Beckinsale, and, why does Dracula kill Dr.
Frankenstein when he needs his expertise more than a disposable
example of his handiwork?), but most of my criticisms are
quibbles. Van Helsing is lively entertainment with enough
echoes of the classic films thrown in that even non-fans
get the references. (The packed theater I saw it in had
people from many backgrounds and tastes shaking their heads
or pointing out familiar references.)
Briefly, for those who have not seen it, Van Helsing
(an uncharacteristically flat Hugh Jackman looking more
like author Robert E. Howard's Puritan hero Solomon Kane
than a Victorian-era scientist), after dispatching Mr. Hyde
at Notre Dame, is sent by the Vatican to Transylvania to
stop whatever plan Dracula is hatching with his three wives.
Also involved are wolf men and Frankenstein's peculiar invention.
Along the way, there are clever nods to the Bond films,
snippets of Curt Siodmak, and some magnificent business
with Dracula's airborne wives (a terrific, and strangely
beautiful effect). None of the performers are particularly
memorable, with the mighty exception of Richard Roxburgh,
who is so terrific as Dracula, one wishes he had a chance
at the role in a straight adaptation of Stoker's novel.
While Van Helsing is no classic, neither is
Ghost of Frankenstein or any of its sequels. But these
Universal programmers have lasted this long, who's to say
what the shelf life of Van Helsing will be?
More important, it is essential that films like Van
Helsing be produced. (You can argue for better films
than Van Helsing, but that's not the point.) The
dust heap of history is filled with pop culture icons that
have little or no currency with the contemporary zeitgeist.
(Nick Carter, anyone?) The audience I saw Van Helsing
with was packed with kids, and for many, this will be their
first (or only) introduction to Gothic literature's great
myth machine. Film scholars and old-time monster boomers
are still slavishly devoted to Universal's classics, but
what'll happen when our generation fades? Pictures like
Van Helsing will help ensure that there is a next
generation of monster fans. Besides, as the classic monster
characters are in the public domain, any success with them
will only guarantee more such films, increasing the chances
for real gold among the grit.
With or without Van Helsing, the Frankenstein
Legacy Collection is a treat for monster fans new and
Bob Madison is the founder and CEO of Dinoship:
a science fiction publishing company. He is also an author
and frequent lecturer and talk show guest.