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Frankenstein (1931)

Universal/Universal . R4 . B&W . 74 mins . PG . PAL


Of the pantheon of horror characters, including such grotesquerie as Dracula, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man and all the other denizens of the night-time world, none has symbolised the fear of the unnatural quite so effectively as the Monster himself - Frankenstein's Monster.

Frankenstein's Monster, the creation of the hubristic Dr Henry Frankenstein, has no name. In many communities and amongst many peoples, this grotesque creature has in fact assumed the name of his creator - the 'son' of Frankenstein has himself become Frankenstein.

But that happened way in the future. Back in 1931, when Universal Pictures and James Whale first committed Frankenstein to the screen, the monster needed no name. His presence dominated the screen to such a degree that his image has haunted us ever since.

Frankenstein was followed four years later (a virtual eternity in film-making) by its more illustrious sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. Director James Whale was given a far bigger budget, the effects were bigger and better - but in several ways the original is still the best.

For a start, director James Whale was given to excess, if allowed latitude - and that's exactly what he was given for the sequel. The original Frankenstein lacks the conscious over-the-top high-campery which makes the second movie certainly diverting, but which does in reality take away from the the original clear purity of this classic horror story. The second movie had the advance of a music score by Franz Waxman to highlight the action throughout the movie. The original has music only for the beginning and end titles, and this film really benefits from the starkness this lends it.

Despite the relatively low budget, Frankenstein contains great art direction, set design and creative effects -- it transcends its B-grade budget.

Colin Clive as the mad scientist Henry Frankenstein gives a more coherent, driven performance than he does in the later sequel - but Frankenstein's main claim for lasting glory is its introduction of one of the horror genre's greatest gentlemen, the wonderful Boris Karloff, in the role which type-cast him happily and successfully for the rest of his life. Boris, by all accounts a gentle and loving person, was not a matinee idol. In normal circumstances he would have been doomed to playing small bit-roles for the whole of a struggling actor's life. Frankenstein changed that overnight. And his daughter, in the accompanying documentary, reveals how for the rest of his life he remained grateful for his sudden transformation into... the Monster.

Special attention must be paid to two other silent actors - the buildings in the film. Two buildings dominate. Henry Frankenstein's tower, an abandoned watchtower, and the old windmill used for the climactic finale when the vengeful villagers put the Monster to a flaming end... or so they think! Like the characters, these buildings stay forever in memory, their dark, looming shapes etched onto the cinema screen of our minds, standing stark against baleful, dark clouds. They're part of a wonderful scenic achievement, which owes a huge debt to earlier expressionistic German cinema, but which is at the same time fresh and powerful.


Universal has done a great job in restoring this 1931 black-and-white movie. It shows its age, but in a way which adds to the special appeal of this classic horror movie. The blacks are sumptuous and the shadows are as haunting as they always should be.


Back in 1931 a soundtrack was recorded on discs rather than as an optical track. The soundtrack on the DVD betrays the primitive technology, but it is never so bad as to mar enjoyment of the movie.


There is a 49 minute documentary introduced by David J. Skal with all you ever need to know about the film and its literary genesis.

There is an on-screen commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. His commentary rides over the dialogue in a way that makes it almost impossible to appreciate the film AND his commentary together. But there is an undisclosed special option - a subtitle track for his commentary which leaves the original soundtrack undisturbed.

There is a 'gag' movie of 1932 from Universal, Boo!, which spoofs a clutch of monsters starting with Murnau's original screen vampire, and then moves onto the Universal stable of Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, the Invisible Man etc. It's OK if you like this sort of inane, pathetic humour...

The original screen trailer is of historic interest, but is unrestored. There is a good slide-show collection of posters, lobby-cards and stills.


This is a classic movie and Universal has paid it the respect it deserves, with meticulous restoration of image and, most probably a harder task, sound. It may no longer horrify the way it did its original audiences, but it is still a powerful excursion into the realm of night. A classic film which deserves to be in any classic DVD collection.

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      And I quote...
    "This image, of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster, is a creation of the night which has haunted us forever."
    - Anthony Clarke
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          Panasonic A330
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          Loewe Profil Plus 3272 68cm
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