Monday, October 29, 2012

179. FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

I have a complicated relationship with James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN and that relationship is further complicated by Universal's new Blu-ray restoration. Not that there is anything wrong or unsatisfying about the stellar restoration itself, but that the film doesn't gain as much by being restored as the other films in the UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS box set. This is a film that showcases a lot of stonework, a flashy high-ceilinged laboratory, some dull drawing rooms and an immense background cyclorama of sky that was visibly puckered since the days I used to see it on commercial television. Unlike DRACULA, which looks reinvented by its restoration, FRANKENSTEIN looks much the same, just clearer; in fact, the restoration shows up additional paint dribbles on the cyclorama and exposes some matte lines, causing us to become more aware of the mechanics underlying its illusions rather than enhancing them.

I came to FRANKENSTEIN late, when I was about eight years old, by which time I had already seen and enjoyed all the Universal sequels and built up the promise of the original a great deal in my mind. Karloff's performance here is at times frightening (never moreso than its unforgettable reveal of the Monster's face and dead stare) but is altogether less humane than in BRIDE; the portrayal is indeed full of pathos, but hardly so complex as to need so much restatement and discussion as it's had. Also, and the older I get, the more I find myself resenting the film's arrogant disregard, indeed its cheapening, of so much of Mary Shelley's novel. There is marvelous work in the film by Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan, but Mae Clarke and John Bowles are tedious and flat, and Frederick Kerr as Baron Frankenstein (sporting a humungous boil or tumor on the back of his neck, now more noticeable than ever) strikes an eccentric fuddy-duddy note that I sometimes love and sometimes feel is terribly self-indulgent for such a short film. Do the film's classic moments hold up as they used to? I suppose that depends how one feels about Henry's victorious exclamation "In the name of God, now I know how it feels to be God!" or the sight of the Monster actually hurling little Maria (Marilyn Harris) into the lake with the other pretty flowers... neither of which were part of the film for most of its first 68 years of public availability. The version I grew up with, which is inextricably tied to my feelings about it, hasn't been available on home video in almost 15 years.

I write about the film at greater length in the next issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG, #171.

Viewed as part of Universal's UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS - THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION Blu-ray box set.    

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