Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The New York Times

September 26, 2006
Critic’s Choice

New DVD's: 'Frankenstein' and 'Dracula'



Universal Pictures released “Dracula” in February 1931 and followed up with “Frankenstein” that November. Though both tales had been filmed as silents, these early sound productions permanently etched the title creatures into American cultural life and established the horror movie as an enduringly pertinent genre.

Over the years Universal’s home video division has released several different versions of the two titles, including the two “Legacy Collection” volumes in 2004. But here they are again, given yet another upgrade in honor of their 75th anniversaries. For collectors it’s a good news/bad news moment. The new transfers are the best yet, with grain and contrast much improved, but you’ll have to shell out for them one more time, $26.98 each.

A quickly assembled follow-up to the unexpectedly successful “Dracula,” James Whale’s “Frankenstein” remains the greater film. A complete reimagining of the Mary Shelley novel, Whale’s version makes the monster an object of both terror and pity, a tragically misunderstood figure who has become an object of identification for several generations of alienated adolescents and marginalized adults. Whale’s homosexuality as a source of the monster’s metaphorical identity was poetically explored in Bill Condon’s heartbreaking “Gods and Monsters” in 1998.

The vision of the film is Whale’s, but its corporeality is the creation of Boris Karloff, in a wordless performance (he growls and screams but does not speak) that marks him as a ghostly remnant of the recently deceased silent cinema. Karloff’s blend of animal instincts and human aspirations remains tremendously affecting, and the creature retains our sympathy even after he breaks one of Hollywood’s most sacred taboos and becomes responsible for the death of a child.

A great talent, Karloff could hardly have been happy with the typecasting that followed this, his biggest box office success, but on those rare occasions when he was given something substantial to do, he invariably rose to them (as in Douglas Sirk’s “Lured” in 1947).

This is a topic to be revisited in the weeks to come: as the studios pump up their horror film releases in the weeks before Halloween, both Universal and Columbia are issuing collections of lesser-known Karloff films. In the meantime, the two-disc “Frankenstein” set contains a wealth of material, including the 40-minute documentary “Karloff: The Gentle Monster.” Neither “Dracula” nor “Frankenstein” is rated.