Frankenstein (DVD)

Like only a handful of other films, 1931's Frankenstein has cast a shadow across a century. One of the great movie icons, Frankenstein's monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff made an indelible impression simply by appearance alone. With his dull eyes, flat head, working-man's clothes, and bolt-adorned neck, the creature entered the public consciousness seemingly instantly and forever. You don't have to have seen a film in which he appears to recognize him, but it's a shame if you haven't. Directed by James Whale, an underrated filmmaker recently given some overdue attention by way of Gods And Monsters, Frankenstein works as a fast-moving thriller and, even now, a stylish, frighteningly atmospheric horror film, but also as a sad outcast parable. Frankenstein's creature may be a monstrosity, but he's also instantly sympathetic to anyone who's ever felt like a misfit. After nearly 70 years and countless remakes, parodies, and homages, it's difficult to look at Frankenstein anew, but this new DVD helps. The restored print and cleaned-up soundtrack make it look and sound better than any previous video version, which is to be expected, but what really sets it apart are the extras. David J. Skal, the preeminent popular horror scholar, contributes a 45-minute documentary that helps place Frankenstein in context, both in terms of its Depression-era origins and its cultural legacy, a task further aided by an informative audio commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer. Rounding things out are "Boo!," a peculiar Universal comedy short using footage from Frankenstein and Nosferatu, trailers, and other archival materials. It is, in short, the best way short of a time machine to gain a sense of what Frankenstein means. Given the tendency of the DVD market to gravitate toward recent films, it also provides a model of just how useful and entertaining the format can be for those interested in exploring cinema's past.

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