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The Monster Legacy Collection DVD Review

The Monster Legacy Collection

May 11, 2003

Director: Erle C. Kenton, Tod Browning, James Whale, Stuart Walker, George Waggner,
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Martha O'Driscoll, Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Valerie Hobson, Henry Hull, Warner Oland, Valerie Hobson, Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, ,

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DVD Review

To coincide with Stephen Sommer’s lastest, Van Helsing, Universal are releasing a six disc box set entitled ‘Monster Legacy’. This set includes the original Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman films, as well as the 10 sequels and spin-offs which spawned from these classics. These include films such as ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ and ‘Werewolf of London’.

There has been much speculation from fans that the films look worse in this box set than they did on their original DVD release. I haven’t seen the first DVDs, but by comparison to the accompanying theatrical trailers, which showcase the grainy picture and sound quality of the original films, these editions look fantastic. However, some elements of the films benefit less from the remastered look of the films. Take for instance the canvas backdrops in Frankenstein; painted out of focus, and once veiled by the hazy contrast, now brought into clarity, removing any sense of depth from the scene. Of course, it is always important to consider early filmmaking in the context of the standards and possibilities of the day. But no matter how hard I try and think ‘comparatively’, I can’t escape the fact that visually, the highlight of these films is seeing the 2004 Universal logo at the beginning of the DVD.

The films themselves have been the subject of over half a century of spoof and rip off and so may appear to the modern audience as ridiculously funny, or just plain boring. They also cease to provide any ‘scares’, as such. But perhaps this just goes to show what the horror genre has become. Modern horror tends to focus on placing the audience in a position of vulnerability through atmosphere and identification with the characters being killed off. The difference between this and older horror films is that there is little emphasis on exploring the personality or motivation of the killer; he or she is just there, killing. Compared with films such as The Wolfman and Frankenstein, which present more of an emotional horror, it is clear that modern horror and classic horror explore completely different directions in filmmaking. This is never more apparent than when watching the featurette for Frankenstein, in which several ‘film historians’ (what the hell is that anyway) pitch the film to the modern audience, describing Frankenstein as little more than a simple good vs. evil flick. This is not only an insult to the filmmakers, but also undermines the extraordinary depth and content of this emotional horror. The real horror is in comprehending the perspective of a creature composed of human parts, rejected by society and even his creator. The creature, arguably human, suffers all the hardships that any other human being might suffer in such circumstances. Such as loneliness, the subconscious tie to society which causes him to approach others in hope of acceptance; only to be rejected again and again.

Special Features

The Dracula discs were not available for preview, but the four discs which I received contained the films Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolfman and Werewolf of London, as well as the special features. Each film was accompanied by its original theatrical trailer. Its interesting to see the way Universal first pitched these films to the public, but they’re usually not representative of the material and miss the real point of the films. Trailers rarely ever capture the true direction of films, even today, but these really are ridiculous, conveying a completely off key picture of the films and making them look kind unnecessarily trashy.

The Frankenstein featurette ‘The Frankenstein Files’ has the same effect. Featuring ‘film historians’ who further misrepresent the film’s direction and end up reading elements of modern horror on to the film, completely disregarding the pathos of the original. There is also little exploration into the production of the movie, instead focusing on the effect it had on audiences. This is thankfully not the case for the Werewolf of London featurette ‘Monster by Moonlight’. This featurette begins by explaining a little about the origins of the horror legends which writers such as Bram Stoker drew influence from. It then provides a relatively in-depth discussion of elements of production such as make-up, which was vastly developed as a result of films such as Frankenstein and The Wolfman.

The DVDs also contain galleries showcasing the original posters and promotional material. This feature will please fans of the original movies.

Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolfman all feature commentaries from Stephen Sommers (The Wolfman), Rudy Blehmer (Frankenstein) or ‘Film Historian’ Scott MacQueen (Bride of Frankenstein). The biggest disappointment is the lack of discussion about the various directorial decisions and difficulties. Instead, the commentaries tend to describe the cast as they appear in the films and give a short biography of each. There are a few interesting stories, but probably not of interest to anyone interested in the actual production of the films.

Of course, as the film is released in sync with Stephen Sommer’s ‘Van Helsing’, we are treated to the trailer and a number of four minute featurettes which discuss the importance of each beast in Van Helsing, including interviews with Sommers and the actors playing the monsters. Even though Sommers appears to understand the concept of each of these monsters, from these featurettes Van Helsing does not appear to capture the real essence of either Frankenstein or The Wolfman.

Depending on what you get out of the films, you might easily be disappointed by this release. The only attractive feature about these DVDs is the improvement of the visual and audio quality, and even that, I’m told, has looked better on past release. Despite this, the Monster Legacy box set includes the original Dracula, which has never been released on DVD. Coupled with the other 12 films in this box set, and forgetting the special features, you have an appealing release, featuring some of the most influential horror/thriller films in history

These relics chronicle a period of romantic filmmaking which seems to be making a comeback, thanks (a term used loosely) to the likes of ‘The Mummy’ and ‘Van Helsing’. A time long ago, before the adventure, fantasy and intrigue of the horror genre was stripped away, leaving nothing but gallons of fake blood and bible-bashing transvestite serial killers, intent on dressing up in their own mother’s skin, and leaving just enough clues for the ‘this is my last day’ lonewolf ‘I hate this job’ detective to catch up with them.

If Van Helsing does manage to win over an audience, this box set is certainly not for them, as Sommers strips the characters of their personalities, leaving nothing but CGI and a 0% rating from whatdvd.net. If, instead, you appreciate the charm and sometimes heartbreaking direction of the original films, then owning the remastered versions featured in this box set is a must.

J.D. is a freelance writer who is currently doing research for a book on the films of Michael Mann. He likes reading anything written by Jack Kerouac, James Ellroy, J.D. Salinger, Harlan Ellison or Thomas Pynchon. J.D. is currently addicted to the T.V. series 24 and enjoys drinking a lot of Sprite. This is not a blatant plug for the beverage but if they ever decided to give him a lifetime supply he certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
view all DVD reviews by JD Lafrance

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Rating: 96%

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