Here, in one volume, are five of the classic Universal Frankenstein films: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and House of Frankenstein (1944). Universal's Wolf Man Legacy Collection contains Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) can be found on a separate DVD, part of the Abbott and Costello collection.

There are also a host of extras on this two-disk set -- but more of those in a moment.

What is there to say at this late date about Universal's Frankenstein series that has not already been said? Whether the commentary is spot-on or ridiculous, film scholars continually return to the Universal classics, specifically the Frankenstein films. The first three films in the series are arguably the greatest horror films ever made, and the Frankenstein Monster is one of the most universally recognized characters in the history of film. The Frankenstein films have survived imitation, parody, remakes, shoddy marketing ploys and, yes, even serious film criticism. Like the Monster itself, they are well nigh indestructible.

To throw my own two cents into the ring, while I recognize Bride of Frankenstein to be the best film of the bunch, Son of Frankenstein has always been my particular favorite. While Karloff is pushed off to the sidelines a bit, he is in excellent company, with Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill and Bela Lugosi providing magnificent performances. Rathbone (easily the most gifted actor to work in genre films) is particularly fine -- mixing ham, brio and even a fine sensitivity. Sure, Rathbone, Lugosi and Atwill are over-the-top, but that's perfectly in keeping with the high Gothic sensibility. Son of Frankenstein is irresistible.

Things decline rapidly after Son. Ghost of Frankenstein is a remarkably lackluster affair -- it seems as if even Lugosi's Ygor lacks his customary energy. Chaney (to go from the sublime to the ridiculous) brings nothing to the Frankenstein Monster other than size; it is one of the most pedestrian performances in the entire series. Glenn Strange fares slightly better in the regrettable House of Frankenstein -- he sure looked better in the make-up -- which came long after the spark of creativity had left the series. I have a sneaking affection for House, but it's a guilty pleasure, like eating Miracle Whip out of the container.

The DVD transfers look terrific -- and Bride of Frankenstein looks to me like a better transfer than its initial DVD incarnation.

Even if you own these films on VHS, they are worth it for the extras alone. Frankenstein and Bride boast audio commentaries by Rudy Behlmer and Scott MacQueen, respectively, and they do a great job. MacQueen's knowledge of music is particularly insightful, illuminating key points of Franz Waxman's score.

The bulk of the other extras are placed, somewhat counter-intuitively, on the House of Frankenstein page. (Why after House? It's like getting to dessert after the unpleasantness of beets.) However, despite the initial problem of finding them, they pay the viewer back in major ways. (Full disclosure -- I appear as one of the "talking heads" in the Frankenstein and Bride documentaries.)

The two key documentaries are The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, and She's Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein. Both were conceived by eminent film historian and documentary maker, David Skal (Hollywood Gothic, The Monster Show, Screams of Reason, among other books invaluable to monster fans). Skal is the host of the former, and does a terrific job, balancing solid film scholarship with a light touch. Director Joe Dante (Gremlins, Looney Tunes Back in Action) narrates She's Alive!, and makes a strong impression. A host of top-drawer film scholars and personalities appear in both, including authors Greg Mank and Paul Jensen, filmmaker Richard Gordon and family members Dwight Frye Jr. and Sarah Karloff.

Both of these documentaries are classic case studies in how to do these things right. They move quickly, are densely packed with information, and written and cut in an entertaining manner. They would please both fan and non-fan alike, a rare balancing act that Skal seems to manage effortlessly. They are worth the price of the set alone.

Along with theatrical trailers and photo galleries is Boo!, and short film from 1932. It is no more than a historical curiosity; but these are the gems that film buffs savor. (That's not to say that it's good -- it sure isn't. But it is interesting.)

The packaging also boasts one of the more interesting additions to the set: "Van Helsing director Stephen Sommers hosts an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at how these original Frankenstein films inspired his motion picture event."

In fact, this "exclusive, behind-the-scenes look" lasts around five minutes. It comprises little more than a few clips from the classic films, juxtaposed with snippets of Van Helsing and some videotaped footage of the movie being shot. Sommers talks about the influence of the classic films on Van Helsing, demonstrating that he's a much better filmmaker than talker -- his (very) brief comments are no more interesting than the schoolyard chatter monster fans made back in the third grade. Shuler Hensley, the actor who plays the Frankenstein Monster, appears to be a nice guy (for what that's worth); and Samuel West, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, seems both intelligent and prepared. (He actually says something fairly substantive about Clive's performance in the original.)

This brings us to the motion picture event itself, Van Helsing. The Frankenstein Legacy Collection is, really, little more than a marketing tool to promote the new film. This is not a bad thing at all, and it's actually a gift to monster fans who want the core films, these terrific extras and bonus materials in well-packaged, affordable sets. But is the reimagining of the Universal's monsters worthy either of the hype or comparison to these classics?

First, let's stand back for a little perspective. When word of Van Helsing came out, followed by concept designs and some of the screenplay, many monster fans behaved as if Universal took the only remaining prints of the originals and covered them with the most obscene graffiti. This is not the case -- no remake or reimagining ever diminishes the integrity or luster of importance of the original. Don't believe me? If you hate Van Helsing, go home and watch the original Universals. They are still the same films, and no one has taken anything away from you. The classic monsters survived worse than this -- one has only to think of Hammer films to realize that these characters are hard to ruin permanently.

Frankly, I enjoyed Van Helsing. There were things that I did not like about it (for example, why do all the people dress like the 1680s rather than the 1880s in any scene with Kate Beckinsale, and, why does Dracula kill Dr. Frankenstein when he needs his expertise more than a disposable example of his handiwork?), but most of my criticisms are quibbles. Van Helsing is lively entertainment with enough echoes of the classic films thrown in that even non-fans get the references. (The packed theater I saw it in had people from many backgrounds and tastes shaking their heads or pointing out familiar references.)

Briefly, for those who have not seen it, Van Helsing (an uncharacteristically flat Hugh Jackman looking more like author Robert E. Howard's Puritan hero Solomon Kane than a Victorian-era scientist), after dispatching Mr. Hyde at Notre Dame, is sent by the Vatican to Transylvania to stop whatever plan Dracula is hatching with his three wives. Also involved are wolf men and Frankenstein's peculiar invention. Along the way, there are clever nods to the Bond films, snippets of Curt Siodmak, and some magnificent business with Dracula's airborne wives (a terrific, and strangely beautiful effect). None of the performers are particularly memorable, with the mighty exception of Richard Roxburgh, who is so terrific as Dracula, one wishes he had a chance at the role in a straight adaptation of Stoker's novel.

While Van Helsing is no classic, neither is Ghost of Frankenstein or any of its sequels. But these Universal programmers have lasted this long, who's to say what the shelf life of Van Helsing will be?

More important, it is essential that films like Van Helsing be produced. (You can argue for better films than Van Helsing, but that's not the point.) The dust heap of history is filled with pop culture icons that have little or no currency with the contemporary zeitgeist. (Nick Carter, anyone?) The audience I saw Van Helsing with was packed with kids, and for many, this will be their first (or only) introduction to Gothic literature's great myth machine. Film scholars and old-time monster boomers are still slavishly devoted to Universal's classics, but what'll happen when our generation fades? Pictures like Van Helsing will help ensure that there is a next generation of monster fans. Besides, as the classic monster characters are in the public domain, any success with them will only guarantee more such films, increasing the chances for real gold among the grit.

With or without Van Helsing, the Frankenstein Legacy Collection is a treat for monster fans new and seasoned.

Bob Madison is the founder and CEO of Dinoship:
a science fiction publishing company. He is also an author and frequent lecturer and talk show guest.

"No man has ever seen his like!"

"Warning: The Monster demands a mate!"
Bride of Frankenstein

"New thrills as the Monster stalks again!"
Ghost of Frankenstein

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