Be Warned. It's Frankenstein. In 4k!

I don't know about you guys, but I'm in the mood for a classic horror story.  Not just like a popular 80s flick, but something with a little more gravitas.  I've just been re-watching my old Mysteries & Imagination DVDs, and their smart little takes on legendary tales of terror, like Dracula with Denholm Elliot or Frankenstein starring Ian Holm, have left me craving for more.  Yes, maybe more Frankenstein.  Their version was neat but a little abridged.  I think the moment calls for a version of Frankenstein that delves even deeper into the original story, and even to this day, you probably can't do better than Kenneth Branagh's stab at it: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Update 11/7/20 - 3/29/22: There's a new Shelley's in town, gang. Arrow has released Sony's new 4k restoration as an all new special edition UHD and I'm Stokered!  😜
Having watched nearly every version out there, I do believe is the most faithful adaptation of Mary Shelley's original novel, which is, after all, why they added the "Mary Shelley's" to their title.  A quick, though admittedly certainly not definitive, one-question survey I take of every Frankenstein picture is if they attempt the wrap-arounds in the Arctic, and this one really relishes in the opportunity to lay into that spectacle.  But that's not to say it stays 100% true to source.  Branagh makes a very bold third act change, which I can see him (and co-writer Frank Darabont) thinking would heighten the drama by tying the characters even closer together at the time of highest stakes, but I feel like there's a reason Shelley didn't write it that way originally, and not just because she never had the idea.  I'm not sure this change really helps at all (I'm not going to get more specific, since it's so near the end); but don't get me wrong, it's no huge misstep either.  It's just one point where fans of the novel will really pause and say, "oh. That's different." There are also plenty of little historical touches added to the background and the inevitable alterations when adapting across formats.  But Branagh really manages to capture the spirit and themes of Shelley's writing like few if any others.
But forgetting which hues strictest to the source material and just judging the film on its raw cinematic merits, it's a pretty terrific Frankenstein, and still quite possibly the best (though I have an odd fondness for Frankenstein '80).  Robert De Niro does feel like stunt casting, but once you get used to his presence, particularly his distinctive voice, it almost ceases to be distracting; and you can't say he doesn't deliver a fine performance.  And the rest of the cast is particularly superb, with Branagh himself in top form, and an excellent supporting cast including Ian Holm (back for another round!), Amadeus himself Tom Hulce, John Cleese, Helena Bonham Carter and Aidin Quinn.  The production values are high; you can tell Sony was aiming for a definitive show-stopper with operatic visuals and swooping cameras as the music flourishes.  And it's not afraid to get dark and messy, bringing to vivid life both the monster's human drama and the doctor's grisly laboratory.  It's literary and bombastic.  Sure, this film could be tweaked here and there to be even better, but what we got has, I believe, been critically and commercially undervalued since its release.
Columbia Tri-Star has been behind every release of Frankenstein up 'till now, even in foreign regions.  But their handling of it has been a little complicated.  Originally, they released it in 1998 as a flipper disc: widescreen on one side, fullscreen on the other (hand over mouth cover).  Then, in 2003, they reissued it as a single-sided DVD only.  The bad news?  It was only the fullscreen version.  And frustratingly, it had the exact same front cover and UPC number, making it very tricky to guess which version you were getting if you tried to order it online.  They reissued it again as a fullscreen single-sided disc in 2004, this time with the make-out in front of the castle cover, but again with the same UPC.  So, to be clear, if they're smooching in front of the castle, it's definitely a fullscreen-only disc; and if it's the hand over mouth, it could go either way.
Even if you bought the 2005 version that was packaged with Francis Coppola's Dracula, it was the fullscreen-only version.  Although the 1999 Double Feature DVD set with John Carpenter's Vampires did give you the flipper disc.  Very confusing business all around.  That's why I ordered the UK version, which was very clearly just and always the widescreen version.  But now all of that's only an issue to plague those of you who haven't upgraded to blu-rays, because ever since 2009, there's been a superior HD option, that of course is in its proper widescreen ratio.  And now in 2022, there's even a 3840 option, thanks to Arrow's brand new UHD (a 1080p blu of their edition is also available separately).  And this time, they've even made it a special edition.
1) US 1998 DVD (wide); 2) US 1998 DVD (full); 3) US 2004 DVD;
4) UK 2004 DVD; 5) US 2009 BD; 6) 2022 Arrow UHD.

There are some interesting differences to note between the DVDs.  You'd think they'd all be the same, apart from the wide and fullscreen croppings, but they're not.  For a start, the two widescreen framings are different.  The US DVD windowboxes the image slightly to 1.81:1, while the UK DVD pillarboxes it to a taller 1.74:1.  This despite the back covers both touting 1.85:1.  The fullscreen versions are 1.33:1 as they claim, and you can see, they've compromised to both show some additional vertical information while also taking a decent amount off the sides.  Also, the fullscreen version has its own, distinct color timing, turning the doctor's lab from pink to orange.  Only the blu-ray and UHD have been matted to exactly 1.85:1, and naturally they're also the sharpest images.  The blu has stronger color separation, deeper blacks, easily trumping the DVDs.  But it's clearly an old master, with film grain so soft it's more hinted at than made clear, and there's some subtle haloing and similar tinkering that you wouldn't get from a modern transfer.
US 2009 BD left; 2022 Arrow UHD right.
As I said, the UHD is still 1.85:1, but you may've noticed it's pulled out to reveal more picture than any of the previous widescreen editions.  The color timing's much more subtle and naturalistic.  And just look at the close-up above to see the massive gains in grain structure, which is smooth and smeary on the blu-ray.  The blu also has this weirdly pixelated noise running down the left-hand side of the glass, which is of course completely cleared up and perfectly filmic now on the UHD.

Now, all the DVDs give us a choice between the original stereo mix and a new 5.1, plus optional English subtitles.  And the US discs also provide a bevy of sub and dub translations.  The blu happily bumps the audio up to lossless DTS-HD and keeps the subtitles and translations, but unfortunately dumps the stereo track, leaving us with only the revisionist 5.1.  So here's another area where Arrow gets it right, restoring the original stereo track, lossless now for the first time in LPCM.  And they still have the DTS-HD 5.1 mix and optional English subtitles.
There are no extras on any Sony/ Columbia except the theatrical trailer and some bonus trailers on the DVDs.   Disappointingly, the blu even drops the trailer.  But we can obviously take care of Arrow to handle all that.  Actually, when they announced their specs, I was a little underwhelmed: a couple promising crew interviews and a bunch of expert stuff.  Experts can't usually pack the punch of someone who was there first hand.  I mean, I knew it was asking a lot to expect a Branagh commentary as he's busy directing Marvel movies and winning Oscars... but it would've been nice.

Actually, though, I needn't have fretted.  Because the expert stuff is terrific.  Three of 'em - including Gothic screenwriter Stephen Volk! - speak across two featurettes, which is really one longer piece arbitrarily split into two.  But it's/ they're great.  They stumble a little bit out of the gate, wasting a lot of time getting mired in whether Frankenstein technically qualifies as a gothic novel.  But after that, they're running on all cylinders, full of very detailed information about the history of the novel, various other adaptations and how this film conflicts and conforms with them.  Even if you're a serious Frankenstein aficionado, I think you'll learn a bunch.  And then there's the audio commentary, done by two other experts, who pretty much fill in every conceivable gap of information the first three might've missed.
Look how clear the detail is in this 112 year-old film frame!
And those crew interviews are pretty great.  The production designer, composer and effects artist all have lots of fun stories and memories.  And the inclusion of the 1910 Edison Studios production of Frankenstein is another great inclusion.  It helps that the aforementioned experts discussed this version, so you'll have to more to appreciate.  It's a wild, more supernatural version, with a cleverly graphic creation sequence.  It was restored in 2k by the Library of Congress, so it looks great, though the very beginning and final act suffer from a lot of print damage.  It, and all the other extras, are presented in 3840, just like the feature.  There's also two trailers, an image gallery, a full color 36-page booklet by Jon Towlson and Amy C. Chambers, a promo card and reversible artwork, though surprisingly no slipcover.
I took one of those online surveys Sony put out for future UHD titles (surely wasting the write-in opportunity on a long-shot: Friends With Money), and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was one of the possibilities they listed.  I sure would love to see that.  This is a nice blu, but an old blu, and I can imagine it looking stunning in HDR.  Plus, this is a film that calls out for a special edition.  At the very least, they could give us the trailer and the original stereo mix back.  Okay, my head's not big enough to try and take any credit for this release, but it sure feels like the folks at Arrow read what I'd written like a Christmas list and made it all come true.  Maybe I should give thanks to The Spirit Of the Forest.


  1. I know it sounds stupid, but I think the TV version of Frankenstein with Randy Quaid is actually the best adaptation of the original novel. It goes off the rails a little bit and deviates from the source material quite often, but overall it's a great movie and fairly faithful to the novel. And the Arctic scenes are really badass.

    1. Not stupid; there's a lot of great television stuff beating the pants off of feature films out there, even from before this current "golden age of prestige TV."

      I saw that version back when it aired and remember liking it, but it's been so long, definitely time for a revisit. I didn't remember that it tackled the Arctic stuff... definitely keen to check that out.