Be Warned. It's Frankenstein

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 Holme, 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.
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 lay into that spectacle.  But that's not to say it stays 100% true.  Branagh makes a very bold third act change, which I can see him (and co-writer Frank Darabont) thinking it 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), and while it's not a huge misstep to ruin the whole affair or anything, it does spoil the film's faithfulness track record.
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 Holmes (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 to date of Frankenstein, 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.
1) US 1998 DVD (wide); 2) US 1998 DVD (full);
3) US 2004 DVD; 4) UK 2004 DVD; 5) US 2009 BD.
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 has been matted to exactly 1.85:1, and naturally it's also the sharpest image.  It 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.

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 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.  There are no extras on any version except the theatrical trailer and some bonus trailers on the DVDs.   Disappointingly, the blu even drops the trailer.
I took one of those online surveys Sony put out for future UHD titles (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.  There must at least be EPK footage on De Niro on set, and Branagh has done some excellent audio commentaries in the past.  At the very least, they could give us the trailer and the original stereo mix back.  But, in the meantime, I'm glad I've got this.

2 comments:

  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.

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    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.

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