"Young Frankenstein" Blu-ray Review
October 14, 2008 by Zach Demeter
By now considered a modern classic, the 1974 black and white film from master comedian Mel Brooks brought together a fantastic cast including Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Cloris leachman, Teri Garr and Madeline Kahn in one of the “scariest” comedies of all time. With a few DVD releases under its belt, Young Frankenstein makes its Blu-ray debut, packed to the gills with extras and a video transfer that will no doubt amaze those who have previously only seen the film in standard definition.
Although he tried to distance himself from his crazy grandfather, Dr. Frankenstein (Wilder) is summoned to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. After spending a night in the castle, Dr. Frankenstein begins to hear strange sounds coming from behind a wall and soon descends into his grandfather’s laboratory and private library. Here he reads about his grandfather’s work and becomes obsessed with picking up where his grandfather left off and creating a “monster” of his own. In typical Mel Brooks fashion, the film is laden with a hilarious cast, script and plot that always manages to send the viewer into a fit of laughter.
I grew up with Mel Brooks films, but Young Frankenstein was the only one I never watched when I was younger. I was all over Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs and Men in Tights and had seen the rest of his works at least once, but it was this one film that I’d never seen. I don’t know if it was my eight year old self not liking the idea of watching a black and white film (though I know there’s a color version floating around, but I don’t think it’s seen a release…at least not recently) or what, but I never saw the film. Until now at least, and I have to say that while I was amused…it really wasn’t the film I was expecting.
Mel Brooks humor was rarely subtle and was most often instituted by a characters face or body movement, but Young Frankenstein was really the most laid back film in terms of slapstick or laugh out loud moments. There were plenty, but in general the film just had you watch with a smile on your face for the majority of the time; not a terrible thing, but it hardly had you in stitches from persistent laughter, although it certainly picked up in motion towards the end of the film. I realize it’s a bit ridiculous to be criticizing a film from 1974 at this point, but to me this film is the “odd duck” out of Mel Brooks entire library, although he notes that it is probably his favorite film…so go figure.
There aren’t really any complaints I have about the film, aside from the fact I found it a bit slow in spots and also incredibly random at times. The sequences with the monster wandering around the city seemed to be a completely random collection of clips that were constructed from a bunch of spontaneous ideas by Brooks about what the monster could do. Admittedly they were some of the funniest pieces of the film and I feel rather stupid even complaining about them, but with a film this old and classic, I figured it’d be better to at least complain about something rather than worship it incessantly and blindly. Though I am perfectly ready to do that as well as it is a classic and no amount of complaining by a person who didn’t grow up with the film or even see it until this year is going to be relevant in the long run; it’s a classic and debating it as anything else than that would be a waste of time.
In the end it may not be my favorite of the Brooks films, but it is still hilarious in its own subtle way. Since I was slightly disappointed with it from the standpoint of being a fan of his other works more, I’ll leave this one with a Recommended badge. Still worth seeing, but if you were like me and hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t beat yourself up over it, though definitely make the effort to see it someday.
Fox is one of the more impressive companies when it comes to the Blu-ray format and this release is no exception. Already setting itself apart from their other releases by featuring a glossy, embossed and foil reflective slipcover, Young Frankenstein arrives in a standard Elite Blu-ray case with inserts advertising the Blu-ray format and a note to keep your player up-to-date and disc art that mimics the monster character art from the cover. Menus are simple and easy to navigate, with the main setup being that of a laboratory desk with levers and switches. Navigation of extras is a bit clunky though, as there is only one extra option on screen at a time, but that’s only a minor complaint.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this set is that…holy crap there are a lot of extras for this film. From what I’ve been able to tell, no previous DVD release boasted extras even near this, so fans of the film are in for a giant treat as we get quite the cornucopia of goodies to sort through. First, however, we have the 1080p 1.85:1 AVC encoded video transfer that is…well, old looking. The grain levels are off the charts for this film, but underneath it you can definitely see a fair amount of detail. One of the final scenes in the film is heavily lacking grain, however, and seems to have been smoothed over to an incredible degree, wiping away the detail with the grain. This is only one sequence that has this, however, and it is a scene that is almost completely dark, so I imagine it had more to do with the grain level being so insanely high that they had no choice but to clean it up…but in either case, you won’t exactly be floored by the clarity of the picture as the film itself was never meant to look pristine to begin with, but as is it’s a nice transfer and underneath the specks you do see quite a bit of detail on the castle walls and characters faces. The accompanying DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio Lossless track is also quite impressive, with a solid mix being done for the entire film, although the majority of it is kept in the front channels, the audio does creep into the surrounds on occasion, particularly during the sequences taking place in the castle itself. An alternate Isolated Score track is available, as are English, Spanish and French mono tracks.
Edit (10/27/08): Reader Alric has informed me that during the films original theatrical run the film was not this grainy. In some instances the grain level resulted in a loss of information. As Alric stated: "The scene occurs when Frederick and Igor meet for the first time at the train station. When Frederick hears his name called from the fog, he looks around, then down, at which point he's startled at the proximity of Igor, hunched there below. For comical impact, the image of Igor freezes, with his comically bugged eyes. Then the camera ZOOMS in on this stilled image, and of course his face gets closer and looms larger in the frame. You can't accomplish that STILLED close-up in a movie camera, ON SET. It has to be accomplished later. What happens is, that segment is played in a lab somewhere while it is filmed a second time. This time, during play, the sprockets are halted at the decided point, the image is stilled, while the second camera continues filming, at which point it zooms in for the close-up on the stilled image. The outcome of this is obvious to us in the audience in the movie theater. The grain density is DOUBLED: you have the natural grain of the original shot, added to which is the grain of the second shot accomplished in editing, which also MAGNIFIED the grain of the first shot when it zoomed in closer to the image. This was a startling shift in grain density, because of the doubling of natural grain, and the first-level grain's magnification as the result of zoom. This happened in a couple of places (like when Frederick acknowledges the possibility of his grandfather's experiments, and we're shown the portrait, now smiling).
"[The] Blu Ray at this point in the film doesn't show this dramatic shift in grain density. The disc is so awash with erroneous grain, the shift in texture is completely lost behind this new haze. COMPLETELY lost."
It should be noted that while I myself don't have an issue with the transfer and still consider it to be adquate enough for a film of this age, I wanted to offer a differing viewpoint that points out a few flaws of the transfer.
And now…the extras! First up is a fantastic commentary with Mel Brooks who recounts stories from the set as well as scads of other information about the film including stories from the sets, inspiration for doing the film and also some insight into why this is his favorite of his films. There’s plenty of information to glean from this track and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit more than the film, although the track itself made me appreciate the film more so I’m sure repeat viewings of the film won’t have me feeling quite so whiney and complainy about it. And yes I know complainy isn’t a word.
"Inside the Lab: Secret Formulas in the Making of Young Frankenstein" is our Blu-ray BonusView extra which takes us through the film via accompanying video clips that find their way around the screen. I enjoy this extra quite a bit more than the PiP stuff that Universal does as you can watch the clips by themselves as well, so it creates for a nice little extra all around, although once again the menu navigation is a bit clunky for this. Still, this is a great extra that I highly recommend checking out if you enjoyed the film in the least. You may also want to pair it with the "The Franken-Track: A Monstrous Conglomeration of Trivia" which, as you can probably guess, is a trivia track that pops up facts about the film throughout the duration of it.
Next is the “Blucher Button.” What is this button? Well it’s nothing more than something you press and then hear the neighing of horses in the background. That’s all the button does and I spent a good fifteen seconds pressing it before I realized what was going on. Then I spent another thirty just pressing it repeatedly because I found it so funny. Our first “real” extra is the "It's Alive! Creating a Monster Classic" (31:16, 1080i), a great little documentary that interviews those involved with the production of the film about the time spent on it. Brooks is largely the focus here, but we get to hear a lot of information from other participants as well.
"Transylvanian Lullaby: The Music of John Morris" (10:29, 1080i) shines a light on the composer of the film who is also interviewed, while "Making FrankenSense of Young Frankenstein" (41:53, 480p, 1996) is an older documentary on the film that talks more about its overall production. Surprisingly Gene Wilder shows up in this extra, which is a pleasant surprise, but he’s the only actor from the film who does. Next is a round of "Outtakes" (5:01, 480p), a selection of two sets of deleted scenes, one in standard definition (16:28) and another in high-definition (25:02). Production photo galleries are included alongside a selection of trailers and "TV Spots" (3:21). Finally we have some vintage "Mexican Interviews" (6:38, 480p) with Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman.
Overall I would have liked a bit more cast participation, as we only got Cloris Leachman and Teri Garr in the “It’s Alive!” documentary. It’s disappointing to not have Wilder chime in, but he hasn’t shown his head much lately, so I guess that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. In the end this release is simply the definitive and ultimate release for this film and I am genuinely blown away by the selection of extras presented on this release. Surprisingly there is only this Blu-ray edition out that contains these extras, but its well worth picking up if you have the ability to watch the format. Highly Recommended.
Young Frankenstein is now available on Blu-ray.