Universal Classic Monsters

It takes some bravado to call something “The Essential Collection,” but Universal, over the course of its 100-year history, has basically written the rule book on monster movies, so a bringing together of their classic monsters under one Blu-ray box should be given a bit of slack. Not that it needs the slack, as the set is filled to the brim with good stuff for horror fans. Between the years of 1931 and 1954, Universal Studios produced some of the most iconic and influential horror films in the history of cinema, based on some of the most influential spooky stories in history. It began with Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of Universal founder Carl Laemmle, whose passion for literature and enthusiasm for seeing these great stories brought to life yielded two box office hits in 1931 with Dracula and Frankenstein. Even years after Laemmle had lost control of the studio, the legacy he forged lived on. These films would go on to inspire generations of film lovers and film makers, many of whom are still scaring us today.

To celebrate in 2012, the year of the 100th birthday of Universal, we fans have been given this Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray release, a celebration of the original eight, the most popular and iconic of the bunch. Many have been retold, rebooted and remade, but the originals still stand the test of time, from Bela Lugosi’s glowing eyes to Millicent Patrick’s iconic design for the Creature from the Black Lagoon, they are the forefathers of modern cinematic horror. Born of great ingenuity and a passion for the magic of the moving picture. And for those of us with about $150 extra dollars, it’s time to experience them again in a form unseen prior to this day.

The Set

The eight films are presented on separate Region Free Blu-ray discs found inside the study book-style packaging, each with its own carefully decorated page/sleeve. Included in the set is a wonderful 46-page book featuring stills from the films and their productions and an essay from Universal Horrors author Tom Weaver looking back at “A Legacy of Horror.” As many a reader of this site may note, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the genre of horror, as I’m a little light on courage in a dark room, but I do know a thing or two about presentation. To Universal’s credit, the Classic Monsters set is a hefty box that celebrates some of the great art designed to promote these films. The eerie drawing of Lugosi on the Dracula poster greets us as we open to the first page, along with a quick summary of the film and the disc’s special features. From there, it’s time to dig into the set film-by-film.

Dracula

“Children of the night, what music they make.”

The set begins where the legacy of these eight films begins, with Bela Lugosi in the cape as Count Dracula. This moody adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story features a number of beautiful, sweeping shots as well as one of the creepiest, most mystifying performances of all-time from the headlining actor. Of course, the cinematography doesn’t quite compare with the more patient, gentle approach provided by director George Melford’s Spanish version of the film — also included on this disc — which was shot simultaneously using the same set as the Tod Browning English-language effort. To see the differences in the two films, created together by American and Mexican crews, is startling and perhaps the most interesting part of this film’s release. Many a casual viewer may overlook the Spanish version, thinking that it’s the same movie re-dubbed with an alternate audio track. But in this period of film, when the use of sound was still a relatively new idea, the common practice was to shoot two different movies at the same time. And my, are they two different, equally engrossing, experiences.

Dracula being the eldest of these films would lead one to believe that it’s film elements may not have survived, but as a featurette about the  restoration shows us, this Blu-ray version was taken from the original nitrate camera negatives. It’s crisp and clean with a fine layer of grain to give it the effect of film, something that will be greatly appreciated by purists and will go almost unnoticed by everyone else. Both versions, English and Spanish, look great. And they’re flanked with a number of extras, many of which are taken from previous DVD releases. The only new featurette, as far as I can tell, is the 9-minute short about the restoration.

Frankenstein

“It’s alive… It’s ALIVE!”

Ten months after the release of Dracula in 1931, Universal followed with the creation of its first true monster. No disrespect to Lugosi’s vamp, but the practical effects work put forth by Jack Pierce in the creation of Boris Karloff’s monster is the stuff of legends. Frankenstein’s monster was born with electricity (a variation from the original story by Mary Shelley) and shocked into a gothic world of pitch-forks and fire. He’s not so much the gentle giant we’d come to know and love later in cinema history, but Karloff’s original monster is one frightening S.O.B. The power and size created through the steady lens of director James Whale is palpable.

The Blu-ray presentation, much like that of Dracula, is superb. Here we notice the contrast levels have been perfectly tuned to bring detail to the black-and-white film, further defining the monster that towers over the entire thing. In addition to the film, there’s a number of fun extras, including a vintage short called “Boo!” from 1932, a spoof of the monster genre. There’s also a 1998 feature documentary called Universal Horror, in which narrator Kenneth Branagh walks us through the history of Universal’s monsters, from 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera to 1956’s The Creature that Walks Among Us.

The Mummy

“No man ever suffered as I did for you.”

The 1932 rendition of Imhotep’s obsessive quest to resurrect his 3,000 year-old and long-dead love, Princess Anh-es-en-amon, brought Boris Karloff and make-up artist Jack Pierce back to Universal for the creation of yet another fine, towering monster. Of course, director Karl Freund’s The Mummy will long be notable for its diversion in tone from the first two films in this lineage. It’s decidedly lighter and less gothic than its predecessors, serving as an entertaining but not altogether terrifying horror experience. These films, unlike the horror of modern day, create frightening moments through artistry and suggestion, through storytelling and character development. This is the roots of horror at work, even when it’s a bit of fun — which is exactly how I’d describe The Mummy. Not Brendan Fraser fun, that’s a silly notion. Fun to watch as master craftsmen build a new monster from an age-old tale. Fun for fans of the craft, not the mindless.

The Mummy Blu-ray presentation is outstanding most with its sharp presentation. It’s transfer features similar grain and delicate contrast as the films we’ve already talked about, but what stands out most here is the consistency of the quality from beginning to end. In Dracula, there are establishing shots that look misplaced because of the quality of the original film. The Mummy has none of these small issues and presents as the complete package. Once again we find that the extras are not short on intrigue, even if they are short on Blu-ray exclusives. There is a 9-minute featurette (I sense this becoming a trend) on Carl Laemmle included with this disc.

The Invisible Man

Sadly, review copies of the Universal Classic Monsters collection were shipped with a copy of The Mummy in the sleeve where The Invisible Man should have been. It’s since been confirmed that this error was limited to press copies, which shouldn’t affect anyone buying the set. Sadly for me, this was one of the films that I had not previously seen, so I was a bit disappointed. Then I remembered that it was time to move on, a task I found not at all difficult with this set…

The Bride of Frankenstein

“I’ve been cursed for delving into the mysteries of life!”

Ask ten people which of these Universal horror films is the most iconic and you may get 8 different answers, but the chances that more than one person would say The Bride of Frankenstein are pretty high. Some would call this one of the most significant horror films ever created. For Carl Laemmle Jr., it was his last as the man in charge of Universal. For Boris Karloff, it was a return to the character that made him famous and yet another opportunity to get underneath the make-up of Jack Pierce. The second effort of director James Whale is perhaps one of the best-written and deeply engaging pieces of storytelling in this entire set, with plenty of religious imagery, deep emotional exploration and a great ability to put us in a sympathetic position with the monster. We see Frankenstein’s monster, ever the massive presence that he was the first time around, longing for friendship and understanding in a world that would rather see him burn. We also see him meet his Bride, as played by Elsa Lanchester, in one of horror’s most memorable moments.

The 1935 film, like the rest with which it shares space in this set, looks brilliant. This is going to sound like the stuff of broken records, but the contrast and detail in the black-and-white photography is incredible. Especially in scenes that involve a great number of details, most notably anything that happens inside Dr. Frankensteins laboratory. It’s the restoration artist equivalent of making sweet love to a film. She’s an old dame, this one, but I’d marry her and carry her off into the night. Once we get to the extras, it’s another doc (this time about creating Frank’s lady), a collection of artwork and (you guessed it) a Blu-ray exclusive 9-minute featurette about restoring the film. There’s no doubt that James Whale would be proud of what has come of his film some 77 years later.

The Wolf Man

“You think I don’t know the difference between a wolf and a man?”

It took six years for Universal to get back into the horror game following the exit of the Laemmle family, but they did come back with a big one. Enter the dynamic presence of Lon Chaney Jr., the man who would become the wolf. So much of werewolf lore was introduced with this film, including the tying of the full moon to the transformation from man to lycanthrope. Such a success was The Wolf Man that it spawned a number of lower-budget sequels, many of which are beloved for their B-movie quality, none of which ever reached the outright success of the original. Among the other Universal greats, The Wolf Man stands tall as the film that reenergized the studio and the genre in the early 1940s. Every great legacy is not perfect from beginning to end, and sometimes it takes a jolt somewhere in the middle to keep things going. The Wolf Man, with its terrifying vision of what lies just outside the confines of the village, there in the woods on a cold, moon-lit night, was just the jolt this particular legacy needed.

This part of the review of The Wolf Man might look familiar. Because guess what, it looks superb in its transfer to Blu-ray. Unlike it has ever been seen before. As with Dracula and some of the others, there are little nits to be picked about the presentation, including a bit of halo effecting where contrast isn’t balanced quite so perfectly, but the detail is tremendous. We’re talking about a 71-year old piece of film that looks like it was shot on film no more than a few days ago. The extras present a look at the history of The Wolf Man, including a featurette in which John Landis explores the mythology behind the character. The 9-minute Blu-ray exclusive featurette here focuses a bit more on the Universal lot, and is equally as interesting as the restoration featurettes on the other discs.

The Phantom of the Opera

“Forgive me, but I have been a part of the Opera for so long. Everybody, everything connected with it, I feel it is so much a part of my life.”

Among the numerous adaptations of the classic story of a deformed violinist turned obsessive, murderous lunatic, this may not be remembered as the best. It certainly wasn’t the first, nor is Claude Rains’ portrayal of the Phantom the most well-known. That said, it occupies a unique position among Universal’s great monster legacy, as the first among these titles to be shot in Technicolor. It’s also a film that firmly solidifies Rains as one of the iconic men of Universal’s horror legacy, right up there with Lugosi and Karloff. Many would know him from his work elsewhere, be it Casablanca or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but he really did make his name in this box set with performances in The Invisible ManThe Wolf Man and this film. Along with director Arthur Lubin, Rains creates his own distinct version of the Phantom, one that is sometimes surrounded by silliness, but ultimately becomes yet another wonderfully sympathetic monster. Of course, there’s also the chandelier scene, a moment of suspenseful storytelling and stunt work that is absolutely magnificent in its execution.

The Blu-ray dazzles with color, a welcome relief for anyone watching the box set all the way through. With its vibrant color and meticulously designed set pieces, Phantom jumps off the screen. Equally as sharp as the other discs in this set, the vibrant and well-tinted color set it apart visually, while the musical mastery of Edward Ward’s score sets it apart on an audible level. It may not be as gothic and atmospheric as a Dracula or The Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s got a style that’s all its own, making it a lovely addition to this set. On the extras side of things, it’s important to note the 51-minute documentary feature that charts the many screen adaptations of this character, including the 1925 adaptation featuring Lon Chaney.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

“We didn’t come here to fight monsters, we’re not equipped for it.”

What’s so delightful about this set — and this set is delightful, if you can’t tell already — is that each film presents something unique, even as all of them feel linked by a common thread. That common thread is a dedication to creating memorable monsters. The unique part of Creature from the Black Lagoon is two-fold. One element is that of the creature effects from the legendary Millicent Patrick. The detail put forth in the creation of the Gill-Man is incredible. There is also the fact that it’s the only film among this box set to be made for 3-D viewing. It was created during the height of the 3-D fad of the 1950s, when the third dimension was used as a comical gimmick. Here we see the creature’s webbed hand comes right out of the screen as if it were reaching for the audience, a dazzling effect considering its time of creation.

More impressive still is the amount of depth created by the 3-D presentation. It can best be described as a pop-up book effect, in which characters move around the set between objects in the three-dimensional space. It’s a lot of fun. The film also looks good, as expected, in its two-dimensional presentation. While it’s nice to see the 3-D presentation included in this set to celebrate the evidence of its time and place in history, the 2-D version is just as crisp and detailed as the other discs in the set. Once again we find ourselves diving deep with a 40-minute behind the scenes documentary and a 9-minute new featurette, along with a number of stills and archived marketing materials. From posters to shots from the production, these photo galleries are not to be passed up on any of these discs. They are a collection of what represents some of the greatest marketing art in film history.

The Final Word

Buy. Hands down, this set will satisfy any lover of horror. More importantly, it will satisfy the curious minds of anyone who simply loves great films and great storytelling. There’s so much craftsmanship and purpose in the way these films were made. Even though some of the effects look silly by today’s standards, these films all create very specific atmospheres and deliver moments that will crawl up your spine and live in the back of your mind. The box set is a shelf-worthy testament to the tradition started by Carl Laemmle Jr. in the late-1920s. At the time, he was a twenty-something with a lot of big ideas and a love of the classics. We should all be thankful that he and the rest of his team at Universal decided to take the risk and bring horror icons to the screen in such stylish and inventive ways.


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