Blu-ray Review: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

I sometimes wonder what today’s kids would make of the Universal monsters. Inundated with a gazillion toys, video games, and cable channels, they’re exposed to just about every conceivable permutation, derivation and offshoot of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man. So on my more cynical days I doubt the children of this millennium would even find these films interesting, let alone scary, in all their black-and-white, spirit-gum, ‘30s and ‘40s glory.  But maybe I’m underestimating the power of these elegant gems. There’s a reason these films have survived the better part of a century, and inspired generations of artists, writers, and filmmakers: they showcase the kind of horror that holds up, the kind that doesn’t so much terrify as it creates a mood, an atmosphere, enveloping the viewer in another world for an hour or two. Making their long-awaited Blu-ray debut this month in the nine-film box set Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, the studio’s core monster titles have, unsurprisingly, never looked better, or appeared more timeless.  Let’s take a look at each of the discs in this remarkable collection…

Dracula (1931)

Three films in Universal Classic Monsters have reportedly undergone complete restoration, in which every frame has been cleaned of all blemishes and artifacts and audio cleared of most every hiss and pop: Dracula, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein. Of the three, the oldest and – discounting Lon Chaney’s silent-film efforts – the first iconic Universal monster movie is Todd Browning’s Dracula, based on the seminal Bram Stoker novel and starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi (who’d essayed the title role on Broadway) in a career-defining performance. Browning is one of the finest horror filmmakers of all time (for proof, watch his Chaney-starring The Unknown or Freaks), but his Dracula was plagued with production problems, and suffers from a stagey, uneven script and some lackluster performances, all of which prevent it from being a truly great film. Its cinematography by Karl Freund, however, is beyond reproach (particularly in the opening Transylvania scenes), and its lead performance is one for the ages. Indeed Lugosi’s work remains far and away the reason the film’s still worth watching. The light in his eyes, the hunger in his voice, and that goofy thing he does with his hands (amusingly referenced in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood) create one of the screen’s most memorable characters.  

There isn’t much one can say about the image quality here, other than that it’s perfect. Inky blacks and stable greys, along with a soundtrack that’s had a feature-length hiss removed (as explained in the disc’s nifty restoration featurette), combine to make Dracula look as good as the day it was released; and probably better.

The other featurettes on the Dracula disc include all those found on the film’s previous DVD releases, chief among them the documentaries The Road to Dracula and Lugosi: The Dark Prince. We also get two commentaries (from David J. Skal and Steve Haberman) and Philip Glass’s optional score for the originally music-free film. As with all the discs in the set, there’s an advertising art archive, a trailer gallery, and a still photo gallery. But the best bonus feature is an HD transfer of the Spanish-language version of Dracula (introduced by its star Lupita Tovar). Shot on the same sets but with a different cast. It’s a zippier, smoother, and more energetic production, but it sadly lacks Lugosi’s iconic performance. 

Frankenstein (1931) 

Were it not for its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein (loosely adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel) may well be considered the greatest of the Universal monster movies. In many ways it’s the perfect storm of talent – director James Wale, actor Boris Karloff, makeup maestro Jack Pierce, visual effects expert John Fulton, even machinist/electrician Kenneth Strickfaden (whose fanciful lab equipment contributes greatly to the film’s “birth” scene). It’s not perfect. Wale’s then-recent stage background makes some of Frankenstein’s scenes feel a little hollow (literally when cameras pan through walls on those sets better suited for live theater). But such complaints matter little. This film was, after all, made at what was still the dawn of sound cinema, and Whale and company did the best they could, resulting in a movie as pivotal to horror cinema as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is to animation.

Like Dracula, Frankenstein enjoys a practically flawless restoration and transfer. The shadowed corners of Henry Frankenstein’s laboratory have never been more foreboding, nor the pockets beneath the eyes of Karloff’s creature more simultaneously sympathetic and shiver-inducing.

Extras on the Blu-ray disc include the DVD release’s The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster and Karloff: The Gentle Monster, in addition to the excellent 95-minute Universal Horror documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and featuring welcome commentary from such famous monster lovers as Joe Dante and the late Ray Bradbury. Two commentaries are also made available, from Rudy Behlmer and Sir Christopher Frayling.

The Mummy (1932)

An early slow-burn from the Universal, The Mummy prefigures the moody Val Lewton RKO thrillers of the ‘40s, and couldn’t be more different from the Brendan Fraser trilogy of pseudo-action goofiness. Karloff again stars, this time in the dual makeup role of Im-Ho-Tep (the titular mummy, who appears in the archetypal bandaged makeup and costume for only one or two shots in the opening scene) and Ardath Bay, the modern Egyptian guise he takes in order to reunite with his long lost love, the Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, now reincarnated as beautiful socialite Helen Grosvenor. Both Karloff and Jack Pierce’s work impress here even more than they did on Frankenstein. Through the actor’s underplayed performance and the make-up man’s textured Ardath Bay makeup, it isn’t hard to believe the character really is thousands of years old. Dracula cinematographer Karl Freund was promoted to director for this film, and he shines in the position, taking a story that’s almost identical to Dracula’s and making a far leaner, more atmospheric film. Universal may not have done a full restoration on the film, but the studio could have fooled me. I’ll be damned if I can spot a single imperfection in the transfer’s source material. Another beautiful job.

Extras ported from The Mummy’s DVD release include Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed and He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, as well as two commentaries, from Paul M. Jensen and the team of Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and sculpture studio owner Brent Armstrong. 

The Invisible Man (1933)

Between Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, director James Whale helmed two other classics – The Old Dark House and this adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel. Claude Rains, in his screen debut, stars in the title role as a scientist driven mad by his experiments in invisibility. Though Rains’ face appears on screen only once – in the film’s final shot – the actor uses his voice and body language to show perfectly how his character’s thirst for knowledge evolves into a longing for recognition and eventually a hunger for power. Whale’s cheeky sense of humor, on full display in Bride of Frankenstein, first surfaces in this film (as well as in The Old Dark House, also starring Karloff and The Invisible Man’s Gloria Stuart). The film is also the most special-effects filled of all the Universal monster classics, with John Fulton and his team outdoing themselves in creating tons of still believable invisibility illusions that set the standard for The Invisible Man’s many sequels, spin-offs, and remakes. I’ve read a review or two that found this Blu-ray transfer’s image to exhibit some artifacting, but I didn’t find anything that pulled me out of the film. The print appears as scratch-free as the disc’s I’ve discussed above. At the very least, The Invisible Man looks significantly better than in it has in any of its previous home video releases.

The key extras on this disc are no less visible than those on the others in the set:  chief among them the documentary, Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, and another Rudy Behlmer commentary.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Ah, what can one say about Bride of Frankenstein that hasn’t been said a million times before? That it’s James Whale’s best film? That it’s arguably the greatest American horror film of all time? That alongside Forbidden Planet, 2001, and Blade Runner it’s a strong contender for the title of Greatest American Science-Fiction Film? One thing’s for certain: its Blu-ray release marks the finest restoration yet of a 1930s film on the HD format, making it the crown jewel of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.  This box set is almost worth buying for Bride alone. Seriously, it’s that good. John J. Mescall’s lush cinematography is captured beautifully, as is Pierce’s makeup for Karloff (whose delivers an even better performance the second time around, helped by the decision to let the creature speak) and Elsa Lanchester, chirping and hissing in fear, confusion, and rage as his would-be mate. The daffy Una O’Connor, the reliable Dwight Frye, and the manic Colin Clive all deliver solid performances. But Ernest Thesinger steals the show as the slightly campy, fully crazed Doctor Pretorius, hell-bent on creating a woman with Henry Frankenstein (a plot point many have taken to be Wale’s commentary on his own homosexuality). Oh how Thesinger’s face is captured in the stark lighting of electrical equipment during the film’s laboratory scene (set to Franz Waxman’s weirdly luau-like theme music). He’s the Devil himself, Mephistopheles made manifest. And he’s as beautiful as every heartfelt frame of this masterpiece.

You’ll want to marry the Bride of Frankenstein’s extras over and over again (sorry), primarily the thirty-nine minute She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein and a commentary from historian Scott MacQueen.

The Wolf Man (1941)

After the incredible high of Bride of Frankenstein, the Golden Age of the Universal monsters soon ended, with the Hays Code in full effect, studio founder Carl Laemmle passed on, and his successor Carl Laemmle Jr. growing ill with a debilitating disease that soon ended his career as a producer. But a second wave of Universal monster movies was ushered in with 1941’s The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the hapless Lawrence Talbot, who suffers the curse of the werewolf when he’s bit by gypsy Bela Lugosi. Chaney’s acting received its share of criticism throughout his career, but while he’s no Karloff, he’s perfect as cinema’s quintessential lycanthrope. Jack Pierce created another iconic makeup for Chaney (one he’d developed years earlier for Universal’s Werewolf of London, only to be thwarted by that film’s star Henry Hull, who wanted his face to be visible). Attaching yak’s hair to Chaney’s head, hands and feet, Pierce created a look that almost as iconic as that of Karloff’s creature. 

Like The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man Blu-ray transfer has received some criticism online for its transfer; this time ringing (the presence of edge halos) has been identified as the culprit. Maybe at 46 inches my set’s too small for me to notice, but I can’t say I picked up on any significant ringing, and the source print appears tight. Its picture isn’t in the same league as the others I’ve described above, but The Wolf Man still looks better than it ever has on the little silver disc. The audio is also a marked improvement from the film’s DVD release.

The Wolf Man’s are worth howling over, including three docs — Monster by Moonlight, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., and He Who Made Monsters: The Art and Life of Jack Pierce (repeated from the Mummy disc) – and historian Tom Weaver’s fun, informative commentary.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

The first real disappointment in the Universal Classic Monsters set is one that may not be all that disappointing, as it’s the least of the set’s nine films, the Claude Rains-starring color Phantom of the Opera. Rains delivers a typically strong performance as the star of French author Gaston Leroux’s 1911 novel about the Paris Opera House and the disfigured mystery man obsessed with its leading light, Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster); but the film can’t hold a candle to Lon Chaney Sr.’s lush, groundbreaking 1925 take on the tale (released on Blu-ray last year by Image). The transfer’s color is rich, but it has a tendency to sometimes bleed out of the edges. Audio, however, as befitting a film focused on music, is without any noticeable flaws. 

The Phantom Blu-ray is haunted by the fifty-one minute documentary The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked and a commentary from historian Scott MacQueen. 

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953)

Last but by no means least we have The Creature form the Black Lagoon, here at long last making its home video debut in 3D, the format in which it was first released in theaters. The tale of a Gill Man, who stalks and kills those who invade his Amazon home is admittedly kind of silly, and it isn’t helped by a stodgy script and performances. But director Jack Arnold, Universal’s 1950s sci-fi specialist (who helmed the classic Incredible Shrinking Man), works the environmental theme as much as he can. And the Gill Man’s costume is so good that the monster is immediately pushed into the front ranks of creature design, where it stands proudly alongside H.R. Giger’s alien, while his object of desire, Julie Adams, remains the most fetching scientist this side of From Beyond’s Barbara Crampton. As for the image quality, well – sorry, folks – I don’t have a 3D TV (and I only know one person who does), so I’m afraid I can’t comment on the image quality of this particular transfer. But the 2D presentation is about what I expected, a step above DVD but not a quantum step, due mainly to the source material, with plenty of soft shots and murky underwater photography. It’s ironic that the most recent film in the box set is in the worst condition. Fortunately, the audio track is, for the most part, beyond reproach, showcasing Henry Mancini’s repetitive but effective score.  

The Black Lagoon’s flotsam includes the forty-minute doc Back to the Black Lagoon, featuring surviving star Julie Adams, and Tom Weaver’s lively commentary.

One could gripe about the few faults of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Yes, it would be nice if we got more Blu-ray exclusive documentaries besides the brief restoration featurettes, or if other Universal classics were included. Perhaps I’m too easily pleased, but I’m just happy we received all the bonus features from the films’ previous home video releases (I’ve found myself with a lot more shelf space this week). And outside of 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, I can’t think of any five-star monster masterpieces from the studio’s vaults that weren’t included (yes, I have fond boyhood memories of 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man too, but have you seen that movie lately?). Non-monster horror titles are another story, however, but I can’t imagine when we’ll see the Blu-ray release of The Black Cat, The Old Dark House, and other Universal classics, as well as, for that matter, MGM’s brilliant Peter Lorre-starring Mad Love or Warner Brothers’ essential Val Lewton films. Until then, I’ll enjoy the hell out of this release, which I’m already eager to revisit, as it’s renewed my appreciation for these timeless beauties, just as its given classic movie lovers the best Halloween season in recent memory. 

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