October 17, 2012

universal monsters dracula bela lugosi

It’s hard to overestimate the impact of Universal’s classic monster movies. They brought the themes and techniques of German Expressionism straight to Hometown U.S.A. and forever defined our notion of horror movies in the process. Every Halloween decoration ever made owes them some debt. Every onscreen boogeyman and misunderstood outcast can trace their roots back to them. They’ve become so ingrained in pop culture that we scarcely acknowledge their existence anymore… save during moments like this one, when they make the leap onto a new medium. As part of their 100th anniversary celebration, Universal has packaged eight of them into an “Essentials” Blu-ray collection, a handsome set that nonetheless stumbles into a number of expected pitfalls. Hit the jump for my full review.

universal-pictures-100th-anniversary-logoThe films themselves are above reproach (at least most of them are; more on that in a bit) and the Blu-ray release does them justice with beautiful, eye-popping transfers that capture every bit of their gorgeous imagery. The difficulty arises more from what we don’t see than what we do.

When it comes to extra features, the each disc includes the contents of the “Universal Legacy” collection from 2004 – the same docs, the same commentaries, the same bells and whistles on each one – along with a small handful of new materials that help justify the double-dipping.

However, while the “Legacy” DVDs each included a fistful of sequels and lesser Universal horror movies of the era, these new Blu-rays leave them out. The various “Son ofs”, “House ofs” and “Return ofs” have all been left behind. (Bride of Frankenstein constitutes the sole exception, of course, and the Spanish language version of Dracula is included as well.) Casual fans and newcomers won’t miss them – frankly speaking, they’re not very good – but for hardcore horror lovers eager to see these films on Blu-ray, their absence creates a palpable sting. Considering how much each of the Legacy DVDs cost, and considering the $160 price tag for this one, Universal could have done better for those most likely to pick this up.

Of course, that may fall by the wayside when one looks at the movies themselves – truly gorgeous and presented with the reverence their status deserves. They’re presented in a slip-disc booklet with a high-gloss finish, similar to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones Blu-ray collections. The set also includes a booklet featuring artwork and biographies of the key players, as well as a solid case to hold it all.

We’re going to look at each movie one by one, including a brief discussion of the special features on each disc.



universal dracula posterTod Browning’s seminal masterpiece probably won’t scare modern viewers the way it did back in 1931, but its undeniable creepiness remains intact. Browning had to infer a lot of the sexuality and violence – a fact which becomes all the more apparent when comparing it to the Spanish language version shot at the same time. It suffered under far less censorship than its American cousin and could explore the character’s seductive qualities more overtly. Even so, Bela Lugosi trumps a huge number of those limitations, with his hypnotic gaze and unsettling sensuality that defined the character for generations. Browning used inference and suggestion to incredible effect, and while I confess I prefer 1919’s Nosferatu, the power on display here set the bar for the long line of chillers that followed.

The disc itself mirrors earlier DVD versions of the film, with a few tasty extras. Besides the Spanish-language version and an alternate soundtrack composed by Philip Glass, it contains a previously release documentary, “The Road to Dracula,” a poster/photo montage, and an audio commentary from film historian David Skal. New material includes an interesting 30-minute doc about Lugosi, trivia pop-ups and short piece detailing its restoration for the 21st century.



universal frankenstein posterWith Dracula under its belt, Universal quickly turned to Mary Shelley’s tale to follow up on their success. Director James Whale – a closeted homosexual with a keen insight into what it meant to be different – proved an ideal choice for the material, and since he had done nothing but war pictures before then, he was eager to branch out into a different genre. The film departs from Shelley’s story in a number of ways: particularly the abnormal brain received by the Monster, rendering him a hulking mute. But Whale latches upon the essence of it, with Colin Clive’s doctor too blinded by his ambitions to realize what he’s doing and the soulful, innocent monster forced to pay for his mistakes. Boris Karloff shows no signs of the campy overfamiliarity which pop culture ultimately placed on his performance. The haunted pain in his eyes and ferocity of his snarl can still cause more than a few sleepless nights.

Extra features, again, mimic the earlier DVD versions, with the established docs, trailers, posters and comments from the Legacy version available here. A new feature about Karloff and a 90-minute movie detailing Universal’s horror history are included, along with a new audio commentary and a superfluous short about the studio’s overall restoration projects.


The Mummy

Fans of the more recent Brendan Fraser film will spot familiar DNA in the threads of this one. The villain bears the same name – Im-Ho-Tep – and has machinations on the lovely heroine (Zita Johann), who appears to be his reincarnated lover. The similarities end there, of course, with this version using much more low-tech tools to achieve its scares. As with Frankenstein, however, Karloff proves an unbeatable trump card: combining the mute, lurching terror of his Monster with the more cerebral machinations of later performances.

Make-up legend Jack Pierce serves as the focus of the disc’s new documentary, along with a short piece on The Mummy’s creators and another short on Universal founder Carl Laemmle. Material ported over from the DVD includes an older doc about the film, the expected gallery of trailers and posters, and an audio commentary from historian Paul M. Jensen. The highlight of the disc is a second audio track with a gaggle of commentators, including the legendary Rick Baker.


The Invisible Man

universal the invisible man posterWhale returned for the second of his three films in this collection, this time with an adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic. It doesn’t quite rank among the greatest Universal monster movies, but it still scores with solid drama and a great deal of respect for the source material. Claude Rains does wonders with the part, which called upon him to cover his face for most of the film. The special effects, too, hold up remarkably well, utilizing matting and a black velvet suit to place Rains’ “invisible” body in the scene. Like King Kong released the same year, the effects carry a sense of personality lacking in more sophisticated efforts, helping us feel the character’s madness and cruelty in painstaking detail.

Additional features are comparatively sparse, limited to a single documentary about the film, a photograph gallery, trailers, an audio commentary, and a self-serving short about memorable Universal characters.


The Bride of Frankenstein

March took some convincing to return to the world of Frankenstein, but he finally relented in 1935. He also had the wherewithal to inject a heaping amount of camp into the story, as a reluctant Dr. Frankenstein finds himself beholden to the sinister Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) in the creation of the Monster’s mate. Clive – who died two years later of alcohol-related tuberculosis – is suitably tormented as his doctor slowly succumbs to obsession, while Karloff once again makes us ache with pity for the Monster. In the meantime, the film’s arch tone and knowing winks give it a decidedly different atmosphere than its predecessor, as well as evoking the spirit of Mary Shelley herself (played by Elsa Lanchester as bookend to her all-too-brief appearance as the Bride.)

Joe Dante headlines the disc’s behind-the-scenes documentary “She’s Alive!,” ported over from the DVD. The poster archives, trailers and audio commentary all come straight from the DVD too. Only another generic short detailing Universal’s restoration process is new.


The Wolf Man

universal the wolf man posterWith a decade of success under its belt, Universal’s horror line demonstrated a well-earned maturity with The Wolf Man. It explored fairly complex plot lines in its tale of an estranged nobleman (Lon Chaney, Jr.) who returns home only to suffer a bite from a wolf attack and transform into a werewolf on the next full moon. Chaney hams it up more than Karloff did, but still finds the pain and tragedy the character needs. With the likes of Rains and Lugosi in support, the film develops a thoughtfulness that stands among the very best of the Universal line. (Chaney was also the only one of Universal’s stars who had no compunctions about returning to his signature role; he played it four more times in the course of his career.)

The extra material follows the same pattern as the rest of the film, with a new documentary about Chaney and a shorter piece about the evolution of lycanthropy as a myth. The generic feature covers the Universal backlot, and the Jack Pierce doc from The Mummy is duplicated here. The rest all comes from the DVD: an original doc hosted by John Landis, audio commentary from historian Tom Weaver, and the expected poster/trailer archives.


Phantom of the Opera

“For a burn victim, he’s got a lot of hair,” my wife said idly while we watched Phantom of the Opera. The statement is a microcosm for everything that’s wrong with this movie: the only legitimate boner in the bunch. Claude Rains stars as the misshapen monster – here a former violinist – who prowls the Paris Opera House seeking revenge for those who wronged him. It features a lot of harum-scarum melodrama, shot in garish Technicolor that robs the screen of any atmosphere. Director Arthur Lubin demonstrates some storytelling prowess – avoiding the non-sequiturs of the silent version – but the film loses the pretense of chills in favor of opulent set designs and costuming. Perhaps most damning, Rains’ performance never reaches the depths of passion and pain the Lon Chaney conjured so beautifully in the silent 1925 version.  Why Universal couldn’t include the earlier film instead of this one is absolutely beyond me.

Perhaps sensing its runt-of-the-litter qualities, Universal kept the special features to a minimum: one doc from the DVD, audio commentary and archives, along with a repeat of the backlot feature from The Wolf Man.


The Creature from the Black Lagoon

creature from the black lagoon posterCreature represents an interesting bridge between two eras of horror movies. It was released in 1954, long after the other Universal horror films had become the stuff of farce. It appeared alongside alien invaders and giant bugs, reflecting the fears of the atomic age instead of the Gothic horrors of the 1930s. And it was originally released in 3-D, a feature endemic of 1950s horror. Yet, it feels much more of a kind with those earlier films, with a normal-sized monster as sympathetic as he is scary, and an origin in a hidden corner of the world rather than a nuclear test site.

Beyond that, the film is a stone groove: deftly blending the 30s and the 50s into a hugely entertaining final package. Julia Adams can still stop traffic with that white swimsuit, and the Creature himself remains eerily convincing despite his obvious status as a guy in a rubber suit. The extra features include a 3-D version of the film (available only to those with the right equipment), as well as the documentary, audio commentary and archive from the Legacy collection DVD.

Is it all worth it? For hardcore fans, most definitely. The upgraded images are too good and the set too handsomely presented not to recommend. But the new content is a little sparse, and the set still lacks those other, lesser movies. I wouldn’t get rid of my Legacy DVDs just yet, and more’s the shame for it. The set comes highly recommended… just don’t be surprised if Universal tries to pass off an even bigger set – with the missing movies – before too much time goes by.

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