Since the era of silent movies through present day, Universal Pictures has always been known as the home for the greatest movie monsters. This review will showcase a collection of 8 of the greatest, most iconic movie monsters every enshrined on celluloid by Universal Pictures and Carl Laemmle and his son: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933 ), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), The Phantom of the Opera (1943), and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954). All have been painstakingly remastered from the original film stock and rendered in full high definition 1080p. All films are in their original 1.33:1 format with the exception of The Creature From the Black Lagoon, which is in 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The audio has been re-master into DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono and they all sound fantastic. The Collection has over 12 hours of bonus features, some in 1080p and some in standard def that was culled from previous DVD releases. Also included is a 48 page collectible booklet with pictures, posters and trivia.
Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Elsa Lanchester, Collin Clive and Dwight Frye in the performances that made them famous, these original films set the standard for horror movies that has not been surpassed even by modern film monsters today. With revolutionary make-up, mood-altering cinematography and amazing groundbreaking special effects, these films have been imitated (and lampooned), but never equaled. Think of how many kids will be trick-or-treating this year dressed as one of these characters but have never actually seen the original films their costumed creations were patterned after. My brother and I grew up watching these films on Saturday nights in the Chicago area while watching a TV series called Creature Features. We also subscribed to Famous Filmland Monsters magazine.These monsters were a big and exciting part of our childhood…almost like family, by golly! With this newly minted blu-ray collection, a whole new generation of people can be re-introduced to the greatest monsters ever conceived by Hollywood, and those of us who grew up on these films are blessed with the ability to finally see them like never before, in high definition!
Starring: Bela Lugosi, David Manners and Dwight Frye
Directed by Tod Browning
Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
First out of the box (literally) is actually a twofer. As the English version was shot by day, a Spanish version (included) was shot after hours. Artistically, the Spanish version has some better shots and staging than the English version, but Lugosi nails the role as a vampire that moves from Transylvania to England in search of new blood, so to speak. Be sure to check out the bonus feature on how this movie was “borrowed back” from the Library of Congress so it could be restored and re-master for this high def transfer. The process for the restoration is detailed and quite fascinating. When you see the comparison of the original nitrate stock vs. the restored version, you will be amazed by the wonderful results.
Thank you Universal for going through the extra work to make these films look as good as they do for future generations. The sound exhibits some minor hiss, but the clarity is great. The Kronos Quartet plays a secondary music track by Phillip Glass that is in DTS-MA stereo that is worth a listen. Suffice it to say, Dracula has never looked or sounded this well, probably ever. The amount of detail is stunning in this picture. Only a few frames show wear or a soft focus. Contrast is very good with inky blacks and brilliant whites. Much of the original film grain is present and it enhances the film like quality of the movie. Frye plays the demented Harker brilliantly. Laemmle will re-cycle him into other movies in this collection and he brings his fine acting skills to bare in all of them.
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye
Directed by James Whale
Length: 1 hour 11 minutes
Less than a year later and riding on the great success of Dracula, Frankenstein is released with a tall, thin Karloff as the titular man-made man. Karloff had to endure long painful session with make-up artist, Jack Pierce. Using cotton, spirit gum and an early form of plastic, Pierce created an amazing creature face that allowed Karloff to express himself without being encumbered with a latex mask. A new face had to be created from scratch each day of filming.
The result was a visage that could strike terror in an audience and yet convey heart wrenching pathos. One of the wonderful aspects of this film is the mood that the sets create. The stylized sets reflect the influence of German impressionistic film making of the time (ala Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and others), and the lighting and angular shadows give the movie a little extra “creep” factor. I was pleased to see the censored “drowning scene” was restored to this film, even though it exhibits a loss of quality when compared to the rest of the movie. Overall, the same detailed picture is seen here as in Dracula, but few of the early scenes in the graveyard are a bit noisy and grainy. Sound is crisp with every guttural groan from the monster distinctly heard over the raging storm outside. I have never seen this film look this good before and it was a complete revelation.
Starring: Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners
Directed by Karl Freund
Length: 1 hour 14 minutes
Next, we have the story that mingles ageless love and horror. Interestingly, Karloff as a bandaged wrapped priest who is eternally cursed only appears briefly in the first 10 minutes of the movie. We never see him walk around except as Ardath Bey, the 3,700 year old “unwrapped” antagonist. Again, the mummy make-up is provided by Pierce and it looks phenomenal. He took the time consuming route of wrapping Karloff in individual bandages of aged linen and the effect is very realistic. As Bey, Karloff’s face was painted in stretched latex which gives his face a aged, wrinkled appearance…a technique still used today when CGI is shunned.
Several sequels were made with various actors in latex face masks (Lon Chaney Jr. being the most prominent) that chose not to go through the ordeal of Pierce’s meticulous process. The results were inferior to the original, in my opinion. Again, the picture is great looking with only a few scenes fuzziness, but considering the shape of the original stock, I can’t fault the BD transfer. Sound has some noise, but is overall clean with some surprising dynamic range.
The Bride of Frankenstein
Starring: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester
Directed by James Whale
Length: 1 hour 12 minutes
I have always considered this sequel to edge out the original in both production value, acting and set design. The story begins one stormy night with Lanchester portraying Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, telling a new tale to her friends. She later reappears, of course, as the bride of the monster in her tale. Her hair was bound up onto a wire cage and the lighting bolt white streak is simply iconic. Only during her head tilt angle, do we the audience notice the scars that remind us of her true origin, the graveyard. Take THAT look, lady Gaga!
In keeping with the theme of man usurping God’s authority in creating life, God says, “It is not good for man to be alone!”, so Dr. Frankenstein is coerced into going back into the laboratory to create a companion for the monster he created earlier. This time Karloff’s character can speak and his monster becomes even more malevolent, yet still a pathetic creature that the audience can relate with. When at the end he says, “We belong dead!”, you can not help but agree with him. But of course, old monsters never die. They are simply re-born into sequels. After this film, the Frankenstein monster evolves into a barrel chested strong man that is played by Lugosi, Chaney, Glenn Strange and other lesser known actors. None compare to Karloff, though. The film is wonderfully clean and sharp. Every scar and stitch on Karloff’s face looks beautiful. The sound quality is better than the earlier Frankenstein with clear dialog and interesting music to help set the mood. This is the movie to see on Halloween eve!
The Invisible Man
Starring: Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers
Directed by James Whale
Length: 1 hour 12 minutes
Adapted from a book by H.G. Wells, this “monster” is a creation of a science experiment gone wrong. Experimenting with a dangerous drug, Rains turns himself invisible…and eventually mad. Thinking he is destined to take over the world (why would you want to, any way?), he creates mayhem and terror throughout the English countryside. It does bring up the idea of having a super power. Some interesting character actors are presented in this film which adds a bit of humor and slap stick. This film launched Rains as a star. He appears in the Phantom as well as Casablanca and many other films. Talk about range! Karloff was considered for this role, but the part calls for a distinctive “voice’ as the actor is only seen at the last minute of the movie. Karloff’s voice would have been wrong. See if you recognize Mr. Frye in this picture as well as the man who played Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life, too.
Again, we have a blemish free, sharp picture that looks stunning on BD. You can now see the wires used in some of the special effects. Sound is excellent as well. The camera technique employed here likes to put into soft focus things in the fore ground and background. The special effects on how the invisible man was created are quite fascinating. Be sure to check out the bonus features here on how they made Rains invisible. Cutting edge stuff from back then.
The Wolf Man
Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Warren William
Directed by George Waggner
Length: 1 hour 15 minutes
A wonderful tale that will have you howling because of the fine, detailed picture and sound. Pierce came up with a technique of applying Yak hair slowly to Chaney’s face with time lapse cinematography to astound the audience into watching the transformation of a man into a wolf. The process was slow and painful, but the results were sooo worth it. I always felt these techniques were more organic than the CGI transformations in modern films. They seemed more real and thus, more scary!
It took hours of Chaney sitting in the same spot while the application process took place. Frankly, the effect is more thrilling to me than any CGI version I have ever seen (except, perhaps An American Werewolf in London, which used prosthetics). Pierce broke down and had a latex nose made up for this monster. By the time we get to Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Wolf Man’s face is an applied mask. (By the way, that flick is the only other time Lugosi ever played Dracula). The details revealed in this film are too numerous to describe. The hair on the Wolf Man, the detailed inlay of the silver cane, and textures in clothing and surroundings. Sound is clean with spooky effects all place squarely on the screen. You can not fully appreciate the improved picture until you compare it to the DVD version. Wowzers!
The Phantom of the Opera
Starring: Claude Rains, Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster
Directed by Arthur Lubin
Length: 1 hour 29 minutes
This is the only color film in this collection. Though the production value is high, I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Lon Chaney Sr. version. Chaney did his own make-up in that one. Rains does justice to the title character and his “reveal” is fairly dramatic, but the film drags just a bit. The technicolor looks pretty good, with solid, vibrant colors in the costumes. I did notice some minor greenish halo effects and occasional specks in certain scenes, but overall, the picture really pops. The sets exude details and the contrast provides plenty of depth. Sound is strong with just a hint of distortion in the higher registrations, but overall a nice sound presentation.
One can see how this story can lend itself into a musical. At it’s heart, this is a love story akin to Beauty and the Beast, only it doesn’t end very well for the Phantom. There is just something about black-n-white film that adds to the mood which color can’t quite capture. In all fairness, the scarred face would not have translated well in B/W as it does in Technicolor.
As “horrible” as Rains looks, Chaney presented us with “the face of naked fear” like no other actor before or after. His self-applied make-up earned him the moniker: “The Man of a Thousand faces”.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon
Starring: Richard Carison, Julia Adams
Directed by Jack Arnold
Length: 1 hour 18 minutes
Now it is time for Nature to provide us a monster. With some pretty decent underwater photography, this film warns mankind of the dangers of venturing into the unknown. The “gill man” is a prehistoric throw back that defends his territory from the scientific team of invaders. You sort of feel sorry for him. He never asked to have visitors. It’s sort of like a commentary on the white man’s conquest of the American West. Why do we have to conquer everyone we meet? Anyway, the creature’s suit looks a lot better and more realistic than countless other underwater monster that were to follow. Even the eyes look “fishy”. He looked menacing on land and terrifying in the water. Shot in crystal clear waters in Florida, this film looks very good, even though it did not get the same treatment as Dracula.
The sequels were fairly successful too, but I found this story more interesting. You also get the bonus of having this movie in 3D if you have the equipment for it. Several 3D movies were released in the 50’s, but it did not last long in theaters. It succumbed to the advent of the television in the home. Go figure…
Jack Pierce: The man who made monsters
Be sure to check out the bonus material on the life of Jack Pierce. His ingenious techniques and attention to detail brought these creations to life. He died in obscurity with only a handful of mourners at his funeral. A sad ending to such a great legacy. I felt the need to put in a word for Jack at this point. He was one of the fathers of the “make-up arts”, and sadly by the time the 50’s rolled around his art gave way to cheaper latex appliances and quicker methods. Gone, but not forgotten, his artistry lives on in the Classic Monsters of Universal.
Thanks for the memories, Mr. Pierce!
Well, there you have it. If you love cinema or monster movies, this is a “must have” collection that looks fantastic and will bring you films to watch on Halloween for years to come. Share them with your kids and friends. They need to experience these icons of horror from a by-gone era, too. No tricks here…only treats! Highly recommended.