Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Oct 05, 2012
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Director

Various

Release Date(s)

1931-1954 (October 2, 2012)

Studio(s)

Universal

Review

Studios don’t really have personalities or identities anymore. Today, we think of the major studios as divisions of larger corporations, weighing risks and seeking to deliver a profitable product. Disney is kind of an exception but their identity is so firmly entrenched that they could start producing nothing but hard-R torture porn and people would still remember them as a family-friendly studio.

But in the early days of Hollywood, studios were frequently best-known for specific types of movies. Everyone did a little of everything but their reputation’s were built on a certain genre. MGM meant great musicals. Warner Bros. became known for gritty gangster pictures like The Public Enemy. And Universal, of course, was the home of the monsters.

Fans have been hoping Universal’s Monsters would hit Blu-ray for years but for awhile, the prospects looked iffy at best. Fortunately, the studio’s 100th Anniversary prompted a major restoration effort which has already given us such stellar discs as All Quiet on the Western Front and Jaws. Now, it’s the monsters turn to shamble into the high-def spotlight. Let’s take a disc-by-disc tour through The Essential Collection.

 

Disc One - Dracula

Universal first hit box-office gold with Bram Stoker’s undying bloodsucker, indelibly portrayed by Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. In recent years, the movie’s reputation has suffered somewhat, tagged as stagy and over-the-top. Some of that’s true to an extent. It is an early talkie, after all, and fake bats on fishing wires lost their ability to frighten many moons ago.

But for many, Lugosi IS Dracula and with good reason. His performance, often unfairly described as campy, is unlike anything audiences had seen before. From the moment he appears on screen and introduces himself in that thick Hungarian accent, he establishes himself as a weird, otherworldly presence different from everyone else around him. Dwight Frye is genuinely creepy as the deranged Renfield and Browning’s direction is, for the most part, surprisingly subtle. Lugosi’s Dracula may have lost some of his ability to terrify but his ability to entrance and entertain remains undimmed.

Universal has given Dracula a full-scale digital restoration and the results are simply astonishing. The movie comes alive with breathtaking clarity and superb detail. Film grain has been thoughtfully preserved, so it doesn’t look like you’re watching a wax museum’s chamber of horrors. The DTS-HD mono sound has been sweetened, removing aural hiss and pops, leaving behind a crystal-clear soundtrack.

Extras kick off with the simultaneously-shot Spanish-language version of Dracula, also given the same restoration and looking just as pristine. Many feel that director George Melford’s version is superior to Browning’s film. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s definitely a fascinating take on the material. Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten remake of Psycho was intended as an experiment in filming the same screenplay with different casts and crews. It’s a failed experiment that isn’t worth watching. Melford’s Dracula is essentially a better-executed version of the same general idea.

Most of the extras in this set are ported over from Universal’s previous DVD releases of the films, including the original 1999 Classic Monster Collection, the 2004 Legacy Collection, and the 2006 Legacy series releases of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. As near as I can tell, the only previously released extras that are missing are the brief featurettes with director Stephen Sommers from the 2004 editions meant mainly to promote his monster mash Van Helsing. I don’t consider this to be a great loss but if you’re a Sommers fan, I guess you’ll want to hang on to those.

Specific extras on Dracula include audio commentaries by David J. Skal and Steve Haberman, an alternate score by Philip Glass performed by Kronos Quartet, Skal’s documentary The Road to Dracula, a biographical featurette called Bela Lugosi: The Dark Prince, a trailer gallery of all four movies in the original Dracula cycle, and the extensive Dracula Archives. New to the Blu-ray is a brief but interesting piece on the restoration and a subtitled trivia option called Monster Tracks (at least, I think that’s new. I couldn’t find it on any of the previous DVD versions I had access to.)

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A

 

Disc Two - Frankenstein

For their next trick, Universal turned from the supernatural to science. Director James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein became every bit as much of a phenomenon as Dracula, thanks primarily to Boris Karloff as the creature. As magnetic and memorable as Lugosi was as Dracula, there was still room for other actors, notably Christopher Lee, to come along later and stake a claim on the character (pun begrudgingly intended). But with Frankenstein’s Monster, everyone else takes a backseat to Karloff.

In combination with Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, Karloff created a creature audiences could both fear and pity at the same time. Whale’s direction is somewhat livelier than Browning’s, filled with wit and macabre flourishes. Colin Clive gives a memorable performance as the not-quite-100%-mad-yet scientist and Dwight Frye turns in another great supporting turn as the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz. Everything comes together to make a true classic of the genre. Whale’s movie is so permanently etched in our collective psyche that it’s little wonder that English professors introduce Shelley’s novel to their students by first warning them that it’s virtually nothing like what they probably expect.

Universal’s restoration team deserves high marks for this effort as well. The picture looks lovely with deep, inky blacks and fine attention to detail. The audio isn’t quite as revelatory as on Dracula, with some hiss and distortion evident at times, but it certainly sounds better than previous releases.

Extras include audio commentaries by Rudy Behlmer and Sir Christopher Frayling, the David J. Skal documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, the biographical documentary Boris Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Kevin Brownlow’s 95-minute documentary Universal Horror, the short film Boo!, the Frankenstein Archives, and a trailer gallery featuring the five movies of the original Frankenstein cycle. The Blu-ray also includes another Monster Tracks trivia option and the generic featurette Restoring the Classics, which has already appeared on a few Universal 100th Anniversary releases.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/A

 

Disc Three - The Mummy

Karloff again allowed himself to be subjected to hours of Jack Pierce makeup for his role as Imhotep, the disgraced Egyptian priest returned to a semblance of life centuries later. I was a bit annoyed when Universal remade The Mummy as more of a supernatural adventure movie in the 90s. When I was younger, this was one of the few Universal horror movies that legitimately gave me the creeps. Revisited years later, the debt it owes to the script of Dracula is a little more apparent but it still has some fine moments.

Much of the credit for that belongs to the atmospheric direction of Karl Freund, one of a handful of pictures helmed by the legendary cinematographer. The story of The Mummy may not hold many surprises but it doesn’t really matter because the movie’s all about mood. Most of the horror lurks in the shadows and in the piercing stare of Karloff’s eyes. It’s also one of Universal’s sexier horror movies, thanks to the sensual Zita Johann as the object of Karloff’s affections. The Mummy may not boast as many iconic, unforgettable moments as its predecessors but it remains a dark delight.

As far as I know, The Mummy did not receive the same level of restorative attention as Dracula and Frankenstein. But you wouldn’t know it from the disc. It’s a pleasure to examine the fine details of Karloff’s wrinkled visage. Audio quality is a step up from previous editions, sounding clear if occasionally low and muffled.

Extras on this disc include one of the set’s best audio commentaries by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Brent Armstrong and collector, historian and all-around wonderful human being Bob Burns. The second audio commentary is by Paul M. Jensen. Other bonus features include the Skal documentary Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unleashed, the featurette He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, the brief Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy, a trailer gallery of the five Mummy movies and The Mummy Archives. The 100 Years of Universal featurette, The Carl Laemmle Era, is worth a look but is also featured on previous 100th Anniversary discs.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio): A-/B+/A-

 

Disc Four - The Invisible Man

In 1933, Universal introduced their first human monster. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) was no vampire or stitched together cadaver. He was a scientist looking to unlock the secret of invisibility. But after he cracked it, figuring out how to reverse the effects and hold on to his sanity proved to be a far more difficult challenge.

Once again directed by James Whale, working from the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man gives Rains one of the best movie entrances of all time: staggering into a pub from out of a blinding snowstorm, his head encased in bandages and sporting a fake nose and a killer pair of sunglasses. He may be human but he’s presented as otherworldly and monstrous from the get-go. Rains makes a huge impact in his first American film, despite the fact that we don’t see his face until the very end. And the special effects, still impressive almost 80 years later, must have blown audiences’ minds in 1933. Most invisible person movies are, let’s face it, not very good. Whale succeeds in treating the subject with wit, suspense and imagination.

For the most part, The Invisible Man looks excellent on Blu-ray. At its best, it’s on par with the other discs in the set. There are a few moments where the source material reveals its age but nothing to get too worked up about. The audio quality is clean and even throughout, nicely cleaned up for high-def.

Bonus features on this disc include an audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, Skal’s documentary Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, and a gallery of production photographs. The trailer gallery is a little stingy on this disc, covering just two sequels: The Invisible Man Returns and Invisible Agent. It’s disappointing that trailers weren’t included for the original film, The Invisible Woman or The Invisible Man’s Revenge. The 100 Years of Universal featurette is an eminently skippable promotional piece called Unforgettable Characters that appears on many other 100th Anniversary discs.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/C+


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