DirectorRowland V. Lee/George Waggner/Albert S. Rogell/George Waggner
Release Date(s)1939/1941/1941/1941 (December 17, 2019)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B
- Overall Grade: B+
Scream Factory continues where they left off with their previous Universal Horror Collection, this time providing us with a variety of horror and mystery films from 1939 to 1941. The four films include Tower of London, directed by Rowland V. Lee (Son of Frankenstein); Man Made Monster, directed by George Waggner (The Wolf Man); The Black Cat, directed by Albert S. Rogell (of The Lone Wolf series); and Horror Island, also directed by George Waggner. These movies make up the Blu-ray release Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3.
1939’s Tower of London tells the tale of Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), who attempts to destroy the members of monarchy above him to ascend to the throne of England. In his way are his brother and sitting ruler King Edward IV (Ian Hunter), also brother and Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price), Queen Elizabeth (Barbara O’Neil), and the King and Queen’s newly-born heirs. Assisting him in his diabolical scheme is Mord (Boris Karloff), a club-footed monster of a man who sees Richard as both God and rightful ruler, doing anything asked of him. Privy to Richard’s plans is John (John Wyatt), who goes to France seeking help, but his efforts may be in vain as Richard has the royal family done away with quickly without arising suspicion. Nan Grey, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Ralph Forbes, Rose Hobart, and Ernest Cossart fill out the rest of the cast.
Tower of London is a surprisingly effective historical suspense thriller. Although not overtly horrific as most of it is implied, it’s wonderful cast deliver fine performances, including Basil Rathbone’s turn as the cold and methodical Richard III and Vincent Price’s scene-stealing Duke of Clarence. Boris Karloff also gives a sinister yet human performance as Richard’s murderous assistant, which was Karloff’s strong suit. The film also pays more attention to historical accuracy rather than relying on Shakespeare's famous interpretation. Shot by George Robinson, who also filmed Son of Dracula and Son of Frankenstein, there is ample opportunity for strong visuals with many great uses of staging and lighting. Though there are a few too many characters to keep track of, it’s a solid effort, and includes an escape sequence that could rival even the greatest of Hitchcock's oeuvre.
Man Made Monster from 1941 brings Lon Chaney, Jr. into the horror genre for the first time with a simple but traditional story about a man named Dan (Chaney) who has built up an immunity to electricity after exposure to it on a regular basis in a traveling carnival show. Following a bus accident in which the passengers are tragically electrocuted to death, Dan’s miraculous survival catches the attention of imminent scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who convinces Dan to come back to his estate for further study. Assisting him is Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill), who has an unhealthy obsession with proving that men can be turned into super soldiers through exposure to electricity, and is only too eager to experiment on Dan when Dr. Lawrence isn’t around. He eventually turns Dan into a mindless monster, supercharged with electricity that is deadly to the touch. Meanwhile, Dan struggles to reclaim his humanity and resist the will of Rigas.
The story of Man Made Monster, at least in concept, is not much different than many other run-of-the-mill monster movies from the 1940s all the way up to the present day: a mad scientist experiments on a young man and turns him into a monster. In that sense, there isn’t much to the film’s story other than what’s on the surface. It moves fairly quickly and gets through its plot succinctly. The electric glow effect on Dan is also more successfully implemented than what was done to Boris Karloff’s character in The Invisible Ray, blending into the scenes without a severe loss of quality. Interestingly, the film was originally meant to feature Karloff as the mad scientist during its development, and possibly Bela Lugosi inhabiting the role of Dan. Regardless, it has all of the hallmarks of a laid-back, easy-going horror yarn from this era, offering very few shocks or scares.
That same year also saw the release of The Black Cat, which has nothing to do with the original Edgar Allan Poe story outside of the title and the presence of an inky-coated feline. In the film, an estranged family has assembled at the estate of Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus), awaiting her death and hoping to learn the details of her will. All of them suddenly become suspects when Henrietta is murdered, including Montague (Basil Rathbone), Elaine (Anne Gwynne), Claire (Margaret Gordon), and Richard (Alan Ladd). Also amongst the potential murderers are the groundskeeper Eduardo (Bela Lugosi) and the housemaid Abigail (Gale Sondergaard). It’s now up to the newly-arrived potential buyers of the house, Hubert (Broderick Crawford) and Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), to discover who the culprit is before they’re bumped off for interfering.
In all fairness, The Black Cat comes from a particular lineage of mystery films that began in the 1920s, known affectionately as “Old Dark House” films. By the time they reached the 1940s, they were basically murder mysteries with a bit of comedy and romance thrown in to spice them up. Some hold up better than others, depending on their execution, and The Black Cat holds up decently. Hugh Herbert’s low-key puns and attempts at slapstick can be eye-rolling at times, particularly when he interrupts the flow of the plot, but the atmosphere provides plenty of support for it to continue. The implications of what might have happened at the conclusion had it not been prevented is certainly one of the more diabolical ideas in one of these old-fashioned whodunits. It’s far from a perfect murder mystery, with the eventual reveal of the killer feeling more like a letdown than not, but it’s intriguing enough to hold one’s attention until the end.
Last but not least is Horror Island, also released in 1941. When a peg-legged sailor named Tobias (Leo Carillo) drops in on Bill (Dick Foran) and his assistant Stuff (Fuzzy Knight)—two down-on-their-luck businessmen in need of cash to pay off bill collectors—he tells them of coming into possession of half of an honest-to-goodness treasure map. The map claims that the legendary plunder is located on a deserted island, an island that Bill happens to own. He initially scoffs at the idea of going on a wild goose chase for imaginary riches, but after the bill collectors come calling, a mysterious phantom (Foy Van Dolsen) attempts to steal the map, and his cousin George (John Eldridge) tries to buy the island from him, he decides to try and make a profit off of the island as a “haunted” tourist attraction. Coming with them is Bill’s potential love interest Wendy (Peggy Moran), her friend Thurman (Lewis Howard), a private investigator (Walter Catlett), a bickering couple with a secret agenda (Ralf Harolde and Iris Adrian), and a cooky professor (Hobart Cavanaugh). Once there, the ten of them discover that strange things are afoot inside the island’s castle.
Like The Black Cat, Horror Island is full of extremely common tropes of the mystery and horror genres: a group of strangers arrive at an old castle and everything from bats to suits of armor attempt to do them in, and the one behind it all is unknown. In the case of Horror Island, it’s actually a bit more clever than most, giving a red herring right up front and paying it off with a character who you wouldn’t believe would be capable of trying to do away with anybody. Dick Foran and Peggy Moran, who had just come off of making The Mummy’s Hand, make for a great onscreen couple while most of the cast is generally likable. The film is also fairly well shot, even though it was only completed in two weeks. It brings nothing particularly new to the table, but as far as genre movies of its ilk are concerned, Horror Island is a slight cut above.
Scream Factory brings the four films to Blu-ray for the first time, presenting them on separate discs. Tower of London is advertised as coming from a “new 2K scan of a fine grain print.” It’s a lovely black and white presentation, which is clean and free of any major debris aside from a few lines and minor speckling. Because it’s sourced from a print, it’s also slightly soft, and frame transitions are the least appealing moments that it offers. There’s also strong detail on clothing and facial features, as well as healthy grayscale. Blacks aren’t perfect, as they are occasionally crushed, but brightness and contrast levels are ideal. It’s also stable outside of a brief bit of wobble during the opening titles.
For Man Made Monster, an older transfer has been utilized. It’s not quite as solid as the previous presentation, but it holds its own. There are frequent scratches and speckling throughout, though it’s relatively clean otherwise. There’s also a bit of light wobble and uneven emulsion. Grayscale isn’t entirely smooth either, but black levels are slightly improved. Detail is adequate, though not as prevalent as its predecessor, while brightness and contrast levels are satisfactory.
The Black Cat is also sourced from an older transfer, but is the least of the three presentations. It’s not totally natural as it appears to be a bit too clean, meaning that filtering and DNR have been applied to it. Grain is mostly absent, sharpening up detail but giving it a somewhat inorganic look. It’s not a major offender though as grayscale is excellent and black levels are fairly deep. Some leftover print damage is evident in a few scenes, but it appears to have been cleaned up as much as possible. Brightness and contrast levels are ideal and everything appears stable.
The presentation of Horror Island is also sourced from an older transfer, though it fares much better comparitively. It appears more natural with more obvious grain and levels of fine detail. Grayscale is merely decent, though blacks are a bit on the crushed side due to the print source. The emulsion is much more even while brightness and contrast levels are acceptable. Leftover scratches, speckling, and occasional instability appear along the way, though the latter is negligible.
For the audio, each film is equipped with an English 2.0 mono DTS-HD track and optional subtitles in English SDH. Tower of London features clear and precise dialogue exchanges with an ample amount of support for the score. Sound effects occasionally have decent presence, particularly during battle scenes, though they tend to be a tad weak elsewhere. The track is also clean and free of any leftover hiss, crackle, thumps, dropouts, or distortion. Man Made Monster, The Black Cat, and Horror Island are similar, though they feature more apparent hiss and improved sound effects. All four tracks lack any major issues and represent their films well.
TOWER OF LONDON (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B/B
MAN MADE MONSTER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/C+/B-
THE BLACK CAT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/C+/B-
HORROR ISLAND (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B-/B-
The following extras are included on each disc:
DISC ONE (TOWER OF LONDON)
- Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman
- Still Gallery (HD – 42 in all – 3:06)
DISC TWO (MAN MADE MONSTER)
- Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Tom Weaver and Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr
- Still Gallery (HD – 25 in all – 1:53)
DISC THREE (THE BLACK CAT)
- Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Gary D. Rhodes
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 1:49)
- Still Gallery (HD – 59 in all – 4:20)
DISC FOUR (HORROR ISLAND)
- Audio Commentary by Filmmaker/Film Historian Ted Newsom
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 1:30)
- Still Gallery (HD – 25 in all – 1:53)
For Tower of London, Steve Haberman’s commentary offers his usual well-researched and thoughtful insight into the making of the film, as well an abundance of information about its cast and crew. The animated still gallery features 42 production stills, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. For Man Made Monster, Tom Weaver and Constantine Nasr provide an upbeat but very educational commentary as the two take turns to talk about the film, also allowing for occasional actor recreations of various cast and crew members. The animated still gallery features 25 production stills, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. For The Black Cat, Gary D. Rhodes takes up the commentary duties, delving into the film’s lack of ties to Edgar Allan Poe, as well as other factual information about the film’s history. The animated still gallery features 59 promotional photos, production stills, behind-the-scenes photos, lobby cards, and posters. For Horror Island, Ted Newsom enjoys the film mostly from a filmmaking perspective, commenting upon its pros and cons as it moves along. The animated still gallery features 25 production stills, promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. Also included in the package is a 12-page insert booklet featuring photos and information about each film, as well as a set of Blu-ray credits. Everything is housed in a four-disc amaray case within slipcase packaging.
If you’re a lover of vintage Universal horror, you likely don’t need any recommendations from me about picking up this wonderful set. Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 is an excellent assortment of films that have rarely been seen by modern movie fans. Making their Blu-ray debuts with some nice transfers, it’s certainly worth your time and money.
– Tim Salmons