Despite a serious threat from Britain's Hammer Films, no studio has ever done as much for the horror genre as Universal Pictures. At a time when Warner Bros. was producing gangster flicks, MGM was staging extravagant musicals, and every studio under the California sun had its fingers in Westerns, Universal primarily invested its stock in monsters. Even as early as the silent era, the outfit made its share of classy horror movies (and in the process turned Lon Chaney Sr. into a superstar), but it wasn't until the one-two punch of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931 that it became clear the studio was committed for the long haul.
Over the next quarter-century, the company released a staggering number of genuine classics of the genre. These films have continued to capture imaginations over the decades, first through theatrical re-releases, then on television, next on video, and subsequently on DVD. Now, just in time for Halloween, Universal brings many of these classic movies to Blu-ray. Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is a marvelous box set that harbors eight of the studio's most enduring horror flicks. Digitally restored, these movies exhibit a startling clarity in this high definition format, a perfect example of modern technology salvaging rather than savaging vintage fare. So track down a set, fire up the films in these final days of October, and join The Bride of Frankenstein's Dr. Pretorius in his toast "to a new world of gods and monsters!"
DRACULA (1931). Although they were both released in 1931, Dracula hasn't aged quite as well as Frankenstein. For one thing, the sound era was still in its infancy, and while most of the pictures of the time adjusted accordingly, this one is hampered by some overripe performances, florid prose and awkward pauses in conversations. Also, the movie was adapted not only from Bram Stoker's novel but also from a popular stage play then making the rounds, and the latter's influence is discernible in the talky (and creaky) second half. The first portion, however, is terrific: Set in Transylvania, it benefits from Bela Lugosi's introduction as the iconic vampire, Dwight Frye's turn as the crazed, fly-munching Renfield, director Todd Browning's inventive touches, and the exquisite sets created by Charles D. Hall (who would also work his magic on Frankenstein). It's when the action switches to England that the film bogs down, although Edward Van Sloan provides some lift to this stretch as the sage Dr. Van Helsing. ***
FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Hardly the letter of Mary Shelley's novel, this screen adaptation from director James Whale (who decades later was played by Ian McKellen in 1998's Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters) is nonetheless a rich and rewarding drama about a scientist (Colin Clive) who dares to enter God's domain by attempting to create his own human being. But when his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye again) steals a criminal brain instead of a well-adjusted one, the doctor finds himself with an unruly creature (Boris Karloff) on his hands. Under the ingenious makeup created and applied by studio artist Jack Pierce, Karloff is astonishing in a role that Lugosi had turned down, a decision that led to Karloff's ascendancy and Lugosi's decline. With his dialogue limited to a series of grunts and wails, Karloff still manages to portray the Monster as a tragic figure who doesn't comprehend the rules of the world around him. The potent scene (removed for decades but now available in all modern prints) in which he plays with a little girl still has the power to shock, not simply because it ends badly for the trusting child but for the simple-minded creature as well. ***1/2
THE MUMMY (1932). It's a real shame that when audiences today hear the word "mummy" in relation to cinema, they automatically think of that middling Brendan Fraser film and its imbecilic sequels. This version is the real deal, as Universal, thrilled that it now had a name actor in Boris Karloff, immediately thrust him into another monster movie that would endure as a genre staple. Karloff was so well-known, in fact, that posters for The Mummy dropped his first name and simply billed him as "Karloff the Uncanny." Karl Freund, the Oscar-winning cinematographer who had cut his teeth working on German expressionism flicks back in his home country during the silent era, had shot Dracula for the studio and was thus allowed to sit in the director's chair for this one. His feel for pervasive atmosphere is one of the greatest strengths in this yarn about the efforts of the revived Egyptian priest Im-Ho-Tep (Karloff) to locate the resurrection of his beloved princess (Zita Johann). The formidable makeup designs again came courtesy of the proficient Jack Pierce. ***1/2
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). After creating movie magic with Frankenstein and The Old Dark House (another Karloff vehicle), director James Whale again demonstrated his proclivity for the genre with this exciting adaptation of the H.G. Wells chestnut. The incomparable Claude Rains, in the role that made him a star, plays the title curiosity, a scientist whose latest serum allows him to turn invisible — and, in time, also transforms him into a dangerous lunatic. A grade-A production, this nevertheless contains one of my all-time favorite movie mistakes: During one sequence, we see — or rather, don't see — as the invisible man strips down to nothing to escape his pursuers. Yet as he dashes through the snow, we notice that his footprints are made by shoes, not by bare feet. Incidentally, the film's heroine is played by a then-23-year-old Gloria Stuart, known to contemporary audiences as Old Rose in James Cameron's Titanic (for those who were unaware, Ms. Stuart passed away two years ago, at the age of 100). ***1/2
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935). Horror sequels are generally dismissed — and rightly so — but The Bride of Frankenstein not only goes against the grain by being superior to Frankenstein, it's also exquisite enough that numerous scribes consider it the finest monster movie ever made. Its pleasures are bountiful, including James Whale's playful direction, Karloff's repeat performance as the tortured creature, Ernest Thesiger's delightful turn as the gin-drinking Dr. Pretorius, and Elsa Lanchester's appearances as both Mary Shelley in the movie's prologue and the Monster's mate in the climax. In addition, there are some pungent witticisms, a dash of stark symbolism, an overriding gothic ambiance, and the justifiably famous sequence in which the Monster interacts with the blind hermit (hilariously spoofed by Peter Boyle and Gene Hackman in Mel Brooks' 1974 Young Frankenstein). With Lanchester's monstrous bride, Pierce once again created a look that continues to influence moviemakers today: Check out the 'do on Persephone the poodle in Tim Burton's Frankenweenie for the latest example. ****
THE WOLF MAN (1941). "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright." The best werewolf movie ever made also gets my vote as the finest film in the entire Universal series. Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, who returns to the British estate of his father (Claude Rains) after having spent the past 18 years in America. While wooing the local beauty (Evelyn Ankers) one evening, he gets bitten by a werewolf and eventually succumbs to the curse himself. Like most of the Universal crop, this intelligent and sophisticated picture unfortunately sports a brief running time (70 minutes), but the screenplay by Curt Siodmak manages to pack the proceedings with all manner of intriguing developments, including discussions on the duality of man as well as the place of superstition in a God-fearing world. Pierce's werewolf design is superb, and in addition to Chaney, Rains and Ankers (all exceptionally well-cast), the strong roster also includes Ralph Bellamy as the local constable, Bela Lugosi as a doomed fortune teller and Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman who attempts to help our unfortunate hero. ****
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943). Universal's 1925 silent adaptation of Gaston Leroux's celebrated novel, an enormous hit that remains Lon Chaney Sr.'s most famous vehicle (just above 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), was ripe for a remake, and Universal pulled out all the stops for this lavish production, the only film in this collection that's in color. As the dull hero and put-upon heroine, Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster command the top two spots in the credits, but of course it's third-billed Claude Rains' character who dominates this story — in stature if not actual screen time. Numerous actors have played the part of the disfigured madman who haunts the Paris Opera House, and while Chaney remains the best (and most frightening), Rains lands in the place position for his more sympathetic handling of the role. Nominated for four Academy Awards, this won two: Best Color Cinematography and Best Color Art Direction. ***
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954). After countless sequels and spin-offs, Universal finally put all of its classic monsters to rest by the close of the 1940s. In the '50s, it turned its attention to science fiction, although many of its works in that genre can easily be integrated into the horror field. One case in point is Creature from the Black Lagoon, which introduced a wholly original monster in the form of the Gill Man, an amphibious being living in the waters of the Amazon. When a scientific expedition intrudes upon his solitude, he begins killing the menfolk but finds himself strangely drawn to the group's only woman (Julie Adams). Designed by an unfairly uncredited Milicent Patrick (under the supervision of chief makeup artist Bud Westmore), the Gill Man remains one of the most innovative monsters created for the movies. Trivia aside: Ricou Browning, who played the creature in the underwater sequences (Ben Chapman donned the costume on land), was one of the many celebrities at this year's Charlotte-held Mad Monster Party. ***
The Blu-ray set comes packed with bonus features, most of them carried over from previous DVD incarnations. New for this collection, though, is the option to watch Creature from the Black Lagoon in either 3-D — as it was originally released back in 1954 — or the standard 2-D (keep in mind that the 3-D version can only be seen with a compatible TV and player). Also making its debut is a featurette examining the restoration of Dracula. Other goodies include the 1931 Spanish-language version of Dracula that was filmed simultaneously on the same sets but with different actors; audio commentaries and making-of pieces on the eight major films; pop-up trivia tracks on Dracula and Frankenstein; separate features on Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr. and Pierce; and the 1998 TCM documentary Universal Horror (narrated by Kenneth Branagh). The collection also contains the beautifully illustrated, 48-page booklet The Original House of Horror: Universal and a Monster Legacy.
AND IN THIS COBWEBBED CORNER ...
Naturally, Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection isn't the only monster fest premiering on Blu-ray and/or DVD in time for Halloween. Here are some other terror tales hitting stores during October.
The Raven (2012). Edgar Allan Poe (John Cusack) seeks to stop a madman who's using his stories as inspiration for his murders. (Oct. 9)
Chernobyl Diaries (2012). While taking an "extreme tour" of the Russian nuclear-disaster site, a group of tourists discovers that something ominous resides in the area. (Oct. 16)
The Funhouse (1981). Two couples who elect to spend the night in a carnival funhouse quickly realize the error of their ways. (Oct. 16)
Terror Train (1980). College students enjoying a masquerade party aboard a train start getting bumped off in gruesome ways by an unknown assailant. (Oct. 16)
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012). C'mon, you really need a description? (Oct. 23)
House of Dark Shadows (1970) / Night of Dark Shadows (1971). The popularity of the TV soap opera featuring vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) led to two motion picture spin-offs. For the record, Frid appears in House but not Night. (Oct. 30)
Rosemary's Baby (1968). An expectant mother (Mia Farrow) starts to suspect that her neighbors and maybe even her husband (John Cassavetes) are planning something sinister. (Oct. 30)
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964). Terrifying in its sheer ineptitude. (Oct. 30)