Blu-ray: Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (Universal, Blu-ray)

Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy have traversed the trail from horror icon to camp figure and back again and sparked the imaginations of readers and moviegoers for decades. Yet call forth the images nestled in the public consciousness and you’ll find that the figures created by Universal Studios, the home of Hollywood nightmares during the great gothic horror cycle of the 1930s and 1940s, have becomes the definitive versions of the great horror movie monsters.

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Universal has been upgrading and repackaging its library of classic monster movies and the franchises they launched through the 1930s-1950s on disc for almost 20 years. This new collection is the ultimate compilation. Previously released on DVD, it offers 4K restorations of all 30 films for Blu-ray, some for the first time. That means not just the bona fide Gothic horror masterpieces and monster movie landmarks previously on Blu-ray individually or in the “Legacy Collection” sets—Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi, Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with Boris Karloff, The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains, The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr., the Technicolor Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Claude Rains, and the post-Gothic, atomic-era Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) in standard and 3D versions, plus the Spanish language Dracula (1931)—but stand-out sequels such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the pre-Wolf Man The Werewolf of London (1935), Vincent Price in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the mad monster parties Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), and the surprisingly creepy horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) among others, with all the commentary tracks, featurettes, and other supplements from earlier DVD and Blu-ray releases.

The 24-disc box set compiles four previously released Blu-ray “Legacy Collection” sets (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy) plus the new Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Invisible Man collections (which were released at the same time as this set) in a paperboard box slipcase with the accompanying 46-page booklet “The Original House of Horror: Universal and A Monster Legacy.” That means some overlap if you’ve invested in earlier Blu-ray releases along with the duplication already built into this collection (there are three copies of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein” and House of Dracula, and two of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man).

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

If you have not invested in any of the “Legacy Collection” box sets, then this is a cost-effective way to get an instant collection upgrade to Blu-ray, which offer a leap in detail, sharpness, and contrast from the previous (superb) DVD editions (some films more significantly than others). If you’ve already added a couple of the Blu-ray box sets, then the economics get trickier and it may make more sense to pick up the remaining “Legacy Collection” sets individually.

I’ll cover the set as presented, with each “Legacy Collection” considered separately (and they are, of course, available separately).

Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection

While Tod Browning’s classic Dracula (1931) may be creaky, stiff, and often stagy, the first official adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel will remain memorable for its gorgeous gothic images, for Lugosi’s legendary, iconic performance, and for setting off the cinematic fascination with vampires. It may not be the definitive version, but it’s easily the most famous, a veritable cultural touchstone. Also features a viewing mode with a new score by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet. This creates a new experience that is not true to the original but offers its own pleasures. The lush music smoothes out Browning’s direction and drenches the numerous wordless passages in mood, but becomes distracting during dialogue scene, fighting for attention as the crisp, clean analogue recording rises above the warm, hiss-laden analogue 1931 soundtrack even at its quietest levels. Shot at night on the same sets as the Lugosi classic by Browning protégé George Melford, Dracula: Spanish Version (1931) is often cited as a superior version for its smooth, elegant camerawork, atmospheric mood, striking compositions, startling close-ups, and astonishingly sexy heroine (Lupita Tovar). In fact, it’s only weakness is a lumpy Dracula (Carlos Villarías).

Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is the original sequel (directed by Lambert Hillyer), a sleek, stylish horror picture that actually opens on the last scene from Dracula, then turns into the tale of his aristocratic “daughter” (the continental Gloria Holden), who is seeking a cure for her affliction. The cut-rate knock-off is actually quite elegant, even if it too often loses the mood in an over busy plot. Holden’s haunted face and willowy body cuts a striking figure and Irving Pichel’s offbeat servant is like an American gangster with the breeding of a European aristocrat: thick, thuggish, but always proper. Edward Van Sloan reprises his role as Van Helsing and Otto Kruger and Marguerite Churchill co-star.

Son Of Dracula (1943), directed by Robert Siodmak, stars Lon Chaney Jr. as Count Alucard (spell it backwards), a Carpathian Count invited to the US by heiress Louise Allbritton, who is searching for the key to immortality. Set in the deep south, it’s an inspired melding of moods and plays like a supernatural psycho-thriller, where the visions of a jilted lover gone stark raving only complicate the issue. John Carradine dons the cape for a second time in House of Dracula (1945) and plays host again to the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) in a sequel to House of Frankenstein (see below).

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is the funniest horror comedy of the classical era and the film that put the final nail in the coffin for Universal’s increasingly cheap monster series. Dracula (Bela Lugosi, in his second and last incarnation of his star making role), the Monster, and the Wolf Man are straight men to Costello’s stuttering double takes and vaudeville goofiness, but director Charles Barton mixes the horror and comedy without sacrificing either.

Carried over from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases are an informed, well-spoken commentary by horror film historian David Skal on Dracula, the 35 minute documentary The Road to Dracula, detailing the development of the story from novel through stage to film, the 36-minute Lugosi: The Dark Prince, the Monster Tracks trivia track, the 9-minute “Dracula Archive,” a featurette on the restoration of Dracula, an introduction to the Spanish version by Lupita Tovar (daughter of the director), commentary by Gregory W. Mank on Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the featurette “Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters” plus Years of Universal: The Lot” and “100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters,” an interview with Stephen Sommers (director of Van Helsing), posters, stills, and trailers

Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection

James Whale’s original Frankenstein (1931) is the granddaddy of modern monster movies. It’s not the first adaptation of the novel, but it is (for all of its liberties) the defining adaptation, the film that all others are measured against. The film buzzes to life in the magnificent laboratory “birth” scene, a moment of modern gothic glory, and if it never quite maintains that charged atmosphere it builds to a marvelous climax with angry torch carrying villagers and a fiery windmill inferno. Colin Clive is a twitchy, intense Dr. Frankenstein, mad with ambition and a kind of arrogance (“Now I know what it is to be a god!” he shouts with pride rather than humility), but its heart belongs to Karloff’s haunted, childlike monster, whose plight never fails to move me. Whale goes for baroque in Bride Of Frankenstein (1935), a delirious sequel that tops the original. Karloff speaks and Elsa Lanchester hisses under a shocking hairdo but Ernest Thesiger almost steals the show as the droll Pretorious. It’s the pinnacle of Universal horror: the quintessential mad scientist laboratory sparks back to life for a horror tale both poignant and black humored.

Son Of Frankenstein (1939) features Boris Karloff in his final appearance as the monster, revived by the Frankenstein heir Basil Rathbone and a twisted, vengeful Ygor (played by Bela Lugosi with a sinister malevolence) and taught to speak. Lionel Atwill co-stars as the one-armed constable out for vengeance against the creature who crippled him (Mel Brooks lampooned him wonderfully in his loving parody Young Frankenstein). It lacks the gothic splendor and macabre humor of James Whale’s originals, but Rowland V. Lee’s handsome production remains an intelligent, well-made classic of the genre and Universal’s last great horror film. Bela Lugosi returns as Ygor in Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942), with Sir Cedric Hardwicke as another Frankenstein son and Lon Chaney Jr. donning the monster’s make-up. The gothic mood and moral quandaries of the 1930s films are given up for good here, replaced by a tangle of scheming plots interspersed with action highlights, including not one but two attacks by angry villagers! My favorite scene, however, is the Monster’s all natural method of rejuvenation: he practically orgasms on a jolt of lightning during an electrical storm. Ralph Bellamy, Lionel Atwill (this time as a fellow doctor), and Evelyn Ankers co-star, Erle C. Kenton directs.

Lugosi plays the famous monster for the first and only time in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), directed by Roy William Neill (most famous for his Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films). Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his most famous role as Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man, with Patric Knowles as the ambitious scientist who revives the monster (found frozen in ice) and promises to cure Talbot. Lugosi is lurching and clumsy as the monster (who has regained his sight but lost his voice since Ghost of Frankenstein), Chaney is stiff and snarly as the Wolf Man, and script perfunctory, but it ends with in a spectacular display of wanton destruction.

Universal’s all-star monster tag-team bouts really begin with House Of Frankenstein (1944), with Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), and Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) clashing with mad scientist Boris Karloff and his hunchbacked assistant J. Carroll Naish. Erle C. Kenton directs the slapdash screenplay with a perfunctory professionalism and Anne Gwynne and Lionel Atwill co-star in this silly but enjoyable mad monster party. The set is completed with House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), discussed above in the “Dracula” Legacy Collection.

Bonus features include commentary on Frankenstein by film historian Rudy Behlmer with Sire Christopher Frayling (a richly detailed veritable audio documentary of the production history) and Bride Of Frankenstein by Scott McQueen, the documentary featurettes The Frankenstein Films: How Hollywood Made a Monster, She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff: The Gentle Monster, The Frankenstein Archive, The Bride of Frankenstein Archive, the short film Boo!, posters, stills, and trailers.

The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection

Karloff (as he was billed, with his last name only) is mesmerizing in The Mummy (1932). Karl Freund’s moody classic as all languid pacing, deep stares, and delicate, shadowy photography. While sedate and ageless on the big screen it makes a less successful transition to the small screen, slowing to a crawl in its most leisurely moments. But it’s still a lushly photographed classic with a marvelous performances by the mesmerizing Boris Karloff, as the former high priest embalmed alive for his forbidden love and awakened as a mummy 4,000 years later by a British expedition, and the haunted Zita Johan (in her only Universal horror turn) as the reincarnation of his ancient love.

It took eight years for the sequel The Mummy’s Hand (1940), a low-budget thriller about a pair of out-of-work archaeologists (Dick Foran and Wallace Ford) hired by an eccentric magician (Cecil Kellaway) and his beautiful daughter (Peggy Moran) to uncover an undiscovered tomb, which is protected by high priest George Zucco and a living mummy (Tom Tyler). Lon Chaney Jr. wraps himself up for the final three films in the series. In The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), sent on a rampage by a high priest (Turhan Bey) to exact revenge on the scientists (among them Dick Foran and John Hubbard) who defiled a sacred tomb. In The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), he helps high priest John Carradine retrieve the remains of his princess–in the Bayou—and in The Mummy’s Curse (1944) he’s found buried in that very bayou 25 years later. The set is completed with Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

With two commentary tracks on The Mummy (one by film historian Paul M. Jensen, the other by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong), the well-made 30-minute documentary Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed directed by horror movie historian by David J. Skal, featurettes He Who Made the Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy, The Mummy Archives, and 100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era, and trailers.

The Invisible Man: Complete Legacy Collection

James Whale directs The Invisible Man (1933), adapted from the H.G. Wells novel about an ambitious scientist (Claude Rains) who tests an experimental serum on himself, which renders him invisible but also slowly drives him insane. More stolid and slow than Whale’s more flamboyant films, this cautionary tale of science gone horribly wrong is energized by Rains, even though his face is never seen. His rich, cultured voice envelopes the picture in a kind of omnipresent fog and Whale inflects the film with humor that turns dark as the Rains’ invisible madman turns into a homicidal megalomaniac. Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers, and Una O’Connor co-star.

Legendary German master Joe May directs the sequel The Invisible Man Returns (1940), starring Vincent Price as a man framed for a murder he didn’t commit who escapes from prison with the help of the invisibility serum, slipped to him by the brother of the original invisible man. The series takes a comic turn with The Invisible Woman (1940), starring Virginia Bruce as a model turned guinea pig in the experiments of scientist John Barrymore. Jon Hall becomes America’s Invisible Agent (1942) to spy on the Nazis (among them Peter Lorre, Cedric Hardwicke, and double agent Ilona Massey), and returns in The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), albeit as an entirely different character: an explorer determined to take his revenge on the partners that abandoned him in the African jungle. The collection is capped by Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951).

Supplements include commentary on The Invisible Man by film historian Rudy Behlmer, the 30-minute documentary Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, a still gallery, and trailers

The Wolf Man: Complete Legacy Collection

Lumbering Lon Chaney Jr.’s tortured portrayal of the good man cursed to turn into a savage killer every full moon helped transform The Wolf Man (1941), Universal’s second werewolf film, into a classic. The film itself is a bit lumbering too, even at 70 minutes, but the star studded cast—Claude Rains as his European father, William Warren and Ralph Bellamy as Rains’ best friends, and, most memorably, Maria Ouspenskaya as a gypsy woman who reveals his curse and Bela Lugosi as a fellow cursed soul—gives the B-movie material a theatrical sheen and the gothic gloom of misty forests and moonlit nights provides all the necessary mood.

The Werewolf of London (1935), directed by Stuart Walker, was Universal’s first go at the legend. Henry Hull stars as a botanist who is bitten by a wolf while searching for a rare Tibetan flower and begins turning into one himself back in London when the moon is full. Leaner and edgier than the famous 1941 Lon Chaney classic, it drags through Scotland Yard investigations and needless comic relief and soars in eerie, imaginative twists and striking action sequences. Warner Oland co-stars as the melancholy scientist who seeks the rare flower because it is the only antidote to the condition they both suffer from, and Valerie Hobson is his doomed wife: “The werewolf instinctively kills the thing it loves best.” She-Wolf Of London (1946) stars June Lockhart as an heiress who believes she suffers from a curse that transforms her into a killer beast when a series of ghastly murders rocks her neighborhood. Don Porter and Sara Haden (Aunt Milly in the Andy Hardy films) co-star in this rather bland B movie.

The set is completed with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), House Of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), also included and discussed above in the “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” Legacy Collections.

With commentary on The Wolf Man by Tom Weaver (informed and informative), the half-hour documentary Monster by Moonlight, the featurettes The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man Archives, and trailers.

Creature from the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection

Jack Arnold turned a B-movie “beauty and the beast” plot into Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), a moody, stylish low budget feature closer to the atomic horrors and giant creature features of the 1950s than the gothic horrors that define this collection. It spawned two iconic images–the web-footed humanoid gill-man and leggy, luscious Julia Adams in a luminous white bathing suit. Richard Carlson is the expedition leader on trip up the Amazon to find the missing link, but the hunters become the hunted when the amphibious creature falls in love with Adams. Strong direction, moody underwater photography, and a vivid creature keeps the film from veering into camp and it remains Universal’s best monster film of the 1950s. It was originally shot and shown in 3-D and this collection presents both standard and 3D versions.

Jack Arnold also directs the first sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955), starring John Agar as a scientist who captures the creature imprisons him in Florida aquarium for study (also shot in 3D; the set offers both standard and 3D versions), while the lonely creature falls in love with his assistant Lori Nelson. In The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the gill-man becomes a guinea pig in a terrible surgical experiment by scientists Jeff Morrow and Rex Reason to make him an air-breather.

The two-disc collection features commentary on Creature From the Black Lagoon by film historian Tom Weaver, Revenge of the Creatureby co-star Lori Nelson with historians Tom Weaver and Bob Burns, and The Creature Walks Among Us by Tom Weaver and Bob Burns, the 40-minute documentary featurette Back to the Black Lagoon directed by horror movie historian by David J. Skal, a still gallery, and trailers.

Note that initial releases included an improperly-mastered version of the 3D Revenge of the Creature; Universal offers a replacement program to get the correct disc.

Phantom of the Opera

Phantom of the Opera (1943) is officially the last of the Universal horrors, but it’s really more Technicolor melodrama than horror film. A gorgeous if dramatically bland production, it practically glows in studio splendor. Massively rewritten from the Lon Chaney original, it emphasizes the operettas and romantic complications over thriller aspects but Claude Rains adds effective menace to the role of the Phantom. This single-disc, single-film presentation includes commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen, the featurette The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, stills, and the trailer.

Discs provided by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment for review purposes.

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection [Blu-ray]
Dracula: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
The Mummy: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
The Invisible Man: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
The Wolf Man: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
Creature From the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection [Blu-ray]
Phantom of the Opera (1943) [Blu-ray]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears in Vulture, Turner Classic Movies online, Keyframe, and Parallax View.

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