Warner Bros. own what is probably the most extensive back catalogue of great older films on the planet, and they never tire of devising new ways to repackage them. In 2009 they began a series of sets they call the "TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Greatest Classic Films Collection," which package four classic movies per set. Although the studio has released all of the films separately, the collections are a relatively inexpensive way for fans to acquire a large number of great motion pictures for a mere pittance. Indeed, these sets are among the best values in the history of DVDs.
The set reviewed here, "Horror," is in WB's third wave of collections and offers four top-notch Warner Bros. and MGM horror classics. (For the other collections in WB's third wave, see the closing paragraph.) Each set contains two double-sided DVDs, one movie per side, enclosed in a double slim-line keep case, with a slipcover and unique bonus materials. Let's look at the movies chronologically.
Among the most controversial movies ever made, Tod Browning's 1932 production "Freaks" found itself edited almost everywhere it played, then outright banned by censors in some cities, states, and countries, finally forcing the studio, MGM, to withdraw it from circulation before a year was out. The public didn't rediscover it until the 1960s, but it continues to this day to remain a subject for debate.
Is it a compassionate plea for love and understanding among all people, or is it merely an exploitation of human abnormality? The movie's optional prologue attempts to persuade us along the former lines, but it's not hard to see why even some of the performers in the picture later disowned it.
Screenwriters Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon based their script on a short story by Tod Robbins called "Spurs." Director Browning had been a successful silent filmmaker, directing Lon Chaney, Sr., in things like "The Unholy Three" and "London After Midnight," making a successful transition into talkies directing Bela Lugosi in the original, 1931 "Dracula." But after "Freaks" Browning's career went downhill fast, nobody wanting to hire him anymore, and he stepped aside in 1936 to spend the next quarter of a century in quiet retirement until his death in 1962.
The story of "Freaks" follows the affairs of a group of traveling European circus sideshow performers around the turn of the century. I say "affairs" because it appears that almost everyone in the show is sleeping with one another. This was not, however, an uncommon occurrence amongst circus people in those days, as they often dated and married within their own company. However, in this case one of the participants in a love triangle is a little person, Hans (Harry Earles), who falls in love with a normal-sized trapeze artist, Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova). At first Cleo and her boyfriend, the strong man Hercules (Henry Victor), simply laugh at the little fellow, but when they find out he has inherited a fortune, they plot to take it away from him. Cleo marries Hans and then attempts to poison him to get his money. But Hans foils the plot, and he and his buddies exact a terrible revenge.
The appeal, or repulsion, of "Freaks" resides in three areas: It's characters, its theme, and its ending.
The circus personnel fall into three camps: The normal-sized performers, the abnormal-sized performers, and the workers. It's mainly the first two groups we want to look at. Among the normal-sized performers are Phrosa, the clown, played by a wisecracking Wallace Ford, a handsome leading man who played a lot of happy-go-lucky types in early movies. He is among the few normal-sized performers in the circus who treats everyone else in the troupe, normal or odd in appearance, as equals. Then there's Venus, the beautiful young animal trainer played by Leila Hyams, who has a subplot romance with Phrosa. They're the good guys among the normal-sized folk. On the other side of the normal-sized fence are Cleopatra and her boyfriend Hercules, who are greedy, intolerant bigots. They and many of the normal-appearing circus stagehands and roustabouts are not above constantly laughing at and ridiculing the more-different show people around them.
Most important, however, and the cause for so much concern about the movie, are the "freaks" as circus parlance calls them. The word "freak" conjures up for most of us negative feelings with prejudicial connotations, a politically incorrect term to say the least. We prefer today to think of people out of the ordinary in size or shape as simply being "different" but in no way inferior. Not so with old-fashioned circuses. According to the documentary accompanying the disc, the abnormal performers themselves freely used the term "freaks." Most of these unusual people willingly joined circuses and made profitable livings from their physical limitations. Still and all, in a movie, up there on the big screen, the public didn't buy it. Moviegoers and critics alike called the film exploitative and condemned it as scandalous. Somehow, it was all right to view freaks in a carnival sideshow but not in a movie house where audiences could go beyond their physical appearance and into their personal lives. Hypocrisy never dies.
Anyway, Browning wanted his film to be as authentic as possible and demanded the studio hire the best possible freaks from the best sideshows in the world to be in his movie. Among the stars of the film we find Harry and Daisy Earles, a brother and sister from a celebrated family of little people; the famous Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy, conjoined, or Siamese, twins; Zip and Pip and Schlitze, microcephalics or "pinheads" as people in the trade called them; plus various others, like the human skeleton; the human worm; armless, legless people; little people; people with deformed heads; a hermaphrodite; a bearded lady; a bird lady; anything that would attract attention.
The movie's theme: That all people, no matter their size or mental condition, are equals as human beings and worthy of equivalent dignity and respect. The "freaks," poses Browning, are not the abnormally sized people in the movie but the evil people of the world who commit wicked deeds against their fellows. Cleopatra and Hercules are the freaks, not the dwarfs or pinheads or bearded ladies, whom the movie depicts as loving, caring, and kind, a part of a well-knit family. When Cleo marries Hans, his family of fellow abnormally sized persons welcomes her with open arms as one their own, a thought that repulses and infuriates her. Cleo screams at them at the wedding feast, "Freaks! Get out!"
When the studio reissued "Freaks," they preceded it with the following words of apology and warning: "With humility for the many injustices done to such people (they have no power to control their lot), we present the most startling horror story of the abnormal and the unwanted." Yet movie audiences ignored the film's plea for tolerance and its message of equality because could not get over the appearance of so many unusual, misshapen beings. Audiences also could not overcome the movie's ending, because the story shows these loving, caring people as subject to the same angers and temptations as everyone else, and moviegoers could hardly forget the vengeance they inflict. The movie's climax continues to shock, even by modern standards.
Despite the film's prologue warning that "Freaks" was a "startling horror story," Browning never meant the movie as a horror film; he meant it as a character study and morality play. The "horror" lay in the behavior of the normal people toward their unusual and unfortunate brethren, but most audiences saw the movie as a traditional horror film, and these audiences felt that the studio, MGM, and director Browning had clearly overstepped the bounds of decency by portraying such "horrible" sights on the screen. Studio censors cut over a half an hour of the film before its first release, and they made further cuts for showing in various places around the world.
The Warner Bros. studios, now the owner of the film, have restored most of what they could find, even providing three alternate endings among the disc's extras. Still, the movie is barely over an hour long, hardly enough time to develop much more than a cursory look at any of the story's many characters. And the acting of the day is rather stilted, much of it from players who had never been in any movie before, let alone a talking movie. So as pure filmmaking, "Freaks" is perhaps deficient in story, character, and design. But love it or hate it, it is the kind of film that will definitely make an impression on you.
Film rating: 7/10
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE
MGM decided to remake "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in 1941 as a prestige production and lavished a good deal of money on it. They hired Victor Fleming, hot off "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," to direct, and they signed prominent actor Spencer Tracy, relative newcomer to American films Ingrid Bergman, and screen siren Lana Turner to star. The film is less an outright horror film and more a straightforward psychological study, which may not please all viewers.
Tracy himself insisted that this "Jekyll and Hyde" be no mere fright flick and that his character be fleshed out as a sadly disturbing human being. Oddly, the studio cast Ms. Turner as Jekyll's sweet, prudish fiancée, Beatrix Emery, and Bergman as the coy, temperamental barmaid, Ivy Peterson. You'd have thought it would have been the other way around, but the results are fine, even if Bergman seems a bit too cultured for the street snipe she plays. Just as oddly, the studio allowed Tracy and Turner to retain their American accents while encouraging Bergman to effect a British Cockney dialect (to emphasize her character's lower class). This circumstance requires a dedicated suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part as Bergman slips back and forth between her own pronounced Swedish intonations and the Cockney inflections she's attempting to emulate.
In this version of the story, the studio also altered the emphasis. Jekyll wants more than to release the evil in his soul; he wants to find the good in the most wicked of men. It is a noble ambition, but it doesn't always make for an interesting movie. Even Tracy's makeup is less intense than we've come to expect, not a fanged monster, for instance, but merely a sinister brute. It's realistic, to be sure, but less intriguing and a whole lot less fun than outright monster.
Film rating: 7/10
HOUSE OF WAX
When I first saw "House of Wax" as a child, it terrified me, and I couldn't go into a wax museum for years without wondering if there weren't dead bodies under the wax. In fact, I wouldn't go into a wax museum at all for the next decade. Even today the thought of a wax museum conjures up memories of that movie.
After years of playing straight dramatic roles in Hollywood, in 1953 Vincent Price started on his way to becoming a full-fledged horror-movie legend with "House of Wax." Of course, it would still be a few more years until "The Fly," but "House of Wax" was his real start. In it, he plays a genius sculptor in wax, Professor Henry Jarrod, driven insane when his partner burns down their gallery of wax creations for the insurance money. Horribly disfigured in the blaze and mad for revenge, the professor sets up a new wax museum, this time using the dead bodies of his murder victims beneath the waxy glaze. He exhibits scenes of real-life crime and violence while they are still fresh in the public mind.
Dressed in black with a hat pulled down over his face, it's easy to see where Sam Raimi got his "Darkman" inspiration. Also in the story are Phyllis Kirk as Sue Allen, a young woman who becomes suspicious of the professor when the police find her roommate, Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones), murdered, and then she turns up as a wax figure in Jarrod's exhibition. Allen's boyfriend, a sculptor named Scott Andrews (Paul Picerni) helps with the investigation, as does a policeman, Lt. Tom Brennan (Frank Lovejoy). You'll even find a very young Charles Bronson (listed in the credits as Charles Buchinsky) as Igor, a deaf mute, one of the professor's ominous assistants.
Warner Bros. based the movie on an earlier film of theirs, "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933). This time, however, the studio wanted not only to one-up but two-up itself. First, they made the film in the brand-new 3-D process, dubbed "Natural Vision," and, second, they used stereo sound. Although we get only the 2-D version on this DVD, we still see the evidences of 3-D prominently throughout the movie. The most famous example is that of a man advertising the opening of Jarrod's new House of Wax by banging away on elastic-tethered paddle balls in front of the building. Needless to say, the fellow would often aim the balls right at the movie audience, and in 3-D you'd see viewers actually duck their heads. There are also a number of other things flying through the air--falling bodies, kicking and dancing legs, and feet shooting out all over the place--as well as several young ladies in tight corsets whose upper torsos protrude invitingly outward.
As a whole, the film is still a crowd pleaser, its dusky shadows, turn-of-the-century setting, menacing villain, and bizarre museum as creepy as ever. And the film's climax in the bowels of the darkened House of Wax remains a fiendish delight. Expect no blood or gore, however, nor few outright shocks. The film relies largely on atmosphere for its frights.
Film rating: 7/10
Shirley Jackson wrote her psychological ghost-story novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," in 1959, and the critics and public adored it. Robert Wise directed this superb 1963 theatrical treatment using Nelson Gidding's excellent screenplay of the book. To this day "The Haunting" remains one of the handful of truly great haunted-house films ever made, and it accomplishes its feat without resorting to cheap thrills or elaborate special effects.
This is not to suggest that everyone will find "The Haunting" scary, but it will do until something more frightening comes along. The plot is simplicity itself. A small group of psychic investigators visit a reputedly haunted house to determine if ghosts actually exist. But, of course, there's a lot more to it than that, as the understated interaction of the researchers becomes the focal point of the story, and the house itself becomes one of the most important characters in it.
The leader of the party is a stalwart and sensible professor, Dr. John Markway, played by British actor Richard Johnson. His character is the one that holds the piece together, the solid foundation for the otherwise crumbling structure not only of Hill House but of the small company of souls that has gathered there. As he says, they may find nothing at the house, or they may find "the key to another world."
The central character in the story, though, is Eleanor Lance, played by noted stage and screen actress Julie Harris. Eleanor is a single, shy, insecure, depressed, mousy, guilt-ridden young woman whose invitation to join the group at Hill House is like an escape for her. Feeling resentful at being labeled "paranormal" since a childhood poltergeist incident and bearing the burden of her invalid mother's recent death, she is more than willing to give Hill House a try. The house may be the first real home she has ever had, the group her first real family, and the crush on Dr. Markway the first real affection for a man she has ever known.
The third major character is Theodora, just Theodora, played by Claire Bloom. This is a distinguished cast, to say the least. Theodora is a psychic who has excelled in various ESP laboratory experiments. She's also the opposite of Eleanor--confident, articulate, self-composed. What's more, she exhibits an underplayed lesbianism that figures into the interrelationships of the team and later becomes a kind of metaphor for the behavior of several individuals.
The last character of importance is Luke Sanderson, played by Russ Tamblyn. Yes, that's the same Russ Tamblyn who danced his way through Wise's "West Side Story." Luke is the skeptic of the bunch, the next in line to inherit the house, who's come along to make sure Dr. Markway and his subjects don't break anything that might be of value to him when he comes into his estate. He's the wise guy, the supercool young cynic who has to learn things the hard way.
Although there's not much in the way of a supporting cast, a couple of people are worth mentioning. Lois Maxwell of Miss Moneypenny fame plays Grace Markway, the professor's wife. She comes into the story late, and like Luke, she's reluctant to believe in ghosts, disapproving of her husband's experiments with the supernatural. Valentine Dyall and Rosalie Crutchley play Mr. and Mrs. Dudley, the caretakers of Hill House. Mrs. Dudley is particularly malign, reminding one of the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, in Hitchcock's "Rebecca." As Mrs. Dudley is fond of saying, "No one lives any nearer than town. No one will come any nearer than that...in the night...in the dark." And there's Fay Compton as Mrs. Sanderson, the owner of the house, who tells Dr. Markway that, "No one who rented Hill House ever stayed for more than a few days. The dead are not quiet in Hill House."
I mentioned the house may be as substantial a character in the film as any of the actors. Wise shot the exteriors at the Ettington Park Hotel near Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. It's a big, old, rambling, gothic building covered with turrets and towers and cupolas and gables. As Theodora says of it, "Haven't you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away, and then you just catch something out of the corner of your eye?" There isn't a square corner in the place nor a door that doesn't close by itself if you turn your back. It's easy to get lost in Hill House, and it's easy to imagine the house wanting a person to get lost in it. The house appears to have a mind and a will of its own.
So, what's so scary about the whole affair? Well, it's nothing like the repulsive and exaggerated blood, gore, and computer graphics of today's typical horror flicks, nor is it about shock for shock's value only. Rather, "The Haunting" is about things that go bump in the night. Literally. Things are scariest when we don't know what they are or don't understand them; turn them into things real and tangible and they lose their impact. The tension and suspense in "The Haunting" arise from mysterious noises, weird voices, bangings on the wall, shadows on the wallpaper, cold spots, spiral staircases, and Humphrey Searle's splendidly eerie musical score.
Director Robert Wise, whose filmography includes some of the biggest commercial hits in film history, like "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," was also responsible for some of Hollywood's more understated classics, like "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and "Run Silent, Run Deep." More to the point, Wise got his start in films with things like "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944) and "The Body Snatcher" (1945), working with horror-movie producer Val Lewton, who would teach Wise that using restraint in a frightening scene could be more eerily forceful than trying to shock or gross out an audience. Wise said he made "The Haunting" as a homage to Lewton.
In short, it's what we don't see in "The Haunting" that makes it scary. It's the atmosphere of the place and its effect on the people in it. And it's the sounds and the lighting and particularly the shadows.
For a younger generation of moviegoers used to "seeing" everything happen on screen in vivid detail rather than imagining it, this 1963 haunted-house story may seem a bit slow. So much the sadder for them. In addition, I wouldn't say "The Haunting" is so much a horror story as it is a psychological tale of terror and possession. If you go into it expecting a Jason, a Freddy, or a Michael Myers to pop out of the woodwork with their multitude of bloody knives, "The Haunting" will surely disappoint you. Instead, the movie is about real people and their genuine reactions to a very spooky situation. The film scared me in 1963, and it continues to engage me today. I love it.
Film rating: 9/10
For so old a print as "Freaks," the one Warner Bros. found to transfer to disc was in excellent condition. There are more than a few specks and scratches here and there in this old Academy ratio 1.33:1 (from 1.37:1) picture, but that's to be expected. Black-and-white contrasts are strongly accentuated, making the image fairly easy on the eyes, but ultimate definition and object delineation suffer slightly from being a bit fuzzy and blurry.
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" comes off pretty well in its standard-screen format, too, thanks to a decent print and the care with which Warner transferred it to disc. WB use a fairly high bit rate it, less compression ensuring a cleaner image and deeper black-and-white contrasts. Indeed, the print is almost without fault, the exception being some very minor halos and occasional age flecks. There's a crystalline clarity to the black-and-white images that makes them seem almost three-dimensional.
WB engineers present "House of Wax" in something close to its original 1.37:1 theatrical ratio, and in 2-D as displayed here, the transfer displays well-balanced WarnerColor. Hues look rich and bright and mostly natural. Unfortunately, the screen also displays a fair amount of grain, noise, and age, particularly in nighttime scenes, which are frequent. Most of it, no doubt, one can attribute to the print and some it to the original 3-D process; I don't know.
Finally, we have "The Haunting," which WB present in its original Panavision dimensions, a 2.35:1 anamorphic ratio. It's in black-and-white, with contrasts well rendered, and definition mostly sharp. There are, however, some tiny age specks one notices throughout the film and some minor line shimmer; still, they are not serious enough issues to be distracting. Darker areas of the screen have a slightly gritty look, but in general there is little transfer noise.
For those folks who balk at the very thought of watching anything in black-and-white, I can only say that "The Haunting" is one of those films I can't imagine in color. The B&W photography is effective, and the story wouldn't be half as much fun in color. Besides, most of the film is located indoors and/or at night, so color is a moot issue at best.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural sound on "Freaks" is probably as good as it can be without its being completely altered and upgraded. The dynamic response and frequency range are limited, as would be expected, the balance is somewhat bright, and there is a touch of background noise. But the midrange, though constricted and a touch nasal, is quite clear.
The Dolby Digital monaural sound for "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is understandably constricted in its frequency and dynamic extremes, but it is fairly smooth and realistic in its tonal balance and easy on the ears.
The "House of Wax" uses Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo in what the studio called at the time "Warner-Sonic 3-D," obviously a promotional gimmick to tie the sound in with the three-dimensional image. Its most conspicuous feature today is its noise. The background noise is relatively high, noisier than I can remember hearing from a major studio release in some years. How much of this noise we can attribute to the early stereo reproduction, and why Warner Bros. didn't apply at least a little noise reduction to the disc are questions we might well ask. In any case, in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, the dynamics are good, and the stereo spread is OK for so old a film.
With "The Haunting, the DD 1.0 sound is the only weak part of the production. To begin with, it's in a single, center-channel monaural, which is perhaps not so bad because the screenplay is made up mostly of dialogue and soft, unearthly soundtrack music. But, additionally, it has a very low output. You'll have to crank your audio system up a couple of notches more than usual to get any volume out of it. But be careful; too high and you'll encounter some small amount of background noise. Once turned up, however, the audio reproduction is more than adequate for the job, constricted sometimes, a bit nasal, and never opening up completely, but more than passable.
Each movie in the set comes with its own extras, Warners using the same transfers they used for their earlier releases of these titles. In fact, the menu screen for "House of Wax" even tells us that we can find "The Mystery of the Wax Museum" on side two, which was the case originally but not here.
On "Freaks" we get a commentary by Tod Browning biographer David J. Skal; a documentary called "Freaks: Sideshow Cinema; a Special Message prologue added for theatrical reissue; and three alternate endings. On "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" we get a theatrical trailer. On "House of Wax" we get a première newsreel and a theatrical trailer. And on "The Haunting" we get a commentary by director Robert Wise, screenwriter Nelson Gidding, and stars Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn; a stills gallery; an essay called "Great Ghost Stories; and a theatrical trailer.
In addition to the "Horror" collection, WB's third wave of "TCM Greatest Classic Films" includes "Sc-Fi" ("Soylent Green," "The Time Machine," "Forbidden Planet," and "2001) and "Murder Mysteries" ("The Postman Always Rings Twice," "The Big Sleep," "Dial M for Murder," and "The Maltese Falcon"). I don't see how you can beat any of these sets.