UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS COLLECTION – DVD review

In the excellent DVD box set “Universal Classic Monsters,” Universal Studios puts it all together in a 21-disc, 30-film collection that covers all of their monster features released between “Dracula” (1931) and the last release in the cycle, “The Creature Walks Among Us” in 1956.

Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon. It’s difficult to overstate the impact and legacy of these films, both to the horror genre and to our cultural memories. These characters and films are rooted deep in pop culture for a reason, and their high points are among the best movie-making of their time. The announcement that Universal plans on rebooting with a vast, inter-related filmic universe based on these classic monsters is only the most recent testament to the enduring strength and appeal of the original films.

With its gothic imagery and settings, thematic and visual chiaroscuro, and Expressionist creative design, the Universal monster films have not only tapped effectively into our collective fears, but also served as a wellspring for many of the elements of contemporary horror. Castles and dark towers, billowing wind-blown curtains, portentous shadows cast by torch or candlelight, villains and creatures tinged by sexual undertones,tender pathos, or even campy humor. No studio did it better, or profited more, in the careful codifying and exploiting of these elements.

If a few of the films in this series have not aged well, especially the post-World War II films, it’s also true that even the weakest in this set are touched by striking visual elements, stunning technical achievements, or an atmosphere of potent dread.

Universal had both the artistic nerve and the bottom-line business sense to entrust these features to some of the most adventurous production talent available, including directors Tod Browning and James Whale, and make-up genius Jack Pierce. In their performances as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man respectively, actors Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr. created an iconic presence, one that every horror production afterwards struggled to confront or surpass.

This collection pulls together, in a slimmer form, the individual “Legacy” collections previously available from 2004. These are single-sided discs, a change from the double-sided discs of the previous release. The collection is packed in seven separate slipcases in a box case, with each slipcase containing multiple discs dedicated to the films of each monster. This approach leads to some duplication of films in the Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolfman sets (for example, there are three copies of three different films, including “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”).

A nice bonus for films buffs is the inclusion of the 1931 Spanish-language version of “Dracula,” which was shot concurrently on the same sets as Lugosi and Browning’s more famous film, and is judged by many critics to be the better film of the two.

The extras are plentiful and well-produced, and include an enjoyable overview of Universal horror narrated by Kenneth Branagh, commentary tracks by film historians, documentaries about the individual monsters and the men who played and created them, production ephemera and trailers, and a colorful 48-page booklet.

Video:
The discs have been lovingly and meticulously restored, and are of a uniformly excellent quality. Especially noteworthy is the sole color entry in the series, the 1943 “Phantom of the Opera” starring Cluade Rains. The features are in a full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. There are options for English SDH, and the Spanish-language version of “Dracula” offers English subtitles.

Audio:
The audio tracks are a mix of Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and stereo. There is some unavoidable hiss on the oldest tracks, but that just adds to the atmosphere.

Extras:
A wealth of materials that should sate the appetite of even the most deep-dyed classic film fan. Each disc has a set of extras, including commentaries, production materials, in-depth documentaries and more. This is the treatment these historically vital films deserve.

Parting thoughts:
This is a first-rate set, worth its price-tag, despite the duplications of films. If the artistic quality is spotty at times, and the pacing on the slow side for contemporary viewers, the best films still hold up to scrutiny some 70 years after their premiere. And there’s tremendous value in seeing this series in its full chronological glory, like a trip inside the DNA of one of the most enduring genres of film.

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