"To a new world of gods and monsters."
Universal has become the studio renowned for beloved pictures like "Back to the Future," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial," "Psycho," and "To Kill a Mockingbird." For many, Universal is synonymous with the horror genre. During the golden era of Hollywood, they revolutionized make-up and special effects while frightening countless audiences. To celebrate its 100th anniversary, Universal has been rolling out a string of classic films on Blu-ray. "Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection" is one of their biggest, centennial releases and a must-own for any serious cinephile.
"Listen to them…children of the night. What music they make."
Nowadays, you can't go to the theater or turn on the television without seeing something vampire related. None of that would be possible without Bram Stoker's iconic novel, Dracula. So it's almost inconceivable that studio executives didn't see any potential in the book. Carl Laemmle Jr., the son of Universal's founder Carl Laemmle, came to the rescue and helped bring "Dracula" to the silver screen. Behind the camera was Tod Browning, who would go on to direct the disturbing "Freaks," which featured real-life sideshow attractions. But, Browning was not in the best mental state during the production. He had hoped to collaborate with his friend Lon Cheney Sr., who was the first choice for the title role until his untimely death in 1930. Cinematographer Karl Freund reportedly performed most of the directorial duties. Freund would go on to direct another film in the collection, "The Mummy," along with serving as cinematographer for "I Love Lucy."
The role of Count Dracula went to the Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who had starred in a 1927 Broadway production of "Dracula," which served as source material for the adaptation. With his thick accent and hypnotic stare, Lugosi became the quintessential vampire, often imitated and parodied. "Dracula" was both a blessing and a curse for Lugosi. He became an instant star in Hollywood, but was typecast as a hammy horror villain.
"In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!"
"Frankenstein" and "Dracula" provided the one-two punch needed for Universal to cement its legacy as the masters of early horror. "Frankenstein" will probably seem tame today, but back then it required actor Edward Van Sloan, who played the vampire hunter Van Helsing in "Dracula," to appear in an opening warning to movie-goers. It was lanky British actor named Boris Karloff who would skyrocket to fame for his portrayal of the monster that terrorized the countryside. The legendary make-up work of artist Jack Pierce certainly helped. Yet, behind the flat head, pronounced brow, and the bolts in his neck, the monster possessed the soulful eyes of Karloff. It was those eyes that made the creature sympathetic in spite of doing some terrible things. Portraying the role of the monster's creator, Henry Frankenstein was another Brit, Colin Clive whose manic cries of, "It's alive! It's alive!," have become inspiration for all mad scientists that followed him. Not to be forgotten is starlet Mae Clarke as Frankenstein's long-suffering fiancée, Elizabeth. That same year Clarke would become a part of movie history when she got a face full of grapefruit courtesy of James Cagney in "The Public Enemy."
The Mummy (1932)
"Death…eternal punishment for anyone who opens this casket. In the name of Amon-Ra, the king of the gods."
An undead pharaoh wrapped in bandages and slowly shuffling towards his victim is generally the first image that pops into someone's head when they think of the old school "Mummy" pictures. However, that version wouldn't exist until a new series of films starting in 1940 with "The Mummy's Hand." This mummy was Boris Karloff, who became such a huge star after "Frankenstein" that Universal simply billed him as Karloff.
He plays Imhotep, an Ancient Egyptian priest cursed for all eternity because of his forbidden love for the princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Imhotep is inadvertently brought back to life by oblivious excavators. Posing as a wealthy philanthropist named Ardath Bey, he seeks to abduct the beautiful Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who is the reincarnation of his lost love.
The Invisible Man (1933)
"We'll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there, murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction."
Based on the novel by H.G. Wells, "The Invisible Man" was James Whale's third foray into horror having already directed "Frankenstein" and "The Old Dark House." The latest thespian to receive the star treatment was Claude Rains, who Whale cast based solely on his articulate and urbane voice. Unlike Karloff and Lugosi, Rains was able to avoid typecast and went on to appear in "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and, perhaps most famously, as Capt. Renault in "Casablanca."
Rains didn't show his face until the end of "The Invisible Man." He was a disembodied voice for most of the picture as Jack Griffin, a scientist who becomes increasingly insane after rendering himself invisible. The special effects will look hokey to viewers raised on CGI, but they are remarkable given the limitations of the era. Effects were achieved using wires, a black velvet suit, and even a matte process that composited four different film strips. One of the best examples of these effects and Whale's playful humor is a sequence in which Griffin, seen only as a pair of floating pants, skips along singing, "Nuts in May." Much like Frankenstein, Griffin was blessed with a beautiful paramour who loved him despite his lunacy. She was portrayed by Gloria Stuart, who most modern fans will know as the old lady in "Titanic." In the Before They Were Stars department, Walter Brennan and John Carradine appear in bit roles.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
"I love dead…hate living."
"Bride of Frankenstein" opens with a prologue featuring Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) revealing to her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron that there is more to the story of Frankenstein and his monster. The good doctor's hopes of marrying the lovely Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson) are dashed upon the arrival of his mentor Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a scientist even madder than his prized pupil. In one of the loonier scenes, Pretorius shows off his attempts at creating life, miniature people kept inside jars. Joining forces with the desperately lonely monster, Pretorius demands that Frankenstein to replicate his experiment and create a bride for the creature.
In my opinion, "Bride of Frankenstein" is the best of the bunch. The production design for sets like Frankenstein's castle and his laboratory are exquisite with obvious nods to German Expressionism. Karloff gets actual lines of dialogue allowing him to show a softer side to his signature character. His cries of, "Fire…bad!," certainly had a hand in the late-Phil Hartman's impression on "Saturday Night Live." Karloff really shines during a scene where he is taken in by a kindly blind man, a scene parodied to hilarious results by Mel Brooks in "Young Frankenstein." Elsa Lanchester performed double duty as both Mary Shelley and the Bride, another of Jack Pierce's masterworks. The make-up was minimalistic compared to the heavy duty prosthetics Karloff had to wear. Lanchester was only fitted with scarring under her chin, but it was her severe hairstyle, follicles wrapped around wire mesh with white streaks down the side, that has become an indelible part of pop culture. Whale's life and the making of "Bride of Frankenstein" provided the material for Christopher Bram's novel, Father of Frankenstein, which was adapted into the 1998 film "Gods and Monsters."
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."
Lon Chaney Sr. was known as the man of a thousand faces. He was one of the most successful actors of the silent era. Chaney Sr. not only starred in films like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "The Phantom of the Opera," he also crafted his own make-up. He cast a tall shadow over his son Creighton Chaney, who later took on the name Lon Chaney Jr. His father objected to his son's desire to enter the movie business. It was only after Senior's death that Junior became an actor. After struggling through numerous bit roles, Chaney had his breakthrough performance as Lennie in the 1939 version of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." However, Chaney's biggest claim to fame was the tortured Larry Talbot, a man cursed to transform into a werewolf.
"The Wolf Man" is something of an all-star affair as the cast also included Claude Rains as Talbot's father, Bela Lugosi as the gypsy fortune teller who passes the curse onto Talbot, and Ralph Bellamy as local police officer Col. Montford.
As a sidenote, Lon Chaney Jr. would go on to play a vampire in "Son of Dracula," Frankenstein's monster in "The Ghost of Frankenstein," and the Mummy in "The Mummy's Hand," "The Mummy's Tomb," and "The Mummy's Curse."
The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
"The music comes down and the darkness distills it, cleanses it of the suffering that made it."
In 1925, Universal produced a movie version of Gaston Leroux's "The Phantom of the Opera" to rousing success. Lon Chaney Sr. spooked theater patrons with his skull-like features. The remake of "Phantom" was shot in gorgeous Technicolor and reused interior set for the Opera Garnier.
Claude Rains took on the role of Erique Claudin, a famed violinist whose career ends due to arthritis. A tragic misunderstanding leads to Erique being disfigured by acid. He hides away in the catacombs underneath the Paris Opera House where he becomes obsessed with the beautiful singer Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster). Despite the film's lavish sets and a strong performance by Rains, the 1943 version of "Phantom" is rather mediocre and stands as the weakest movie in the set.
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
"The boys around here call it, 'The Black Lagoon,' a paradise. Only they say nobody has ever come back to prove it."
"Creature from the Black Lagoon" came at a time when monster movies were evolving to reflect the atmosphere of the Cold War and the new Atomic Age. It could be considered the forerunner of the drive-in B-movies and an ancestor to "Jaws." In fact, it was directed by David Arnold, who went on to direct classic sci-fi flicks such as "It Came from Outer Space" and "The Incredible Shrinking Man."
An expedition into the Amazon runs afoul of an amphibious beast, the last survivor of a prehistoric species. Nicknamed the Gill-Man, the creature was portrayed on land by contract player Ben Chapman and underwater by stunt diver Ricou Browning. Though the explorers consisted of handsome leading men Richard Carlson and Richard Denning (who was married to "Wolf Man" starlet Evelyn Ankers), it was the bathing beauty Julie Adams (who resembles a young Jennifer Connelly) that would lead the creature to a King Kong-esque demise. Many a suspenseful moment occurs when the Gill-Man's slimy claw reaches out from the depths to grasp Adams' shapely leg.
"Dracula," "Frankenstein," "The Mummy," "The Invisible Man," "Bride of Frankenstein," and "The Wolf Man" are presented in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. "The Phantom of the Opera" is presented in color with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. "Creature from the Black Lagoon" is presented in black and white with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Universal has done a remarkable job in restoring each of the classic selections in this boxset. Picture quality is sharp with print damage noticeably missing. The transfers aren't perfect, but they are amazing considering some of these films are over seventy years old.
Each film is presented with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono track. You'd expect some tininess or muffled dialogue given the age of these movies. However, the audio is clean with the scores and blood curdling screams coming off well.
The "Dracula" Blu-ray includes the Spanish version of the film with optional introduction by star Lupita Tovar Kohner. This isn't simply a dub of the Lugosi movie, but a completely separate production filmed on the same sets. Some fans even consider this to be the superior version.
The Road to Dracula (35:04) looks at the long development of the film as well as the casting and production.
Lugosi: The Dark Prince (36:07) traces the life of Bela Lugosi from his humble beginnings as an immigrant to the twilight of his career collaborating with Ed Wood.
Dracula: The Restoration (8:46) is a featurette about the painstaking process to restore "Dracula" to pristine condition.
Monster Tracks is a pop-up trivia track.
Dracula Archives (9:11) is a montage of various photos and poster art related to the movie.
Rounding out the disc is an alternate score by Philip Glass and performed by the Kronos Quartet as well as two audio commentaries, one by film historian David J. Skal and another by "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" screenwriter Steve Haberman. These commentaries are indicative of the other tracks included in this set. They are extensive and informative, but rather dry.
"Frankenstein" includes The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (44:53), which begins with Shelley's original novel and journeys through the film's production and reception.
Karloff: The Gentle Monster (37:58) is a detailed biography of the actor. Monster Tracks is another pop-up trivia track.
Universal Horror (1:35:26) is a feature-length documentary, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, about the enduring legacy of Universal's horror films.
Frankenstein Archives (9:24) is another photographic montage.
Boo!: A Short Film (9:30) is a quick parody of the horror genre from 1932 that includes clips from "Frankenstein" and F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu."
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13) is one of many featurettes Universal has produced for its centennial releases. This one focuses on the restoration process for many of their movies.
Rounding out the Blu-rays are an audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer and another by Sir Christopher Frayling. There's also a trailer gallery with previews for "Frankenstein" and its related sequels.
"The Mummy" includes Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed (30:11), a featurette that looks at how the discovery of King Tut's tomb and how "The Mummy" blends horror with romance.
He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (24:56) focuses on the legendary make-up artist with comments by some of today's greats like Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Greg Nicotero.
Unraveling: The Legacy of the Mummy (8:07) is essentially a promo for Stephen Sommers' big-budget remake that looks at the Mummy's portrayal over the years.
The Mummy Archives (9:46) is a montage of photographs and poster art.
There's a solo commentary track by film historian Paul M. Jensen. There's also a group commentary track featuring Rick Baker, filmmaker Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, collector Bob Burns, and sculptor Brent Armstrong. This one is livelier than the other tracks.
100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era (8:41) is a brief look at the life of the studio's founder.
Rounding out the disc is a trailer gallery with previews for "The Mummy" and its sequels.
The "Invisible Man" Blu-ray includes Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed (35:21), a behind-the-scenes featurette that takes us through the adapting the novel, the casting of Claude Rains, and the elaborate special effects.
Production Photographs (4:30) is a montage of photos and posters.
100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters (8:18) is a promo celebrating the studios anniversary by breezing through many of their famous characters from films like "Jaws" and "The Big Lebowski."
Rounding out the extras for "Invisible Man" are an audio commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer and a trailer gallery.
"Bride of Frankenstein" features She's Alive: Creating the Bride of Frankenstein (38:54), a behind-the-scenes featurette narrated by Joe Dante. This extra examines how the studio lured James Whale and Boris Karloff back for the sequel along with other tidbits.
The Bride of Frankenstein Archives (13:11) is another montage of posters and photographs.
100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13) is the same featurette included with "Frankenstein."
Rounding out the "Frankenstein" extras are an audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen and a trailer gallery.
Nope, we're not done yet. "The Wolf Man" Blu-ray includes Monster by Moonlight (32:37), a featurette tracing the movie's development, the assembling of the cast, and the make-up effects.
The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth (10:02) looks at the evolution of the script and how it influenced the werewolf mythos.
Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney Jr. (36:53) is a biography of the actor that examines his tumultuous youth as well as the final days of his long career.
He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (24:56) is the same featurette included with "The Mummy."
The Wolf Man Archives (6:46) is a photographic montage of poster art and stills.
100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) takes us on a tour of the world famous studio lot that includes the theme park and the many films shot there.
Rounding out disc is a commentary track by film historian Tom Weaver and a trailer gallery for "The Wolf Man" and related sequels.
For "The Phantom of the Opera," you'll get The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked (51:19), a look at the silent version and the production of the lavish 1943 remake.
Production Photographs (5:47) is a montage of photographs and poster art.
100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) is the same featurette about Universal's backlot that was included with "The Wolf Man."
Rounding out the bonus material for "Phantom" are an audio commentary by film historianScott MacQueen and the theatrical trailer.
For "Creature from the Black Lagoon," you get Back to the Black Lagoon (39:40), which takes us through the production, examines the old school process of 3D, and looks at the creation of the creature's make-up and costume.
Production Photographs (11:29) is another montage of poster art and production stills.
Rounding out the disc is an audio commentary track by film historian Tom Weaver, 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25), and trailers for "Creature from the Black Lagoon," "Revenge of the Creature," and "The Creature Walks Among Us." Those with a 3D capable television will be able to watch the 3D version of "Creature."
The collection is an eight-disc set that comes in a handsome hardbound package. There's also a booklet with more info about each film. The drawback is that Universal has chosen to house the discs in cardboard sleeves. So use caution when removing the Blu-rays.
"Universal Classic Monsters; The Essential Collection" might be the best vintage release of the year. There's a wealth of bonus material and Universal has done a knockout job restoring their most beloved classics. This is a boxset no collection should be without.