Universal Classic Monsters 30-Film Collection, Part 1: The Original Classics (Blu-ray)


The Films:

The Universal monster classics. For some, these are the first name in horror. While obviously not the first horror films ever made, they would define their own era that would run through the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, giving us such classics as “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man,” and their various sequels. At the time, these films thrilled and horrified audiences with their terrifying monsters and creepy atmospheres, and while they may be rather tame by today’s standards, many of them are still fun and exciting to watch, and that’s not to mention the fact that they remain very influential.

To celebrate the great legacy of these films, Universal has recently upgraded their “Classic Monsters Complete 30-Film Collection” to Blu-ray, which contains almost all of the original films, plus the sequels, so to further celebrate just in time for Halloween, let’s take a trip down memory lane and delve into some of these films, starting off with the original classics that spawned these multiple franchises. Please note that these won't be regular, full-length reviews, but rather capsule reviews that give my basic thoughts on each film.

Starting off our look back at the classics, we have Tod Browning’s “Dracula” from 1931. Based on Bram Stoker’s infamous novel, the film follows Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi), a vampire who purchases an abbey in London so that he may continue his evil, blood-sucking ways in a new location. It is here that he meets Mina (Helen Chandler), a young woman that he starts to prey on. However, he also comes face-to-face with Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan), a man who knows the Count’s secrets and will do everything in his power to stop him. Will he be able to do so before all hope for Mina is lost?

My experience with the original “Dracula” has been a rather interesting one over the years. I first saw the film several years ago, and ended up not caring for it very much. My only recollection of that first viewing was that, even at a brief 74 minutes, the film moved at a rather slow pace and just didn’t pull me in. However, revisiting the film years later, I found a new appreciation for it, not only in its elegant gothic settings and classic (though somewhat cheesy) chills, but also for the rather remarkable performances. Of course, everyone tends to focus this area of the discussion on the incredible Bela Lugosi, whose commanding screen performance as Count Dracula is unforgettable, but the same can and must be said of Edward Van Sloan, who brings a great sense of gravitas to what is otherwise a pretty silly story with his strong turn as Van Helsing. Both of them, combined with the already-mentioned marvelous production design, turn this into a classic that still holds up today, one that still continues to be sought out by horror fans of every generation.

On a sidenote, included as an extra on this particular Blu-ray is the Spanish version of “Dracula.” Many people don’t know that there were actually two versions of the film that were made at the same time, on the same sets, using pretty much the same script, but with a different cast and crew. While there are some who believe that it’s superior to the original because of its more-stylish camerawork (they had the benefit of filming at night, which gave them more time to plan the shots, while learning from the English version that filmed during the day), but I would have to disagree due to two main issues. First, the cast is not nearly as good (i.e. it doesn’t have the benefit of Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan’s outstanding performances), and second, the film is longer by 30 minutes. One of the original’s great strengths is its brief runtime of just 74 minutes, but adding 30 minutes makes the Spanish version feel much longer than it needs to be, consequently hurting it more than helping it. When it comes to comparing the two versions, you’re simply better off sticking with the original classic.

Up next is James Whale’s Frankenstein, also from 1931. The classic tale, based on Mary Shelley’s novel, tells the story of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), a scientist obsessed with creating life out of dead body parts. His secretive work is a concern for his fiancée, Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), and his father, Baron Frankenstein (Frederick Kerr), but with the help of his trusty assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), he is able to accomplish his macabre goal. The result is a monster (Boris Karloff) that eventually breaks free and runs amok across the countryside, killing innocent people along the way. Henry, who comes back to his senses, must hunt him down with the help of the townspeople before he strikes again.

What can anyone really say about “Frankenstein” that hasn’t already been said? It’s basically THE classic monster film, featuring memorable turns from Colin Clive as the mad scientist and Boris Karloff as his creation. The production design is once again a striking highlight, especially when it comes to Frankenstein’s laboratory, which has so many dials and switches that you pretty much believe that anything could happen in there. Is it any wonder that Mel Brooks would want to use the exact same set for his masterpiece “Young Frankenstein” over 40 years later? You also have to hand it to the makeup designer Jack P. Pierce for his incredible work on the creature, which still looks amazing several decades later. When it comes right to it, the film continues to endure for all of these reasons, but also because it’s an unforgettable story, which, despite multiple attempts, has never been matched.

Next we have Karl Freund’s “The Mummy” from 1932, which begins in 1921 with the discovery of the titular mummy and a cursed box containing a scroll. One of the archeologists reads this scroll and awakens the mummy, who emerges ten years later in the form of Ardath Bay (Boris Karloff). He believes that a young lady by the name of Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) is the reincarnation of his lover, whom he had tried to resurrect over 3,000 years ago, only for it to result in him being put to death. It’s up to Frank Whemple (David Manners) and Dr. Muller (Edward Van Sloan) to stop him before he can carry out his deadly plan to make her his bride.

This is where I have to make a cinematic confession: I am not a fan of this particular Universal classic, and furthermore, I would probably have to name it as the weakest of the original films. For starters, it’s rather misleading to label this as a horror film, for it’s far more accurate to call it a melodrama. There are small elements of horror here and there, but for the most part it’s a love story. It’s also kind of a missed opportunity, for in those early scenes, we have Boris Karloff completely transformed into a rather creepy mummy, but this is the only time we are treated to this. For the rest of the film, he is in the plain form of Ardath Bay. You have to wonder how intriguing the film could have been had they utilized Jack P. Pierce’s incredible mummy design to make an actual monster flick, instead of the disappointing melodrama that we got instead. There are some things to like about it, including the makeup and some of the performances, but at best, the film remains a strange curiosity in the Universal catalogue that stands somewhat apart from the other monster classics.

Now we come to my personal favorite of the Universal classics, James Whale’s “The Invisible Man” from 1933, based on the novel by H.G. Wells. The story tells of a scientist, Jack Griffin (Claude Rains), who has found a way to turn himself invisible. The problem is, it has also driven him insane. While trying to find a remote place to work on a cure, his mental instability causes him to go on a rampage throughout a small village, bringing his presence to the attention of the local police, who try to do everything in their power to stop him. Meanwhile, Jack’s girlfriend, Flora (Gloria Stewart), and colleague, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan), want to help, but it just might be too late to save him from his destructive path.

Now why is this my favorite of the classic monster flicks? Quite simply because it has the most entertaining story of the lot. We have an invisible man on the loose, causing havoc wherever he goes, and a whole squad of policemen trying to find the best way to stop him. However, what makes it particularly effective are the great special effects, which are rather impressive for 1933. From the moment Rains pulls off his fake nose to reveal nothing there, it’s quite stunning to watch as he unveils his missing eyes and unwraps his invisible head, and that’s not to mention later scenes in which we see him moving about in just a shirt or pants. Couple this with the skillfully crafted scenes of object moving about “on their own,” and it’s easy to get lost in what could otherwise have been just another silly monster flick.

On a sidenote, some of the special effects didn’t transfer particularly well to the Blu-ray (the invisible areas are more defined and some strings are more clearly visible), but that doesn’t take away from the incredible work that Whale and special effects wizard John P. Fulton accomplished. Finally, Claude Rains’ marvelous breakout performance has to be mentioned. Granted, you don’t actually get to see him until the very end, but he still manages to give a commanding turn with his vocal work and body language. With all of this, it’s not hard to see why “The Invisible Man” is still praised as one of the great classic horror films, one that will continue to endure for a long time to come.

This brings us to George Waggner’s “The Wolf Man” from 1941. The film begins with Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returning home to his father, Sir John (Claude Rains), following the death of his brother. He meets and falls for a local girl, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), whom he accompanies to a fortune reading, along with a friend of hers. During their outing, they are attacked by a wolf, which Larry manages to kill with a silver cane he bought from Gwen earlier, but is bitten in the process. It is revealed that the wolf was actually the gypsy fortuneteller, who was in fact a werewolf. It’s not long before Larry finds himself turning into the creature at night and murdering innocent locals. With everyone on the hunt, he must do what he can to fight his condition, though resistance might just be futile.

This is another one of the classics that I’ve never been particularly fond of, though I do find that it works slightly better than “The Mummy.” The main problem here is that, despite a rather intriguing setup that has the main character turning into a blood-thirsty werewolf, the film just doesn’t do much with the premise, leading to a film that feels stretched out even at a relatively brief 70 minutes. There is a lot to like here, including more brilliant work from master makeup artist Jack P. Pierce and fantastic turns from Lon Chaney, Jr. and Claude Rains, but aside from that, the film just doesn’t have very much to offer in the way of substance. This is probably why the film is remembered much more for the monster’s look than anything else, for unfortunately there just isn’t a whole lot else that’s memorable about it.

Last up on our journey through most of the original Universal classics is Jack Arnold’s “Creature from the Black Lagoon” from 1954. The film starts with the discovery of a portion of an arm from an ancient creature. The discovery brings together a group of archeologists who are anxious to find the rest of the creature, for it may serve as an important evolutionary link between fish and humans. Their expedition brings them to a lagoon where they find themselves under attack from another one of these creatures that they dub a “Gill-man.” Finding themselves trapped in the lagoon, the crew must fend off this monster before it manages to kill them all.

With “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” the original classics kind of go out on a low note. It’s actually somewhat similar to “The Wolf Man” in that it takes a rather interesting premise (in this case, an ancient creature picking off a crew one by one), but just doesn’t do very much with it. This leads to a film that is mostly uneventful, and extremely repetitive. Most of the film is basically the crew waiting around in the boat, occasionally going in the water and swimming around for a while, and the creature popping up every now and again to attack. On the bright side, there’s some intriguing underwater photography, well-directed by Jack Arnold (most famous for “The Incredible Shrinking Man”), as well as some excellent monster design for the infamous creature. Unfortunately, besides these elements, the film’s lack of substance leads to it being a mostly forgettable creature feature and one of the weaker Universal classics (and yet two sequels would follow shortly after).

Video/Audio:

“Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” and “The Wolf Man” are all presented in 1.33:1, 1080p High Definition transfers, while “Creature from the Black Lagoon” is presented in 1.85:1. Universal has obviously taken a lot of time and effort to restore these classics for their Blu-ray release as they all look positively stunning. They may range from 64 to 86 years old, but the work they have done makes them look as they must have when they were first presented all those decades ago. Likewise, the Mono 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks on each film are exquisite, giving you all of the dialogue, sound effects, and scores in outstanding quality. Overall, these films have never looked or sounded better, which is sure to please the classic horror fans looking to add them to their collection.

Special Features:

Dracula:

Dracula (1931) Spanish Version

The Road to Dracula

Lugosi: The Dark Prince

Dracula: The Restoration

Dracula Archives

Alternate Score by Philip Glass

Feature Commentary with Film Historian David J. Skal

Frankenstein:

The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster

Karloff: The Gentle Monster

Universal Horror

Frankenstein Archives

Boo! A Short Film

Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer

Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling

Trailer Gallery

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics

The Mummy:

Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unleashed

He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce

Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy

The Mummy Archives

Feature Commentary with Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong

Feature Commentary with Film Historian Paul M. Jensen

Trailer Gallery

100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era

The Invisible Man:

Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed

Production Photographs

Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer

Trailer Gallery

100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters

The Wolf Man:

Monster by Moonlight

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

Trailer Gallery

100 Years of Universal: The Lot

Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver

Creature from the Black Lagoon:

Back to the Black Lagoon

Production Photographs

Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver

Trailer Gallery

100 Years of Universal: The Lot

Instead of taking several extra pages to go into detail on each and every one of these, I’m just going to summarize the extras as a whole, for each film contains very similar offerings. For starters, each film has at least one commentary track from a film historian that gives you a lot of interesting background information about the film. In addition, there are multiple “Making of” featurettes that delve into each classic, while others discuss the fascinating legacy of Universal Studios. On top of that, you get lots of photos and trailers, so there are plenty of great extras here for fans to sink their teeth into.

Conclusion:

So here ends our journey through the original monster classics. Some of them truly are great films that continue to delight and entertain, while others don’t particularly stand up well on their own. However, there’s no denying the legacy that each and every one of these films started, for they were each followed by numerous sequels and cross-over films. In Part 2, we’ll be taking a look at some of the immediate sequels that followed these classics, including “Dracula’s Daughter” and “Bride of Frankenstein,” as well as a curious pairing with a certain infamous comedic duo, so be sure to check back next week for a continued stroll through the Universal classics.

Now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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