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Blu-Ray Review: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

All nine original classic horror movies, from Dracua to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, reviewed all in their newly restored glory.

 

Monsters.

“Monster” used to be a bad word. Monsters used to be uniformly fearsome creatures that kidnapped princesses, murdered children and in general just plain terrified the countryside. But at some point the term “monster” became associated with pity. For even the most terrifying monster is, in their isolation and wretchedness, a type of person. I suspect the Universal monster movies from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s played a large part of finally making these horrifying creatures truly human, albeit heightened: terrifying for their strengths, pitiable for their weaknesses. Like, I suspect, most of us feel from time to time.

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is more than a Blu-ray set, it’s a compendium of tragedy, filmed by some true masters of the horror genre way back in the infancy of the form. Some of the films are better than others, but they share a unifying theme of outsiders yearning for a connection, or when that fails, just wishing to be left alone in their suffering, or lashing out at the terrified mobs who won’t let them. Life does not turn out well for the Universal monsters, but their legends endure. Beyond the gothic sets, unforgettable character designs and the violence inherent to the horror genre, they remain indelible figures, beloved more than feared, due to this sad humanity. And for the most part, they are truly great movies about that same sorrowful subject. They are old friends, and with this new set, you can visit with them and hold their hands. If you can stomach touching them.

The Blu-ray transfers are all remarkably impressive for films of this vintage. Scratches and other damage have been cleared away, leaving a crisp presentation that make some of the more energetic films, like James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in particular, feel like they could have been made quite recently at the hands of a mad young genius. Each film comes with its own impressive share of special features, including expert commentaries, behind the scenes documenataries and more, but the flaw in this set is that it fails to include, with the exception of Bride of Frankenstein, any of the original films’ many sequels. True, most of them were bad (or at least unmemorable), but by omitting them, even on repurposed old DVDs, this “essential” collection has one significant failing: it requires you to hang onto all your old DVD sets for the Universal monster movies, the best of which included all the follow-up films as well.

But at the very least this set makes a fine addition to anyone’s collection, particularly if they don’t have the films already. We’re going to go over each of the films in turn to see just how good this set really is beyond special features and historical significance. How do the Universal monster movies hold up today, with the horror genre run rampant with the very ideas they established 50-80 years ago?

Quite well it turns out…
 

Dracula (dir. Tod Browning, 1931)

The first film in the Universal horror cycle came out on Valentine’s Day, 1931. How appropriate, since the film is Dracula. Vampires remain the sexiest movie monster we have, and we certainly have Bela Lugosi’s suave rendition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula to thank for it. At its best, Tod Browning’s Dracula evokes the intimacy of the vampire legend, with a handsome, alluring and decidedly foreign gentleman seducing the young women of England and destroying their lives in the process. The victims he doesn’t kill outright are cursed to spread their evil and pestilence throughout the land, or live just long enough to become a threat to their family and loved ones. Like a sexually transmitted infection, Dracula’s seduction of the innocent threatens happy unions and condemns his victims to the lifestyle of their assailant. In a strange way, the film’s treatment of vampires as a symbolic representative for external social forces of immorality make it a strong double feature with Reefer Madness, the infamous (and infamously awful) propaganda film with a similar, although substantially more laughable moral agenda.

But at its worst, Dracula is a very stodgy film. Browning’s version was based on a stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderstone, the latter of whom went on to contribute to horror classics like Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and Mad Love (1935), but the adaptation leaves most of the film stuck in rooms with its protagonists, who talk about off-screen events that sound more fascinating than what we’re necessarily watching. And Dracula himself, stunning as Bela Lugosi is in the role, remains an underdeveloped character. He exists as the demonic “other” more than an actual character. His relationships with his victims imply no deeper connection to them than physical intimacy. That’s part, certainly, of the intended horror of this version, but the sacrifice to Dracula’s actual character is a hindrance. We know little of him beyond his sense of style. His actual purpose, motivation or emotional state are mostly bypassed in favor of the more screen time with the know-it-all Dr. Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) and the film’s two milquetoast lovers, John Harker (David Manners) and Mina Seward (Helen Chandler).

The atmosphere of Dracula plays better the bigger screen you have, and with sufficient ambience you can get wrapped up in its arms, but it’s still a bit of a struggle. Though historically significant and not without its strengths, Dracula is the film on this set that feels the most dated.

 

Drácula (dir. George Melford, 1931)

Also included on this disc is the historical curiosity we call Drácula, a Spanish-language version of the exact same screenplay, shot on the same sets as Browning’s version by a different director and cast. Drácula tells the same story, almost note for note, and yet it’s required viewing precisely for that reason. For most intents and purposes, Drácula is actually the superior version of the movie, filmed with greater vitality and a more sensational sense of terror. The only thing it lacks is Bela Lugosi, since Carlos Villarias’s interpretation of the character lacks Lugosi’s iconic sense of grandeur. Villarias’s Dracula has more fun with being a vampire, grinning quite often, whereas you got the impression that Lugosi’s Dracula didn’t so much enjoy being his immortality. His sense of tragedy, understated though it may be in the English-language version, is almost completely missing from Drácula, leaving the Spanish-language movie feeling a little more hollow than its counterpart, even though it’s more dynamically staged.

But more dynamically staged it really, really is. When watching both films, look in particular at the different versions of the wreck of the Vesta, the ship that took Dracula to England that arrived with only one survivor, filmed with an almost Sam Raimi-esque sense of sensationalism. Then look at the climax of the film, and the differences in the way Dracula’s crony Renfield (Pablo Alvarez Rubio in the Spanish version, Dwight Frye in the English, both of them hamming it up like mad) dies at Dracula’s hand. In Browning’s film, Dracula pushes Renfield down a flight of stairs, where he topples a bit and then dies rather limply. In George Melford’s film, Dracula pushes Renfield off the steps completely in a very impressive stunt. Drácula goes the extra mile with the still-stagey story, bringing it to life more impressively, except for the Count himself, unfortunately. A fascinating double feature, whichever version you prefer.



Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1931)

Frankenstein is a true wonder of a movie. Watching it today you get the sense that James Whale was phenomenally ahead of his time in his understanding of composition, his emphasis on rapid editing and his canny understanding of the complex themes evoked by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original story, about a scientist who creates a new life out of dead bodies, then shuns the creature and ultimately suffers the consequences. While not a true horror story in the modern sense, since the film emphasizes the ghoulishness of scientific necromancy over the deadly after effects, this gothic nightmare is nonetheless perfectly realized as a thoughtful, exciting exploration of scientific hubris in a highly stylized hyper-reality.

Much has been written about Boris Karloff’s incredible interpretation of the Frankenstein Monster, and repeated viewings reveal only more complexities. The Monster is a blank slate who develops a personality over this film and its incredible sequel (also included in the set) based on the reactions of the people around him. Originally, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, believes his creation to be a work of perfection. Only when he learns that the brain he used was from a criminal does he decide otherwise, even though there’s no evidence to support the Monster’s inherent wickedness until he’s preemptively punished for it. “It take a village,” “Nature vs. Nurture,” pick the parenting axiom you like and Frankenstein has something meaningful to say about it.

Incredibly staged and impeccably acted (Colin Clive in particular doesn’t get enough credit for his multi-faceted performance), Frankenstein is probably the best film in the entire Universal Horror cycle. Some prefer the sequel, and it’s easy to understand why, but we’ll get to that after…

 

The Mummy (dir. Karl Freund, 1932)

Would you believe I hadn’t seen the original version of The Mummy before this set came out? I know, I’m ashamed too. Director Karl Freund (who also directed Mad Love, a horror classic in its own right) crafts here a strange hybrid of the successful elements from both Dracula and Frankenstein. The monster, played with significantly more dialogue this time by Boris Karloff, is another lonely creature risen from the grave, this time obsessed with a young woman (Zita Johann) who is the reincarnation of the woman he loved in Ancient Egypt. His romantic influence corrupts her, nearly destroying her relationship with the decidedly whiter romantic lead (David Manners), and in a strange parallel with the forthcoming Bride of Frankenstein the climax involves raising his lady love from the dead. It’s probably more than a coincidence, since all four films were co-written by John L. Balderston.

The Mummy is a pretty fun film, all things considered. The romantic leads have actual chemistry (unlike Dracula), the villain has a real character and an intriguing scheme, and the emphasis on magic makes him a particularly formidable foe. The suspense is aided by a deeper clarity about the monster’s motivations and a slight haziness about his abilities, which are sometimes godlike. Beyond the intriguing plotline and some strong performances, however, The Mummy doesn’t feel as significant as many of the other films on this set. It’s merely a really good film, whereas Whales’ films (in particular) have an air of timelessness to them. Still, it’s pretty easy to get wrapped up in The Mummy. (All puns intended.)

 

The Invisible Man (dir. James Whale, 1933)

The Invisible Man is unique amongst all the Universal Horror monsters, because he’s actually having fun. Too much fun, of course, and therein lies the problem. The Invisible Man tells the story of a scientist who turns himself invisible and, in the process, goes completely mad with power. There’s a tragedy to his existence, but it stems from his relative inconvenience more than self-pity. For the Invisible Man, the good outweighs the bad. Who needs to be visible when you can screw with the entire world with absolute impunity?

Like the Invisible Man himself, director James Whale seems to be having a hell of a time directing the film. The visual effects used to bring the Invisible Man to life are remarkable, even to this day. Unless you’re intimately familiar with the production of the movie, you’ll likely spend a large part of the running time wondering just how they hell they pulled it off have a century before the invention of CGI. But beyond that, Whale seems particularly interested in giving the angry mob from Frankenstein, at least by proxy, a hard kick in the pants. The monster in this movie gets revenge for every other monster in film history because he doesn’t have anything to fear. That fearlessness makes The Invisible Man a highly entertaining motion picture, but also a little dramatically thin.

We never meet the Invisible Man (played by Claude Rains, who will appear in a lot of the Universal Horror movies to come) before he goes mad. We never get a sense of whether his relationship to his fiancé (Titanic’s Gloria Stuart) was a healthy one before his transformation. He’s all catharsis without any of the build up that would make it truly satisfying, making the Invisible Man feel more like an old school comic book supervillain than a truly sympathetic hero. The rest of the cast is full of cads and comic relief, so really, the film just invites you to have a good time enjoying the visual effects and carnage. In that respect, The Invisible Man is kind of like The Transformers of the 1930s, except it’s actually really, really good.

 

Bride of Frankenstein (dir. James Whale, 1935)

James Whale’s original Frankenstein only told half the story. Somewhat literally, since it left out huge swaths of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s original novel. In the opening of Bride of Frankenstein, Shelley herself appears (played by Elsa Lanchester), revealing to her husband and Lord Byron that the story continued after the events of the first film, and proceeds to tell the rest of the tale amidst a thunderstorm on a dark, gloomy night. And if that’s not cheeky enough for you, there’s the rest of this movie, in which Whale appears to be having the time of his life.

Many film aficionados agree that Bride of Frankenstein is a better film than the first. It’s certainly more imaginative, and certainly a classic in its own right, but I find the story much less focused than Frankenstein, and the tone rather scattershot, with segues from gothic mystery to broad comedy to legitimate horror sometimes within the space of a single minute. It’s never boring, Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s not really a horror movie anymore. This is the tale of the monster finally deciding what it wants, and what it wants is companionship.

What it gets, of course, is the companionship of mad scientist and dandy extraordinaire Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesinger), a former professor of Dr. Frankenstein’s whose own attempts to create life wind up a little stranger than even the iconic monster himself. He conspires with the monster, who has since learned to speak, to kidnap Frankenstein’s bride and force him to create a bride for the creature, who inevitably shuns him like every other person on the planet.

Bride of Frankenstein is a powerful film, evoking the monster’s terrible loneliness even more than the first Frankenstein by demonstrating that he yearns for personal connections. It’s also funny, insane and marvelous. I just prefer the original film’s directness: it didn’t need to digress into slapstick and non sequitur visual effects showcases to tell its story. But they’re both marvelous films whichever you prefer.



The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner, 1941)

There aren’t a lot of werewolf movies out there, compared to vampire movies or even Frankenstein knock-offs. Some folks blame the need for complex makeup effects, and I’ll bet that’s a part of it, but when you watch the 1941 Wolf Man in the context of contemporary cinema, it’s also clear that this horror subgenre evolved into something slightly different: the serial killer thriller.

In The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Larry Talbot, a normal guy who returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reunite with his estranged father, played by Claude Rains. While romancing a local beauty (Evelyn Ankers), they visit a gypsy played by Bela Lugosi who transforms into a werewolf and attacks Larry. Larry kills the wolf with his silver cane, but nobody believes his story because the only corpse looks more like Lugosi than a feral dog. As the stories of werewolves begin to affect Larry’s psyche, he becomes increasingly disturbed by the fact that his wolf bite healed overnight, and he keeps disappearing in the wee hours only to wake up and discover new victims have piled up during his blackouts.

The Wolf Man isn’t as thrillingly staged as many of the other films on this set, despite some memorably makeup and transformation effects, and Chaney Jr. isn’t a particularly charismatic lead. But he does have the “poor bastard” role down. Rains fares considerably better as the understanding but logical father who tries to explain the scientific truth behind lycanthropy, that it’s just a metaphor for dangerous psychoses, failing to appreciate the horrible situation his son faces right in front of him. That relationship centers The Wolf Man, along with the constant struggle between scientific and emotional truth, and foreshadows many future films about serial murderers who either don’t understand or appreciate their deadly compulsions.

Though not the best film in the set, it wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of The Wolf Man, which today is perhaps more of an interesting film than a truly involving one.

 

The Phantom of the Opera (dir. Arthur Lubin, 1943)

Claude Rains returns, for the third and last time in this boxed set, as the title character in The Phantom of the Opera, a handsome production from 1943 that deserves a little more attention. Most folks know the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, many others are also at least vaguely familiar with the Lon Chaney Sr. silent classic, but this full color production – the only color film in this bunch – does a better job of evoking empathy for the villain than perhaps any other version of the tale.

Erique Claudin (Rains) is a concert violinist for the Paris Opera House, but after 20 years of loyal service his hands start to go, and his boss has to let him go. Despite two decades in a respectable, high paying job, however, we discover that he’s flat broke. Every penny he made went to anonymously paying for expensive music lessons for a young ingénue named Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), on whom he has a seemingly innocent fixation. Destitute, Claudin tries to sell his musical masterpiece, but a misunderstanding leads him to a horrible psychotic break, a hideously disfigured face, and a life of roaming the Paris Opera House in secret, murdering anyone who stands in the way of Christine’s dreams.

This interpretation of the story, and Rains’ heartbreaking performance, make the 1943 Phantom of the Opera incredibly involving. Director Arthur Lubin, whose fascinating career also includes some of the better Abbott & Costello movies and the oddball Frances the Talking Mule franchise, balances the film’s darker subject matter with a genuinely charming love triangle between Christine, the detective investigating the murders (Edgar Barrier) and a baritone at the opera (Nelson Eddy), who repeatedly fall over themselves competing for her affections. The film’s climax, after a thrilling cave-in at the Phantom’s underground lair, is an odd but effective combination of romantic tragedy and romantic comedy, and one of the happiest resolutions of any film in this set.

Though overshadowed by other interpretations of the material, The Phantom of the Opera (1943) is a truly great film that deftly combines genre elements multiple sources into a single, highly enjoyable motion picture. It’s one of the best and most enjoyable Universal horror movies that didn’t spring from the mind of James Whale.

 

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (dir. Jack Arnold, 1954)

The latest addition to the Universal horror staple was actually filmed in 3D, and that version (along with the more commonly seen 2D one) is included for posterity in the collection. I had never seen The Creature from the Black Lagoon before, and was impressed by the way it fit within the sci-fi predilections of the 1950s while simultaneously surpassing most of its contemporaries in style and ambition. The Creature begins at the dawn of time and winds up in the then-present day, when a group of scientists travels down the Amazon to dig up the skeleton of a previously unknown species of fish man, unaware that one of these creatures is alive and well and willing to defend its territory.

The Creature is perhaps unique amongst the rest of the Universal monsters, because it doesn’t seem to want anything. Although the heroine (Julia Adams) gets kidnapped at the end, it doesn’t seem like the monster has any designs on her romantically. His environment was invaded by a new species, and so the creature defends itself. Large portions of the movie take place underwater, with the title monster spookily shadowing the scuba diving heroes trying to determine what these odd-looking humans are all about.

Those scientists are well-defined, not terribly well-acted, but go through the typical sci-fi motions of debating whether they should kill the monster to save themselves or protect it for scientific posterity. These kinds of moral quandaries, and storylines about science gone amok or discovering new horrors in the world around us, were prevalent during the post-nuclear decade, but they feel like they’re just part of the landscape of The Creature of the Black Lagoon, with only a couple of monologues foregrounding the “point” of it all. The point is that they had a scary-ass monster costume, an excuse for impressive underwater photography in a tropical location, and a talented director, Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man) who knew how to bring the thrills. Blunt but engaging, The Creature from the Black Lagoon just barely evokes the tragedy necessary to feel like a necessary inclusion on this set, but ultimately qualifies as a Universal horror classic.

 

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection: