Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

  • Reviewed by: Dr Adam Jahnke
  • Review Date: Oct 05, 2012
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
  • Bookmark and Share
Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection

Director

Various

Release Date(s)

1931-1954 (October 2, 2012)

Studio(s)

Universal
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: B+
  • Overall Grade: A

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (Blu-ray Disc)

amazonbuttonsm

Review

Studios don’t really have personalities or identities anymore. Today, we think of the major studios as divisions of larger corporations, weighing risks and seeking to deliver a profitable product. Disney is kind of an exception but their identity is so firmly entrenched that they could start producing nothing but hard-R torture porn and people would still remember them as a family-friendly studio.

But in the early days of Hollywood, studios were frequently best-known for specific types of movies. Everyone did a little of everything but their reputation’s were built on a certain genre. MGM meant great musicals. Warner Bros. became known for gritty gangster pictures like The Public Enemy. And Universal, of course, was the home of the monsters.

Fans have been hoping Universal’s Monsters would hit Blu-ray for years but for awhile, the prospects looked iffy at best. Fortunately, the studio’s 100th Anniversary prompted a major restoration effort which has already given us such stellar discs as All Quiet on the Western Front and Jaws. Now, it’s the monsters turn to shamble into the high-def spotlight. Let’s take a disc-by-disc tour through The Essential Collection.

 

Disc One - Dracula

Universal first hit box-office gold with Bram Stoker’s undying bloodsucker, indelibly portrayed by Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. In recent years, the movie’s reputation has suffered somewhat, tagged as stagy and over-the-top. Some of that’s true to an extent. It is an early talkie, after all, and fake bats on fishing wires lost their ability to frighten many moons ago.

But for many, Lugosi IS Dracula and with good reason. His performance, often unfairly described as campy, is unlike anything audiences had seen before. From the moment he appears on screen and introduces himself in that thick Hungarian accent, he establishes himself as a weird, otherworldly presence different from everyone else around him. Dwight Frye is genuinely creepy as the deranged Renfield and Browning’s direction is, for the most part, surprisingly subtle. Lugosi’s Dracula may have lost some of his ability to terrify but his ability to entrance and entertain remains undimmed.

Universal has given Dracula a full-scale digital restoration and the results are simply astonishing. The movie comes alive with breathtaking clarity and superb detail. Film grain has been thoughtfully preserved, so it doesn’t look like you’re watching a wax museum’s chamber of horrors. The DTS-HD mono sound has been sweetened, removing aural hiss and pops, leaving behind a crystal-clear soundtrack.

Extras kick off with the simultaneously-shot Spanish-language version of Dracula, also given the same restoration and looking just as pristine. Many feel that director George Melford’s version is superior to Browning’s film. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s definitely a fascinating take on the material. Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten remake of Psycho was intended as an experiment in filming the same screenplay with different casts and crews. It’s a failed experiment that isn’t worth watching. Melford’s Dracula is essentially a better-executed version of the same general idea.

Most of the extras in this set are ported over from Universal’s previous DVD releases of the films, including the original 1999 Classic Monster Collection, the 2004 Legacy Collection, and the 2006 Legacy series releases of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. As near as I can tell, the only previously released extras that are missing are the brief featurettes with director Stephen Sommers from the 2004 editions meant mainly to promote his monster mash Van Helsing. I don’t consider this to be a great loss but if you’re a Sommers fan, I guess you’ll want to hang on to those.

Specific extras on Dracula include audio commentaries by David J. Skal and Steve Haberman, an alternate score by Philip Glass performed by Kronos Quartet, Skal’s documentary The Road to Dracula, a biographical featurette called Bela Lugosi: The Dark Prince, a trailer gallery of all four movies in the original Dracula cycle, and the extensive Dracula Archives. New to the Blu-ray is a brief but interesting piece on the restoration and a subtitled trivia option called Monster Tracks (at least, I think that’s new. I couldn’t find it on any of the previous DVD versions I had access to.)

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A/A

 

Disc Two - Frankenstein

For their next trick, Universal turned from the supernatural to science. Director James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein became every bit as much of a phenomenon as Dracula, thanks primarily to Boris Karloff as the creature. As magnetic and memorable as Lugosi was as Dracula, there was still room for other actors, notably Christopher Lee, to come along later and stake a claim on the character (pun begrudgingly intended). But with Frankenstein’s Monster, everyone else takes a backseat to Karloff.

In combination with Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup, Karloff created a creature audiences could both fear and pity at the same time. Whale’s direction is somewhat livelier than Browning’s, filled with wit and macabre flourishes. Colin Clive gives a memorable performance as the not-quite-100%-mad-yet scientist and Dwight Frye turns in another great supporting turn as the hunchbacked assistant, Fritz. Everything comes together to make a true classic of the genre. Whale’s movie is so permanently etched in our collective psyche that it’s little wonder that English professors introduce Shelley’s novel to their students by first warning them that it’s virtually nothing like what they probably expect.

Universal’s restoration team deserves high marks for this effort as well. The picture looks lovely with deep, inky blacks and fine attention to detail. The audio isn’t quite as revelatory as on Dracula, with some hiss and distortion evident at times, but it certainly sounds better than previous releases.

Extras include audio commentaries by Rudy Behlmer and Sir Christopher Frayling, the David J. Skal documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, the biographical documentary Boris Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Kevin Brownlow’s 95-minute documentary Universal Horror, the short film Boo!, the Frankenstein Archives, and a trailer gallery featuring the five movies of the original Frankenstein cycle. The Blu-ray also includes another Monster Tracks trivia option and the generic featurette Restoring the Classics, which has already appeared on a few Universal 100th Anniversary releases.

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/A

 

Disc Three - The Mummy

Karloff again allowed himself to be subjected to hours of Jack Pierce makeup for his role as Imhotep, the disgraced Egyptian priest returned to a semblance of life centuries later. I was a bit annoyed when Universal remade The Mummy as more of a supernatural adventure movie in the 90s. When I was younger, this was one of the few Universal horror movies that legitimately gave me the creeps. Revisited years later, the debt it owes to the script of Dracula is a little more apparent but it still has some fine moments.

Much of the credit for that belongs to the atmospheric direction of Karl Freund, one of a handful of pictures helmed by the legendary cinematographer. The story of The Mummy may not hold many surprises but it doesn’t really matter because the movie’s all about mood. Most of the horror lurks in the shadows and in the piercing stare of Karloff’s eyes. It’s also one of Universal’s sexier horror movies, thanks to the sensual Zita Johann as the object of Karloff’s affections. The Mummy may not boast as many iconic, unforgettable moments as its predecessors but it remains a dark delight.

As far as I know, The Mummy did not receive the same level of restorative attention as Dracula and Frankenstein. But you wouldn’t know it from the disc. It’s a pleasure to examine the fine details of Karloff’s wrinkled visage. Audio quality is a step up from previous editions, sounding clear if occasionally low and muffled.

Extras on this disc include one of the set’s best audio commentaries by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Brent Armstrong and collector, historian and all-around wonderful human being Bob Burns. The second audio commentary is by Paul M. Jensen. Other bonus features include the Skal documentary Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unleashed, the featurette He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, the brief Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy, a trailer gallery of the five Mummy movies and The Mummy Archives. The 100 Years of Universal featurette, The Carl Laemmle Era, is worth a look but is also featured on previous 100th Anniversary discs.

Film Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio): A-/B+/A-

 

Disc Four - The Invisible Man

In 1933, Universal introduced their first human monster. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) was no vampire or stitched together cadaver. He was a scientist looking to unlock the secret of invisibility. But after he cracked it, figuring out how to reverse the effects and hold on to his sanity proved to be a far more difficult challenge.

Once again directed by James Whale, working from the H.G. Wells novel, The Invisible Man gives Rains one of the best movie entrances of all time: staggering into a pub from out of a blinding snowstorm, his head encased in bandages and sporting a fake nose and a killer pair of sunglasses. He may be human but he’s presented as otherworldly and monstrous from the get-go. Rains makes a huge impact in his first American film, despite the fact that we don’t see his face until the very end. And the special effects, still impressive almost 80 years later, must have blown audiences’ minds in 1933. Most invisible person movies are, let’s face it, not very good. Whale succeeds in treating the subject with wit, suspense and imagination.

For the most part, The Invisible Man looks excellent on Blu-ray. At its best, it’s on par with the other discs in the set. There are a few moments where the source material reveals its age but nothing to get too worked up about. The audio quality is clean and even throughout, nicely cleaned up for high-def.

Bonus features on this disc include an audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, Skal’s documentary Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, and a gallery of production photographs. The trailer gallery is a little stingy on this disc, covering just two sequels: The Invisible Man Returns and Invisible Agent. It’s disappointing that trailers weren’t included for the original film, The Invisible Woman or The Invisible Man’s Revenge. The 100 Years of Universal featurette is an eminently skippable promotional piece called Unforgettable Characters that appears on many other 100th Anniversary discs.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/C+


 

Disc Five - Bride of Frankenstein

For their first sequel, Universal reunited Karloff, Colin Clive and James Whale for Bride of Frankenstein. Whale seems to have been given free reign to do whatever he wanted to do on this one and he takes full advantage to deliver one of the most original and entertaining horror films of all time. Whenever film fanatics argue about sequels that are superior to the original, Bride should always be mentioned.

The movie goes from one classic sequence to another with Ernest Thesiger’s performance as the eccentric Dr. Pretorius a particularly inspired addition. Elsa Lanchester is unforgettable as the Monster’s Mate, from her electrified hair down to her odd, bird-like movements. It’s a testament to the film’s power that the blind hermit sequence still works today even after Mel Brooks expertly parodied it in Young Frankenstein. And while Karloff may have been against the decision to endow the creature with speech, it’s hard to say it was a bad call with such iconic lines as, “We belong dead.”

Along with the two versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, Bride was given the full-on digital restoration treatment. As with those films, the results are out of this world. This is another rich, detailed transfer that looks as though as pristine new print had been struck and delivered directly to your home. High marks also for the cleaned-up audio track, although Franz Waxman’s great score sounds a wee bit punier than one might like.

The extras begin to repeat themselves on this disc, with the same trailer gallery as on Frankenstein and the same Restoring the Classics featurette. I can only assume these were repeated in case Universal releases these as stand-alone titles later on down the line. Additional extras include an audio commentary by Scott MacQueen, the Skal-umentary She’s Alive! Creating Bride of Frankenstein, and the Bride of Frankenstein Archives.

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B- 

 

Disc Six- The Wolf Man

The Invisible Man may have been human but he wasn’t exactly relatable. He’s already half nuts and completely invisible before the movie even starts. But Larry Talbot was just a regular guy who had the misfortune to be bitten by a werewolf and inherit his curse. And, as played by Lon Chaney Jr. in what would come to be his signature role, Universal finally had its first everymonster.

Director George Waggner wasn’t an iconoclast like Tod Browning or James Whale and didn’t have the visual style of Karl Freund. But The Wolf Man works, thanks largely to the screenplay by Curt Siodmak that pretty much invents everything we now consider to be werewolf “mythology”. Jack Pierce’s makeup is primitive compared to later werewolves but it’s effective and allows Chaney room to give the Wolf Man a personality. Chaney, a big, beefy, likable-looking guy, may be an unlikely horror icon. But as Larry Talbot, he conveyed both savagery and pained innocence. Larry didn’t deserve to have this happen to him. But no one ever does in the best horror movies.

Image quality on The Wolf Man is, once again, rich, clear and detailed. However, I noticed some mildly distracting edge enhancement from time to time. If I noticed it on my normal-person-sized display, on larger screens that enhancement will likely go from mildly to extremely distracting. Audio quality, on the other hand, is top-notch. No complaints there.

The disc’s extras begin with an audio commentary by Tom Weaver, followed by Skal’s Monster by Moonlight documentary. The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth featurette is too brief to be really illuminating. The disc does include one of the most interesting biographical docs, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney Jr., perhaps because Chaney’s life hasn’t been quite as well-documented as Lugosi’s or Karloff’s. The Pierce documentary He Who Made Monsters was evidently so nice, they included it twice. It shows up again on this disc. Finally, there’s The Wolf Man Archives, a trailer gallery of six wolf-movies (including Werewolf of London and She-Wolf of London, not connected to the Chaney cycle) and one of the more interesting 100 Years of Universal featurettes, The Lot

Film Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A/A-

 

Disc Seven - Phantom of the Opera

Universal had its first taste of horror-flavored success with the 1925 silent version of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney, Sr. So it isn’t a surprise that they’d remake the picture. The only real shock is that it took them so long to get around to it.

But director Arthur Lubin’s 1943 version is no match for Chaney and is probably the one inessential element of The Essential Collection. The first sign of trouble is that singer Nelson Eddy is top-billed over the Phantom himself, Claude Rains. (By the way, it’s also a little surprising to realize that Rains turns up in three movies in this set, more than either Lugosi or Chaney Jr. and equal with Karloff.) This isn’t so much a horror movie as it is a lavish, Technicolor prestige picture. It’s gorgeous to look at and Rains is fun, but I’d be more likely to watch Phantom of the Paradise on Halloween night than this.

The only color film in the set is dazzlingly bright and crisp. In fact, maybe a little too crisp. To my eyes, this seemed to get a little too much attention from the grain police, resulting in a slightly over-processed look. It isn’t one of the worst offenders I’ve seen and the picture can frequently look spectacular. But on a larger screen, it may look too digitally enhanced for some. The sound is great, however, which is good considering how vital the music is to the experience. Universal did a first-rate job restoring the audio elements on this one.

Extras are a bit more meager on this disc but include a first-rate Skal documentary, The Opera Ghost: The Phantom Unmasked, an audio commentary by Scott MacQueen, and production photos. The theatrical trailer is here all by its lonesome since Universal didn’t franchise out the Phantom, which is kind of a surprise when you think about it. Finally, the 100 Years featurette The Lot makes its first encore appearance.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/A/C+

 

Disc Eight - Creature from the Black Lagoon

By 1954, horror movies were pretty well dead and buried, replaced by the sci-fi terrors of giant irradiated ants, lizards and assorted other innocent creatures. But Universal still had one last great monster left to unleash: the Gill-Man. He didn’t speak. He didn’t seem to want anything other than to be left alone (and mate with Julia Adams but who can blame him for that). And he was played by two different actors (Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning underwater) neither of whom became or were even intended to become stars. And yet he became one of the most beloved monsters in the pantheon.

The story itself takes your standard 50s sci-fi stock characters (scientists, scientist’s gorgeous fiancée, native guides) and mixes in a little King Kong/Beauty and the Beast action. In fact, if the Gill-Man’s design (primarily by Millicent Patrick, though makeup artist Bud Westmore gets all the onscreen credit) wasn’t so special and unique, the movie would probably be forgotten today. If you love Creature, odds are you love it because of the Gill-Man. I know I do and others here at The Bits do, too. (See if you can spot which one at the About The Staff page.)

The big news for the Blu-ray release is its availability in its original 3D format. Alas, I do not have a 3D TV or player (but this disc has made me more likely than anything else to consider getting them), so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of that presentation. In 2D, the image is more than a little inconsistent. I don’t think it’s the transfer or restoration so much as it is the limitations of the original material with its mixture of underwater and above-water photography. This would be a tricky movie to get HD-ready and I think Universal did the best they could with what they had. The audio quality is quite good, at least.

In addition to the 3D presentation, extras include audio commentary by Tom Weaver, Skal’s Back to the Black Lagoon documentary, production photos, a trailer gallery including all three Creature features, and the 100 Years featurette The Lot, making its third and final appearance.

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/A-/B+

 

Final Thoughts

Considering that at one time Universal wasn’t even sure if they were going to release these movies on Blu-ray at all, this set is truly remarkable. The discs come housed in a handsome and sturdy slipcase with the discs in a sumptuously designed sleeve and a very nicely produced booklet with lengthy liner notes. Sure, it would be nice if the set had more newly produced bonus content. But it’s hard to complain about that when everything worth having from the many previous incarnations of these films has been included and that material is so informative and entertaining. At the end of the day, it’s the incredible technical presentation of the films themselves that make this set so spectacular. If you love the Universal Monsters, you must own this collection.

- Dr. Adam Jahnke

Bits Latest Tweets

Today on The Bits – I’m on TWO #ComicCon2017 panels, plus Terminator 2 #4K update, Gkids #StudioGhibli update & more fb.me/1prp62tZq
Some details (and great news) about GKids' new Studio Ghibli Blu-rays... fb.me/7f2Yip3xe
Bits #Bluray Review – @timsalmons reviews Gone with the Pope from @GrindhouseFilm #indie #crime fb.me/9nAvG01CX