Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection (US - BD)
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We begin in chronological order with the one that started it all. Well, that’s not entirely true. Universal had already made a name for itself in Hollywood horror throughout the close of the silent era, including Lon Chaney Sr.’s star-makers Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, and German expressionist Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs. Then Dracula added sound into the mix and changed the face of the Universal Horror brand (though, apparently, it was not the first; Rupert Julian and John Willard’s little-seen The Cat Creeps, a remake of The Cat and the Canary, beat Browning to sound well by one year), along with the same year’s Frankenstein. Dracula, which was based on an incredibly popular stage play version of Bram Stoker’s novel, is best remembered for a select few sequences, almost all of which revolve around star Bela Lugosi’s massive star power. It’s hard to overestimate Lugosi’s impact on the film. One only needs to watch the George Melford directed Spanish language version for comparison (which is easy, since it’s included here). Melford shot his film on the same gorgeous sets as Browning, using the same screenplay, and since it started making the rounds on home video, critics have noticed his direction is actually a bit crisper and more evocative than Browning’s. But Spanish actor Carlos Villarías’ best efforts simply cannot compare to Lugosi’s hair-raising charms. I don’t mean to downplay Browning’s efforts, he has a very strong gothic aesthetic, but he’s really working from such a strong script on such powerful sets, and with such a perfect lead actor he’s in a no-fail situation for most of the film. Browning’s best work was far more macabre and perverse than the relatively ‘30s friendly Dracula, specifically his masterpiece, Freaks.
I can state without any doubt that Dracula has never looked better on home video that it does on this new 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray transfer. The image is clean without losing the wonderful texture of the film grain itself. Beyond the grain, which naturally increases and decreases depending on the amount of smoke or darkness on screen, there are some minor warping effects and dirty white flecks throughout. DNR effects are not an issue, but there are signs of slightly clumsy digital compositing or liquid emulsion artifacts ( some kind of damage correction). Even with these minor quibbles in place the clarity is paramount. I notice that specifically during Dracula’s introductory shots (where he’s ascending stairs among spider webs) contrast levels and edges are especially sharp, instantly overwhelming the blurry images I’ve grown accustomed to squinting through. Occasionally, a shot will appear muddy, but I have to assume this is a simple case of the material never looked particularly sharp at these moments, most of which occur during fades. This transfer is also perfectly black and white, not grayish or worse, purplish and greenish. The older 35mm source material limits details and fine textures, but this print makes much better use of the subtle layers of blacks and grays to create a better sense of depth.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack certainly shows signs of age in the form of fuzz, a few crackles, and a general flatness, but is overall clear and generally tightly knit. The dialogue is more natural than it is on recent television airings, with fewer noise-reduction effects and high volume/strong aspirated consonant hisses. Effects remain minimal at best and are just as tinny as always, but there’s no excess of pops or inconsistent volume levels. The original musical score is given a pretty sharp overhaul, featuring plenty of bass support despite the lack of a discrete LFE enhancement. The disc’s producers have included Philip Glass’ incredibly Philip Glass-esque 1998 score on an alternate track as well. Due to its recent vintage this track sounds plenty crisp and even has depth despite the lack of stereo enhancement. The only side effect is that the original dialogue and effects are a bit lower on the track than they probably should be.
- An audio commentary with film historian David J. Skal that follows the usual historian/educator commentator pattern of unraveling historical factoids and anecdotes. Most of this stuff isn’t going to be news for fans, even more passing ones like myself, but it’s important to have it all in one place and should be extremely valuable to newcomers.
- A second commentary track with Dracula: Dead and Loving It screenwriter Steve Haberman. Haberman’s track is another expert track, full of further historical information and set with a slightly more lively and critical slant.
- George Melford’s Spanish language version of Dracula, re-mastered in 1080p HD, complete with an optional introduction from actress Lupita Tovar Kohner (4:10, SD). The image and DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono sound qualities are top notch, occasionally even sharper than the work on Browning’s version.
- The Road to Dracula (35:00, SD), a retrospective/historical featurette hosted by Universal head Carl Laemmle’s niece Carla Laemmle, and featuring additional interviews with Clive Barker, historians David J. Skal, Ican Butler, Ronald Vorst, Lokke Heiss, Scott McQueen and Bob Madison, John Balderston (son of Dracula playwright), make-up artist Rick Baker, and actor’s sons Bela Lugosi Jr. and Dwight D. Frye.
- Lugosi: The Dark Prince (36:10, SD), a loving tribute to the actor’s career including interviews with genre subject writers/personalities Joe Dante, Kim Newman, and Sir Christopher Frayling.
- Dracula: The Restoration (8:50, HD)
- Monster Track Trivia
- Dracula Archives image gallery/slide-show.
- A trailer gallery featuring Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula.
Often mistakenly referred to as the greatest of all Universal’s Horror movies (the correct answer would be Bride of Frankenstein) and the only one to make the AFI’s top 100 American movies list (the list featured only a handful of horror movies, including Psycho, Jaws, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Sixth Sense). Though they’re almost always coupled due to being released sequentially, covering similarly old-fashioned stories, and having a similar box-office effect, Dracula and Frankenstein are very different films. Aside from the rhetorical and philosophical differences in Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley’s original novels ( Dracula was based mostly in history and mythology, while Frankenstein was a more modern and unique story), the variances are mostly found between the filmmakers themselves. Tod Browning was a generally darker, more gothic personality while James Whale, by all means the more talented filmmaker, embraced German expressionism and camp humour. Endless arguments could be made concerning which of the two films is the more perverse beneath the era-friendly self-censorship, but I’m guessing most fans would mark Frankenstein as the better film, if not for its stronger direction, then definitely for its deeper subtexts. Whale’s film occasionally suffers for sitting somewhere between the more mainstream expectations of early ‘30s horror and the eccentricities of his superior follow-up, but, besides Frankenstein comparative lack of flamboyance, its only measurable shortcomings are some minor pacing issues. The middle of the film, where Whale is often bereft of his awesome sets and forced to contrast his monster within the real world, rhythmically dips a bit. Still, even in the light of day, Whale and Karloff manage to find genuine humanity in the monster and, in the end, these ‘slower’ sequences are the ones that define the film for many fans and critics.
Once again, I haven’t seen this film look any better than it does on this 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray disc (sensing a trend yet?). The image here is comparable to the Dracula re-master with a few key, minor differences. I’d call this the more consistent transfer overall, but would also say it falls a bit short of the occasional highs in detail and clarity seen on the Dracula disc. Lesser home video releases of Dracula have often suffered muddiness and weird colour issues while Frankenstein’s problems often relate to dim contrast levels and too much white noise. The contrast here is still a bit on the dull side, but there have been steps taken to ensure nothing important is lost in the pervasive darkness. This is most valuable in discerning background details and patterns, which have appeared like a gray and white wash before. Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s use of more centered focus leads to some sharper close-up textures, but doesn’t do a lot for the depth of field during medium to close-up shots. Grain is still a consistent part of the look, but appears more averaged and not as noisy over white areas (the key shot of Karloff reaching for light is sizably cleaner here than the previous DVD). Dirt and print damage is quite uncommon, as are the digital artefacts that commonly go along with re-mastering processes (no obvious stabilizing or damage erasing effects here). There are some minor bouts with edge haloes, but nothing to really complain about.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track features more depth of sound than I recall from previous releases, especially in terms of vocal effects, which have both a natural tone and a decent amount of realistic echo/reverb. There is, of course, still plenty of hiss and underlying noise throughout the film, which is, again, a side effect of early ‘talkies,’ but this never presses itself into the way of the dialogue or simple sound effects. The effects work is crisp, though clearly still a part of the base track and not made up of icky library noises. The heaviest effects, like those of thunder or buzzing laboratory equipment, tend to muddy a bit on the highest volume levels, but these never really effect the more important instances of dialogue. Bernhard Kaun’s music (which is non-specific to this film) is so uncommon that it’s almost a non-factor on this track, but, when it does show up it certainly sounds richer than previous versions.
- An audio commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer, whose information flows tonally like one of those headsets you can rent while visiting a museum. There’s not a whole lot of character, but plenty of information.
- A second commentary track featuring film historian Sir Christopher Frayling, who many readers may remember from various Sergio Leone feature commentaries. Frayling’s approach is both more intellectual and personable.
- The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (44:50, SD), another retrospective featurette covering the history of the book and stage versions that led up to Whale’s film, hosted by David J. Skal and featuring interviews with Rudy Behlmer, Bob Madison, Donald Glut, Ivan Butler, Jan-Christopher Horak and Paul Jennsen, Karloff’s daughter Sara, Rick Baker, and Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon.
- Karloff: The Gentle Monster (38:00, SD), a look back at the bulk of the actor’s career with film footage and interviews from many of the same interviewees.
- Universal Horror (1:35:30, SD), an all-encompassing, made for TV look at the studio’s genre output, narrated by Sir Kenneth Branagh and including interviews with writer Ray Bradbury, sci-fi/horror personality Forrest J. Ackerman, actors Nina Foch, James Karen, Gloria Stuart, Fay Wray, and Gavin Lambert, as well as some of the folks we’ve already heard from throughout the other docs.
- Monster Tracks Trivia
- Frankenstein Archive slide-show/image gallery.
- Boo! (9:30, SD), a short film written and directed by Albert DeMond.
- A trailer gallery featuring Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein.
- 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:10, HD).
The Mummy (1932)
Here’s where my familiarity with the subject matter begins to falter, as director Karl Freund’s The Mummy isn’t one of those movies I tend to watch on cable television every Halloween. I’ve often considered The Mummy among the lesser Universal Monsters, but now realize that Freund’s film is actually among the better made films in the canon, though it quotes/recalls Browning’s Dracula so often it loses valuable originality points. Freund was never the same brand of super-star director that Whale and Browning were, but he was even more ingrained in the earliest days of film horror than either. Before directing The Mummy (which I believe was his first sound production as head director), Freund served as cinematographer on some of the most influential German Expressionist films, including Paul Wegener and Carl Boese’s The Golem, F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. He entered the Universal fold as Browning’s cinematographer on Dracula (which reportedly included some uncredited direction) and Robert Florey’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. All of this behind-the-camera experience culminates with The Mummy, a visually lush experience that doesn’t draw the same attention to its process as similarly impressionistic films, specifically Bride of Frankenstein. On top of this The Mummy is also burdened with the requirements of an adventure movie, which Freund successfully blends with his suspense and romance on a very modest budget. This all adds up to an underrated feature sandwiched between a series of more fundamentally disturbing, straight horror films. This underrated quality extends to Freund’s classy treatment of dramatic elements and strong cast performances, many of which remain well below the hyperbole line set by Browning and Whale (excessive dramatic pauses aside). The only thing keeping The Mummy away from my personal favourite list is the wispy storyline that rarely connects on that all-important primal level.
Guess what? This new, re-mastered, 1080p, 1.37:1 Blu-ray transfer is the best I’ve ever seen this movie look (I told you this was going to get old). Curiously enough, the various strengths and shortcomings here don’t necessarily match the other discs in the collection. The Mummy falls slightly short in terms of contrast levels, appearing generally more gray during shots I’m assuming were intended to include harsher shadows and highlights. However, this transfer also features some of the sharpest details and textures in the collection, which is especially important considering the production design and make-up’s dusty and delicate embellishments. There is a possibility that further tampering with gamma levels to achieve deeper blacks might deplete some of the highlights and I want to trust that the balance struck here is the ideal mix. This transfer also corrects the green tint I’ve seen on lesser prints over the years. Grain and flicker is still present (especially during effects sequences, like rear projection scenes and fades), though there are some shots that show minor signs of digital noise reduction in the softer facial elements. Physical print damage is practically nonexistent (considering age, et cetera), but there are a few frame jumps and what appear to be CRT scanning artefacts.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack starts off with a kind of muddled, crackly rendition of ‘Swan Lake,’ but quickly the sound is corrected with a very clean and overall basic mix. There’s very little in the way of underlying noise, meaning that when the track goes silent, it goes quite close to genuinely silent. Dialogue is easily discernable and free of crackling distortion, though it certainly exhibits some muted qualities. Effects are similarly clear with the same slightly muted qualities, but also tend to feature plenty of natural depth for type, though with less of the echo and reverb effects heard on the Frankenstein track. The Mummy apparently features the first original score made for any of the Universal Monster series (though plenty of stock cues were still used), most of which sound warmer and cleaner than the opening title ‘Swan Lake.’
- A mixed group audio commentary featuring make-up superstar Rick Baker (who seems to have been recorded separately), documentary director Scott Essman, historian Steve Haberman, super collector Bob Burns, and Art of Clay Sculpture Studios owner Brent Armstrong. This is a busy and fun track with Haberman getting the most talk time.
- A second commentary track features film historian Paul M. Jensen, who approaches the track from a drier, more intellectual standpoint. Jensen is clearly reading directly from his notes and his dryness turns numbing, but he certainly has a lot to say, even with a series of blank spaces.
- Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed (30:10, SD), another retrospective featurette, this time hosted by Rudy Behlmer with film historians Paul Jensen, Gregory Mank and David Del Valle, screenwriter’s son John Balderston, Sara Karloff, and Rick Baker.
- He Who Makes Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (25:00, SD) covers the prestigious career of make-up designer Jack Pierce, who worked on Universal horror movies for almost 20 years. It includes interviews with working make-up artists Nick Dudman, Kevin Haney, Rick Baker, Míchele Burke, Howard Berger, Tom Savini, Thomas Burman, Bill Corso and Gerg Nicotero, familiar authors Stephen Jones, Kim Newman, Sir Christopher Frayling and Steve Haberman, and Pierce’s biographer Scott Essman.
- Unraveling the Legacy of the Mummy (8:10, SD), an EPK for Steven Sommers’ The Mummy and The Mummy Returns.
- The Mummy Archive slide-show/image gallery.
- A trailer gallery featuring The Mummy, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse.
- 100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era (8:40, HD).
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Invisible Man is another film in this collection I have trouble remembering more than a select few images from, making it another particularly valuable personal revisit. It’s difficult to consider The Invisible Man as a ‘Universal Monster Essential.’ Besides the title character not really being a proper ‘monster,’ the film (based on a book by H.G. Wells) is a sci-fi/comedy, not a horror picture. But this first film version (of many) was directed by James Whale, which I suppose marks it as something of an honorary monster/horror film. Regardless, The Invisible Man is mostly remembered for its groundbreaking special effects rather than its lavish visuals and campy sense of humour, but it easily fits within the director’s specifically flamboyant movies. It’s not as visually dramatic as the Frankenstein films, but there’s no sign of the master resting on his laurels or wasting all of his energy with the effects. In fact, watching all of these films in a row, I’ve discovered an amusing contrast between the impressionistic scope of the Frankenstein sets and that of the smaller British countryside homes. As if to compensate for a lack of fantastical scope, Whale, working once again with cinematographer Arthur Edeson, gets flashy with his camera and editing work. These relatively rare practices include screen-wipes, montage editing, energetic tracking shots, and a rather bravado sequence where the camera pushes into the horn of a Victrola to reveal a series of mélange fades of townfolk preparing for the Invisible Man’s supposed reign of terror. The Invisible Man was also famous for launching Claude Rains’ Hollywood career, which would lead him to parts in The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and most memorably, Casablanca. Rains’ manic performance also clearly fits Whale’s tongue-in-cheek bourgeoisie obsessions. Whale is obviously having the most fun with his supporting cast of silly character actors as well, none of who seemed concerned with selling a joke too subtly. It’s still not a horror movie, though.
This 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer continues the trends set by the bulk of the collection and, gasp, looks better than I’ve ever seen the film look before (zzzzzzzzz). This transfer doesn’t feature quite the same level of consistently harsh contrast, but this is mostly due to a less consistent use of such imagery. Again, this is not Whale in Frankenstein mode, this is Whale in melodrama/comedy mode, not to mention a director who is dealing with a lot of special effects work. But, aside from occasionally dull shots set in moderate light and a few overexposed sunlit scenes, there’s plenty of dynamic black and white work. Details are rarely deep-set, but textures and lines are clean and I definitely noticed a few subtle production design nuts and bolts that go missing in even well-maintained standard definition. Edeson uses a lot of softer focus in close-ups, which creates a slightly awkward differentiation between shots when the footage has been this well-treated. Between cuts the image can very easily turn grayer and grainier, but this is an effect of the footage, not a problem with the transfer, which appears naturally grainy to me overall. This particular transfer pulses with a bit more shutter than some of the others, but its rarely distracting and doesn’t include warping or skipping effects. There are some blotchy bits that likely represent a digitally-deleted print damage artefact, but little in the way of obvious digital noise reduction.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is among the most robust in the collection, at least in terms of overall volume levels. I believe it may be a case of more overall sound in the mix, thanks to crowd scenes, windstorms, chiming clocks, and creaky footsteps. Despite these advantages, the track features a bit more high-end distortion effects (especially when Una O'Connor is screaming) and has some issues with maintaining consistent volume levels, specifically with the otherwise natural dialogue. This track features a hint of underlying hiss, but is clear of obvious pops and crackles. Heinz Roemheld’s recycled music crops up exclusively at the beginning and end of the film and doesn’t really have much of an effect on the track.
- An audio commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer. Behlmer is an old pro at commentary tracks, which he approaches like a speaking trip though the Internet Movie Database. His tone may be too mechanical for some listeners, but I find him to be warmly predictable.
- Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed (35:20, SD), another retrospective featurette hosted by Behlmer, with historians David J. Skal, Paul Jessen, actor Ian McKellen, director Bill Condon, and Claude’s daughter Jessica Rains.
- Production photo gallery
- A trailer gallery including The Invisible Man Returns and Invisible Agent.
- 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters (8:20, HD).
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The Bride of Frankenstein doesn’t just improve upon its predecessor – it improves and transcends upon a genre brand and is arguably the only film released during the Universal horror boom that can be considered an auteur success. Frankenstein features important glimpses into James Whale’s tastes and filmic inspirations, but Bride of Frankenstein is a crystalline mirror into exactly who he was as a filmmaker and a human being. Extremely personal, subversive, and even political films have escaped the Hollywood B-movie machine for generations. The German expressionist filmmakers that stylistically inspired Whale made movies steeped in dark subtext, but the turn of the century European filmscape was open to politics and personalization in a way the Hollywood market wouldn’t touch with any regularity for quite some time. How did Whale get away with all this? By giving 1935 audiences exactly what they wanted – more camp, bigger and more decorative sets, louder performances, and a bunch of bizarre, over-the-top goodness. Doctor Septimus Pretorius’ (Ernest Thesiger) homunculi creatures alone must have sent period audiences into hysterics. All of Whale’s loosened id and cheeky (or flat out blasphemous, as the period censors would claim) subtext isn’t even necessary to enjoy the film, nor is an understanding of the technical processes. There are enough thrills, beautiful images, laughs, and unlikely emotionally moving moments to keep even the most jaded modern audience entertained. The only thing keeping Bride of Frankenstein from utter perfection is the fact that it is a sequel and cannot thematically stand on its own. The story even begins with a bit of expositional retcon. However, this would soon become a horror sequel mainstay, extending from the days of Universal, through the Hammer ‘remakes’ and decades of slasher franchises. Besides, Whale treats this awkward necessity with a definite wink and nod that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
It would be a tragedy for the best movie in this collection to feature anything less than another fantastic transfer. Thankfully, the streak stands and we’re treated to a fifth top tier 1080p, 1.37:1 HD image. This particular transfer is, appropriately enough, most comparable to the Frankenstein disc and features none of the softer blacks or DNR effects that threaten the Mummy disc. Overall gamma and contrast balance is quite dynamic, creating a generally crisp and clean look, despite the obvious impact of film grain. The finer details and highlights found in wider shots of massive castle and nature sets are consistently well-balanced, featuring more depth than I’ve ever seen from the material. The image is weaker when Whale and cinematographer John J. Mescall are dealing in softer focus close-ups. Here, the lower contrast levels and purposeful definition make for a bit of a flat gray look where the basic film artefacts and flicker definitely age the material. There is some edge enhancement early on, but this is mostly delegated to reused footage from the first film. Some of the flashy, flickering background shadows appear a bit blotchy and some of the brightest white highlights bloom a bit, but neither is distracting.
At this point, it’s apparent that watching these films in release order reveals advances in film sound, making each soundtrack a bit cleaner than the last. This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack follows suit and features very little in the way of underlying noise. The dialogue tracks are clear and natural, without the minor muting qualities heard on The Mummy track. There is slight hiss on aspirated consonant and minor distortion on some of the ‘clickier’ incidental sound effects, but nothing that stands out as unlikely for a track of this vintage. The Bride of Frankenstein features a rather prominent musical score by Franz Waxman. This more persistent music also sets the film apart from its relatively quiet predecessor and the music is treated quite well, even without stereo or LFE enhancement.
- An audio commentary with film historian Scott MacQueen. Like the other more academic solo tracks, MacQueen’s approach is pretty dry and specifically fact-based, but he’s better about remaining screen-specific with his notes. I learned an awful lot from the audio essay, especially concerning various underlying meanings, but I also take issue with some long silences.
- She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein (38:50, SD), another retrospective featurette hosted by Joe Dante and featuring familiar interviewees like, authors/historians Bob Madison, Paul Jensen, Gregory Mank, Christopher Bram, commentator Scott MacQueen, Sara Karloff, Clive Barker, Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon, Rick Baker, and Dwight D. Frye.
- The Bride of Frankenstein Archive slide-show/image gallery.
- A trailer gallery featuring Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and House of Frankenstein.
- 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:10, HD).
The Wolf Man (1941)
George Waggner’s The Wolf Man has never landed particularly high on my personal favourite Universal horror list. I’ve never been able to put my malaise into words and, unlike The Mummy and The Invisible Man, I actually found myself not looking forward to this particular re-evaluation. The major issue is how difficult I find it to relate to Larry Talbot, whose tragic fate is the very soul of the film. Unlike every other film in this collection, it’s absolutely paramount that the audience responds to Talbot as a character. Without caring about his plight I’m left with very little more than foggy sets to glom onto. Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance, though a bit petulant, isn’t the problem, nor is Jack Pierce’s make-up design (though I’m not all that fond of it, either); there’s just too much dramatic dissonance to react to The Wolf Man as anything more than a relatively entertaining B-picture. The problem is less a case of a badly told original story, it’s more a problem of the same, or similar stories being better told since. If there was one ‘monster’ that Hammer studios did better than Universal it was the Wolf Man, specifically Terence Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf, which crawls much deeper into the psychological terror of being a victimized, repentant man-killer. Waggner (whose skill set doesn’t even begin to approach that of Whale, Browning or Freund) makes a handsome picture, but not one with much personality beyond it’s evocative cinematography, which can be mostly credited to Academy Award winning director of photography Joseph A. Valentine ( Joan of Arc, Saboteur, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope). Waggner acted as producer on other Universal horror features, including The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and Phantom of the Opera (see below), but found consistent directing work in television throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, like The Green Hornet, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Batman. It’s too bad none of this swinging camp made its way into The Wolf Man.
The Wolf Man has often looked particularly flat and greenish on home video and television, likely due to Waggner’s excessive use of fog effects. This new 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer goes a long way in correcting the issue and, shockingly enough, is the best I’ve ever seen the movie look. Besides generally better contrast levels, which lead to stronger blacks and whites and a deeper visual canvas, this re-master is incredibly clean and soft without sacrificing texture. I do suspect that there’s more than a tinge of digital tinkering here, similar to what appears on the Mummy disc. Film grain is constantly present, but it doesn’t look entirely natural. In fact, it sometimes looks a bit like the supposed post-DNR faux-grain applied to some of Blue Underground’s transfers. Perhaps someone let the re-mastering process get away from them this time. Suspicions aside, I don’t see any major signs of CRT scanning issues or telecine artefacts. There are hints of minor print damage and artefacts, like hair and dust throughout, especially in some stills and fades, along with some shifting frames and thin edge haloes, but its overall cleanliness is among the best in the collection. The question for fans, I suppose, will be if the cleanliness has been taken too far.
It’s obvious that film sound had found its proper footing sometime around the ‘40s and this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track often sounds just as good as any mono mix from a much more recent film. It’s actually less tinny than many ‘70s releases, including natural vocal performances and incidental effects (some of which are treated with heavy hands) with minimal noise-reduction effects. The spooky, foggy, forest scenes occasionally feature a bit of natural ambience, though nothing as aggressive as the sturm und drang of The Bride of Frankenstein. Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, and Frank Skinner’s groundbreaking musical score is more the star here, including rich strings, nice, round horns, and surprisingly bassy timpani support. The strength of the music is often dulled for the sake of dialogue or wolf man howling, which is understandable considering the lack of stereo support.
- An audio commentary with film historian Tom Weaver. Weaver finds a nice balance between the usual academic essay reading style and a more personable tone, though his personality occasionally overtakes the information, specifically when he’s dropping a snotty two-cents concerning a factoid he doesn’t believe (why share it then, Tom?).
- Monster by Moonlight (32:40, SD), a retrospective featurette hosted by An American Werewolf in London writer/director Jon Landis including interviews with Rick Baker, screenwriter Curt Siodmak, Jan-Christopher Horak, and film music historian John Morgan.
- The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth (10:00, SD), a brief look at the film with Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Mick Garris, Landis and Baker again, and writers Stephen Jones and John Rigby.
- Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr. (36:50, SD), a look at the life and career of the film’s lead actor with author Gregory Mank, Kim Newman, monsterkid.com editor Kerry Gammill, Steve Haberman, Cheny friend A.C. Lyles, actor Sid Haig, Jack Hill, and Joe Dante.
- He Who Made Monsters: The Art and Life of Jack Pierce (25:00, SD), as seen on the The Mummy disc.
- The Wolfman Archives slide-show/image gallery.
- A trailer archive, including Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and She-Wolf of London.
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:30, HD)
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
The Mummy and The Invisible Man represent the two films in this collection I felt the most unfamiliar with despite having seen each on more than one occasion. This particular version of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera is the only film in the set I have no memory of ever seeing. Despite winning two Oscars and making a lot of money Phantom of the Opera was born into relative Universal Monster obscurity in the long run, mostly because it was made in the shadow of Lon Chaney Jr.’s classic, lavish, and popular 1924 adaptation, which was less than 20 years old at the time (though that sounds kind of quaint compared to the time it takes to reboot a property these days). But, without pretending to be an expert on the subject, I assume the Universal execs were using the familiar material to support a bigger production, one featuring blazing Technicolor filmstock. Phantom of the Opera is, as far as I understand, the most expensive of this so-called Universal Monsters collection, running a supposed $1.5 million – a huge price tag for a horror movie in 1943. The problems of including it here are more related to the film not being a horror movie, or even a remotely unique adaptation of the material. Director Arthur Lubin’s film is a good-looking, but dreadfully bland and forgettable melodrama. Even Hammer’s generally undervalued 1962 adaptation of Leroux’s story, bereft of Claude Rains’ more touching performance (not to take anything away from Herbert Lom, of course) is more memorable, thanks to director Terence Fisher’s superior eye for dynamic imagery. Lubin takes almost no chances with camera movement or lighting, depending almost exclusively on the quality of the stock and Alexander Golitzen award-winning production design to impress the story’s scope upon the viewer. A mediocre director at the best of times, Lubin’s pre- Phantom of the Opera filmography includes mostly adventure movies, lesser Abbot and Costello comedies, and a Karloff and Lugosi sci-fi/thriller vehicle called Black Friday. He ended his not particularly illustrious career directing mostly Francis the Talking Mule movies and Don Knotts’ The Incredible Mr. Limpet.
Phantom of the Opera stands out among the films in this set for a pretty obvious reason – it’s presented in colour. Rich, gorgeous three-strip Technicolor. This 1080p, 1.37:1 re-master doesn’t quite match Fox’s recent ‘Forever Marilyn’ release, which featured reference-level Technicolor transfer on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, but certainly must blow any standard definition release out of the water (I assume, having never seen the film). The usual, unavoidable Technicolor side-effects are present, most obviously a lack of natural skin tones and some less than pure black levels, though, for the most part, this disc features deeper blacks than even stronger transfers. The colour strips appear slightly misaligned a bit more often than superior Technicolor Blu-ray releases, leading to bleeding and edge enhancement throughout the entire film. These are comparatively minor (I do wish I had the DVD to compare to), but are easily the chief problem with the transfer. Credited cinematographers W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr shoot everything with a relatively soft focus, which leads to some blooming effects, but the softness is not a measurable problem for anything but the source material. DNR effects are a non-issue, as grain levels appear natural, but there are more bits of print damage artefacts here than any other film other than perhaps Dracula. Quibbles aside, this is a strong transfer and worthy of the set.
This disc also stands out from the pack aurally due to a much, much heavier musical presence (apparently, the optical sound recording used was a somewhat rare system that corrected sound modulation effects). This DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix is rich and complex enough to be confused with a stereo track throughout, specifically concerning the busier opera mixes. Dialogue tracks are natural, with only a hair of distortion or noise between words. There’s little in the way of incidental and atmospheric sounds, but bigger effects, like crowd noise, crashing chandeliers, and collapsing catacombs are set well apart from the music. Edward Ward’s music is, clearly, the key aural element, featuring a rich, reverberant, yet clean sound. The instrumentations are brassy and loud without tripping over each other or being squeezed into audio mud at the busiest moments. Again, the separation of elements is sharp enough to often create the illusion of a discreet multi-channel track.
- An audio commentary with film historian Scott MacQueen. This track matches the tones and information-unraveling style of his Bride of Frankenstein track. His ‘strictly facts’ approach (spiked by a couple of silly dramatic readings) could’ve been dull, but the amusing range of facts he chooses to share make for a more entertaining experience than the film alone.
- The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked (51:20, SD), the longest of all the retrospective featurettes (the length is explained largely by the fact that it covers the various Universal-owned versions of the story), hosted by MacQueen, with Carla Laemmle, historians Rudy Behlmer and Paul Jensen, actress Susan Foster, actor Turhan Bey, and Rains’ daughter Jessica.
- Production photos.
- A trailer.
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:30, HD)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon belongs to a different era than the other ‘golden era’ Universal monster movies. It’s not just a B-movie – it’s a drive-in movie and one made to exploit the 3D gimmick. Outside of the studio heading, genre type, and black and white filmstock, it has very little in common with the rest of the films in this set. This is simply a different experience, almost a time warp to the death knells of the studio’s interest in genre output. This set covers the birth of the post-sound Hollywood horror movement ( Dracula, Frankenstein), through its touches with true prestige ( Bride of Frankenstein), its dips back into the ghetto ( The Wolf Man), and its attempts at recapturing former glory, but there’s a part of the story missing between the outrageous expenses of Phantom of the Opera and the largely ignored, bottom basement, secret masterpieces, like Creature from the Black Lagoon. The missing pieces are mostly a series of sequels and monster mash-ups, followed by a series of Abbot and Costello comedies that tossed aside most horror pretense in favour of a good laugh. These movies belong in their own collections, however, so it makes sense that they weren’t included here. Still, even with deep abiding love in my heart, I find it difficult to include Creature from the Black Lagoon in this particular conversation. Despite its low-grade pedigree and modest upbringing, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an entertaining, creative, and genuinely well-made motion picture – all key contributors to a successful film of its type. Arnold’s work also had a similarly heavy influence over modern horror and sci-fi films than Dracula and Frankenstein. One can draw direct lines from Creature from the Black Lagoon to many post-drive-in creature features, specifically proto-blockbuster leviathan Jaws (I’m also reminded of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie any time the film shifts to underwater photography). Arnold, who was apparently hired because he was already familiar with 3D filmmaking, made an early career making solid B-genre movies like this and The Incredible Shrinking Man, eventually moving onto a long-lasting second life in television, but his best film is probably The Mouse that Roared, a brilliant political satire starring Peter Sellers in multiple roles.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the only widescreen film in the collection (seeing that widescreen had finally taken hold of even cheap horror films by the ‘50s), makes its Blu-ray debut in the dual form of a 2D 1080p transfer and its first time on home video digital 3D transfer. As per usual I am unable to review the 3D transfer at this time. The 2D transfer, framed at 1.85:1, is problematic, but overall strong and sharp. At its best, the image features a measurable general detail increase, specifically in close-up textures and nature shots, and a much more even black and white gradation (once again, lesser standard definition releases have often appeared quite greenish, rather than the appropriate black and white). The cleanliness of the image is inconsistent, but there’s usually an obvious reason for blotchy effects and grain increases in the source material. The most obvious problem for clarity is underwater shooting, which presents a myriad of problems for the cameras and lenses, leading to clumped filmgrain and various artefacts, like edge enhancement and white flecks. Again, this is understandable. The bigger issue concerns dry set sequences that can turn rough between shots. I’m guessing that this inconsistency probably marks this print as being culled from quite a few sources. Flat-out damage is rare, as are signs of excessive DNR tampering, though it’s also possible that the smeared appearance of a handful of odd shots could be an effect of the 3D camera rigs.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is another of the collection’s standout mixes, due largely to the film’s more recent vintage – it was made in an era where sound design had become something more of the norm for motion picture productions. The sound floor here is nearly silent, without much in the way of hiss, even during dialogue-heavy sequences its basic effects work is relatively warm and, for the most part, the track is consistently busy with the ambient noise of the lagoon’s critter population. This ambient noise is nestled nicely with the composited musical score, credited to Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, and Herman Stein, and the music itself features a nice range of brassy horns and soft strings. The crowded qualities of the mix are only a problem when the most prevalently loud elements, such as fearful screams and the Creature’s roars, drown out some of the aural texture.
- An audio commentary with film historian Tom Weaver. Weaver’s tone and content style matches that of his Wolf Man track, including a punchy, sometimes overwhelming speaking speed (take a breath, man!) and occasionally snotty personal quips.
- Back to the Black Lagoon (39:40, SD) a retrospective featurette hosted once again by David Skal (who has a writing and producing credit on just about every featurette in the set), with historian/writers David Schow, Vincent Di Fate, curator of 3D Film Archives Bob Furmanek, super collector Bob Burns, and actors Ben Chapman, Julie Adams, Ricou Browning, and Lori Nelson.
- Production photos.
- A trailer gallery featuring Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us.
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (yes, again, 9:30, HD)
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and DVD Special Edition resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 2nd October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English, DTS 2.0 Mono French
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Expert/Historian Commentaries, Spanish Language Version of Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D, The Road to Dracula, Lugosi: The Dark Prince, Dracula: The Restoration, The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Universal Horror, Boo! Short Film, Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed, Unraveling the Legacy of the Mummy, Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein, 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 Art and Life of Jack Pierce, The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, Back to the Black Lagoon, Production Photos, 100 Years of Universal Featurettes, Trailer Galleries, Trivia Tracks
Easter Egg: No
Director: James Whale, Tod Browning, Jack Arnold, Karl Freund, George Waggner, Arthur Lubin
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Elsa Lanchester
Length: 644 minutes
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