By Chaz Lipp
The nine-film Universal Monsters – The Essential Collection, contained on eight region-free Blu-ray discs, is a major release for anyone who loves the early horror films produced by Universal Studios. These classics demonstrate a mastery of atmosphere. Directors such as Tod Browning, Karl Freund, George Waggner, and above all James Whale captured countless iconic images that continue to influence horror films to this day. These movies may not literally scare audiences anymore, but their artistry remains undiminished for those willing to venture back to the days before explicit blood and guts.
First, let’s get some economical business out of the way. As the title of this review makes clear, I opted to purchase the UK edition of this release. With one relatively minor caveat, I suggest you consider doing the same. Full retail for the US version of this set is $159.99. As I write this, Amazon is selling it for $135.00. Now, on Amazon UK the set is selling for £36, which converts to approximately $58 US. Shipping rates from the UK are extraordinarily reasonable. If the savings weren’t enough, the packaging of the UK set is better as well. Unlike the US set, which stuffs the Blu-ray discs into cardboard sleeves, the UK set has a fold-out case with each disc secured in a plastic tray. Admittedly, the outer cardboard box is fairly flimsy, but I can live with that since I hate pockets/sleeves for discs. There’s a well-produced (and fairly thick) booklet included called “The Original House of Horror,” and also a set of eight postcards reproducing the films’ original poster art. Most importantly, being region-free the discs play on US players exactly the same (special features and all).
Onto the set itself, the line-up of which will be familiar to anyone who owned Universal’s similar DVD set from 1999. From 1931, we have Dracula (starring Bela Lugosi), the Spanish version of Dracula, and Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff in his first appearance as Frankenstein’s Monster). Karloff also stars in 1932’s The Mummy. Frankenstein director James Whale also helmed 1933’s The Invisible Man (mislabeled on the Blu-ray insert as being released in 1945) and 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein. Jumping ahead to 1941 (though also mislabeled on the insert, with the year 1931 listed), we have The Wolf Man (starring Lon Chaney Jr.). Then there are the two films I have never felt truly belonged in this collection, the 1943 Phantom of the Opera (starring The Invisible Man’s Claude Rains). For one, it’s in full color and simply feels out of place amongst the all the black-and-white. Secondly, it’s not a very good movie. 1954’s Creature of the Black Lagoon, presented in both 2D and 3D (its original theatrical format) rounds out the set. At least it’s in black-and-white, but it’s really from a very different era than most of the films here.
It’s hardly worth me detailing the good, bad, and indifferent regarding these films. I love the chilling atmospheres and truly unsettling performances by most of the leading cast members. Some are stodgier than others, such as the infamously static visuals of Tod Browning’s Dracula. But Lugosi so embodies the title character, the film will always be worth revisiting. The Philip Glass score (performed by the Kronos Quartet) that was written for the ’99 DVD reissue is included here, and though obviously revisionist, it does enhance the otherwise scoreless film. Whale pulled off the no-music approach with his Frankenstein far better. Karloff is, of course, still hypnotic as the Monster, in both the ’31 original and its ’35 sequel. Often somewhat underrated is Karloff’s equally skilled turn as Imhotep. The Mummy was quite artfully directed by Dracula’s cinematographer Karl Freund.
By the way, if you haven’t seen the Spanish Dracula (which is regarded more as a bonus feature than a film worthy of equal billing) be sure to check it out – it’s visually far more interesting than Browning’s film. James Whale’s serio-comic touches in The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein help maintain the timeless feel of these pictures. Claude Rains’ unhinged turn in the former is an indelible portrait of madness (perfectly sent-up, by the way, in 1987 by Ed Begley Jr. in Amazon Women on the Moon). Nearly 80 years later, the visual effects work is still inspired (even if the high definition resolution allows us to see the wires and such).
What should have been included instead of Phantom and Creature? Without question I would nominate the underrated Son of Frankenstein from 1939, featuring Karloff’s final turn as the Monster and Lugosi’s first appearance as Ygor. Though not on the level of Whale’s first two, this is nonetheless an essential part of the Universal Monster film cycle. That would have been a far more appropriate inclusion than Phantom. As for Creature, I know it’s easily more beloved than Phantom and I really don’t have a huge problem with it being here. Still, I think it would be better off as part of a triple feature with its sequels. I might’ve slotted in Werewolf of London, not a perfect film by any means, but noteworthy as pioneering the werewolf subgenre. It makes for a great companion piece with the later The Wolf Man.
Special features are extensive, though only one short piece on the restoration of Dracula (both versions) is new. Each film is supplemented by featurettes and commentaries carried over from previous DVD editions. These are solidly-produced features that were done right the first time around and belong on these discs. The one odd omission is a commentary on Dracula by Steve Haberman that is present on the US edition but missing from this one. Again, it’s ported from an older DVD release and considering the price difference I still think the UK set is the way to go. But I mention it because it is the one caveat I cited earlier about opting for the UK version. Why it wasn’t included is anyone’s guess.
The 1080p Blu-ray presentations of these films are, without exception, highly impressive. The best of the bunch are Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein, both of which are extraordinarily better than they’ve ever looked on home video. The Dracularestoration is pretty amazing, though it should be noted that the Spanish version’s transfer is still a composite of various sources. So that version is still wildly uneven, but the US production is sterling in terms of clarity and detail. For whatever reasons, The Invisible Man looks a little more beat up than the others here. The transfer has an inconsistent look, with some shots appearing more damaged than others but overall it’s still strong. The other noteworthy bit of inconsistency is in Creature. The underwater scenes are just never going to look as sharp and finely detailed as the land-based cinematography but it’s hardly the fault of the Blu-ray technical department. All the films boast a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix. As with the transfers, the audio does vary from film to film but overall these soundtracks are unqualified successes. Dialogue, effects, and music are as clean as they’ve ever sounded. Pops, hiss, and other distractions have been all but eliminated in most cases.
<i>Universal Monsters – The Essential Collection</i> is a terrific set of classic films. The UK edition is a downright bargain when compared to the US counterpart, not just for the far lower price but also the packaging. Some folks have reported playback problems with Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from my experience this was not an issue at all. I have not yet screened the 3D version of Creature, but I will update this review once I have. For anyone who loves these creepy old classics, this upgrade to high definition is more than worth acquiring. Hopefully Universal follows suit with a collection of the various sequels.