The New Old: The Monster Mash

Well folks, it’s October now and with Halloween fast approaching, we’re officially in that special season when it’s socially acceptable for everyone (not just sunlight fearing dorks like myself) to dabble in excessive horror movie watching. All the studios are lining up horror Blu-ray releases designed to part you from your money (just last week Shout Factory offered unexpected prestige treatment for the two finest cheeseball Halloween sequels). Of all the classic high def horror that’s taking up store shelf space this Halloween season, the biggest and finest release is this box set of the classic Universal monster movies.

While the studio moved to more highbrow fare these days, at one point it built its reputation of monster fare through the 7 classic horror masterpieces that appear on this set (the 1943 Phantom of the Opera doesn’t count). These versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and others have remained action figure and lazy Halloween costume staples for a reason. The movies are masterpieces of old Hollywood studio craftsmanship at the peak of its power, while the characters are genre icons and tortured souls. Don’t kid yourself, thanks to the game of freak out one-upmanship that defines the genre you’re not going to be frightened by any of these movies unless you’re a particularly sensitive child or elderly viewer. However, there’s no way to work through this set and not be entertained and deeply impressed by the stunning HD images the good folks in the Universal home video department have whipped up. This is how archival releases should be handled and the fact that my beloved Universal monsters got this special treatment warms my blackened horror-loving heart. Let’s dig through all 8 discs, shall we?

Dracula (1931) – Tod Browning’s tale of the original bloodsucking pervert kicked off the Universal Monster trend in style and easily remains on of the highlights of the entire cycle. Since the 30s monster movies were all just over 1 hour long to play as part of a longer program of movies, the story has been condensed significantly and Dracula’s romantic quest to find his long-lost lover has been lost somewhat in translation. Still, the beloved tale plays out well, with Bella Lugosi still feeling like the iconic Dracula and Browning’s gothic sensibility whipping up some fantastic imagery. Some of the scares that depended on audiences being terrified by Lugosi’s distinctly European face are a bit laughable now that the fear of foreigners has died down slightly, but his stretched out accented line readings and unblinking stares still unnerve. One of the oddest aspects of the production is that the film plays with no score since early sound audiences were confused by music that played in the background without a clear source. As a result, the major scare scenes play out entirely silently, which works most of the time, but is distracting during other scenes. There’s an optional Philip Glass score that can be played that helps the pacing and creep-out moments substantially, though that mix of distinctly modern music and an old fashioned storytelling will inevitably annoy purists.

Frankentein (1931) – Also cranked out in 1931, Frankenstein was a massive hit that confirmed Universal’s status as Hollywood’s resident horror factory. The production is even stronger than Dracula and the more succinctly paced story plays far better without music. Lugosi famously turned down the role of the monster thinking the dialogue-free part was a waste of talents. So, longtime studio supporting player Boris Karloff stepped in to play Mary Shelly’s creation and became the biggest horror star on the Universal backlot. Retaining almost all the major plot points of the original novel and throwing in a grotesque hunchback for kicks, the film is a masterpiece of old timey horror. Karloff makes the monster a deeply sympathetic figure and Jack Pierce’s creature design remains the more widely accepted look for Frankenstein 81 years later. British import director James Whale was highly influenced by German expressionism for the starkly shadowed visual design, which works magnificently and the filmmaker just might be the great behind-the-scenes hero of Universal’s house of horrors. If you only ever see one classic 30s monster movie, this is the one. Most of the scares may have dulled over time, but the resonant tale of a misunderstood monster has lost none of its power. Plus those giant shoes are pretty sweet as well.

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The Mummy (1932) – With those two instant classics bringing in all sorts of cash for the studio during the depression, monsters quickly became a staple at Universal and this Egyptian-flavored creature feature was cranked out quickly to extend the trend. Karloff steps in again as an ancient Mummy brought back to life by a dumb-dumb archaeologist. Jack Pierce’s crumbling corpse make-up was easily one of his more gorgeously grotesque creations, but sadly it appears in only two brief scenes. Karloff’s was legendarily uncomfortable while wearing his Frankenstein prosthetics and what Pierce came up with for the Mummy was even more time consuming/torturous. So, as a result, Karloff spends most of the movie in a fez and light old age make up and the mummy ends up becoming inexplicably younger once awakened from centuries of slumber. The plot is essentially a quick rehash of Dracula with Karloff determined to seduce a reincarnation of his old Egyptian love. To be honest, the movie is nowhere near as entertaining as either Frankenstein or Dracula, with a far more turgid plot and even fewer scares. Still, Karloff’s great (if you haven’t heard, he’s pretty good at this monster thing) and the movie is filled with memorable moments. The Mummy should absolutely be included in this box set because of its historical importance, but definitely don’t rush to watch it. There are far better flicks in the box.

The Invisible Man (1933) – Speaking of 30s horror movies that are better than The Mummy, here’s possibly the most underrated entry in the entire Universal monster cycle. The Invisible Man is best remembered these days for the remarkable effects and justifiably so. Other than a few dodgy sequences with props clearly dangling from strings, the visual effects haven’t aged a day. Obviously, the impact of seeing HG Wells’ classic mad scientist unwrap bandages off his face to reveal nothing underneath today is nothing compared to how shocked 30s audiences must have felt, but you’ll need to make no concessions for age. The tricks still work. The film also came from director James Whale, who for the first time allowed his dry British wit slip into the horror tale through a number of darkly comedic sequences and some less dark slapstick. The Invisible Man himself is also a fantastic character, whose megalomania and insanity aren’t sacrificed for the sake of making him an empathetic victim. This is a delightfully unhinged character and Claude Rains selflessly lends his British cackle to the character (but not his face until the very end) and truly revels in the joys of evil. The film is pure pleasure and has a nice thread of moral ambiguity rarely found in studio flicks of the era. This sucker is not nearly as widely scene as the other monster movies included in this set, but should be. Make sure to put it up near the top of the list if you’re planning on turning this box set into a marathon (and goddamn it, you should. It’s October people. You know, Halloween and what not).

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) – And now we go from one James Whale classic to another. For fans of these movies, Bride of Frankenstein is considered the crown jewel of the Universal monster fare and just might be one of the few sequels that tops the original. Whale was wary of making a Frankenstein sequel, but relented when he was offered complete freedom over the project. With these movies now hits, the production values were incredible, so Whale commissioned massive sets and marshaled mobs of extras to create the finest studio-bound movie magic the studios were capable of. There’s only one word for the tone of the movie, and that’s “cheeky.” You can’t really call it a comedy, but you can’t call it a straight horror movie either. Whale had fun gently mocking the material while heightening the horror above anything in the original. Karloff was fantastic again, allowed to speak this time following a truly moving sequence in which he befriends a blind man (which later became a hysterical highlight of Mel Brooks equally iconic parody Young Frankenstein). The effects are even better than The Invisible Man (one sequence involving tiny people in bottles is just as impressive today as it must have been at the time) and even though she only appears on screen for a few minutes, the bride herself instantly became as iconic as old Frankie. If you’ve never seen one of the Universal monster movies before, this is an ideal place to start. The subtle humor helps the dated drama and Whale sense of pacing and design is so ahead of its time that it never feels like a movie from the 30s. Simply put, Bride Of Frankenstein is a masterpiece and it’s worth the price of the entire set just to see Whale’s hyper-stylized gothic design in sweet, sweet HD.

The Wolf Man (1941) – The next disc in the box jumps a head 6 years, which is not to say that Universal stopped making horror movies in that gap (there were many other classics that didn’t make the cut like the Island of Lost Souls or Whale’s The Old Dark House), however it wasn’t until 1941 that the next iconic monster was introduced. Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man instantly earned a place next to Frankie and Drackie with another stunning (and notoriously uncomfortable) make up design by Jack Pierce and a fade-out transformation scene that gave every 40s kid a case of the willies. Countless future make up artists were born after the first screening and Universal had a new icon to add to their fast approaching series of mash up films that would eventually kill off the monsters’ collective popularity. The story isn’t quite as creatively told as the last two Whale entries on the set, it’s a more straightforward monster tale. However Chaney’s tortured man who can’t control his full moon werewolf sessions instantly became the most empathetic and tragic character of the bunch. It’s also a fun move to watch because of how institutionalized these movies had become at Universal. In addition to starring the son of Universal’s original monster (Lon Chaney Sr’s silent Phantom of The Opera), Bella Legosi and Claude Rains pop up in supporting roles to fulfill studio contracts and add a little genre class to the proceedings. Even though it came a decade after the Universal monster party began, The Wolf Man is an endlessly influential horror classic that deserves to be ranked right alongside the original Dracula and Frankenstein.

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The Phantom of the Opera (1943) – And now we get to easily the most problematic entry in the box set. There is certainly a version of Phantom of the Opera that Universal Studios made and should have been included. That’s the 1925 silent version starring Lon Chaney that is constantly referred to in the documentaries and even in the booklet included in this set as being the ground zero for this entire trend at the studio. However, I don’t think Universal has the rights to that movie anymore. So instead, we get this Claude Rains-starring reboot from the 40s. Now, it’s not a bad movie, it’s just not nearly a classic on the same level as anything in this set. The movie was actually produced as a vehicle for studio starlet Susanna Foster, so more time is spent developing her love triangle than the phantom. Rains is a decent enough phantom when he gets on screen, but he plays third fiddle to Foster and the filmmaker’s desire to stage as many lavish opera sequences as possible. It’s also the only Technicolor flick in the box, which goes against the overall black and white aesthetic of these movies, even if it looks gorgeous. Now, all that aside, it is a fairly enjoyable rendition that probably influenced the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical more than any other version. The cinematography and set design justifiably won Oscars and the staging of the infamous chandelier sequence is incredible. The movie is fine, just hardly a classic and certainly not something that should have been a part of this “essential” monster movie collection.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) – Finally we drift ahead another decade for the final classic Universal Monster. The Creature from the Black Lagoon came after the genre had moved on to Atomic-bomb inspired giant monster tales, so don’t expect this guy to have a sympathetic personality. Nope, the creature (or Gillman, or whatever the hell you want to call him) is a hulking, roaring monster, who wants nothing more than destruction. He’s also amazing work of rubber costume design that lends itself to some of the most striking images in the entire box set. Now, at this point Hollywood horror was firmly into the B-movie category, so there are no stars on screen. The movie is populated by indistinguishable actors playing bland characters in a monster-movie-of-the-week that they weren’t particularly invested in. The story is standard and the production values are fairly low. However, the monster is incredible and director Jack Arnold shoots the hell out of the scare set pieces. Shooting underwater with those massive cameras must have been nearly impossible, but Arnold somehow pulled off some stunning scare sequences. The costume and creature are so striking that the movie deserves to be included in this set and is a perfect way to round it off. The disc also includes a Blu-ray version of the movie in 3D, since this was one of the original hits from the first 3D cycle. It still plays fine in 2D with only minimal SCTV-style poking-at-the-camera silliness (and to be fair, those moments only add to the nostalgic charm). This one isn’t art, it’s pure 50s genre schlock and about as good as that brand of schlock gets.

Universal pulled out all of the stops in the presentations of these classic monster tales in easily the best visual representation the films have ever received. Quality varies of course, but both Frankensteins, Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Creature From The Black Lagoon are spotless. Film grain remains intact, so while the picture isn’t as clear as say The Avengers, it’s true to the original film elements. Given the incredible attention to detail given to the make up and set design in these movies, the added clarity in the image is all too easy to appreciate. Sure, you can also see some seems in the design (including so hilariously wrinkled backdrops in Bride), but that’s part of the fun with old Hollywood movies like this. The old studio-bound production model was based in handmade craftsmanship designed for movie geek ogling (especially those Invisible Man effects that absolutely shouldn’t hold up this well by modern standards). Predictably, The Phantom of the Opera gets the weakest treatment. The image isn’t quite as sharp, but the pastel Technicolor glows on Blu-ray in a very pleasing way. I wasn’t able to sample the 3D version of The Creature From The Black Lagoon due to the dimensional limitations of my TV, but I’m going to go ahead and assume that it’s awesome as well. All of the audio tracks are mono since surround sound was but a beautiful dream in the 30s, 40s, and 50s, so don’t expect to give your sound system a work out with this set.

When it comes to special features, this box set is also overwhelming with goodies to keep you locked indoors in front of your TV for weeks. Each film gets an info-packed commentary track from a film historian as well as comprehensive documentaries about the production featuring interviews with historians, surviving family members of key contributors, and filmmaking fans like John Landis, Joe Dante, and Rick Baker. You’ll also get a feature length documentary on the entire Universal horror cycle as well as specific docs on Legosi, Karloff, Chaney Jr., and Jack Pierce. Other goodies include entertainingly dated trailers for all the movies and sequels as well as a fascinating Spanish version of Dracula that was a shot-for-shot remake made at night on Tod Browning’s sets (if nothing else that proves how important Legosi was to the movie as the Spanish substitute doesn’t have anywhere near the same level of screen presence and the movie suffers deeply as a result.)

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Now, it should be mentioned that all of these features are carried over from previous DVD releases. However, I find it hard to believe anything would be gained from trotting these people out for more interviews. If there’s anything you’re still dying to know about these movies after spending a few dozen hours shifting through tall of the material here, then chances are there’s something wrong with you and not something missing from the discs. Overall, this is an absolutely astounding Blu-ray set for a series of classic monster movies that deserves the treatment. Sure, subbing in the silent Phantom Of The Opera for the sub-par Claude Rains version and adding Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein would have made this collection perfect, but that’s more a result of me splitting hairs as a fan than anything else. All of the famous and essential Universal monster movies are here and look better than anyone could have possibly expected. If you want to delve into horror movie history around Halloween this year, there’s nothing really nothing close to this on the shelves. These discs represent classic Hollywood horror at its finest and while the scares aren’t quite as effective anymore, movie monsters just don’t get better than this. Now, go cue up “Monster Mash” on your iPod and go buy this thing already. Unless you hate the movies (in which case you’re insane), this box set needs to be in your collection.

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