Universal Classics Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection Blu-ray Review

Warner Bros. had James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson. MGM had Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. And Universal had Dracula and Frankenstein…and The Mummy and The Wolf Man…and The Bride and The Gill-Man, and…

Of course, the start of that lede shortchanges the accomplishments of some of the most important studios in cinema history. It, too, in a way, only scratches the surface of the legacy of Universal Studios and their unmatched lineup of horror essentials.

While the studio’s Monsters date back to the 1920s, this set picks up in 1931 with FRANKENSTEIN and and leaves off in 1956 with THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US. In between are 28 other pictures, with a total of five featuring DRACULA, six FRANKENSTEIN (one shared with THE WOLF MAN), six MUMMY, six INVISIBLE MAN, seven WOLF MAN (again, shared with a FRANKENSTEIN), one PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and three CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. (There is some overlap here, but some Monsters appear together onscreen.) (True completists will note the title of this box set is a bit of a marketing fib, since 1925’s PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Lon Chaney, is missing entirely–despite its public domain status–and has been replaced with the 1943 Claude Raines-starring remake, a commonality in similar box sets.)

These are the original franchise players, the go-aheads for saying, Yes, go ahead, squeeze as much as you can from our hideous faces. By the math, Universal produced 30 Monster pictures in 26 years (at least, again, according to the marketing here); compare that with the three of the most popular horror franchises, FRIDAY THE 13TH, HALLOWEEN and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, which had a grand total of just 26 in the span of as many years (not including reboots). The ratio found in Universal’s output is commendable–not just because of the quantity, but because of the quality.

1931’s DRACULA (dir: Tod Browning) is a top-to-bottom treat, maybe the best photographed film in the collection. (Karl Freund’s work here ranks as some of the eeriest in all of horror.) Through clever practical visuals, silent era-esque values and a menacing lead performance, DRACULA stands as one of the more effective early horror films. Two months later came the Spanish version (dir: George Melford), with Carlos Villar as Conde Dracula. Strange yet familiar (the same sets were used), this take gives its American near-twin a run in the spooks department despite having 20% of its budget. The series extends with 1936’s DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (dir: Lambert Hillyer). With Gloria Holden in the title role and a wealth of lesbian connotations, this entry solidifies the series as easily the most sex-fueled of the lot, building on a certain foundation for eroticism in not just early horror, but early sound cinema. 1943’s SON OF DRACULA (dir: Robert Siodmak) presents Lon Chaney Jr. as Dracula (sorta?), again giving viewers a look at Chaney Jr. in a role better executed by someone else, despite his efforts. Although not without certain merits (more advanced technology allowed for stronger transformations), it never proves itself.

1931’s FRANKENSTEIN (dir.: James Whale) is a remarkable picture, the only one of the entire Universal Monsters franchise to spawn what many consider an equal or better sequel, 1935’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir.: also Whale). The third installment, 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir: Rowland V. Lee), is a sufficient threequel, again casting the gloomy Boris Karloff, while adding Bela Lugosi to the universe as deformed Ygor. (Lugosi, of course, is a far better Dracula than he is here, although the character has become a minor favorite.) Where the series slips is with the aptly titled 1942’s THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir: Erle C. Kenton)–not only is the overall quality lacking (so much looks dopey and cheap), but it casts Lon Chaney Jr. as the Monster, replacing Boris Karloff. (Chaney Jr., like Lugosi, who reprises his role, would be better served elsewhere.)

Universal Classic Monsters Collection 1

1932’s THE MUMMY (dir: Karl Freund, cinematographer on DRACULA) again puts Boris Karloff in the title role, making him the only player to originate more than one Universal Monster. Yet another feat of makeup work and set design, THE MUMMY also has the distinction of being the first of the franchise to not be sourced from a literary work. Its first follow-up, 1940’s THE MUMMY’S HAND (dir: Christy Cabanne), isn’t really a sequel but a way for the studio to lengthen the series’ lifespan. In a way, THE MUMMY’S HAND is the start of its own series, as it spawned the Kharis-centric 1942’s THE MUMMY’S TOMB (dir: Harold Young), 1944’s THE MUMMY’S GHOST (dir: Reginald Le Borg) and 1944’s THE MUMMY’S CURSE (dir: Leslie Goodwins), all of which starred Chaney Jr., again adopting a role not first held by him. To their collective credit, it should be noted that, unlike the other series housed here, it’s not just the first installment but rather the works as a whole that gave us The Mummy that we think of when we picture Universal Monsters. Still, despite all of the entries in the series, none match the thrill and mystery of the original, and so it sticks out as weak.

1933’s THE INVISIBLE MAN (dir: James Whale, also director of FRANKENSTEIN) was released just under three full years after DRACULA, marking perhaps the most important such stretch in all of horror movie history. Taking the title role, Claude Rains has the challenge of letting the special effects do a portion the work; it is a patient performance, less showy than others from Universal, but no less skilled. In 1940’s THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS (dir: Joe May), Rains doesn’t; instead, it’s Vincent Price (in an oft unmentioned role) vanishing, giving a performance that relies almost exclusively on his trademark voice. In the same calendar year, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (dir: A. Edward Sutherland) saw release, with Virginia Bruce headlining. It is, save for the Abbott and Costello features, the silliest of the bunch, a misfire that offers more eyerolls than spooks. 1942’s INVISIBLE AGENT (dir: Edwin L. Marin), too, misses the mark, and aids in the series feeling like a self-parody. It wraps up with 1944’s THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (dir: Ford Beebe), which brings back Jon Hall in the lead, a faint gasp in the series.

1941’s THE WOLF MAN (dir: George Waggner), it may go unrealized, was not the first of the wolf-themed Universal films. Rather, it was 1935’s WEREWOLF OF LONDON (dir: Stuart Walker), which has significance as being the first major Hollywood picture to feature a lycanthrope and does offer some sightly images. But THE WOLF MAN launched its own series, and features some of the finest makeup work of any Universal Monster picture. Led by a trademark turn from Lon Chaney Jr. (sort of the reigning champ of the franchise), atmospheric cinematography and landmark makeup, THE WOLF MAN is one of the best lead entries of any Universal Monster series. Chaney Jr. reprised the role a couple more times (more on those later), but the only true other addition to the Wolf Man films is 1946’s SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (dir: Jean Yarbough), which stars June Lockhart and shifts more to the mystery genre than horror, and also cares far less about developing the world of the Wolf Man than trying to bank on its predecessor.

The one addition in this set that goes solo is 1943’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (dir: Arthur Lubin). While the Oscar-winning sets and camerawork are certainly commendable, it feels so out of place when put together with the likes of all of the aforementioned works. It is more concerned with its role as a musical than its accompaniment to a legacy. That sets were reused from Rupert Julian’s original only highlights that it’s that version that should have been included in this box set and not Lubin’s.

One of the crowning achievements in the entire franchise is 1954’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (dir: Jack Arnold), which set bars the studio would never fully allow itself to try to equal. Shot in the 3D format (in the waning days of its first real explosion) and with exquisite underwater photography (by William E. Snyder), CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is one of the most technically stellar pictures in the Universal Monster franchise. The first sequel is 1955’s REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (dir: also Arnold), also shot in 3D. Incorporating many of the fantastic elements of its predecessor and again casting Ricou Browning as the Gill-Man (underwater, at least), REVENGE OF THE CREATURE is a suitable sequel that, while not living up to its predecessor, is an enjoyable effort. Rounding out the trilogy is 1956’s THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (dir: John Sherwood). Again the camerawork stands out and the creature design is entirely effective, but this is the weakest link in the series.

There, too, are the multiple crossovers, which have some of the most promising titles of any horror movie in history. These range from the more horror-oriented–HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA–to the laugh-inducing–ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE MUMMY. The first was 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (dir: Roy William Neill), which unfortunately saves the “meets” portion for far too late in the film, making this an utter disappointment. Next came 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (dir: Erle C. Kenton), with Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange in his first turn; Karloff has a role elsewhere), Dracula (John Carradine, also in his first turn) and The Wolf Man, as well as a hunchback (J. Caroll Naish). A good companion piece is 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA (dir: Kenton again), which brought back Strange, Carradine and Chaney, Jr. Both movies drag in spots and never get close to matching their respective series’ best entries in production values, but they are still fun and worth seeing to see multiple iconic characters share the screen. On the more comedic side, legends really clashed in the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET films. The gem here is 1948’s MEET FRANKENSTEIN (dir: Charles Barton), a showcase of banter and frights that manages to play to both sides of the audience. 1951’s MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (dir: Charles Lamont), like 1955’s MEET THE MUMMY (dir: also Lamont), is more of a disaster, trying to cash in on the concept but failing to consider just what the audience would be after. As such, this sorta-trilogy (although the pair would also meet other horror figures like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) quickly falls into a pit.

The power and impact of the Universal Monsters franchise cannot go unsaid. It is perhaps the key collection of horror cinema. There would later be Jason and Freddy and Chucky and Pinhead and Leatherface and Ghostface and so, so many more, but there’s a certain magic missing there. (It should be noted here that this reviewer is a fan and follower in one way or another all of these more modern franchises.) Consider Jack Pierce’s makeup work on FRANKENSTEIN, THE WOLF MAN and THE MUMMY, which is some of the most detailed and fundamentally frightening in the genre. Or the special effects of films like THE INVISIBLE MAN (by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams), which manage to visually present something that isn’t there. Or the costume work on DRACULA, which somehow goes uncredited. Or any of the aforementioned feats that still astonish and captivate audiences.

These are marvelous works, truly representative of what there was to offer at the time. Not all of the films are hits (would that even be possible?)–indeed, there are some straight-up duds in here–but there are some true masterpieces here, and collectively, they are essentials. And while certainly not “complete” (this despite the promotions foolishly arguing otherwise), this impressive and immersive 30-film, 24-disc box set will give any horror aficionado or newbie a genuine education in the one of the genre’s most defining eras.

BLU-RAY REVIEW

Video: The following films listed as Full Frame 1.33:1: DRACULA, SON OF DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, INVISIBLE AGENT, THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLF MAN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.

The following films are listed as 1.33 Side Matted: DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA.

The following films are listed as Widescreen 1.85:1: ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US.

Of the 30 films collected here, 22 had been previously released on Blu-ray. In short (this reviewer has already far exceeded his 500-word limit), this box set offers the finest way to watch these films on home video. Considering the age of the films (some date back nearly 90 years), they offer strong contrast, nice details and overall healthy images that present the films in a most pleasing way for fans. That said, the upgrade to high-definition does tend to show some of the cheaper effects and set designs, with some props clearly being fake and sets appearing flat.

It should be noted that there are issues with the 3D version of REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, which Universal will replace for current owners. (This reviewer does not have 3D-viewing technology so cannot offer comment on such additions.)

Audio: The following films are listed as English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono and English Dolby Digital 2.0: DRACULA, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, SON OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN,  THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, THE MUMMY’S CURSE, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US.

The following films are listed as English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono, English Dolby Digital 2.0 amd French DTS Digital Surround 2.0 Mono: FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLF MAN, PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

The following films are listed as English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono: SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, INVISIBLE AGENT, THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON.

The following films have subtitles in English and Spanish: DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLF MAN, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The following films have subtitles in English, Spanish and French: DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, SON OF DRACULA, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, INVISIBLE AGENT, THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US.

The following films have subtitles in English, Spanish, French, Swedish, Danish, Finnish, and Norwegian: THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, THE MUMMY’S CURSE, and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY.

Of the 30 films collected here, 22 had been previously released on Blu-ray. Audio is quite nice for the most part, with clean dialogue, sound effects and scores. Still, some scenes do come off a bit tinny and hollow, as technology of the time was far more limited.

Special Features by disc:

DRACULA:

Feature commentary with film historian David J. Skal

The Road to Dracula (35:04): This featurette covers the evolution of the story and character, including how the novel’s most famous iteration came to be.

Lugosi: The Dark Prince (36:07) pays tribute to the great Bela Lugosi.

Dracula: The Restoration (8:46) covers the process of restoring DRACULA, done on the occasion of Universal’s 100th anniversary.

Dracula Archives (9:11) houses various promotional materials.

Alternate Score by Philip Glass – Performed by the Kronos Quartet

Monster Tracks is a trivia track.

DRACULA’S DAUGHTER and SON OF DRACULA

Theatrical Trailer for both

THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA

Reviewer note: These are also found elsewhere in the collection and so will not be repeated.

Theatrical Trailer for both

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN

Reviewer note: This is also found elsewhere in the collection and so will not be repeated.

Feature commentary with film historian Gregory W. Mank

Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters (33:18) looks at the comedy duo’s various run-ins with horror characters.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) and 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters (8:18) are both tributes to the studio’s first century.

Theatrical Trailer

FRANKENSTEIN

Feature commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer

Feature commentary with historian Sir Christopher Frayling

The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (44:53): This featurette goes over the making of FRANKENSTEIN, from the novel and makeup to James Whale’s approach and the film’s legacy.

Karloff: The Gentle Monster (37:58) covers the life and career of Boris Karloff.

Universal Horror (1:35:26): This feature-length documentary thoroughly covers the incredible content and legacy of Universal’s horror catalogue.

Frankenstein Archives (9:24) houses various promotional materials.

Boo! A Short Film (9:30): A comedy short directed by Albert DeMond.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13) covers the studio’s approach to film restoration.

Monster Tracks is a trivia track.

Trailer Gallery

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN

Feature commentary with Scott MacQueen

She’s Alive!: Creating The Bride of Frankenstein (38:54): Hosted by Joe Dante, this documentary looks at the making and legacy of the landmark sequel.

The Bride of Frankenstein Archives (13:11) houses various promotional materials.

100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9:13) is also found on the FRANKENSTEIN disc.

Trailer Gallery

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN

Theatrical Trailer for THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN

FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN — housed on the same discs as the aforementioned THE HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HOUSE OF DRACULA

Reviewer note: This is also found elsewhere in the collection and so will not be repeated.

Theatrical Trailer

THE MUMMY

Feature commentary with Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong

Feature commentary with film historian Paul M. Jensen

Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed (30:11): This featurette covers the making and legacy of THE MUMMY.

He Who Made the Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (24:56) is a fascinating doc on one of Universal’s unsung heroes, Jack Pierce.

Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy (8:07) briefly looks at some of the key players who brought THE MUMMY to the screen.

The Mummy Archives (9:46) houses various promotional materials.

100 Years at Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era (8:41) pays tribute to the man who founded Universal Studios.

Trailer Gallery

THE MUMMY’S HAND and THE MUMMY’S TOMB

Theatrical Trailer for both

THE MUMMY’S GHOST and THE MUMMY’S CURSE

Theatrical Trailer for both

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY

Theatrical Trailer

THE INVISIBLE MAN

Feature commentary with film historian Rudy Behlmer

Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed (35:21):This featurette looks at the how the movie made it to the screen, its production and special effects.

Production Photographs (4:30)

100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters (8:18) is also found on the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN disc.

Trailer Gallery

THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS and THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

Nothing.

INVISIBLE AGENT and THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE

Theatrical Trailer for INVISIBLE AGENT

ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN

Theatrical Trailer

THE WOLF MAN

Feature commentary with film historian Tom Weaver

Monster by Moonlight (32:37): This featurette, hosted by John Landis, looks at the production of THE WOLF MAN (as well as its sequels).

The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth (10:02) covers the legacy and themes found in THE WOLF MAN.

Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr. (36:53) pays homage to one of the studio’s most key figures.

He Who Made the Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce (24:56) is also found on THE MUMMY disc.

The Wolf Man Archives (6:46) houses various promotional materials.

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) is also found on the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN disc.

Trailer Gallery

WEREWOLF OF LONDON and SHE-WOLF OF LONDON

Theatrical Trailer for both

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

Feature commentary with film historian Scott MacQueen

The Opera Ghost: The Phantom Unmasked (51:19): This documentary–one of the longest in the entire set–looks at various versions of the story and character (including the 1925 version, which was unjustly left out of this box set), but spends much of its time on the making of the 1943 version.

Production Photographs (5:47)

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) is also found on the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and THE WOLF MAN discs.

Theatrical Trailer

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON

Feature commentary with film historian Tom Weaver

Back to the Black Lagoon (39:40) looks at the making of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, with notes on its evolution, costumes and the surprising emotions of the Gill-Man.

Production Photographs (11:29)

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9:25) gets its fourth appearance in the set. Collecting more actually gets you a job as a security guard on the lot.

Trailer Gallery

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE and THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US

REVENGE OF THE CREATURE feature commentary with actress Lori Nelson and film historians Tom Weaver and Bob Burns

THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US feature commentary with film historians Tom Weaver and Bob Burns

Theatrical Trailer for both

Also included with UNIVERSAL CLASSICS MONSTERS: COMPLETE 30-FILM COLLECTION is a 48-page collectible book.

OVERALL 4.5
    MOVIE REVIEW
    BLU-RAY REVIEW

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