Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-Ray]

As with all box sets, there will be controversy and debates among horror fans about what belongs in this set and what doesn’t. “The Bride of Frankenstein” is the only sequel, there’s a baffling inclusion of the Claude Rains “Phantom of the Opera.” And no “The Fly”?

In either case, included in a wonderful box set, with a copy of the 48-page booklet “The Original House of Horror,” and of course eight horror gems for fans of Universal Studios that completely changed the horror genre forever. Not to mention, they changed the way film was made, forever.

(1931, 75 min.)

For me the main attraction of “Dracula” is the performance of Dwight Frye. While “Dracula” is a stellar and often compelling bit of vampire fantasy horror with the great Bela Lugosi offering the most iconic portrayal of the vampire lord, for me the performance that always stuck out was Dwight Frye. His turn as the assistant Renfield is magnificent and his devious laugh is just chilling.

This is a man who has lost all semblance of his persona to Dracula, and now just an animal. He’s mad, and he’s vicious. “Dracula” lives up to its reputation as an entertaining and whimsical bit of horror cinema with remarkable performances, and incredible set pieces, all of which marked a turn in the genre thanks to director and visionary Tod Browning. “Dracula” is where Bela Lugosi was at his all time greatest, and as the count, he drips magnetism, charisma, and threat of a century old monster desperate for blood shed and willing to destroy whom ever he feels stands in his way.

(1931, 71 min.)

A loose adaptation of a sorts, “Frankenstein” is about as loose an adaptation as you can get from Mary Shelly’s novel, and yet it has become the template for Frankenstein and his monster among many adaptations. Even when future filmmakers sought to create their own faithful vision to Shelly’s novel, there was always a nod to Boris Karloff or Universal somewhere. “Frankenstein” is a masterful and incredible gothic horror film about the monster that never asked to be born, forced in to a world that loahted him from the minute it opened its eyes. As the monster, Boris Karloff delivers a heart wrenching performance filled with sadness and horror, portraying a beast that is looking for revenge on his master for giving him a life he never asked for. Much like “Dracula,” James Whales’ “Frankenstein” is iconic, presenting moments of sheer horror as the monster stomps around oblivious to restraint and the fragility of life, and is all too aware by the time the film closes. It’s absolutely stunning.

The Mummy
(1932, 74 min.)

Boris Karloff’s turn as Imhotep is based primarily around atmosphere and dread, and while “The Mummy” may not be the strongest link in the Universal chain, it still is about as iconic as Karloff’s previous turn as the monster of Frankenstein. As “The Mummy,” Karloff gives his all as the wicked Imhotep who is resurrected as the ghoulish shambling undead on a horrible journey to revive his wife. And as the tragic being who suffered a cruel death, he’s still as magnetic and striking as ever. Karl Freund’s direction is magnificent and the Universal monster mythos is never short of amazing talent, as Freund helps his drama horror film stand out as a unique cinematic endeavor in to an ill fated affair, and the undead’s unwillingness to allow time to seal their fate.

The Invisible Man
(1933, 71 min.)

Claude Rains as Dr. Jack Griffin who transforms in to the mad Invisible Man is wonderful, and James Whale’s depiction of the H.G. Wells’ novel is loose, but still remarkable as its own cut of the same cloth. With special effects that are still startling, Whale’s confronts the deterioration of a genius doctor under the guise of a man losing all essence of his physical being, and soon his psychological being. As Griffin, Rains is excellent as the being who’d go on a killing spree in a vain attempt at world domination and soon becomes a man hunt for a being who can not be seen unless he chooses to. With a maddening sense of direction, and a sharp performance from Claude Rains, “The Invisible Man” is still one of the finest versions of the classic H.G. Wells novel and still holds up in its use of special effects to depict the invisible monster who wreaks havoc on everyone around him.

The Bride of Frankenstein
(1935, 75 min.)

Director James Whales’ follow-up to the heartbreaking interpretation of Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein” is perhaps one of the best sequels ever made. True it’s not a declaration that I coined, but it definitely deserves repeating because rarely do sequels manage to follow an excellent horror film with an intelligent, complex, and arguably superior installment. “Bride of Frankenstein” is the perfect example of Gothic horror in motion and a testament to the potential for the horror genre to deliver art to folks who still consider it a fixture reserved for disposable splatter fare. With rich characters, incredible writing, and iconic moments of raw filmmaking, “Bride” is the debatable final chapter in to the tragic life of the Frankenstein monster that completes his short life of woe where he spent most days in a world that absolutely loathed his existence. In “Bride” the creature begins to build his own consciousness and comprehension of the English language and decides that he truly hates humanity back. When he seeks a mate, he’s loath to discover the mate hates him almost as much as he hates his master. “The Bride of Frankenstein” earns its place as the only sequel in the box set, because it’s wonderful as a follow-up and its own unique portrayal of the Frankenstein monster.

The Wolf Man
(1941, 70 min.)

Behind “The Bride of Frankenstein,” director George Waggner’s tale of Laurence Talbot’s transformation in to the bipedal wolf man is a gut wrenching and terrifying werewolf film. Very much in the Universal tradition, the climax depicts the mortal conflict of blood shed among blood relations, and as Talbot, Lon Chaney Jr. is a being tragically confined to the shell of a man who becomes the victim of the wolf every full moon, just as much as anyone he mauls in the woods at night. Chaney’s depiction of the humble Talbot who seeks a cure, or at least a merciful death, is still very powerful, while the make up effects for the wolf man is iconic and has continued to be mimicked even in contemporary horror films. The great Claude Rains is wonderful as Sir John Talbot, Laurence’s father who has to watch his son fall victim to the wolf curse and become his own undoing. Still a strong Universal gallery holder, it’s one of the few really good werewolf films ever made.

The Phantom of the Opera
(1943, 93 min.)

This inclusion in the Universal gallery is going to eventually be controversial and debated among horror fans who buy this collection. Some would say the Lon Chaney version should replace it, but since it’s in the public domain that’s kind of off the drawing board. I say replace this title with “The Fly.” It only makes sense, doesn’t it? Claude Rains returns once again to portray the demented phantom of the opera in Arthur Lubin’s whimsical and epic re-telling of the Phantom wreaking havoc on the opera house in Paris who insists on murdering the contenders of a young gorgeous Soprano he has eyes for. Lubin’s “Phantom” is an entertaining retelling with some twists on the narrative, but ultimately, it just doesn’t stand up against Lon Chaney’s brilliant portrayal of the opera house ghoul. Rains is always a wonderful actor, so this is worth watching, if only to compare and contrast.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon
(1954, 79 min.)

My absolute favorite film of the Universal gallery, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” is merely a monster movie, but a monster movie that still sparks creativity and a unique narrative. While the Gillman is barely as complex or deep as the monster or The Wolfman, the creature effects are still dazzling, and the gillman is a unique movie monster who hunts explorers when they invade his turf. Filled with wonderful underwater sequences, and a memorable turn from the gorgeous Julia Adams, who is a fantastic scream queen and plays victim to the gillman’s fascination. A unique premise and some ahead of its time creature effects, director Jack Arnold’s monster movie is creepy, entertaining, and iconic. To retain the Universal trademarks, “Revenge of the Creature” the gillman is literally a fish out of water, and “The Creature Walks Among Us” pictures a more human monster set against human monsters.

Special Features
Every film garners a bevy of incredible and time consuming special features with trivia and photo gallers, including the complete Spanish version of “Dracula,” and two audio commentaries; for “Frankenstein,” there’s the forty five minute “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” and the ninety five minute “Universal Horror,” which touches on the influences of Universal. “The Mummy” features, among many, two audio commentaries, and “He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce”; “The Invisible Man” disc includes an audio commentary, and “Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed” a documentary from the previous release about the history of the film shoot. “The Bride of Frankenstein” disc features an audio commentary from Scott MacQueen, and “She’s Alive! Creating the Bride of Frankenstein” a documentary hosted by director Joe Dante who explores the themes and undertones of the famous sequel.

“The Wolf Man” disc features “Monster by Moonlight” a spirited retrospective from director John Landis, and “Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.” a half hour exploration in to the life of Lon Chaney Jr. and his career. The “Phantom of the Opera” disc includes an audio commentary from Scott MacQueen, and “The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked” a journey in to the various adaptations of the famed story. Finally the “Creature from the Black Lagoon” disc offers up an audio commentary from film historian Tom Weaver, and “Back to the Black Lagoon” a look at the development and making of the monster movie.