It took awhile, but I finally completed the Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray box set, just in time for your Halloween consideration. Some of the films I discussed in greater detail than others, so I’m including links to those films and brief comments on the others, followed by some final thoughts on the set as a whole. Know that you can purchase American and British versions of the set, the pros and cons of which are discussed here.
Dracula (1931) Tod Browning
Drácula (1931) George Melford
Frankenstein (1931) James Whale
Love it or hate it, Frankenstein is one of the handful of films that has had an enormous, far-reaching impact on cinema (and not just horror cinema). Sure, you can stack up a whole list of problems with the movie (and I’d probably agree with most of them), but the film’s atmosphere, cinematography, make-up, and especially the performance by Boris Karloff still remain stunning over 80 years later. I wish I could go back in time to see and hear the 1931 audiences react to those three successive shots of the monster’s face, each getting closer and closer. Be sure to watch the extras on this disc for more on the importance of this film (and most of the other films in this collection as well.)
The Mummy (1932) Karl Freund
Watching some of the old horror classics shows you just how good some of these filmmakers were at what they did, considering what they had to work with and what - compared to modern times - they didn’t have. Boris Karloff shows why he remains one of the giants of cinema, but much credit has to go to makeup pioneer Jack Pierce, a man who is still not given the recognition he deserves. Also noteworthy is a striking performance by Zita Johann, who was far stranger in real life than the role she plays here, that of a woman who may or may not be the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess. You can learn more about Karloff, Pierce, Johann, and the film itself in the Blu-ray’s excellent extras.
The Invisible Man (1933) James Whale
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) James Whale
The Wolf Man (1941) George Waggner
First of all, Lon Cheney, Jr. is the perfect actor for this role. He has that loping everyman look about him that works so well because, unlike the other films in this set, there’s a little of the monster in all of us, as Waggner proves in exploring our darker side through the character of the Wolf Man. Second, The Wolf Man is a bit of an oddity in that the monster scenes are weaker than the non-monster scenes. The script is compelling, the love story charming, the atmosphere right on target, and the gypsy fortune-telling scenes contain just the right amount of foreboding. Yet the action scenes with the Wolf Man just don’t have the impact they should. That’s mostly forgivable, since the rest of the film works so well.
Phantom of the Opera (1943) Arthur Lubin
The only color film in the collection is also the weakest. Lubin’s Phantom of the Opera feels much more at home in the romance/melodrama category than it does in horror. The Technicolor certainly looks pretty, but that’s about it.
Violinist Erique Claudin (Claude Rains, in his third appearance in this collection, after The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man) falls for opera soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster), who is being wooed by a police inspector (Edgar Barrier) and opera baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy). Claudin’s violin concerto is dismissed (then stolen) by a Parisian publisher, which leads to the creation of the Phantom. The film suffers from trying to be too many things: part romance/melodrama, part musical, part comedy. After all that, there’s not much room left for horror. And the final showdown is so ridiculous you have to see it to believe it. Or maybe you shouldn’t...
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) Jack Arnold
Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tale of two halves: the first half of the film is far more interesting than the second, exploring scientific discoveries, evolution, and taking scientific risks. There’s also a nice love triangle subplot that works well through most of the film. The creature is revealed and utilized fairly well (The scene with the creature swimming just below Julie Adams is still marvelous 60 years later.), but the incessant “creature theme” wears thin after about the first dozen times and unfortunately never lets up. The last half hour of the film consists of mostly disappointing chase scenes, but overall the film is worth your time.
Creature also seems culturally out of place in this set. By that I mean the themes of the film - those post-WWII elements of mistrust of things (and beings) we don’t understand, the possibility of science gone wrong (instead of scientists gone wrong that we see in some of the other films) - are somewhat disconnected from the other films. Take away Phantom of the Opera and you’ve got a 13-year gap between The Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon, a film that’s more at home with many of the other horror/sf films of the 50s dealing with paranoia, the Cold War, and other elements more closely related to that era. Still, Creature is mostly a fun little horror flick.
On the set itself, the extras are generally quite good, with many of them excellent. (I only listened to a couple of the commentaries, so I can’t speak for all of them.)
It could be my Blu-ray player, but the discs take what seemed like forever to load. This could be the player or possibly my ineptitude with the remote, but I could never get bookmarks to work with any of these discs. (I rarely have trouble with bookmarks on other DVDs or Blu-rays.)
As far as the actual film selections, we can quibble about what we’d like to see in this collection and what’s actually in it. I think most fans would’ve preferred to see the 1925 Lon Chaney version of Phantom of the Opera instead of the disappointing 1943 version we have here. You could also make a case for omitting Creature from the Black Lagoon simply on the basis of its being so far outside the time period of the other films (as mentioned in the review above), and including instead a film like Son of Frankenstein (1939) or The Black Cat (1934), a film featuring both Karloff and Lugosi. Of course adding Son of Frankenstein would’ve given the Frankenstein monster three films, which is probably too many for any one character in a set of this type. Yet The Black Cat would’ve been a welcome addition.
When all’s said and done, I can confidently say that if you’re a fan of classic horror, you’ll want to own this collection. The only film I don’t plan to watch again is Phantom of the Opera, but I know I’ll watch the others multiple times, including the commentary tracks. If you’re a horror fan, don’t hesitate to pick up this set.