Universal’s classic monsters go Blu

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 28, 2012
Photo by: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff star in “The Bride of Frankenstein,” released in 1935.

Owls Head — Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (1931-1943, Universal, 8 Blu-ray discs, NR or G, 10 hours 4 min.). In the 1930s, Universal Studios produced a series of classic horror films for the post-Depression generation. The popularity of those films never waned, as I recall watching them on Boston TV in the 1950s, my personal Halloween treat. Universal has packaged eight of these classics together for their Blu-ray debut. It is a must collection and a perfect gift for Halloween or any other occasion.

Universal Studios, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year with a series of tremendous Blu-ray releases, actually explored the science fiction/horror genre with the first-ever werewolf movies, “The Werewolf” in 1913 and “The White Wolf” in 1914. The year 1916 saw an adaptation of Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” followed by “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1923. The latter starred Lon Chaney, who also made “The Phantom of the Opera” for the studio in 1925. However, the period of monster movie making celebrated here came after the advent of the talkies, all under the sponsorship of studio head Carl Laemmle Jr. (his father gave him the studio as a birthday present in 1928).

First up was “Dracula,” starring Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, in 1931. The vampire tale, here presented in a remastered version, was directed by Tod Browning, “master of the macabre,” and based on a Broadway play. Lugosi had starred in the play, as had Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and Herbert Bunston as Dr. Seward. Included here, as in previous editions, is the Spanish version of Dracula, which was filmed on the same sets, only at night, with a different cast. Other carried over bonus features include an alternate score by Philip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet, and two audio commentaries, one by film historian David J. Skal and one by author Steve Haberman. A look at the restoration of the film is one of only a handful of  new bonus features in the entire set.

If Dracula was a somewhat familiar tale, the adaptation of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” that followed the same year broke new ground, with a sympathetic creature that the audience could care about, even as his created-from-parts appearance scared nearly everyone he met. Lugosi was originally to have played the part, but he balked at the makeup that would cover most of his face. The role then fell to small-time role player Boris Karloff, and a horror icon and iconic actor were born. Karloff would go on to play the Monster in five official sequels. James Whale directed the classic, which was banned in several countries due to its gruesomeness. First, though, Karloff was cast in 1932’s “The Mummy,” a chiller set in Cairo and in which he played the resuscitated corpse of an ancient Egyptian who is after the reincarnated version of his paramour. Extras for “The Mummy” include a look at the life of Jack Pierce; two audio commentaries, one group one by modern makeup specialist Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong, and one by film historian Paul M. Jensen; and a look at the Laemmle era at Universal. The extras for “Frankenstein” include looks at Karloff and restoring the Universal classics; and two audio commentaries, one with film historian Rudy Behlmer and one by historian Sir Christopher Frayling.

Next up for Karloff was a return to Frankenstein in arguably the best film of this collection, “The Bride of Frankenstein,” a 1935 effort directed by Whale and co-starring Elsa Lanchester as the title character. Meanwhile, Claude Rains played the title character in “The Invisible Man,” based on the H.G. Wells novel and again directed by Whale. Rains’ doctor discovers the invisibility potion, but it is driving him insane. “The Bride” contains a look at making the film and audio commentary by film historian Scott MacQueen. “Invisible” has production photos, a making-of feature and audio commentary by Behlmer. The beast that I hold dearest in my heart, though, is “The Wolf Man” (1941), played in heart-rendering fashion by Lon Chaney Jr. The bite by a gypsy werewolf changes the poor man’s life forever. Co-stars include Rains, Ralph Bellamy and Lugosi. It is one of the saddest movies I know. Bonus features look at making the film, Chaney’s life and creating a modern myth, while the audio commentary is by film historian Tom Weaver.

The set concludes with a remake and another classic monster creation. The remake is 1943’s lavish “Phantom of the Opera,” with Nelson Eddy, Susanna Foster, Rains and a cast of thousands. Extras include production photographs and MacQueen audio commentary. Finally, there is the “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” who kidnaps the woman he loves and then is hounded down to the depths of his watery habitat. The 1954 film stars Richard Carlson and Julia Adams. Weaver does the audio commentary here and there are production photographs. Also, the film’s 3D version is included, but you need all the necessary 3D hardware (TV, Blu-ray player etc.).

The set comes in a hardcover book, with each page a sleeve containing a disc. There also is a nice, 48-page, photo-filled booklet with a good history on Universal’s monster efforts. In all, the bonus features total more than 12 hours. I hope some day, Universal follows up with sets that combine all the sequels, as they have in the standard DVD format. Grade for set: 4 stars

By the way, part of this year’s Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights 22 in Orlando was a haunted house dedicated to these original monsters. Highlights were the Werewolf near the opening and the Creature from the Black Lagoon at the end. The event concludes Wednesday, Oct. 31.

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (Universal, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R and NR, 93/94 min.). If Universal is trying to establish a new generation of iconic monsters, this film does not quite make it. Directed and co-written by Louis Morneau, it does get the sympathy for the creature part right, although it treats the film more like a mystery. The straight-to-video film has a bit of a western feel to the costumes of the band of werewolf hunters, led by Charles (Ed Quinn). The setting is an area in which werewolf attacks apparently are frequent -- and their victims apparently become like zombies -- but, while the film is supposed to be set in the late 19th century, the hunters have flame-throwers and a machine gun. Stephen Rea is probably the most familiar face; he plays the doctor, who has a young apprentice in Daniel (Guy Wilson), who is anxious to join the hunt. However, Daniel has disturbing nightmares, never a good sign. An oddity is the werewolf seems to be targeting the dregs of society as his victims. The opening hour is saddled with a lot of clichés. But the film does hold some interest after that. The Blu-ray version looks very nice, with good color and detail, making fine use of its locations in Romania and Transylvania. Bonus features include deleted scenes, a look at making the film, transforming an actor into the creature (the SFX makeup designer is Paul Hyatt), audio commentary by Morneau and producer Mike Elliott (both worked for producer Roger Corman) and a look at the history of monster films. Grade: film 2.5 stars

Excision (Anchor Bay, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 81 min.).
This is one strange movie. For more than an hour, it is a cross between a comedy and a pity party, then opts for a very sick ending. It is the coming-of-age story of high school student Pauline (AnnaLynne McCord), a social misfit and outcast, who dresses such that she borders on unwholesome (not quite ugly). The only thing she really cares about in her life is her sister Grace (Ariel Winter), who has cystic fibrosis. Pauline is headed to a medical career so she can find a cure for her sister. The mother (Traci Lords) thinks Grace is perfect and cannot stop hurling verbal abuse at Pauline. While husband Bob (Roger Bart), just sort of watches without reacting much, as it to say, here we go again. Throughout the film, we see Pauline’s bizarre fantasies that combine sexual longing with blood and mutilation. There even is a sickly funny sex scene, as the audience knows something the boy does not. The film is an expansion of writer/director Richard Bates Jr.’s short film of the same name. Bates has a lot of unexpected cameos for the teachers and principal. Among them are Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise, director John Waters and Marlee Matlin. The sole extra is audio commentary by Bates and McCord. Be warned, this is a hard watch. Grade: film 2 stars

The Viral Factor (China, Well Go USA, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 122 min.).
It is kind of strange to watch a Western-style action film that is made in Hong Kong. The basic difference is the cast has more Asians. Directed by Dante Lam from his screenplay adaptation, there is a prologue set in Jordan, in which one of the last two samples of smallpox is stolen in a violent shootout as it is being transported by International Security Affairs. Nearly all the agents are killed and our hero, Jay Chou as Jon, is left with a bullet lodged in his brain. Jon is given only two more weeks to live, as the story picks up three months later, and he goes to Malaysia to visit his mother, who reveals she knows where his father and long-missing older brother are living. He goes and finds his father and learns his brother, Nicholas Tse as Man Yeung, has just escaped from prison and is a mercenary for hire. Coincidentally, Man Yeung, also is associated with those working for the prime bad guy, who, yet in another coincidence, is Jon’s former partner, who plans of unleashing the smallpox via an altered strain. Oh, there is a big third coincidence. Onboard the plan to Malaysia, Jon suffers from the high altitude and a fellow passenger, Ling Ping as Dr. Rachel Kan, offers to find him help. Dr. Kan turns out to be the one person Jon’s former partner needs to complete the virus, now that the original scientist has been run down while trying to escape. OK, the film does have too many coincidences, but the action sequences are well done and several of the fights are imaginatively staged, including a fight in an upside-down room and one in a narrow corridor. There also is a well done car crash. So, if it is action you want, you have it here. Extras include a making-of feature and cast and crew interviews. Grade: film 3 stars

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (China, Vivendi, 3D and regular Blu-ray, R, 122 min.). There is even more action -- much of it stylized in the humans-cannot- really-make-those-moves- but-boy-are-they-something-to-watch fashion -- in this this version of this general story. “Dragon Inn,” aka “Dragon Gate Inn,” appeared in 1967 and was remade in 1992 as “New Dragon Gate Inn,” produced by Tsui Hark. Hark now returns to the source material as producer, director and writer. While I did not view the acclaimed 3D version, it is clear in the regular Blu-ray version how effective those effects would be. It does take a while to figure out who is who in the film, which is set during the Ming  Dynasty, when powerful court eunuchs have set up an Eats and a West Bureau to serve as a secret service with the power to execute. Jet Li (a bit stern at times) plays good bandit Zhao Huai’an, who wipes out the East Bureau eunuch in an early scene. The leader of the West Bureau then goes after Zhao, who also has a pretend double out there (Zhou Xun plays Ling, a former associate of Zhao’s who is doing good, using his name as a cover). Ling saves courtesan Su (Mavis Fan), who is carrying the emperor’s child and who is to be executed. Everyone ends up at the Dragon Gate Inn, just prior to a 60-year black sandstorm striking. One additional group is some Tartar treasure hunters. There is lots of fun action here, all presented with extreme clarity. Extras include a two-part, 14-minute making-of feature, 20 minutes of interviews with the cast and crew, and a 32-minute behind-the-scenes look at several scenes being staged and shot. Grade: film 3.75 stars

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