Universal ruled the monster movie in the 1930s, but this hugely enjoyable DVD set offers a counter-argument from MGM and Warners. Its half-dozen horror titles run the gamut from classic vampirism to baroque romanticism, and gather horror luminaries such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre.
The greatest film of the bunch is Mad Love (1935), a rich and oft-imitated bit of perversity with a deeply romantic streak. Concert pianist Colin Clive (from Frankenstein) has his hands wrecked, and his actress wife (Frances Drake) turns to the obsessive Dr. Gogol (Lorre), who has long worshipped her. But the doctor replaces the pianist's hands with those of a murderous circus knife-thrower! Superbly directed by Karl Freund (The Mummy), this eerie film is shaped by Lorre's subtle, uncannily sympathetic performance.
Karloff reigns in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), which offers more minute-for-minute lurid action than any other movie in this set. Connoisseurs of horror will be well pleased by the roster: a crocodile pit, deadly snakes and spiders, poisons, various forms of torture including a man strapped beneath a giant reverberating bell, and Fu Manchu's sexy daughter (Myrna Loy). MGM designer Cedric Gibbons runs wild with a wonderfully daffy Deco-meets-Orientalism scheme. There are some undeniably racist epithets thrown in the direction of the evil Dr. Fu Manchu, but he gives as good as he gets, and the character is ultimately as irresistible as any evil mastermind. Karloff gives one of his juiciest performances ever.
Doctor X (1932) is presented in a recently-restored 2-strip Technicolor process (a lot of throbbing greens and oranges), which gives the movie an antique appeal. Doctor Xavier (Lionel Atwill) brings his colleagues together to figure out which of them might be the Full Moon Killer; daughter Fay Wray and reporter Lee Tracy (a typical fast-talking role for this fun actor) tag along. Michael Curtiz directed; he also did the similar Mystery of the Wax Museum, again with Atwill (available on the House of Wax disc). The Return of Doctor X (1939) is more of a curio than a full-fledged horror movie, as it has Humphrey Bogart, resplendent in a Bride of Frankenstein hair streak, in a rare supernatural outing.
The other two films are directed by Tod Browning. Mark of the Vampire (1935) is a clear example of MGM trying to ride the Dracula gravy train, with plenty of smoky graveyards, scuttling possums, and Lugosi in a tuxedo striding through giant spider webs. Lugosi is peripheral here, as Lionel Barrymore hunts down the blood-suckers. It's slow going, but the touches are wonderful and there's a spooky vampiress. Browning makes The Devil-Doll (1936) a memorably oddball thriller, with Barrymore a wronged man seeking revenge--and exploiting a device that allows people to be miniaturized. All the films have lively commentary tracks, except Devil-Doll. Overall this is a very neat package; even the inclusion of Return of Doctor X makes sense as a pairing with its original. MGM and Warners seemed embarrassed by the horror genre in the thirties, but these examples prove they could rise to Universal's game. --Robert Horton