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8 Great monster films in high quality Blu ray,
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This review is from: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
Without question, this is one of the great purchases in my film collection. While I had seen most of these movies many times beginning when I was a young boy, I'd never seen them in the quality presented here. All of the transfers are in 1080p in their original aspect ratio. In addition an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2-channel)sound layer is on each disc. In some cases there are minor transfer quality differences but they are rarely noticeable. Each disc has its own set of special features. Some are excellent and informative. Some are redundant. Some of the commentaries are terrific, others not so much. Here is a review of each movie and disc in the collection:
DRACULA (1931) 5.0 stars
Although I've seen this classic Universal film dozens of times starting at about age 10, this is my first look at the excellent Blu ray transfer available as a stand-alone film or part of the "Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection."
The well-known tale stars Bela Lugosi in his most recognizable role. The Hungarian actor also played the character in the stage production from which much is adapted for this early talking picture. Some will snicker at the mannerisms and heightened theatrics more common in the theater. Even as a great admirer of the movie, I chuckle when I see a couple armadillos scurrying across Dracula's Transylvanian castle.
Lugosi, still struggling with English accentuates his dialog not only with an unusual cadence, enunciating each syllable but seemingly each letter. But Bela was a charmer, especially of the ladies which transformed the Count from the Dracula in Bram Stoker's novel and the first production on film, "Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror" (1922). In F. W. Murnau's film, the Count (Orlok) was ugly, sinister and more in tune with what Stoker had in mind.
One of the things that always bothered me about the film was the lack of a musical score. The story has extended moments of silence, except for noise coming from old tape or DVD transfers. The cleaned up version here, eliminates almost all of the surface noise, and makes the silence even more...well silent. I much prefer the added Philip Glass score performed by The Kronos Quartet. I was fortunate to see Glass perform this live accompanying the film a few years ago in Dallas.
This exquisite 1080p transfer maintains the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and includes a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (mono) option. It is the way to go. Extras include some interesting short documentaries including one introduced and narrated by producer Carl Laemmle's niece who had a small role in the film which included the first words spoken. The package also includes a Spanish language version which was filmed using the same sets at the time, a couple commentary tracks, trailers and more. If you are a fan, you'll want this Blu ray.
"Dracula" (Spanish language version): When Tod Browning's game-changing Dracula was being filmed in Hollywood, a Spanish language version was being filmed at night using the same sets and a slightly altered script. In some ways, this is actually a better movie. Unfortunately in some ways it is not.
The first noticeable element is that the film runs nearly 30 minutes longer. Much of this actually provides some context and continuity especially during the voyage of Dracula from Transylvania to England. Some of the length is also just laborious dialog. There are two big improvements over the English language version. First, the creepy atmosphere lingers throughout the movie, rather than just on those early scenes in Drac's castle. For example, when Dracula rises from his daytime slumber, wisps of smoke exude from his coffin before he is seen.
Secondly and most importantly, the leading lady, Lupita Tovar is much sexier and a better actress than Helen Chandler. Now Eva (rather than Mina) has a clear attraction for the Count. Her clothing reveals a bit of décolletage rather than Chandlers buttoned up look. Here Lucia is played by beautiful Carmen Guerrero although her role is scaled back. Like Eva, Lucia is taken with Drac's charms.
To offset these improvements however are two more issues. First and foremost, Carlos Villarias' Dracula is, well...terrible. His over-acting is often laughable to say the least. Bela Lugosi certainly is much better and inhabited the role. I would also point out that in this Spanish version, Renfield takes on a much bigger role and like Villarias, Pablo Alvarez Rubio is no match for his counterpart, Dwight Frye in the English-language version. All in all, this is an interesting comparo to the better known Dracula and is all the better with this Blu ray update included on the same disc.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) 4.5 stars
This is the second of the classics restored by Universal in their monster collection and it is a gem of course. I don't know how many times I've seen this great movie, but this Blu ray is certainly the highest quality. Given a serious look, it's not quite the perfect horror movie I have forever thought but it's still close. The best thing here is Boris Karloff, as Dr. Frankenstein's creation. Watch his near mute (he does grunt and growl) performance. Like many of the silent films a few years earlier, actors have to use their movement, their eyes and facial expression to communicate feelings. And Karloff is masterful in this performance. Can't say enough about him.
Troubled actor Colin Clive is also excellent as Frankenstein. Dwight Frey as Fritz and Edward Van Sloan return after their similar performances in "Dracula." The story of course is based on an early 19th century story by Mary Shelley. All of this wouldn't have happened of course but for some great direction from James Whale and masterful makeup from Jack Pierce. So what's wrong? Quibbles admittedly but still.
First when the monster is on the loose on day of the doc's wedding to lovely Elizabeth (Mae Clarke), Frankenstein thinks he hears the monster inside the house. He gathers a search party of staffers and locks Elizabeth in her room "to keep her safe." Say what? Of course, the creature enters though an open window. Then there is the issue of the little Maria (Marilyn Harris) who is playfully tossed into the lake by her cottage by the creature. Fortunately this once censured scene was rightfully restored. Her father finds the girl (off camera) and marches into the village carrying her dead body claiming she had been murdered. Huh? Couldn't she just have drowned on her own? And why did he teach her how to swim anyway? Great sets, especially the flowing electricity in the laboratory, excellent acting and a timeless story overcome any shortcomings.
The Blu ray transfer comes in 1080p resolution with a 1.35:1 aspect ratio. While perhaps not quite as sharp as "Dracula" the film is as good as its ever been. The original photography is well represented with little to complain about in terms of flicker, specks, and other video crud. If anything the picture appears a little too dark on rare occasion. These are minor picked nits and of little consequence. The audio comes courtesy of DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2-channel) and while it is very good it does seem a bit noisier than the aforementioned "Dracula." I don't know if this is the transfer or the condition of the original material. In any case, most will not notice. Here are the extras:
*The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (45 minutes)
*Karloff: The Gentle Monster (38 minutes)
*Universal Horror (95 minutes)
*Audio Commentaries: Film historians Rudy Behlmer & Sir Christopher Frayling.
*100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics (9 minutes)
*Boo!: A Short Film (10 minutes)
*Frankenstein Archives (9 minutes)
*Trailer Gallery (8 minutes)
THE MUMMY (1932) 5.0 stars
This was Universal Studios third big hit after "Dracula," and "Frankenstein" and features several of the same cast and crew. This time around famed cinematographer Karl Freund ("Dracula") gets his first shot at directing. Boris Karloff who was so effective as Frankenstein's monster again signs up for hours in the makeup chair and Jack Pierce's wizardry.
This spectacular Blu Ray version is currently available as part of the Universal Monsters Collection. It brings new appreciation for this childhood favorite. The opening scenes feature The Mummy (Karloff) slowly come to life. Watch his face wrapped in perfectly aged linen. You can see the dust and bits of fabric fall from the 3500 year old man. Karloff also plays the modern day recreation of Im-Ho-Tep (The Mummy) in the form of Egyptian archeologist Ardeth Bey. If anything, the make up with Bey is even more startling and is crystal clear in this transfer. The story has Bey searching for his reincarnated lover. He was originally entombed for desecrating her final resting place by trying to raise her back to life using some magic words on a forbidden document. She is found in the form of Helen played by stage actress Zita Johann.
My favorite sequence in the movie is when Bey and Helen look into a magical and misty pool of water that serves as kind of a way-back machine. We see the events that cost Im-Ho-Tep his life. David Manners ("Dracula") plays a dashing archeologist who has the hots for Helen and Edward Van Sloan plays pretty much the same character he played in "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." That is, the wise old professor. Freund's use of lighting is very effective in this atmospheric thriller. Other than the opening scenes inside the tomb, the film is rarely frightening even by the standards of 1932.
As previously noted, the Blu ray version of this film is as good as it gets, especially on a film this old. Greys are grey and blacks are black. There are no noticeable artifacts that I could detect. The audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2 channel) and is very clear. I could hear no hissing, common with these older movies, especially those with minimal musical scoring. Extras include a 30 min. documentary called "Mummy Dearest" and one about make up master Jack Pierce. There are a couple commentary tracks, photos, trailers and 2 short docs about Universal and the Mummy legacy.
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) 4.5 stars
Universal Studios kept their string of hit horror flicks going, that began with "Dracula," with this fine film based on H. G. Wells's novel. Evidently several adaptations were created and several directors considered. Wells was said to have approved of both James Whale ("Frankenstein") as director and R. C. Sherriff's screenplay. In fact the opening scene is taken directly from the book.
In his first "talkie" and only second movie, Claude Rains plays tormented and invisible scientist Jack Griffin. We never actually see his face until the final scene but that famous voice is all that's needed. Griffin holes up in a village inn attempting to find a way to reverse the experiment that makes him invisible. A side effect of the Monocane is that his temperament is becoming more and more violent. As his megalomaniac tendencies increase, murder is not out of the question.
After he is forced to leave the inn, he returns to the city and the home of a fellow scientist, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) who he enlists to help him with his continued provocation. Griffin's beautiful girlfriend (Titanic's Gloria Stuart) tries to get him help but at this point, he's beyond hope.
While certainly not very scary, Whale keeps things interesting with large doses of humor. Innkeeper Mrs. Hall (Una O'Connor) is a hoot. Perhaps the most surprising element to the film is the terrific special effects. Breaking some new ground, John P. Fulton and John Mescall introduce some remarkable film tricks, especially those involving Griffin's invisibility. Watch for brief glimpses of John Carradine, Dwight Frye and Walter Brennan in small roles.
The Blu ray version is currently available as part of the Universal Monsters Collection and will be available as a stand alone in June, 2013. The transfer has a 1080p resolution and a 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Like all of the films in this collection, "The Invisible Man" is a significant upgrade from DVD. I will admit that this transfer didn't seem to be a sharp as some of the others I've seen. I can't quite put my finger on it but I noticed some specks and other blemishes show up here and there. Not a big deal and I suspect most won't notice. The audio includes DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2 channel) and its very good. Not much going on to jazz up your speakers as you might expect but the dialog is clear and intelligible. Extras include a documentary hosted by historian Rudy Behlmer and an audio commentary track also featuring Behlmer. A trailer, some photos and a short 8 minute doc showing off some of Universals monsters over the years round out the extras.
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) 5.0 stars
A Blu ray version of this great film is currently available as part of the Universal Classic Monsters Collection and will be available in the near future as a stand alone disc. Before I get into the technical aspects of the Blu ray transfer here's a bit about the film.
This true sequel to director James Whale's 1931 masterpiece is considered by most critics to be even superior. Certainly from a production standpoint, it is hard to argue against it. This movie actually continues the story originated by Mary Shelley in 1816. In fact, like "Frankenstein," the movie opens with Mary (Elsa Lanchester), Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) and Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton) once again in flashback, discussing Mary's horror novel during a thunderstorm. This was a scene Whale insisted on recreating.
Back to the present day, the story picks up where "Frankenstein" left off. The monster is trapped inside a burning windmill and Dr. Frankenstein is near death after being thrown off by the monster. He recovers, but is forced to help a strange former teacher, Dr. Pretorius (fey Ernest Thesiger). Pretorius had his own success with creating life. Whale and screenwriter William Hurlbut struggled with censors as the film hints at homosexuality, necrophilia and has numerous religious connotations.
Boris Karloff returns as the monster and once again is terrific, this time more sympathetic in spite of the fact he kills more people than he did in his first outing. Both he and Colin Clive, once again Henry Frankenstein, were injured before and during the movie causing additional complications for Whale. A 17 year old British actress, Valerie Hobson replaces Mae Clarke as Elizabeth, Henry's fiancée. She has a couple meaty scenes and pulls them off nicely.
As a kid I mostly remembered Pretorius's little people which he created and housed in jars. A lightened moment in what was still a frightening film. The best scenes however are given to Lanchester who also portrays the "Bride" complete with herky-jerky head movements and the now iconic lightning bolt hairdo. Pretorius also utters a couple quips that become important to the future. When the lady monster comes alive, he calls her the Bride of Frankenstein not the Bride of the Monster. Is that how the monster became known by many as "Frankenstein?" He also announces the successful reanimation declaring "gods and monsters," the name of a 1998 biopic about James Whale.
The movie is enhanced by some excellent photography (Stephen M. Katz), makeup (Jack Pierce returning), special effects (John P. Fulton) and an amazing musical score by Franz Waxman. Note how each main character has his/her own musical announcement. This is one of the great horror movies. Make that one of the great movies of all time.
The Blu ray disc comes in a 1080p resolution and has a near original 1.35:1 aspect ratio. This black and white film is certainly one of the best of the Universal restorations. Some have rightly complained about some earlier DVD quality issues. I can assure you they have been cleaned up here. The transfer quality is consistently excellent throughout with beautiful detail. Many of the aforementioned little people provide some interesting elements I had never seen before. There are no scratches, light fading or any other abnormalities that I could see. The audio comes by way of DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2-channel) and is likewise excellent. Waxman's score is perfectly replicated given the age and source. The dialog is crisp and clear. There is little if any noise in any of the scenes. The only extra worth a look is 39 minute documentary called "She's Alive!: Creating the Bride of Frankenstein." There is a numb audio commentary by a historian, some archival photos, trailers and a Universal commercial that appears on all of the discs in this collection.
THE WOLF MAN (1941) 4.5 stars
Ten years after Universal Studio's successful run of horror films, another shot at a werewolf movie was made. Contrary to popular belief, this wasn't the first. Six years earlier Universal put out "Werewolf of London." The underappreciated movie bombed at the box office.
In "The Wolf Man," makeup artist Jack Pierce used the original face that was planned for the 1935 film. In WWL, the facial features were pared back for a variety of reasons. Lon Chaney, Jr. escaped acting obscurity with this starring role as Larry Talbot, who after 18 years in America, returns to England where his father (Claude Rains) is mourning the death of Larry's older brother. You'll have to suspend logic a bit as Rains is about a foot shorter and much slighter than the hulking Chaney. Just like you will have to suspend logic as to why almost all the British characters speak with American accents.
As a kid, I thought this movie was pretty darn scary, much more so than Dracula or even Frankenstein's monster. Maybe because Talbot was just a regular guy, trying to do good by killing a wolf who had attacked a woman. Unfortunately, he was bitten and we all know what happens if you are bitten and survive. Interestingly enough, most of the werewolf mythology we accept in movies today - including how you become one, the death by silver, the pentagram, etc. - was concocted by screenwriter Curt Siodmak a German immigrant.
The film features Ralph Bellamy who would go on to make much bigger films, Bela Lugosi in a brief appearance as gypsy leader (and part time werewolf) Bela, and Maria Ouspenskava who made a career playing an old and wise gypsy matriarch. Directed and produced by George Waggner, the film has some wonderful sets and artwork and features an excellent musical score. In the end Talbot tragically succumbs, getting throttled by the silver handled cane he once used to kill Bela the werewolf. The film was wildly successful and in horror films, no one necessarily dies forever. Chaney went on to make 3 sequels and other appearances as Talbot the Wolf Man.
The Wolf Man is currently available on Blu ray as part of Universal Classic Monsters: The Essentials Box Set. It will be available as a stand alone disc in the near future. The film is transferred in 1080p with a 1.36:1 aspect ratio. Like all of the Universal Blu ray updates, this film looks great. I did notice a slight halo effect in some scenes but for me, no big deal. The black and white film shines otherwise. Like others in this collection, the detail will have you finding scene tidbits you probably missed before. The audio has a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2-channel)track and it is excellent. Clear and consistent and gives nice representation of the outstanding score. Extras include a couple informative and interesting documentaries (Monsters by Moonlight and The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.) both a little over 30 minutes. There is another about makeup man Jack Pierce, an audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver, some posters and other stills, a story about Universal's back lot, a short about the appeal of The Wolf Man and some trailers. Whew!
PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943) 3.5 stars
I recently acquired the Blu ray version of this film as part of Universal's Classic Monster Collection. It will be released alone in June, 2013. As opposed to earlier versions of "Phantom," it is in no way a horror film. Having said that, it is a pretty good movie for what it is.
While the film pretty much abandons Leroux's story, the film has lavish production, most of which is concentrated on the hugh opera scenes, and there are several. In fact each chapter on the old laserdisc version I own has an operatic opening. The film won a couple Oscars for technical achievement. If you are a fan of opera and especially Nelson Eddy you will enjoy this adaptation more than horror freaks.
I also did like the lovely Susanna Foster who can shatter glass with her soprano. Claude Rains gives his usual fine performance as the orchestra violinist who goes wacko when he believes his beloved concerto is stolen. He of course is in love with Christine (Foster), as is inspector Raoul D'Aubert (Edgar Barrier) and Anatole Garron (Eddy). The later have some comedic banter along the way which certainly alters the tone of the movie. Also watch for Leo Carrillo who went on to play Pancho on the TV Cisco Kid series, a fave of mine as a kid. There is also a small role for the great Hume Cronyn here. In the end, a bit of a mixed bag for me, but no denying the production values.
The Blu ray disc comes with a video resolution of 1080p and maintains the films original aspect ratio (1.36:1). Filmed in color, the transfer is very good. The elaborate sets, costumes and operatic vista are well presented. Very good blacks and little in the way of blemishes. There were a couple instances of inconsistent color, but its hardly noticeable. The audio is really the highlight of the upgrade. Using DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2 channel), the lavish film score really comes to life. With music a highlight in this version of "Phantom," the Blu ray should be well received by music lovers. Dialog is clean and intelligible throughout. Extras include an interesting documentary regarding the various "Phantom" films. Film historian Scott McQueen provides a commentary track. There is a 9 minute short about Universal's back lot, some photos and a trailer.
CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) 4.5 stars
I remember my mother gathering my 2 brothers and me, decked in our PJs, into the family Plymouth and heading to the drive-in movie theater. I was a kid. It was a big deal. It was 3-D! Among others on the bill, was the "Creature From The Black Lagoon." The 3-D gimmick has come and gone a few times since then and appeared to have made a real comeback recently. Yet, checking out the Sunday ads in the paper (Best Buy, Fry's, Target, Tiger Direct), there was not one featuring a 3-D TV for sale. In any case, I watched this Blu ray disc in good old fashion 2-D and it looks better than ever.
The story centers on a group of scientists who find a large webbed hand and part of an arm in the Brazilian Amazon. Believed to be a water creature, scientists who are also scuba divers are recruited. Among them are David (Richard Carlson) and Mark, his boss (Richard Denning) both playing for the affections of statuesque Kay (Julie Adams). While the story is pretty much a straight forward beauty and the beast, director Jack Arnold and his team create an above average "horror" film.
The movie was essentially shot in two locations. One was the Universal Studios lot and some of the shots are well done, but others are limited to the technical capabilities of the time. All of the underwater filming was done in a Florida grotto and they are remarkably well done, especially when you remember that the film was shot in 3-D using the big and cumbersome cameras of the era. The creature, even with a rubber suit is plenty creepy given its human characteristics.
The most memorable scene (and yes, one I remember as a kid) is when Kay decides to go swimming in the lagoon in her white, and brief for the day, one piece suit. With the camera in the water shooting upward to the surface we see the shadowed silhouette of Kay gracefully swimming across the surface. Yeah, that got my attention, then and now...and more importantly, that of the creature. Director Steven Spielberg must have remembered that scene too (see "Jaws"). This goes on for a while and the creature joins in, swimming upside down below Eve. Great swimming by Ricou Browning who played the creature in the underwater scenes.
While the creature manages to kill a few crew members, it was he who was attacked first and he doesn't seem to have menace in mind when it comes to Eve. Mostly we are sympathetic to his plight. He's lonely. He wants a friend. My only complaint with the film is that each time the creature is featured, we get a menacing, shrill brass section musical blast. It's very annoying and unnecessary given the otherwise excellent score.
The Blu ray version is currently available as part of the Universal Classic Monsters box set and will be available as a stand alone disc in June, 2013. The transfer has a 1080p resolution and is in black and white with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While not quite up to the quality of some of the earlier films in this collection, the film still looks very good. Detail is excellent although there are brief moments of glitchiness. Never sure if this is the adaptation or a problem in the original print being used. In any case, it was never a big deal for me. The audio is DTS-HD Master Audio Mono (2-channel)and is very good. The dialog is clear and properly centered. As noted above the music can startle at times but that was the intent unfortunately. Ms. Adams screams are excellent. Extras include a documentary about the production and include the still fit and beautiful Julie Adams, Browning, Ben Chapman (the land based creature)and others. An audio commentary track is narrated by historian Tom Weaver. Some "Creature" trailers, photos and a short about Universal's back lot round out the extras.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 10, 2013 10:13:33 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 10, 2013 10:56:08 PM PDT
Personally, I cannot stand that alternate score for DRACULA. It doesn't belong with the movie, and sounds like it's got nothing to do with the onscreen action the way it drones monotonously throughout. It interferes with the dialog, which gets very annoying. People say there's no music; there is: The title music is Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, which is what I want to hear, not some substituted twaddle. An excerpt from Wagner's Meistersinger is played when Dracula enters the theater's auditorium and accentuates the drama of the scene. As Dracula is concluding his remark about how "there are far worse things... awaiting man... than... death", we hear the opening bars of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, which underscores that great closeup of Lugosi. The music may be sparse, but what little there is of it is highly effective. Those who criticize the long stretches of silence are missing the point - it's the silence that gives DRACULA its unique, eerie atmosphere. Quiet can indeed be quite creepy. Thankfully, that score is an optional feature.
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 11, 2013 2:55:53 AM PDT
Each to his or her own musical twaddle. Thanks for your comments.
Posted on Jun 19, 2013 12:06:06 PM PDT
Dear M. Oleson - Thank you, kindly, for such a well-written, thorough evaluation of these films, especially the details regarding special features.
Amazon never seems to correctly mention when (or if) special features are available and it's very annoying. Thank goodness for reviewers like you!
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2013 12:26:13 PM PDT
You are absolutely correct about the title music being Swan Lake. I believe it is von Rothbart's theme. You can hear it at the opening and later during von Rothbart's solo:
In reply to an earlier post on Jun 19, 2013 1:36:02 PM PDT
I appreciate your comments.
Posted on Jan 19, 2014 1:51:55 PM PST
Excellent and very helpful review.
I appreciate the individual comments on each film instead of just a list.
I gave the review a helpful "yes." If it does not show up soon you may ask Amazon why.
In reply to an earlier post on Jan 19, 2014 3:31:21 PM PST
You're welcome and thank you for your comments.
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