Combustible Celluloid
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With: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr.
Written by: John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, R.C. Sherriff, William Hurlbut, Curt Siodmak, Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross, etc.
Directed by: Tod Browning, James Whale, Karl Freund, George Waggner, Jack Arnold, etc.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: -99
Date: 18/03/2013

Universal Monsters: The Legacy Collection (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Monster Squad

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The Complete Legacy Collection on DVD.

Back when most of the other studios were still getting their heads around the new "talkie" phenomenon, Universal had a bright idea. They created and packaged a whole stable of monsters, catering to the public's inherent need for thrills and chills.

A few of these pictures are masterpieces, several more are quite good, but many more were mere quickies, tossed off with not much consideration for quality. Nevertheless taken pound for pound, Dracula, Frankenstein's monster and the Wolf Man are among the most famous movie faces worldwide to this day.

As several of their previous DVDs have gone out of print, Universal has now packaged fourteen of these classic monster films into three box sets: Dracula: The Legacy Collection, Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection and The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection.

Die hard fans who wish to buy all three box sets in one package can pick up The Complete Legacy Collection (2004) which comes with hand-cast busts of all three monsters.

Dracula is my favorite of the monsters, perhaps because of his style. He's the least animalistic and vulgar, and the most likely to get invited to a swanky dinner party. No one has ever come close to matching Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the ultimate vampire. He had those beady eyes, those creepy long hands, the accent, a lot of class and a slight hint of camp. Thankfully director Tod Browning cast him instead of Lon Chaney, whom Browning had worked with extensively and had originally envisioned in the role.

Unfortunately Bela Lugosi never played Dracula again until Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) -- which is not available in this box set. Despite his obvious appeal, he often got stuck with supporting parts in Universal's films and in lead parts in horrid little cheapies. And frankly, every subsequent Dracula film ever made suffers from his not being in it.

The original 1931 Dracula may feel a little stodgy, but that's only because it's based more on the 1920s stage play than on the Bram Stoker novel. Browning still makes spectacular use of space and time, using long silences to establish creepy atmosphere. And Philip Glass's 1992 score -- a second audio option on the DVD -- fills in those silences nicely without compromising their original intent. The disc allows the viewer to switch between Browning's soundtrack, the Glass score and a new commentary track by David J. Skal.

As a bonus, the disc also comes with the alternate 1931 Spanish Dracula directed by George Melford. Using the same script and sets but shot mostly at night when the day crew was off, Melford's version runs quite a bit longer than Browning's, but it's richer and sexier, due to the more revealing costumes. Unfortunately, Carlos Villar, who plays the Spanish Dracula, severely lacks Lugosi's charisma. He comes across as rather laughable. One major problem: the movie only comes with the "hearing impaired" English subtitles, complete with "sound effects," rather than a simple, straightforward English translation.

As for the box set's other bonus films, Dracula's Daughter (1936) is actually very good. Picking up right where Dracula leaves off, Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is arrested at the scene of the crime, having just driven a stake through the vampire's heart. Dracula's "daughter" (Gloria Holden) longs to be cured of her vampirism and has a creepy assistant ably played by Irving Pichel. Holden is one potent vampire with plenty of odd screen presence, complete with a strange little lisp. She even manages to repeat Lugosi's signature line, "I never drink... wine" without arousing snickering.

Son of Dracula (1943) benefits from a first-class director, German expatriate Robert Siodmak on his first American film. Siodmak would go on to direct many great, films noir like The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry and The Killers. Son of Dracula suffers from too much talky dialogue and not enough action, and Lon Chaney Jr. is too down-home, aw-shucks to play the vampire -- who appears in disguise as Dr. Alucard ("Dracula" spelled backwards). But Siodmak gives the movie some serious atmosphere, especially in the exteriors set in the boggy woods.

Finally, House of Dracula (1945) is really a sequel to House of Frankenstein, (featured on the Frankenstein box) and the two should be viewed in order. John Carradine turns up as Dracula, and he's only slightly better than Chaney. But this is one silly movie. It's mostly about the Wolf Man (Chaney) looking for a cure.

The overall quality of the films is excellent, but these box sets have a few small problems. Universal is shamelessly using them to promote its horrible big summer movie Van Helsing, and so hack director Stephen Sommers (The Mummy) keeps popping up to talk about how these old movies inspired him. Hopefully these box sets will remain a staple of any DVD library, and so a year from now those segments are going to look ridiculous.

In addition, the menus can be confusing. Each set comes with two discs. The main feature is on a beautiful one-sided disc with a picture on the front. The bonus features are scattered on both sides of the second disc. On each disc the menu comes up exactly the same, forcing the viewer to guess which disc the chosen movie might be on.

Those quibbles aside, I'm absolutely thrilled to add these chilling films to my library.

See also: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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