Combustible Celluloid
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With: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Elsa Lanchester, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price, John Barrymore, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Peter Lorre, John Carradine, June Lockhart, Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Julia Adams, Marie Windsor
Written by: Curt Siodmak, Garrett Fort, R. C. Sherriff, William Hurlbut, etc.
Directed by: Tod Browning, James Whale, Karl Freund, Joe May, Robert Siodmak, George Waggner, Charles Barton, etc.
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 2764
Date: 09/12/2018

Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (2018)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Drac Pack

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

First of all, let me say that the 2018 Blu-ray release The Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection is not exactly "complete." It's exemplary, and absolutely essential, but not complete. It focuses mainly on name-brand monsters and excludes masterpieces like James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) or Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). It also does not include any of Lon Chaney's silent-era films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) or The Phantom of the Opera (1925), nor does it include the later sci-fi films like It Came from Outer Space (1953) or The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Be that as it may, there's enough entertainment value, not to mention sheer greatness, in these 30 films to make this box set more than worthwhile.

Universal's run of horror films is something rather unprecedented in the history of film. In terms of the length of its run, the frequency of films during that time, the number of films, and the high quality of many of those films, nothing comes close, although perhaps the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes closest. Not even attempts by Universal to resurrect its own monster series have been successful, or even interesting. (It's as if the films are cursed and remakes are doomed to failure.) It was an ingenious business idea. Although the studio couldn't copyright classic works of literature or timeless figures, they simply copyrighted their own imagery, their own versions of these things, and to this day, when asked to think of Dracula or the Frankenstein monster or the Mummy, these monsters are frequently the first ones that spring to mind.

But the series also allowed for great artists to do great work. Directors James Whale and Tod Browning are obvious examples, but there are also stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Lon Chaney Jr., and Claude Rains, makeup artist Jack Pierce, special effects man John P. Fulton, as well as other filmmakers like Karl Freund, Joe May, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, and more. Because nothing much was at stake, these artists would have been largely left alone to do amazing work.

The series began in earnest in February of 1931, with Dracula, and in November of that same year, with Frankenstein. It's hard to think of two more famous films in the history of the world. Every school child knows the names as well as they know Santa Claus. But how did these supposedly two-bit entertainments catch on in such a big way? Certainly there are bigger themes at work in these fright films, concepts like god, life, death, creation, etc., but there's something more primal involved, and I'd like to talk more about that later.

Browning's Dracula (1931) came more from a stage play than from Bram Stoker's novel, and it's often described as static or stagy. There are few camera movements (although when the camera does move, it's sublime), and no real music score other than a few incidental cues. But Browning had already seen the bulk of his career pass during the silent era, and most of that with actor Lon Chaney. He was already a master of the macabre, so feverishly obsessed with worlds of darkness, that Dracula practically oozes with it, even if it seems staid on the surface. Cinematographer Karl Freund helps, with his expressionistic shadows. Moreover, Lugosi's performance is almost subconsciously potent; it's impossible to resist him.

The four-disc Dracula set includes Philip Glass's beautiful 1998 score, which fits unobtrusively over the finished film (it's now my preferred way of watching it). It also includes the complete "Spanish" Dracula, which was shot on the same sets during the night, after the American crew had wrapped. Directed by George Melford, it's longer and more elegant, perhaps even better told, but it lacks Browning's sense of darkness, and it certainly lacks a star of Lugosi's charisma. Other extras include featurettes, commentary tracks (David J. Skal provides one track for the 1931 film and screenwriter Steve Haberman provides another), trailers, and optional subtitles and language tracks.

The other films in the set are two not-bad sequels, Lambert Hillyer's Dracula's Daughter (1936) and Robert Siodmak's Son of Dracula (1943), a pair of silly, kid-friendly monster-mash movies, Erle C. Kenton's House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945) — with John Carradine as the Count — and, finally, one of my own childhood favorites (the first movie I ever saw, one Saturday morning on TV), Charles Barton's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which had Lugosi returning officially to his most famous role. Gregory W. Mank provides an optional commentary track on this one. This disc includes a half-hour featurette about the comedy team and their history of meeting monsters.

Whale's Frankenstein (1931) is perhaps more cinematic, and with deeper themes than Dracula, and it can be argued that Karloff's performance as the monster was more difficult than Lugosi's, attempting to find a soft spot between scary and sympathetic. It's a remarkable film, almost like a dark poem, with creeping dread right around every corner. Whale's follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), is even better, a masterpiece, one of the greatest films of all time, and arguably my favorite of these thirty. From its prologue with Mary Shelley to its meeting of the monster and the blind man and the mini-people in jars, it's like a weird dream, funny, spooky, and amazing.

The Frankenstein set includes five discs and eight films in all. The third in the series, Rowland V. Lee's Son of Frankenstein (1939) is terrific; its main fault is that it's not as good as Whale's two predecessors. (It's the film that mostly inspired Mel Brooks's spoof Young Frankenstein.) It features some elaborate set-pieces and plenty of excitement. Karloff returns as the monster, with Lugosi as Ygor and Basil Rathbone as the son of Dr. Frankenstein. After that we get Erle C. Kenton's sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), with Chaney taking over the monster role, but Lugosi continuing on as Ygor. Then comes Roy William Neill's fun Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), which is more of a direct sequel to The Wolf Man (1941) — more on that later — with Chaney as the Wolf Man and Lugosi trying out the Frankenstein monster.

Since these discs were all originally issued separately, this set also includes the same House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), as on the Dracula set. Extras include several documentaries, production stills/archives, trailers, the same Abbott and Costello doc, and commentary tracks. (Rudy Behlmer and Sir Christopher Frayling each provide one for Frankenstein and Scott MacQueen offers one for Bride of Frankenstein.)

The Invisible Man (1933) was another of Whale's creations for Universal, his third of four, and it's another masterpiece. Claude Rains plays the title character, and creates his character almost entirely through his voice; his face is never shown, except covered in bandages and dark goggles. As with Whale's other films, it's a combination of coy dreaminess, weird humor, and genuine curiosity, getting just a little closer to the darkness than other films would. Gloria Stuart, who was re-discovered — and received an Oscar nomination — decades later for Titanic, co-stars.

This set includes six films on four discs. The second film, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), is of special interest, as it is directed by Joe May, a former member of the school of German Expressionism (and the maker of films like Asphalt). It's not as visually spectacular as you may imagine, but it has its moments, and it's well worth seeing. Vincent Price takes over as the title character in this one. The other sequels, A. Edward Sutherland's forward-thinking, comedic The Invisible Woman (1940), Edwin L. Marin's wartime propaganda piece Invisible Agent (1942), and Ford Beebe's The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944), are of diminishing returns. The set finishes up with Charles Lamont's Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951). Extras include a commentary track on the original film by Rudy Behlmer, a featurette, production stills, and trailers.

Karl Freund's The Mummy (1932) is another great one, moody and shadowy, somehow dealing with heat and dust and making them feel chilly and clammy. Karloff gives another subtle, powerful, and even sad performance in a somewhat romantic role as he tries to resurrect his centuries-dead loved one (embodied by Zita Johann). Freund had been a noted cinematographer on many German Expressionist movies, including The Last Laugh and Metropolis, as well as on Dracula. His quiet direction did not please his bosses, however, and despite this film's excellence, he only directed one other film in his entire career (the amazing Mad Love, released by MGM in 1935).

The first Mummy sequel, Christy Cabanne's The Mummy's Hand (1940), is actually rather good, with some of the same shadowy mystery. The next three, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the more familiar, shambling, groaning mummy, are a little sillier. They are: Harold Young's The Mummy's Tomb (1942), Reginald Le Borg's The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and Leslie Goodwins' The Mummy's Curse (1944). The set closes with Charles Lamont's Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), co-starring Marie Windsor. Extras include three featurettes, including one on make-up man Jack Pierce, Mummy archives, trailers, and two commentary tracks for the original film; one is by historian Paul M. Jensen and the other is by an entire panel of filmmakers, including make-up genius Rick Baker and screenwriter Steve Haberman (Dracula: Dead and Loving It).

George Waggner's The Wolf Man (1941) was made a significant number of years after the originals, and it looks quite a bit different. It's less dreamy and moody and a little darker, more realistic, perhaps a teeny bit more violent, but no less great. Chaney has one of his best roles as Lawrence Talbot, who is afflicted with lycanthropy; he is genuinely pained, agonized about his plight. It's touching. The great cast in this one includes Maria Ouspenskaya as an old gypsy woman, Bela Lugosi as her son, plus Claude Rains and Ralph Bellamy. As they did many other Universal monster films, Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner composed the fine score, and Curt Siodmak wrote the screenplay (one of his best).

This set includes seven films on four discs, but four of the films have already appeared elsewhere: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). The difference is that they belong here; Chaney plays Talbot (the Wolf Man) in each of them. Of other two films, one is an earlier effort, the serviceable Stuart Walker's Werewolf of London (1935), starring Henry Hull as a much less animalistic wolf. The last, Jean Yarbrough's She-Wolf of London (1946), starring June Lockhart, doesn't really work; it's too serious and shies away from the supernatural. Extras on this disc include a commentary track on the original film by Tom Weaver, which is arguably the best and most animated in the entire set. There are five featurettes, Wolf Man archives, and trailers.

As fun as it is, Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) isn't really in the same class with the others. It came long after the point at which executives had attempted to make films for grown-up audiences and simply started producing simpler films for kids. Specifically, this one is aimed at awkward adolescent boys who are interested in girls but who feel like mal-formed mutants. It features lots of wooden dialogue and lots of talking, and contains the usual "should we study it or kill it?" argument heard in so many monster movies. But it contains some great underwater footage, and the pretty heroine Julie Adams is still unbelievably adorable after so many years.

This set includes only two discs and three films. The second film is Arnold's Revenge of the Creature (1955), which is notable as Clint Eastwood's acting debut, and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the newest and last film in this set. For those that have 3D Blu-ray players, the first and third movies are also offered in 3D versions. There's a documentary, photos, trailers, and commentary tracks. Weaver contributes commentary tracks for all three Creature movies.

Last and least, there is Arthur Lubin's Phantom of the Opera (1943), the only color film in the set. Chaney's aforementioned silent version is the only truly horrific version of this story, and it's a shame that it couldn't have been included. This one took the story, toned it down, made it more upright and more opulent. It's not scary at all. It even has entire opera numbers to be sat through, and it takes nearly a third of the running time for Claude Rains to even become the Phantom. It does offer some gorgeous set design, and Rains is always watchable. If you think about this differently, and not as a Universal monster movie, this may still offer some entertainment. The disc features an honorable color transfer, with the slightest bit of overspill in some scenes. There's a documentary, a commentary track by Scott MacQueen, photos, and a trailer.

Aside from that, each of the sets comes with a unique, fun, brand-new 100 Years of Universal featurette. The Blu-ray set offers the thirty films on 21 discs, plus a 48-page color booklet. I have been the owner of Universal's 2004 releases, which were timed in conjunction with Stephen Sommers absolutely wretched Van Helsing (2004), and featured interviews with Sommers explaining how these films inspired him. Aside from that drawback, I couldn't have been happier with those early sets, but the picture quality on these new ones is far, far superior. The Wolf Man in particular looks exceptionally clean, perhaps even scrubbed.

But what is it about these films that made them so immediately popular, and that makes them endure? I have long asserted that horror films are a way for audiences to exercise their fear muscles, to feel fear and the adrenaline that comes from it, but in a safe place. It's a way to stimulate parts of our psyche that often remain dormant. Ironically, scholarly thinking generally frowns upon horror films, as well as any films that aim for a physical response (i.e. comedy, erotica, etc.). If it aims for the body and not the mind, then it's not important. Even more recently, I have seen studies that suggest horror is good for people with anxiety (like me). It's a tonic, perhaps a shot of perspective in the world. A werewolf attack is infinitely worse than trying to find parking, for example, and, ironically, makes both easier to deal with.

Indeed, I find myself disappearing into these Universal monster films, especially the best ones: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. (The sequels Dracula's Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy's Hand, and Son of Dracula are honorable runners-up.) Despite that they peer into the abyss, linger on the unspeakable, they are, to me, like a warm blanket. If I can face a world of monsters, then getting through a regular day isn't quite so scary.

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