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Universal likes to use the word 'legacy' to promote their movie monsters, and I have to say that the term is apt -- it's never more than a few days before something reminds me of a classic-era product of Universal City's horror house. I'll wonder exactly who Ben Pivar was, or Paul Malvern, or I'll ponder why producer-director sometimes signed his name, George WaGGner. It's easy to remember that Universal licensed its monster heritage for Hammer co-productions, because the same names are used in Hammer's Mummy series. And I'll go back to the movies frequently as well. Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce created one of the most recognized faces in the world with their sad-eyed walking cadaver. Bela Lugosi's hands are indeed hypnotic in action. Claude Rains' commanding voice fleshes out a character that we can't even see, while Vincent Price achieves the same thing with velvet menace. James Whale could elicit chills in a context of gallows humor and sly satire. Half the fun of Henry Hull's proto- monster tragedy is the comedy relief provided by old Mrs. Moncaster and Mrs. Whack, the best tipsy Cockney broads in film.
Universal didn't quite have the same grasp on sequel continuity as does, say, today's Marvel franchise. In The Ghost of Frankenstein, is one of the cast members really "The Son of the Brother of the Son of Frankenstein?" Tom Weaver observed that successive movies in the Mummy series moved ahead a full generation in the timeline, yet the characters of each still live in the 1940s. If Dracula had a Daughter, is it evidence of Incest Beyond the Grave? And tell me, is the ending of The Mummy's Ghost as dark as it seems to me? The young leading ladies in these pictures cringe and grab their boyfriends for security, but how many get the sticky end of a swamp for eternity? Did former westerns producer Paul Malvern have something to do with cowpoke Tom Tyler (from Stagecoach) playing Kharis in the first '40s Mummy movie? Or did Lon Chaney Jr. object to playing second banana to goony Dick Foran? For that matter, is it really Chaney in the latter three Mummy pix? That's what they say, but how can we tell? This self-interrogation is likely to send me back to Tom Weaver & Co. for a refresher course.
If you are like me (sad, isn't it?) you might watch Lon Chaney Jr.'s Frankenstein Monster speak with Bela Lugosi's voice and think, wouldn't it have been different if Universal kept The Monster as a verbal character? Did the Production Code Office object to a talking, thinking corpse on grounds of blasphemy? Perhaps the Universal folks opted for a robotic bogeyman just to keep things simple. Since Hollywood under the Code depicted reality with blinders on, we wonder what discussions took place when somebody suggested a lady hunchback for House of Dracula? Is it more or less tasteful that she's an attractive hunchback, who wears full glamour makeup?
On the fan boards we find high praise for all the creatives making these pictures. Jack Pierce, John Fulton and David Horsley are usually listed down with the assistant directors, although I did see Fulton receive a single credit card on The Invisible Woman. Music experts have managed to sort out the contributions of Frank Skinner and Hans J. Salter to these films, where so many cues were re-cut and repurposed for one film or the other that it's all a puzzle to me. We also try to understand why some of the shows play like sausages on an assembly line, and then we'll get an expressive gem like Son of Dracula. Director Robert Siodmak made that tatty little screenplay sing.
Universal seemed to rediscover their Monster Heritage in the 1960s, when Castle Films and Aurora models proved that their appeal wasn't going to go away. The 1956 Shock Theater TV package continued to circulate. The core pictures have by now been around the home video track several times. I have more copies of new and improved Frankensteins than I want to admit. Starting about fifteen years ago they organized the Universal Horrors into a number of Legacy Collections organized by monster, and commissioned well-researched documentaries and commentaries. A selection of the most exploitable core titles premiered on Blu-ray a couple of years back, in a Classic Monsters Essential Collection. All were lovingly restored, even The Invisible Man which presented daunting obstacles. The old DVD Legacy Collections have seen at least one reissue. Some of the unique horror titles have seen DVD play in various releases, such as the TCM Vault's Universal Cult Horrors Collection (Murders in the Zoo, The Mad Doctor of Market Street, The Strange Case of Dr. Rx, The Mad Ghoul, House of Horrors) and Universal's own The Bela Lugosi Collection (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, Black Friday). We've also seen the first "Paula the Ape-Woman" movie on disc, as well as the radio-inspired Inner Sanctum series. I don't know how many times I tuned in to channel nine on a Saturday afternoon hoping for something great, only to see the title for The Frozen Ghost pop up again.
The new Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection is an ambitious repackaging that gathers together everything already released, in a fairly compact set. We are surprised to see the films arrayed in normal keep cases, when everybody seems to have switched over to other kinds of packaging. Uni seems to have taken a careful inventory of versions and extras. The DVD encodings chosen are the best done to date. The top titles are the same good Blu-ray restorations while everything else can be described as 'best available'. I made a very few notes below, as the shows are the same transfers we've seen before.
All the discs are one-sided, which eliminates a complaint that dogged some earlier releases. The only question is the bit-rate limit of one-sided discs, several of which carry three features averaging about 66 minutes. Three hours plus of content is a lot for a DVD, and here and there a title sequence will look a tiny, tiny bit crunchy on my large screen. Comparisons with the old discs revealed some of the same visual anomalies, so I will not say these new encodings are better or worse.
The only (expected) disappointment is that the newer pictures Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us are still flat transfers.
Each separate keep case is labeled as a "Complete Legacy Collection" for that particular monster. Phantom of the Opera stands alone. It's more than a little befuddling that movies with more than one key monster character have been duplicated in more than one collection. House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are each repeated three times. The idea must be to allow the individual Legacies to be sold separately as well. Buyers of this box are unlikely to be thinking, "Oh, me and both my kids can all simultaneously watch House of Dracula separately, on different players in different rooms."
That said, the Complete 30-Film Collection sounds to me like the perfect gift for a kid who's discovering monsters and would like to plunge right in to some core viewing. Here's my run-down, a light once-over that shows how the titles are distributed on the discs. A few more general notes are below.
Keep Case 1: DRACULA: Complete Legacy Collection
Keep Case 2: FRANKENSTEIN: Complete Legacy Collection
Keep Case 3: THE MUMMY: Complete Legacy Collection
Keep Case 4: THE INVISIBLE MAN: Complete Legacy Collection
Keep Case 5: THE WOLF MAN: Complete Legacy Collection
Keep Case 6: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Complete Legacy Collection
The DVD set Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection is an exhaustive omnibus well aimed as a hot gift item. As noted above the transfers are the same as has been seen before, with the better Blu-ray restorations replicated in Standard Def. All available extras seem to have been included as well.
Most of the movies have trailers, but all from before the 1950s appear to be Realart reissue trailers, some in pretty ragged condition (as we've always seen them). Each disc has a menu for 'Play,' 'Bonus' & 'Setup'. The films have chapters but no menu access. All of the Universal logos are grainier and lighter than the features, so don't be spooked when they come up looking a bit ugly. Oh, each title carries English subtitles. Don't bother reading all of the descriptive blurbs on the back of the individual keep cases, as they each carry the same text, with the individual movie titles changed. Did you know that every monster is one of "the silver screen's most unforgettable characters?"
As an extra bonus the set includes the attractive collector's booklet previously seen in the Blu-ray boxed set, the one with Tom Weaver's opening essay.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.