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DVD SAVANT

Universal
Classic Monsters:
Complete 30-Film Collection

1931-1956
Savant DVD Review


Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection
Dracula, Drácula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, Dracula's Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man Returns, The Invisible Woman, The Mummy's Hand, The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Ghost, The Mummy's Tomb, Invisible Agent, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, The Mummy's Curse, The Invisible Man's Revenge, House of Dracula, She-Wolf of London, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, Revenge of the Creature, The Creature Walks Among Us.
DVD
Universal Home Video
1931 / B&W + Color (1 title) / 1:37 flat Academy; 1:78 enhanced widescreen (1 title)
2,879 min. / Street Date September 6, 2014 /

Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Claude Rains, Henry Hully, Gloria Holden, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill, Vincent Price, Glenn Strange, Abbott & Costello, Onslow Stevens, Jon Hall.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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
Disc 1:
Dracula (1931) It's the same restoration as appeared on the Blu-ray Essential Collection, plus all the docus and featurettes that have accumulated since the Legacy Collections began. Has a second audio track with Philip Glass's Kronos Quartet score. With separate commentaries by David J. Skal and Steve Haberman. Also included, a trivia track (English only).
Disc 2:
Dracula's Daughter (1936) Almost racy enough to be pre-code… maybe the sex inferences went over the censors' heads.
Son of Dracula (1943) Pure pulp art... Robert Siodmak surely used this a s springboard to noir assignments.
House of Frankenstein (1944) A little unsteady in the main titles, as was the old DVD.
Disc 3:
House of Dracula (1945) Very clean-looking. This is the one with the glamorous hunchback.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) With the amusing 'Meet the Monsters' docu with David J. Skal; commentary by Gregory Mank.
Disc 4:
Universal Horror This is the classy 85-minute network docu directed by Kevin Brownlow and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, sporting terrific interview material with Gloria Stuart, Fay Wray, Turhan Bey, Rose Hobart, Rouben Mamoulian, Arianné Ulmer Cipes, Gavin Lambert, Lupita Tovar, Ray Bradbury, Nina Foch, James Karen, Carla Laemmle, Sara Karloff, Forrest J Ackerman, George E. Turner, Curtis Harrington, Fritz Lang & Curt Siodmak. Nice glimpses of the Ackermansion. Many clips from non-Universal pictures too; the show illustrates some of David J. Skal's interesting theories for the origin of '20s and '30s horror.
Drácula (1931) The 'good' version with the missing reel (19 min- 29 min.) found in the ICAIC vault in Havana. With an introductory Lupita Tovar interview, still charming and sexy at an advanced age.

Keep Case 2:  FRANKENSTEIN: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
Frankenstein (1931) It's the same restoration as appeared on the Blu-ray Essential Collection, plus all the good docus and featurettes. The commentary is by Sir Christopher Frayling.
Disc 2:
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) This definitely looks like the improved restoration to me. The titles carry the MPDA seal and the 'glowing' cross in the hermit's cabin is on-screen. The commentary is by Scott MacQueen.
Son of Frankenstein (1939) No trailer on this one.
Disc 3:
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) Yes, the 'Ygor-Monster speaks' sequence suggests new directions the series didn't explore.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) This is the most beat-up of the transfers. A big splice breaks the titles when Ilona Massey's name comes up, and a shot of the moon before the monster fight has a really gnarly scratch. Love the structure of this picture: a full hour of preliminaries for a battle that seems to end before it begins!
House of Frankenstein (1944) Same as in the Dracula set.
Disc 4:
House of Dracula (1948) Same as in the Dracula set.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) Ditto, same as in the Dracula set.

Keep Case 3: THE MUMMY: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
The Mummy (1932) It's the same great restoration as on the Blu-ray Essential Collection, plus the excellent docus and featurettes previously produced. This is THE movie where slowness, stillness, stasis = death = horror. Two separate commentaries, one with Paul M. Jensen and another with Scott Essman, Haberman, Bob Burns & Brent Armstrong.
Disc 2:
The Mummy's Hand (1940) Some of the source element is a little rough, and the repeated flashback from Mummy #1 is pure padding. Terence Fisher's Mummy takes the character names from this one.
The Mummy's Tomb (1942) Hey, hey, it's Turhan Bey! Kharis comes to America. This time a full reel of flashbacks, from Hand.
Disc 3:
The Mummy's Ghost (1942) Love that Amina with the white-streaked hair. At age 12 the grim ending was a real shockeroo. Carradine's on the job, in a campus setting.
The Mummy's Curse (1944) Martin Kosleck! Virginia Christine! But the formula is really running out of Tana juice.
Disc 4:
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) This encoding is not matted widescreen as seen on TCM. It's like a Hope & Crosby Road pic but with fewer laughs. Kharis is now called Klaris, but we get Richard Deacon, Michael Ansara and sexy Marie Windsor.

Keep Case 4:  THE INVISIBLE MAN: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
The Invisible Man (1933) It's the miraculous restoration as on the Blu-ray Essential Collection: compare the opening sign shot with the old DVD. Includes all previous docus and featurettes. The commentary is by the great Rudy Behlmer.
Disc 2:
The Invisible Man Returns (1940) This is another 3-title disc, and here's where I first saw what looked like bit-rate starvation effects. Love Vincent Price on this, even if he's mostly a voice.
The Invisible Woman (1940) Much more amusing that I thought it would be.
Invisible Agent (1942) 3-title disc but this one looks pretty clean. Nice seeing a separate title card for John Fulton.
Disc 3:
The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) The bit rate shows a bit here too.

Keep Case 5:  THE WOLF MAN: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
The Wolf Man (1941) It's the fine new restoration from the Blu-ray, although this particular title has always looked good. All the docus and featurettes are here too. The commentary is by Tom Weaver. Considering the cheapo budgets in the '40s, this one now looks relatively lavish, especially with its class-A cast. One really bad continuity cut grabbed my attention, though. Wounded Larry Talbot is helped into the big house, and across a cut there's a full four footsteps' worth of action overlap.
Disc 2:
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) Repeat title.
House of Frankenstein (1944) Same as in the Dracula and Frankenstein sets.
Disc 3:
House of Dracula (1945) Same as in the Dracula and Frankenstein sets.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) Same as it ever was.
Disc 4:
WereWolf of London (1935) Totally different concept than the Curt Siodmak formula; weird relationship between Henry Hull and Warner Oland.
She-Wolf of London (1946) Pretty sad non-horror horror picture that could have been called "The She-Neurotic of London". Glad June Lockhart wasn't hurt by this.

Keep Case 6:  PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
Phantom of the Opera (1943) It's the restoration from the Blu-ray Essential Collection, plus all the docus and featurettes from previous editions. Was looking forward to a Technicolor logo, but the show has none. The show seems sadder now, as they've just torn down the Phantom Opera House set 89 years after it was first used on the silent version. The commentary is by Scott MacQueen.


Keep Case 7:  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Complete Legacy Collection
Disc 1:
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) It's the widescreen restoration from the Blu-ray Essential Collection, but not in 3-D. Includes all the docus and featurettes that have accumulated since the Legacy Collections began. The commentary is by Tom Weaver, with help from Lori Nelson and Bob Burns.
Disc 2:
Revenge of the Creature (1955) Big disappointment: not in original widescreen.
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) Ditto disappointed that it's not in widescreen, but there appear to be no new transfers here. The Creature design couldn't be improved; I don't want to see a redesigned Gill Man.


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,
Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection DVD
rates:
Movies: Excellent to Good
Video: Very Good and Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Scores of docus, featurettes, commentaries, trailer, art and still galleries, etc ... all sourced from earlier releases
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English on every feature
Packaging: Seven keep cases with souvenir booklet in card box, Just like old times.
Reviewed: September 28, 2014





Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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