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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror
Warner Bros. // PG // September 1, 2009
List Price: $27.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Tyler Foster | posted October 7, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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The invention of Blu-Ray, or, more likely, the invention of Wal-Mart, has had a side effect I'm a huge fan of: the multi-film DVD. With standard-def DVDs becoming less and less individually valuable, studios have started sticking their most popular catalog titles onto double-sided discs and into multi-disc sets without the premium price tag that would be associated with a box set, and as someone with around a thousand DVDs, not only do I love the chance to get several movies I wanted for the price of one, but also the convenience of having several films stuck snugly into a single-width case. The multi-feature business was at its recent peak in late 2007 and early 2008, but now, just when I was afraid the fad was dying, Warner has swooped in, partnering with Turner Classic Movies to put out several new four-film sets of classic movies. TCM's Horror set packages up three movies I've been meaning to see for ages: House of Wax (1953), The Haunting (1963) and Freaks (1932), plus a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) for free.

House of Wax (1953)
In The Onion book Our Dumb Century, there is a headline on one of the covers that says "Man in 3D Movie Uses Cane to Gesture at Things." I thought of this headline more than once watching House of Wax, which takes advantage of 3D in goofy, on-the-nose ways. Some of them are subtle: a fight scene awkwardly places the camera in the main room looking into a back room where the actual battle is taking place; it may add perspective, but you barely get to see the fight. The rest of it -- including characters prominently holding things out in front of them, a street performer whacking a paddleball into the camera, characters throwing objects towards the audience -- not so much. The effect doesn't take away from the inherent creepiness of using bodies as wax figures, but it does stick out like a sore thumb aimed straight at the lens.

Vincent Price plays Henry Jarrod, a wax scupltor who is nearly burned to death when an angry business partner sets fire to his shop. Price's performance is fast-paced and entertaining, especially both times he leads an audience around to look at his creations, but there aren't any big moments in the movie for him to lay claim to. The movie also assumes Price will be enough of a draw, leaving barely-written characters to pick up the slack in his absence. Thankfully, this is a short movie, so he's never off-screen for long, but some of this time is spent as the scarred monster. The costume has a striking silhouette (Sam Raimi was clearly inspired by House of Wax when designing Darkman), but the way the makeup causes Price's mouth to hang open makes the character look kind of dopey.

The Haunting (1963)
The Haunting is a prime example of how character development and atmosphere are more than enough to sustain a scary movie. Its protagonist, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris) has clearly been developmentally stunted by 11 years raising her invalid mother; her desperate need for friends and a place of her own is constantly reflected in her paranoid-delusional internal monologue. Other times, though, she seems like a nice, albeit quaint person, and the film goes back and forth between her creepy neuroses and her expected social issues. It's rare that mostly ambiguous actions are all the audience has to go on in deciding whether or not a character is genuinely crazy, but Robert Wise's refuses to reveal anything that will tip the scales definitively one way or another. Eleanor's history is also eerily similar to one of Hill House's former residents, a coincidence that isn't spoken aloud but lurks in the back of the viewer's mind as Eleanor becomes more and more infatuated with the idea of staying.

With the audience following such an unstable character, Wise springs excellent sound design and vivid direction on the uneasy audience. The Haunting starts out with dutch angles, muffled noises and anamorphic stretching to build imaginations up to a fever pitch, until striking images like a rickety spiral staircase, ominous chalk writing on the walls and an extremely unsettling special effect involving a door leap off the screen and burrow into the viewer's imagination. It's a ghost story without a single ghost, yet people are more than likely to see spooky figures lurking around every corner, and 46 years later, such technique still feels modern. Predictably, Jan de Bont's star-studded 1999 remake went for big-budget wizardy, but the original is the way to go.

Freaks (1932)
It's almost shocking that there aren't more features in the last 77 years with a similar conceit as Freaks. Sideshows may have decreased in popularity over the decades, and most studios, both now and then, would probably have cheated by using computer graphics or other wizardry to turn big-name stars into the kinds of characters that populate Tod Browning's movie, but you'd still think natural interest in seeing something this unique would have won out by now, especially given today's horror directors, who are always looking for the most shocking thing imaginable. Freaks is populated with little people, bird women, a human skeleton, several limbless performers (including two armless women, a legless man, and a man with no arms or legs!), microcephalics, but most disturbing of all are several black-hearted "normal" people, who, unlike Browning (and hopefully the audience), refuse to relate to their co-stars in a traveling freak show.

Due to the extreme reaction of the studio after seeing Browning's original cut, Freaks lost a whole 30 minutes, truncating its already short running time from 90 minutes to just over an hour. Even now, there are times when Browning's film just stares at its unique cast, which can become dull. Yet the director gets us to relate to the tragic story of little person Hans (Harry Earles), whose love for the vile Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) is returned through her slow extortion of gifts and money from him while Hans' wife Frieda (Daisy Earles) watches heartbroken in the background. Sometimes Freaks lays things on a little thick, like the oft-referenced "one of us, gobble gobble!" scene with all of them gathered around a dinner table, and a lame ending (both Cleopatra's dopey outcome and the tacked-on ending that follows), but there's something magically enchanting about seeing real sideshow performers going about their lives.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
The 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is 30 minutes of a great movie, followed by an hour of disappointment and capped by 20 minutes of pure agony and a slightly-less-painful end. I really enjoyed Spencer Tracy's Dr. Jekyll, who's all charm and a light sense of humor. I also liked the rough-edged charm of Ingrid Bergman as a popular barmaid named Ivy, who practically falls all over herself trying to romance Dr. Jekyll. Unfortunately, Tracy also portrays Mr. Hyde, a horrible miscalculation of makeup, wigs and performance that kills the movie's momentum. By most accounts, the 1931 version with Frederic March is better because the actor gives a more terrifying performance as Hyde; it's too bad the films couldn't magically be merged given how likable Tracy's Jekyll is.

Tracy's transformation also ruins Bergman's character, who changes wildly from a fighter to a helpless victim, sometimes within the same scene, not to mention it's just depressing to watch her spirit break whenever Hyde appears. I appreciated the occasional directorial or cinematographic flourish (like Hyde bounding across a room to grab Ivy and the subsequent shot of her backing away) and some of the foggy street scenes, but I was bored to death having to watch the laborious fade-in transformation of Jekyll to Hyde, which actually insists upon happening twice within five minutes at the very end. Still, the worst crime the film commits is that middle hour; the movie refuses to let the viewer give up, allowing just enough hope that the film might right itself at any minute.

TCM Greatest Films Collection: Horror arrives in an attractive, classy-looking foil slipcover. The back cover provides a short synopsis for each film, along with their rating and some other information (I like that Warner has used the old GP rating on House of Wax). Underneath the slip is identical front-cover artwork, with billing blocks and special features taking up the rear cover. The case is a single-width Eco-Box with a flap tray, and an insert about Warner Archive. The discs are double-sided, so there is no artwork except for a ring on the top side with content info.

The Video and Audio
Each one of these films has a transfer identical to their previous DVD releases. The Haunting is presented in anamorphic widescreen while the others are their original 1.33:1 full-frame aspect ratios. All four have more than their fair share of print damage, softness and grain, but given the age of these films, most of it is to be expected. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has the strongest clarity, while House of Wax has the worst, looking extremely grainy, noisy and soft (likely a side effect of the 3D process). All four seem equally speckled and scratched, but while these transfers could all look better, none of them are outright disappointments, with the possible exception of Wax.

Audio is 2.0 Surround Stereo for House of Wax and Mono for the other three, plus French Mono on Wax, Haunting and Hyde and Spanish Mono on Wax. They sound occasionally tinny, and there's some white noise, but just like the picture, these tracks are fine for their age. English, French and Spanish subtitles are also included for all four films. Since three of these films are in black-and-white, perhaps white wasn't the best choice for the color of the subtitles, but it's a small nitpick and they're usually visible.

The Extras
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was originally released on DVD as a double feature with the March version of the movie, and House of Wax contained Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) on the flipside of its disc. Other than those feature presentations, though, this 2-disc set contains all the features from the four separate DVD releases of the movies, including 2 commentaries (on The Haunting and Freaks), an hour-long documentary (on Freaks), newsreel footage (House of Wax) and more. Confusingly, the menus for House of Wax and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still reference the absent feature presentations "on the other side of the disc".

One strikingly unusual film, two fairly good ones and one that starts out better than the others yet turns out to be the worst of all. For bigger fans of The Haunting, House of Wax and Freaks than I, this might be a steal given its low price tag and the retention of all the film-specific bonus features. Previously, Warner released at least one DVD containing House on Haunted Hill, and I wonder why that wasn't included instead of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as it seems more fitting with the other films included. Either way, unless you're already a fan of multiple films in this set and you don't have them on DVD, I vote for a rental to see whether a purchase will be worth it.

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