Holiday Specials


By • Oct 30th, 2012 •

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I never got into VHS. I found it so degraded in picture quality, so disrespectful of proper aspect ratios, so inadequate in its reproduction of sound, that I just never bought or saved any (except for VHS’s of my own work, and some rare pieces pulled off TV. Then someone asked me to check out laserdiscs. The first one I saw was FRANKENSTEIN, and I was blown away. The visual quality, compared with VHS, was extraordinary. I went for it, and accumulated over two thousand laserdiscs, which I donated to the School of Visual Arts when I began to accumulate DVDs.

Now it’s BluRay’s turn to enchant the home theater market, and though I was at first reluctant to get involved with it – the quality was obviously better than DVD, but not measurably extensive enough to motivate me – there are certain demo-level discs that leave no option except to dive into the latest technology. One of them, particularly resonant to me, was FRANKENSTEIN, as part of the new Universal 100th anniversary release, along with eight other important titles from their vault of horror. It’s like being in the theater in 1931 and seeing James Whale’s breakthrough film as if for the first time. Nothing comes close to it, except for its companion films in the collection, for a Halloween treat. There may be one trick in the batch, but it’s an irresistible package, and must be added to your private treasure shelves.

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection
By Glenn Andreiev & Roy Frumkes

Films include:

DRACULA (1931) Dir: Tod Browning, with Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners.
(THE SPANISH) DRACULA: Dir George Melford, with Lupita Tovar, Carols Villarias.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) Dir: James Whale, with Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke,
THE MUMMY (1932) Dir: Karl Freund, with Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, David Manners,
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) Dir: James Whale, with Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, Henry Travers,
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) Dir: James Whale, with Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive and Ernest Thesiger.
THE WOLF MAN (1941) Dir: George Waggner, with Lon Chaney Jr, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers,
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1943) Dir: Arthur Lubin, with Claude Rains, Susanna Foster, Nelson Eddy
THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1953) Dir: Jack Arnold, with Richard Carlson, Julia/Julie Adams.

Okay, you already have the Universal Studios Monster Movie Essentials such as Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA and Boris Karloff’s FRANKENSTEIN on VHS or DVD. Put those away, and see these films as you’ve never seen them before. Universal has released UNIVERAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION on BluRay in time for Halloween. These films, memorized by many film fans, will burst alive in restored 1080p glory!

The films in this, the BluRay classic film release of the year, are the Valentine’s Day 1931 DRACULA, and it’s alternate, generally superior Spanish Language version, Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN, the 1932 version of THE MUMMY, James Whale’s THE INVISIBLE MAN and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1941’s THE WOLF MAN, the Technicolor 1943 PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and in both 2-D and 3-D, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The set comes with a booklet loaded with juicy images but no real new information about these films that monster aficionados don’t already know about – however the real value in this set is in the films themselves. They have been painstakingly restored and cleaned up. You’ll notice more detail in make-up artist Jack Pierce’s work, such as new facial detail in his make-up designs for Karloff’s two immortal creatures. The rot and decay on his living mummy stands out in such great and overwhelming detail that you may have to pause the film to study it. You’ll say ‘Yes, I can see why it took eight hours to apply that make-up.’ And you can even see the bits of stress wear he gave Colin Clive for his performance as the overworked Dr. Frankenstein.

The Browning/Lugosi DRACULA went through the most restoration work here. Previous video releases of the early ‘talkie’ tend to look and sound washed out. Careful, sometimes frame-by-frame work, restoring vital contrast to the image, bring out copious amounts of lost photographic detail. Cinematographer Karl Freund’s unique work here shows how he keeps so much in shadow, including key players. I never knew this film was so visually creepy. DRACULA was recorded in mono, and the film is kept in mono, but much of the old-film crackle and hiss has been eliminated, and the relative silence adds palpably to the creepiness of the mood.

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is beautifully restored. The source material – the original negatives – are apparently in great shape. BRIDE does not suffer from that over-restored look and sound that some classic films on BluRay tend to have. You’ll really feel like you are watching a 35mm print. Universal’s monster series ends with 1953’s CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, which is available here in 3-D. Two unsung highlights of CREATURE in 3-D can be found in the underwater sequences. The 3-D effect as watched in 2-D creates a dreamlike blur as the Gill Man stalks swim-suited Julia/Julie Adams during her lone Amazon swim. In the 2-D version, the twisted trees of the Amazon pass by the scientist’s boat in hypnotizing layers.

There are almost no negatives in this package. My two problems were with the 1080p presentation of THE INVISIBLE MAN. It’s so crisp that strings holding “floating” props are distractingly visible, and some of the superimpositions of Claude Rains’ half-clothed invisible man look like inferior Photoshop. And speaking of Rains, while THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA looks absolutely amazing here in Technicolor, I wish Universal would have made a better choice for film #7, such as THE BLACK CAT, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN or THE MAN WHO LAUGHS.

As to supplementals, they are too many to mention in detail. All the documentaries and featurettes from the previous DVD releases have been transferred to THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION. You can get the dope on makeup genius Jack Pierce, check out the trajectory of Lon Chaney Jr’s career, be entertained by commentary tracks featuring the likes of droll Tom Weaver, astute Scott MacQueen, knowledgeable David Skal, intense Rudy Behlmer, effects guru/ historians Rick Baker, Scott Essman and Bob Burns, and authoratative Sir Christopher Frayling. A few extras (eg. the Jack Pierce doc) are actually repeated on ensuing discs in the collection, which is overkill, but I can live with it.

A last observation. The BluRay restoration of THE MUMMY gives us access to Zita Johann as we’ve never experienced her before. Her visual impact is more enthralling than Helen Chandler’s, Frances Dade’s, and Lopita Tovar’s combined (I use them as a cumulative measuring stick since THE MUMMY is an acknowledged remake of DRACULA). I’ve read varying accounts of why she dropped out of the Hollywood game – disgust with the attitudes in the film capital, being singled out for bullying by director Karl Freund, not being intellectually stimulated by the roles she was given… Whatever her reasons, you will surely regret her decision when you feast your eyes on her unique beauty in shot after shot throughout this Universal classic.

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