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Blu-ray Review: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection
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Adam Frazier   |  @   |  
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Universal Classic Monsters Blu-Ray Set

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection
Blu-ray
Directed By: Tod Browning, James Whale, Karl Freund, George Waggner, Arthur Lubin, Jack Arnold
Written By: Garrett Fort, Francis Edward Faragoh, William Hurlbut, R. C. Sherriff, Curt Siodmak, John L. Balderston
Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Claude Rains, Lon Chaney Jr., Julia Adams, Ricou Browning
Universal Studios
Rated: Not Rated | 608 Minutes
Release Date: October 2nd, 2012

In celebration of Universal’s 100th anniversary, eight iconic movie monsters are resurrected and digitally restored (for the first time ever) on Blu-ray.

Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is the definitive box set for film buffs and horror aficionados. Restored from high resolution film elements in perfect high-definition picture and perfect high-definition sound, Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection includes eight films: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Also included is a collectible 48-page book featuring behind-the-scenes photographs, original posters, correspondence and much more. Each monster movie is accompanied by tons of bonus features, including behind-the-scenes documentaries, filmmaker commentaries, interviews, storyboards, photo galleries, and trailers. As an added bonus for horror hounds, the box set includes a never-before-seen featurette about the restoration of Dracula and, for the first time ever, Creature from the Black Lagoon in its glorious, restored Blu-ray 3D version.

Dracula

Dracula (1931)

Let’s start with Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning (Freaks), 1931′s Dracula was an adaptation of Bram Stoker‘s classic novel and defined the iconic look of the vampire forever, due in large part to Bela Lugosi‘s indelible portrayal of the immortal Count Dracula. Renfield (Dwight Frye), a solicitor, travels to Castle Dracula in the Eastern European country of Transylvania to conclude a real estate transaction with a nobleman named Count Dracula (Lugosi). He soon realizes that the Count possesses supernatural powers and fiendish ambitions.

Dracula is filmed in classic German Expressionist style by cinematographer Karl Freund. From the opening shots in the foothills of the Carpathians to the silhouette of Dracula’s castle, illuminated by lightning strikes, Fruend’s photography establishes a Gothic eeriness and palpable darkness that leaves the viewer uneasy and inexplicably cold.

Lugosi’s performance and chilling delivery of such unforgettable lines as “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make!” and “For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing” have come to define what we consider as the stereotypical vampire. When you think of vampires, your brain immediately jumps to Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Count Dracula – from his sophisticated style of dress to the thick, Hungarian accent.

Browning’s 1931 Dracula has no doubt made the most lasting impression of all versions of Bram Stoker’s classic work. While others came before it, including 1921′s Dracula’s Death and F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 classic, Nosferatu, Dracula remains the best, most iconic vampire tale committed to celluloid.

Bonus Features:
• The 1931 Spanish version, with Introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner
• The Road to Dracula
• Lugosi: The Dark Prince
• Dracula: The Restoration – New Featurette Available for The First Time!
• Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About the Making of Dracula
• Dracula Archives
• Score by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet
• Feature Commentary by Film Historian David J. Skal
• Feature Commentary by Screenwriter Steve Haberman
• Trailer Gallery

Frankenstein

Frankenstein 1931

In 1931’s Frankenstein, Boris Karloff stars as the screen’s most tragic and iconic monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with the essential nature of life and death by creating a monster (Karloff) out of lifeless human body parts. Director James Whale’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel and Karloff’s compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity make Frankenstein a timeless masterpiece.

Frankenstein made the unknown Boris Karloff a screen legend and created an iconic visage of horror. Along with the highly successful Dracula, released earlier that same year, it catapulted Universal Studio’s golden age of horror films and spawned countless sequels and spinoffs.

Frankenstein‘s greatness stems less from its barebones script than the stark, moody atmosphere created by director James Whale and cinematographer Arthur Edeson. Also memorable are Herman Rosse‘s set designs, inspired by German Expressionism, and Dr. Frankenstein’s whiz-bang laboratory equipment created by Kenneth Strickfaden.

Of course nothing is more memorable than the trademark look of Frankenstein’s Monster. Legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce slathered pounds of makeup on Karloff and had the actor wear heavy, asphalt shoes to create The Monster’s lurching gate. Of course, Karloff’s nuanced performance as the tormented, misunderstood monster is both horrifying and endearing – a lasting imprint on not just Shelley’s Frankenstein but the entire horror genre. Frankenstein remains the most Famous Monster of them all…

Bonus Features:
• The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster
• Karloff: The Gentle Monster
• Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About The Making of Frankenstein
• Universal Horror
• Frankenstein Archives
• Boo!: A Short Film
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
• Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
• 100 Years Of Universal: Restoring the Classics
• Trailer Gallery

The Mummy

The Mummy 1932

Boris Karloff stars in the original 1932 version of The Mummy in which a team of British archaeologists accidentally revives the mummified high priest Imhotep after 3,700 years. Alive again, Imhotep (Karloff) sets out on an obsessive quest to find his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon.

Inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 and the Curse of the Pharaohs, producer Carl Laemmle Jr. commissioned story editor Richard Shayer to find a literary novel to form a basis for an Egyptian-themed horror film, just as Dracula and Frankenstein informed Universal’s previous hit films. While the film isn’t an adaptation of one particular work, it does bear a strong resemblance to The Ring of Thoth, a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Of course, The Mummy is remembered for Jack Pierce’s amazing make-up. Pierce began transforming Karloff at 11:00 am, applying cotton, collodion, and spirit gum to his face; clay to his hair; and wrapping him in linen bandages treated with acid and burnt in an oven. The job was finished around 7:00 pm. Karloff would film his scenes and wrap at 2:00 am, where another two hours were spent removing the make-up.

Bonus Features:
• Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed
• He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art Of Jack Pierce
• Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy
• The Mummy Archives
• Feature Commentary by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong
• Feature Commentary by Film Historian Paul M. Jensen
• 100 Years Of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era
• Trailer Gallery

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man 1933

In 1933’s The Invisible Man, Claude Rains delivers an unforgettable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible.

Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives in a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery, but the drug’s side effects slowly drive him to commit acts of unspeakable terror. Based on H.G. Welles’ classic novel and directed by the master of macabre, James Whale, The Invisible Man features revolutionary special effects by John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams, whose work is often credited for the success of the film.

When the Invisible Man had no clothes on, the effect was achieved through the use of wires, but when clothed, the effect was achieved by shooting Claude Rains in a black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining the shot with another reference shot of the location using a matte process.

The effect of Rains seeming to disappear was created by making a head and body cast of the actor, from which a mask was made. The mask was then photographed against a specially prepared background, and the film was treated in the laboratory to complete the effect.

Bonus Features:
• Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
• 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein

1935’s Bride of Frankenstein begins inside a palatial villa, Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon), Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton), and Shelley’s wife Mary (Elsa Lanchester) engage in morbid, yet stimulating, conversation.

The charismatic Byron mockingly chastises Mary for frightening the entire literary world with her recent novel Frankenstein, but Mary insists that her horror tale preached a valuable moral, that man was not meant to dabble in the works of God. The author goes on to tell her companions that the story did not end with the death of Frankenstein’s monster.

Not only has Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) survived, but Doctor Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his former mentor, Doctor Praetorius (Ernst Thesiger), have intentions of creating another monster — this time a woman!

Both Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein were produced by the legendary Carl Laemmle Jr. and directed by James Whale, with cinematographer John Mescall replacing Arthur Edeson on 1935′s Bride of Frankenstein. Mescall and Whale expertly crafted a haunting mood, bringing the influence of German Expression into the sets and the performance of Elsa Lanchester‘s Monster’s Bride. Her jerky, robotic movements are reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Robert Wiene’s 1898 film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

While Karloff and Lanchester deliver fantastic performances, the most noteworthy might be that of Ernest Thesiger, who plays necromancer and all-around crazy person Dr. Praetorius – a character who’s look and quiet insanity would come to define the ‘mad scientist’ and inform the career of Peter Cushing – or maybe I’m the only person who sees a little Praetorius in Grand Moff Tarkin.

Bonus Features:
• She’s Alive! Creating The Bride Of Frankenstein
• The Bride Of Frankenstein Archive
• Feature Commentary with Scott MacQueen
• 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
• Trailer Gallery

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man on Blu-Ray

Originally released in 1941, The Wolf Man introduced the world to a new Universal movie monster and redefined the mythology of the werewolf forever. “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” After the death of his brother, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns from America to his ancestral home in Wales.

There he visits a gypsy camp and is attacked by Bela, a gypsy werewolf. Larry kills the creature but is bitten during the fight. Talbot is now cursed to become a werewolf with each full moon. Larry confesses his plight to his skeptical father, Sir John (Claude Rains), who then joins the villagers in a hunt for the bloodthristy wolf stalking the countryside.

Featuring a charming-yet-heartbreaking performance by Lon Chaney, Jr. and groundbreaking make-up by Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man is filled with misty, dreamlike atmospheres, elaborate settings and a chilling musical score by Frank Skinner which make The Wolf Man a memorable entry in Universal Horror’s crypt of classic movie monsters.

While it may not be as bone-chilling as Browning’s Dracula or Whale’s Frankenstein, The Wolf Man is a moody, atmospheric classic that came to define the ‘rules’ for how one becomes a werewolf and how such a creature can be killed. “A werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet, or a silver knife…or a stick with a silver handle.”

Bonus Features:
• Monster by Moonlight
• The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth
• Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr.
• He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce
• The Wolf Man Archives
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Trailer Gallery

The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera 1943

1943’s lavish retelling of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera stars Claude Rains as the masked phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. A crazed composer who schemes to make beautiful young soprano Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) the star of the opera company, the Phantom also wreaks revenge on those he believes stole his music. Nelson Eddy, as the heroic baritone, tries to win the affections of Christine as he tracks down the murderous, horribly disfigured Phantom.

The auditorium set, a replica of the Opéra Garnier interior, created for the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, was reused. Other than the sets, this remake had little in common with the earlier film, as there was no attempt to film the famous masked ball sequence, although the falling of the chandelier was re-enacted using elaborate camera set-ups.

Bonus Features:
• The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Theatrical Trailer

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

In 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, a geological expedition in the Amazon uncovers ancient fossilized evidence of a link between land and sea animals in the form of a skeletal hand with webbed fingers. Expedition leader Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) visits his friends, Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist who works at a marine biology institute, and his scientist girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams). Reed and Ms. Lawrence persuade the institute’s financial backer, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning), to fund a return expedition to look for the remainder of the skeleton in the heart of the Amazon.

When the group arrive at Dr. Maia’s camp, they discover that the scientist’s entire research team has been brutally killed by a mysterious animal with razor-sharp claws: the amphibious “Gill-man,” an ancient, misunderstood creature that occupies the murky depth’s of an Amazonian paradise known as the Black Lagoon.

In March of 1954, U.S. government Officials announced that an American hydrogen bomb test had been conducted on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. In that very same month, Universal Pictures introduced it’s own product of the nuclear age – The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

The Gill-man was my favorite monster as a kid – much cooler than Dracula or Frankenstein, and more fierce and frightening than Lon Chaney, Jr’s Wolf Man. I remember the iconic musical queue as the creature came out of the water, its webbed hand rising to grab the ladder of the Rita. Those claws, razor-sharp and longer than dinosaur teeth, ready to grab scientists and sailors encroaching on its territory. Much like King Kong, The Gill-Man is a lonely, misunderstood monster that is both awe-struck by beauty and doomed by it.

Bonus Features:
• Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3D
• Back to The Black Lagoon
• Production Photographs
• Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
• 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
• Trailer Gallery

The Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is a must-have Blu-Ray box set. Universal Studios has put considerable effort into restoring and revitalizing each of these eight films, and while there’s room to nitpick over the choices of films included (The Phantom of the Opera sticks out like a sore thumb), the total package is fantastic.

If you have any love for classic horror films, the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection box set is well worth the price of admission to Universal’s house of horrors. The set currently retails for $135 on Amazon, though I’ve got a feeling it could come down significantly in time for a Black Friday purchase.

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