The Classic Monster Collection: Series Three
Q: When's the Golden Age of Universal Studio's classic monster movies?
For better or worse we live in the "real world." Genuine horrors are as close as any TV news broadcast and our definition of the word "monster" has grown large enough to include authentic and all-too-human terrors. Sometimes it can be reassuring, even comforting to confront the folklore and fairy-tale-style monsters of decades past. There's something reassuring about monsters made from makeup and foam rubber, killers that can be dispatched with a sprig of garlic or a single silver bullet rather than a missile arsenal or an FBI taskforce. It's a pleasure to know in your bones that within ninety minutes the killer will be vanquished and the forces of good (on our side) will prevail. And hey, if the monster is resurrected in the next movie, another satisfying conclusion remains only an hour or so away.
In two waves of releases in 2000, Universal Studios Home Video brought us its "Classic Monsters" collection on DVD, bringing most of the original horror milestones to disc in spiffy packages that included audio commentaries and documentaries. Now, Series Three showcases the sequels, those lesser but still atmospheric and irresistible creature features that in their day let audiences forget about Der Fuhrer and Mussolini by screaming at the Mummy, Count Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein's Monster. Series Three arrives on six double-feature DVDs (listed in the index box on the upper right corner of this page). Most are straight-line descendants of Universal's originals, with the two werewolf features being the rarer stand-alone gems released from the vaults.
A short history of the fright factory
In the early 1930s, Universal Studios was saved from financial ruin by the success of three movies that featured what are now referred to as its Classic Monsters: Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy. All three are now considered among the finest horror films the studio and the genre have ever produced. Certainly they were seminal creations, inaugurating icons that are still internationally familiar today.
Nonetheless, by the middle of the decade horror movies had fallen from favor. 1936's Dracula's Daughter had its horror impact reduced including a dramatized origin story of Lugosi's Count Dracula because the studio buckled under the tide of parents' groups and civic organizations protesting fright films. Pressured to provide "wholesome" family entertainment, Hollywood studios self-imposed a moratorium on horror movies. Later, when it came time to break the ban, Universal weighed various options as they decided how to re-enter the field. Revisiting past successes seemed an ideal move.
In 1938 the financially desperate new owners of Universal took what was then the considerable risk of re-releasing the original Dracula and Frankenstein together as a double-bill (an unusual practice at that time, and incidentally the thing that killed off two-reel comedies Laurel & Hardy quit making shorts altogether, while Our Gang and the stalwart Three Stooges continued with one-reelers). This stunt succeeded brillantly and the money rolled in.
To capitalize on the momentum, the studio chose to resurrect one of its greatest hits with two of its most famous actors. They paired Frankenstein's Boris Karloff and Dracula's Bela Lugosi in the third Frankenstein film, Son of Frankenstein, which was pushed into production before the script was even finished. Son of Frankenstein hit the theaters in January 1939. Within weeks Universal was reporting that it was doing the biggest box office business in the history of horror pictures in its key city openings, with holdovers being chalked up on every playdate.
Universal's monster factory had begun. All the famous monsters would be retooled and returned again and again, with The Wolf Man added to the assembly line in 1941. For roughly five years, in sequel after sequel, the great movie monsters would undergo a transformation unlike any experienced in a mad scientist's laboratory.
How to make a monster
By the mid-'40s, Universal's Classic Monsters had become an outright franchise, and so were taken less and less seriously by the studio and the audiences. They were produced quickly and on the cheap, often reusing footage, plot elements, dialogue, and sets from other movies. Still, such restrictions can inspire the bold, so good, solid, creative work from those involved is frequently evident no matter how nonsensical the onscreen goings-on. These films were kept short, some barely clocking in at an hour, so they could be double-billed together or inserted into day-long extravaganzas. They were the kid stuff of afternoon matinees at the single-screen, pre-Dolby, pre-stereo Ritz Theater while the grown-ups were out collecting scrap metal for the war effort.
Strangely enough, considering the reputation England's Hammer Films would later achieve, one of the main reasons for the retreat from horror films in the '30s was complaints from the studios' British distributors. Horror films were banned completely in Britain and the Empire during World War II as "Likely to Cause Despondency and Alarm," so most Brits had to wait out the duration before they got to see the films on these discs.
Who's on first?
Universal's contract players were shuffled about like marbles in a shell game. In these discs you'll see Lon Chaney Jr. play the Wolf Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein's Monster, and Count Dracula. Bela Lugosi is the broken-necked hunchback Ygor in two Frankenstein films and the Monster in another. Look for John Carradine (David's dad) as an Egyptian high priest commanding Lon Chaney's mummy Kharis, and then as Count Dracula under the command of Boris Karloff's mad scientist. In The Mummy's Curse ('44), an uncredited bit actor during the mummy's first attack is Glenn Strange, who also that year played the Monster in House of Frankenstein.
And just as no monster is truly dead if a sequel can contrive a way to bring him back, second-tier actors can be killed off in one movie only to appear as other characters in its follow-up. Fine players, many now associated with more "respectable" work, are on hand Lionel Atwill, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ralph Bellamy, and Basil Rathbone all shared screens with the Universal Classic Monsters. Keep your eyes open for supporting regulars George Zucco, Martin Kosleck, "scream queen" Evelyn Ankers, and Universal's "TNT Girl (Trim, Neat, Terrific)," Anne Gwynne. Many a drinking game can come from this sort of thing.
Most important for Universal, the movies made good profits and were unquestionably popular. But by 1945, with the end of World War II and the release of House of Dracula, the series had grown tired and run out of fresh ideas. Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy were now secondary players in strained Abbot & Costello comedies. They were caricatures of their former selves, more humorous than haunting. The era of Universal Classic Monsters was over.
A generation after their initial release, in the pop culture monster wave of the '60s and early '70s, these movies like their stylish cousins from England's Hammer films inspired Aurora plastic model kits, trading cards, TV's The Munsters, and endless issues of Forrest J. Ackerman's wonderful adolescent necronomicon, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney Jr. were touchstone names, and the tormenting (or tormented) creatures they played on screen had become permanent fixtures in our cultural landscape.
Good with milk
You don't spin these films for genuine frights, sophisticated plots, or David Mamet dialogue. If internal logic and continuity get in the way, they're ignored. The movies seem to take place in a strange alternate reality, a uniquely eclectic Universal never-land where it's always a sort of 19th century 1940s, where the difference between the Welsh countryside and a desolate European hamlet is indistinct at best. Angry mobs of townspeople whether in the Tyrolean village of Visaria or in bucolic Mapleton, Massachusetts always have burning torches at the ready. Don't think too hard about it all. Just go with it.
So the pleasures here are many but they are considerably baser. The enjoyment may come from nostalgia, remembrances of Saturday afternoon reruns on TV, watching Frankenstein's Monster battle the Wolf Man in a tumbledown castle, relishing every minute of it while mom did the laundry. Today, hitting "Play" on one these new Universal Home Video DVDs is like indulging in the sugary breakfast cereal you loved as a kid. Several servings at one sitting may be too much of a good thing, but consumption in moderation may put an unselfconscious smile on your face while that stuffy adult part of your brain is aware that there's no nutritional value at work here. But at such moments who cares about nutritional value? A fine meal is a wonderful thing, yet sometimes you just gotta go for the Count Chocula.
If you've never seen these, you've missed a funky little side avenue of America's pop culture inner city. Retro, yes. Kitschy, sure. Camp? Yeah, pretty much. Still, there are some fine surprises on hand when you spin these discs. While Lon Chaney Jr. was never an actor of great range or depth, he sure nailed poor, haunted Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man who wants only to really die and be left alone. Who would have thought that a little-known 1935 effort titled Werewolf of London would be so good, not just as a werewolf story but as a movie, period. And there's Basil "Sherlock Holmes" Rathbone playing Baron Wolf von Frankenstein among sets clearly inspired by German expressionist films like Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Nowadays, calling these "horror films" may be stretching the term beyond its limits. It's questionable whether one of today's more fright-savvy ten-year-olds would really have nightmares after viewing any of them. Rather, think of them as G-rated fantasy films quirky dark fantasy in most cases, sure, or downright surreal fantasy in some of the Frankenstein films available here. Harmless hokum, stylish silliness. No one has any illusions about how the franchise compares to the original Universal films that spawned them. The Kharis series can't hold a candle to Karloff's original 1932 The Mummy. The James Whale-directed Bride of Frankenstein (1935) remains the crown jewel in Universal's display case, so we won't pretend that its multiple lesser follow-ups are in the same league.
Still, these later genetically related "classics" do have their charms. I mean, really, the original 1931 Frankenstein may be the greater aesthetic achievement, but '44's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is just plain old more fun. Universal's Classic Monsters remain entertaining not only for the completist collector or the pop-culturally curious. They're also perfect for any typical lazy Saturday afternoon, especially if you're twelve or younger.
About these DVDs
Universal Studios Home Video has done a splendid job jolting new life into their Classic Monsters. Each of these DVDs is a double-feature disc, two movies for the price of one. Someone took good care to package the discs with attention to uniform presentation. The menu screens are attractively designed and navigation is easy and consistent (with one exception being a minor oops on the Mummy's Hand/Tomb disc). Each keep-case respectfully recreates the films' original one-sheet posters.
Oh, one can nitpick. For instance, the descriptive copy on the back of each keep-case would have benefited from a writer more familiar with the movies therein, and in a few instances the Cast & Crew bios' image choices are questionable. The Production Notes text on Dracula's Daughter is in a poor font choice. On every disc, Chapter 1 is a promotional piece for the Universal Classic Monsters DVD library (you can jump past it by clicking forward to Chapter 2). Despite the nits, what we have here are packages superior to the average DVD reissues of "classic" second-tier films.
Unlike Universal's first wave of Classic Monster DVDs that included Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, the discs here come without commentary tracks or documentary "featurettes." Still galleries present on earlier Laserdisc editions are absent. So bonus features are slim. That's too bad, but in the big scheme of things it's little to complain about. Almost every film's theatrical trailer is on board. Better yet, we get well researched Production Notes and Cast & Filmmakers bios/filmographies by genre film expert Tom Weaver. The Production Notes typically provide several click-through screens of behind-the-scenes info that should enhance the experience and please the trivia buffs. The availability of alternate Spanish/French language tracks, English captions, and Spanish/French subtitles varies, though they are present more often than not.
As for the main attractions themselves, they're all in their original black-and-white and presented in a full-screen 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Universal was mindful in using source prints that are at least "quite good," and some are excellent considering their age. No digital restoration has been done, so visually they are by no means "pristine." However, for prints that have seen a lot of action over the past 60+ years, they retain most of their B/W contrast and crisp detail. More often than not the deep blacks are true, brightness and gray-to-black levels are fine, and signs of really serious fading or other significant wear, while not nonexistent, are infrequent. The amount of flecks, scratches, and age spots vary from film to film, and they're unsurprising, a distraction only to the haughtier digital videohounds. If you're accustomed to the Midnight Shock Theater prints on television, you'll notice substantial improvement here. Careful digital transfers have resulted in very few compression artifacts or other modern tell-tales. The more eagle-eyed DVDphiles will spot the occasional shimmer, edge-enhancement, or grain.
That said, the theatrical trailers continue a trend common on DVD releases such as these they look and sound much worse than the feature films. Expect plenty of thin audio plus scratches and other wear, including what appears to be serious damage a time or two.
By and large, the audio tracks are clear and clean enough in their original (meaning limited-range) monaural in Dolby Digital 2.0. Instances of outright distortion are rare, though sometimes pops or fuzz or a little hiss are reminders that the original source prints were around for two or three generations before modern sound processing and speaker systems. Now and then you'll hear instances of flutter or other signs of generation loss. Those are the exceptions in soundtracks that prove more than adequate for the tasks at hand. You won't be showing off your rattle-the-china 5.1 home theater setup with these, but you won't have trouble hearing any dialogue either.
One House short, but still a fine addition
Curiously, 1945's House of Dracula, the last official entry in the series and the second to team up multiple monsters and their familiar players, is absent from this set. That's a shame. Pairing it with its immediate predecessor, House of Frankenstein, would make for a natural creature-feature Mardi Gras and neatly complete a collector's library. The good news is that Universal has it slated for release in an upcoming wave of releases from the horror library.
But there's plenty here to love. While these DVDs aren't full-bore Criterion megafeature showcases, Universal Classic Monster fans and genre collectors should be pleased.