Fun Flicks for a Fabulous Fright Night: Universal’s ‘Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection’

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Universal’s Classic Monsters Collection (amazon.com)

Boo!!! It’s that time of the year again, folks, when all we want out of life is to be frightened out of our wits at Halloween (Well… some of us do, anyway). And Universal Pictures has heeded the call. Yay! They’ve re-released their “Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray disc. Yikes!!

This is a not-to-be-missed assortment of fun (tongue planted firmly in cheek) fright flicks, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. All right, maybe they’re not as frightening as they once were — and over the years, the majority of these creature features have lost a good deal of their shock value and “bite.” Nevertheless, they’re always worth a second or third look, mostly for their well-founded status as undeniable screen classics.

Packed with trivia, memorabilia, insights, interviews, making of’s, and beaucoup bonus material, this collection will have you up nights (!) as you wade through the treasure trove of extras. Just don’t drive any stakes through that classy packaging art, okay?

As an added enticement, I’ve provided brief write-ups of the individual items included in this truly worthy set. As Edward Van Sloan once told curious audience members, in the spoken introduction to James Whale’s Frankenstein, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you.”

Huh! Now that’s an understatement. (It’s okay to cover your eyes during the scary parts, friends. But don’t worry, I won’t tell…)

Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (blu-ray.com)

The first of Universal’s Monster Classics is this Tod Browning-directed picture, based on a Broadway stage production of Bram Stoker’s novel. Starring Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who just happened to have been born in the same Transylvanian district as the bloodthirsty Count Dracula (how’s that for a coincidence?), it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to another era entirely. Despite the lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime Lugosi is on screen. His darkly sinister stare and imposing presence and height are his most prominent features. But the best emoting of all comes from supporting player (and Universal staple) Dwight Frye as the crazed, fly-eating Mr. Renfield. Excellent camera work by Karl Freund, the misty atmosphere no doubt heightens the Gothic mood. The only thing missing is a decent film score. That said, the opening snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is about all we get. The collection also features an alternate score by Philip Glass with the Kronos String Quartet, as well as a Spanish-language edition. With David Manners, Helen Chandler, Herbert Bunston, and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing.

Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff as The Monster (Universal)

Having scored a direct hit with Dracula, Universal offered the part of Frankenstein’s Monster to Lugosi. He turned it down flat (“There’s no dialogue!” he was reputed to have cried). In his place, contract player Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Pratt) was tapped for the role that forever changed the course of his life and career. Certainly Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup lent a huge helping hand in securing this picture’s place among the immortals. Colin Clive is the anxious Dr. Frankenstein, our modern-day Prometheus, who flawlessly captures the scientist’s mad obsession with creating life from dead bodies (his resemblance to comic Jim Carrey is uncanny). Clive was a chronic alcoholic who died prematurely in 1937, only two years after Bride of Frankenstein was released. The flick is a tad “livelier” than Dracula, lacking a memorable score to enliven the proceedings (that would be taken care of with the next two installments, Bride and Son of Frankenstein). Fortunately, this version restores previously cut footage of the Monster throwing little Maria into the lake. With Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore, and Dwight Frye as Fritz.

The Mummy (1932)

Karloff as Imhotep (moviemail.com)

Karl Freund went from cinematographer to film director with this stylish, Art Deco-derived fright flick. When the movie was originally released, it had only been a mere ten years since the incredible discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (along with its highly publicized “curse”), so the novelty of the find was still very much on audiences’ minds. Contrary to popular belief, Boris Karloff (as Imhotep, the resurrected Mummy of the title), appears in only one scene wearing the dead man’s bandages, but for a precious few seconds. His piercing gaze, as well as his slow loping gait, were emblematic of Karloff’s acting style, which would take hold in subsequent fright features. It’s another slow one, we’re sorry to add, but the chilly atmosphere compensates somewhat for the lack of action. With the Universal stock company of players, including the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, along with Zita Johann, Leonard Mudie, Arthur Byron, and Noble Johnson (the Native Chief in King Kong) as a Nubian Slave.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Claude Rains & Gloria Stuart (highbrowmagazine.com)

Claude Rains made his first motion picture “appearance” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novella. This is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalo-maniacal dialogue (“Power to make men grovel at my feet!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May”) to satisfy any sci-fi fan. What made this feature so great, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period, painstakingly done with plaster models, process photography and double exposures. When Rains, as Dr. Jack Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head, he reveals… absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic! Directed by James Whale, who also did the previous year’s Frankenstein. With lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in Titanic), William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Holmes Herbert, and E.E. Clive (Colin’s dad) as Constable Jaffers.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester & Boris Karloff (moviediva.com)

It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for British director James Whale, whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Yet, for the last 80 years it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director), into creating a mate for the lonely Boris Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Expressionistic sets, bizarre camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor, the slow-witted E.E. Clive, and the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Featuring Valerie Hobson, Gavin Gordon, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man (Universal)

“Even a man who’s pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” A medieval ode of Eastern European origin? Not exactly: this catchy little poem was the invention of screenwriter and author (turned director) Curt Siodmak. But it set the right tone for one of the 1940’s favorite film monsters: the Wolf Man, played with anguish as well as charm by the young Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney had the added advantage of having had a father who practically thrived on his long association with the horror genre (not for nothing was dad known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces”). Junior, whose given name was Creighton, was also the only actor to have played the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot, in all of Universal’s subsequent sequels. Directed by George Waggner, and makeup by (you guessed it) Jack Pierce, with Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Patrick Knowles, and Bela Lugosi as (who else?) Bela the Gypsy.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Claude Rains as The Phantom (monsters4ever.com)

Proving that Technicolor was no guarantee of box-office success, this sound version of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale (first filmed as a silent with the inimitable Lon Chaney as the ghostly apparition) features Claude Rains again as a rather kindly Phantom. His makeup is the weakest of Jack Pierce’s monster get-ups, though, and a big letdown for fans familiar with Chaney’s earlier death’s head figure. There’s decidedly more opera here than phantom, too, as the movie spends an inordinate amount of screen time on a silly romance between baritone Nelson Eddy (in solid voice), beauteous Susana Foster (his vocal equal – and then some!), and jealous police inspector Edgar Barrier. The opera scenes are excellent nonetheless, and provide a colorful backdrop to the secondary plot line involving poor old Claudin (couldn’t they have given Rains a better name than that?) as an aging violinist put out to pasture before his time. No wonder, what with all the comic relief among the scene-stealing supporting cast of Leo Carrillo, Hume Cronyn, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, and Fritz Leiber as composer Franz Liszt.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (wizardworlddigital.com)

Though not part of Universal’s original monster contingent, the titular Creature (alternately played on land by Ben Chapman, and in water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the new generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker. Filmed in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, the story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (the so-called Black Lagoon), where scientists Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julia Adams (in a white bathing suit, no less) have dropped anchor, in full research regalia, in order to study the fossilized remains of the supposedly extinct Gill Man. Little do they realize that the Creature is very much alive and well, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast, but this will do for now. Great underwater photography and a terrific film score by Hans J. Salter, who was Universal’s resident composer of science-fiction and horror thrillers. Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space) directed, with veterans Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell, Perry Lopez, and Nestor Paiva as Lucas.

Happy Halloween, everybody!!!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

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One thought on “Fun Flicks for a Fabulous Fright Night: Universal’s ‘Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection’

    mestreseo said:
    January 23, 2013 at 10:30 am

    educational post. you’re always making us learn something new, thanks. mestreseo mestreseo mestreseo mestreseo mestreseo

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