Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection [Blu-ray]

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Longtime readers of this blog will not be shocked to hear that I’m besotted with the silver screen monster movies of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, and I freely admit that the release this week of the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray boxset was one of the most anticipated of 2012 as far as I was concerned.

I’ve only had a chance to watch two of the eight iconic films from the boxset, but here’s the story so far …

Dracula (1931)

Every time I settle down to watch the original Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, I think I’m prepared for how incredibly slow, static and stagey it is. And every time when I’m actually viewing it, I’m amazed all over again by how much worse it is than I remember.

For a long time I put it down to the primitive technology of the time, but the more films I’ve watched from around the period the more it seems that even by the standards of the day this was a very sluggish and dull production. Either the director Tod Browning was simply not really interested in the whole project, or else he deliberately decided early on that the best way of conveying the supernatural uncanny horror was to make everyone speeeeeeeeeak and moooooooooove really slooooooowly and deliberately. To modern eyes the end result is unintentionally comic, especially after it’s been lampooned so many times over the intervening seven decades.

There’s a unique direct contrast available which is provided on the Blu-ray itself as an extra: a Spanish language version shot back-to-back with the main film, using a Spanish-speaking cast working from a translated script and a second crew shooting on the same sets at night after the main crew had packed up for the day. Director George Melford had access to the primary crew’s dailies and set out to go one better everywhere he could, and he comes up with some lovely visual additions. Moreover he paces the film better and gets more naturalistic performances from most of his cast than Browning does. There are also fewer chunks excised from the film compared with the English version, where it seems that executives realised that the film was dragging and dealt with it by removing large sections to try and speed things along – even if it left the film choppy and non-sensical in places as a result. As such, the Spanish version is a handy help manual to understand some of the queerer aspects of the Lugosi film.

I’m a big fan of the little-remembered Dwight Frye who here gets his best role as Dracula’s insane acolyte Renfield, but even I have to admit that his Spanish counterpart Pablo Álvarez Rubio gives a far more effective and natural performance in the role than Frye’s overly-stagey interpretation under Browning’s direction. But when it comes to the most crucial role of all – that of Dracula – sadly the Spanish version fluffs it completely. Whatever his merits as an actor elsewhere, Carlos Villarías is hopelessly miscast as the vampire and looks constipated as he leers painfully and fails to capture the essence of the role.

Lugosi’s portrayal has been copied and mocked down the years to the point where it’s impossible to take seriously. And yet despite this, he still has immense presence and magnetism in the role: you genuinely feel unsettled whenever he’s on screen, and he dominates any scene he’s in. He’s the reason why the film succeeded despite its faults; and the reason why it’s still a classic to this day, and why it’s worth sitting through despite its glacial pace.

Moving on to the Blu-Ray: I have a version of Dracula (both English and Spanish) from the 2004 Monster Legacy DVD boxset, which has some very nice prints of the films. But they are nothing compared to the latest spectacular high-definition restoration presented here. The studio has pulled off a minor miracle with this latest release, clearing up virtually every last scratch and piece of dirt, stabilising the picture, restoring blown-out highlights and building some gorgeous dark shadows to make an image of such depth that at times it almost produces a 3D effect without the aid of glasses. Added to that, the high-definition allows so much detail from the stunning sets (particularly the sequences at the start in Transylvania and at the end in the ruins of Carfax Abbey) that all sorts of things that were never visible before suddenly explode onto the screen.

I genuinely didn’t think that this Blu-ray version would be able to do much to bolster the quality of such old material that’s already been restored countless times before for previous releases. I was wrong. This is awesome stuff: whereas the 2004 DVD did a fine job of bringing us the 1930s films, the Blu-ray version makes them look at times as if they were shot just last week (albeit in black and white.) It can’t help with the slow, stagy pacing of the film itself, however!

Rather surprisingly, the principle ‘extra’ – the Spanish version – has also been restored and presented in high-def to almost the same high standard. It’s just a shade softer than the Lugosi version perhaps, and there is a drastic downturn in quality in the second reel of the film. That’s because for decades this portion of the film was thought lost for good: only when an old show print was recovered in a Cuban cinema by horror-movie historian David J. Skal was the film finally complete once more, so frankly we’ll forgive the state it’s in. Even here, it’s markedly better than the version originally released on DVD so they’ve done what they can.

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Of the reviews I’ve seen for the boxset, the most gripes have been about the inclusion of the 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera. Most horror fans would rather have the seminal 1925/9 silent version starring Lon Chaney and view this later adaptation starring Claude Rains with disdain – and with reason.

The problem is that this version of Gaston Leroux grand guignol classic is not a horror film. It’s more accurate to call it a light romantic comedy with lengthy musical interludes, with some added scenes of mild peril as the result of the activities of a disgruntled former employee of the Paris Opera House. The Phantom has been consigned to a bit part in his own movie; when his unmasking comes, even his disfigured face is watered down compared with Chaney’s grotesque earlier incarnation.

So why include this Rains version of the Phantom of the Opera? Well for one reason the home entertainment rights to the latest restored high definition version of the Chaney film belong to Park Circus, which did an impressive job releasing it about a year ago (you can read my over-enthusiastic praise of it here.) But in any case, a silent movie would sit uneasily in this collection, while the Rains version sits firmly within the 1931-1953 talkies period covered by this boxset.

I wonder also whether the 1943 version didn’t offer one other unique selling point that made it irresistible to the distributors: of the eight films in this boxset, it’s the only one in full colour. While the other films allow the restoration team to show what miracles they can work in monochrome (and they really do), this is their one opportunity to show how good they can make a Technicolor film look. And do they ever knock it out of the park.

I absolutely adored this presentation. Again just as with Dracula, the restoration of the film is outstandingly good: completely damage-free, stable and looking like it was fresh off the soundstage just last week. But here is the added dimension of the sumptuous colour which has also been restored to spectacular levels – better I’m sure than even contemporary audiences would have enjoyed in the cinemas during World War 2. There’s the occasional trace of colour bleed here and there (the three-colour strips used at the time age, stretch and warp at different rates which makes precise alignment impossible after all this time) but really it’s so minor that you’d have to be examining with a microscope to be bothered.

The restoration team has the advantage of working with some quality materials: this was a prestigious, big-budget for the time, far more so than the rest of the monster fare which kept Universal Studio afloat during dire times with their high returns on relatively low outlay. For Phantom of the Opera on the other hand, the boat is well and truly pushed out to sea: incredible sets (including the original Chaney 1925 Opéra Garnier interior), beautiful costumes, all with the sort of intricate detail that would never have shown up on screen before until this high definition version, and as a result the whole thing ‘pops’ like few films I’ve seen, old or new.

In fact the whole thing means that even the operatic intervals featuring the film’s star Nelson Eddy end up being entirely welcome where previously they were eye-rolling distractions from the story. That’s because each opera staging presents a whole new world of costumes and sets to feast on, and I could literally get lost in marvelling at the whole spectacle for the entire time the singing was on – and then rewind and happily watch it again, rather than fast-forwarding through them like I used to do.

Yes, as a horror story it’s a complete dud. But in this glittering version on Blu-ray, I’d have to say it succeeds in becoming the jewel in the crown of an already astonishingly impressive boxset.

Summary

The extras for Dracula and Frankenstein (ported over from the Monster Legacy DVD boxset and mainly standard definition) are impressive, but the quantity falls off pretty abruptly after that and the remaining titles are chiefly limited to half-hour featurettes and audio commentaries which good as they are do leave the rest of their discs feeling like there are tumbleweeds blowing through.

And my own peeve about the boxset is that a number of my favourite Universal monster films from the Legacy boxset are absent. There’s the Son of Frankenstein, the third in the ‘genuine’ trilogy and the last to star Boris Karloff in the iconic role, supported by Basil Rathbone as the son of the monster’s creator and Bela Lugosi as helpful hunchback Ygor; and Ghost of Frankenstein, a step down in serious quality but a glorious B-movie romp in its own right. Maybe there are plans afoot to restore and release these films down the line, in which case I hope they include the high definition version of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein as well, as that was always the perfect ending to the glory years of Universal horror.

Still, it’s hard to criticise the quality of what is present on the disc. If you’re remotely interested in this era of genre films, then this is an absolute must-have boxset – to the point where if you haven’t already got a Blu-ray player, then this is genuinely the reason to finally get one.

As well as the eight-movie boxset, all films are available individually. Along with Dracula and Phantom of the Opera, there are also high-def releases for Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon.

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