A brief tour of Universal’s monster horror legacy

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Almost five years ago I wrote enthusiastically about the release of Universal Studio’s Monsters – The Essential Collection, a boxset of eight of its most famous golden age horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s. It was the first time these iconic movies had been officially released in the UK on Blu-ray in newly remastered high definition versions, and they were a glorious sight to behold

At the time I penned gushing reviews of Dracula and Phantom of the Opera. As it happens I recently rewatched the original 1931 Frankenstein film and was astounded all over again – both by the flawless and beautiful monochrome restoration of a film that’s now nearly 90 years old, and also by how terrific the film itself still is, and how brilliant Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the monster remains to this day. My only criticism is that it’s so short and over all too quickly, the Monster no sooner brought to life than he is running amok and being hunted by a pitchfork-wielding mob of angry villagers. The clarity is so vivid, you can clearly see the folds and creases in the cloth backdrops used for the sky and clouds.

The Monsters – The Essential Collection boxset was one of my favourite purchases of 2012, and the only drawback to it was that several of the later movies from the Universal horror franchise were not included, among them some of my favourite if lesser-known genre films of the period. I confidently predicted that it surely wouldn’t be long before a second volume took care of that omission; alas, I waited in vain for years for such a boxset to materialise here in the UK, and it never happened. Until now. Well, sort of.

The forthcoming Mummy reboot with added Tom Cruise has galvanised Universal to put out the original movies again, and this time it has indeed gone beyond the eight core movies and released HD versions of all the original films that starred Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man and the Mummy. Unfortunately in the process they’ve changed the way that they are collecting the movies together, reverting to a previous system in which are four different ‘Legacy’ boxsets. There’s one for the four most iconic monsters, each containing all the films to feature the respective character.

While that makes a certain sense, it also makes it very expensive for anyone wanting to collect all the Universal horror movies. That’s because there’s a lot of overlap, as several of the later films were the first instance in cinema history of ‘crossover’ films, the sort of thing that has become commonplace in this era of sprawling superhero franchises. For example, the first monster mash was Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man in 1943, and the film duly shows up in both the Frankenstein and Wolf Man Legacy boxsets. Consequently if you were to buy all four Legacy boxsets together with the original Essential Collection then you’ll end up with three duplicate copies of several of the titles. Unfortunately, at the same time each of the five Blu-ray collections contains at least two films that are unique to that boxset. So which do you skip, and what will you miss out on as a result?

With that question in mind, here’s a few suggestions as to how best a hard-working Universal Horror fan can make his or her pennies stretch as far as possible…

Monsters – The Essential Collection

To start with, is the Essential Collection still an essential purchase? Five of the films it contains – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man – appear identically within their respective Legacy collections, complete with all their original extra features. (It’s worth noting that these new Legacy discs are literally just a new pressing of exactly the same discs issued in 2012.)

If you don’t already have a copy, then without the Essential Collection you will miss out on The Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera and Creature from the Black Lagoon (including a 3D version of the latter.) The good news is that it’s possible to buy all three as individual Blu-rays, but on the flip side the caveat is that it’s also perfectly possible to buy the Essential Collection for less than it takes to purchase all three stand-alone titles. As a result, it’s not really saving you anything. Added to that, the Essential Collection comes with a rather good 48-page full colour glossy booklet and eight high-quality art cards, so all things considered I’m still not regretting buying it when I did.

Frankenstein – Legacy Collection

Of the new releases, the Frankenstein Legacy is probably the best one to go for. The character of the Frankenstein Monster was the backbone of the horror franchise and appears in all the crossover films of the 1940s, so this one boxset gives you most if not quite all of the basic structure of the core franchise. If you also have the Essential Collection then this will yield your second copies of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but there are worse things in life than having duplicates of such all-time iconic movies.

More importantly, this is currently the only way of getting the high-definition transfer of Son of Frankenstein which I rate very highly indeed. It stars Basil Rathbone as the titular character and is the final screen appearance of Karloff as the Monster, while Bela Lugosi plays broken-necked assistant Ygor for the first time (the inimitable, underrated Dwight Frye was the hunchback Fritz in the original film.) It’s a terrific film directed by Rowland V Lee with lashings of film noir stylings, and it’s a personal favourite of mine.

After that the quality of the films (and, to a degree, the quality of the restorations) undoubtedly begins to decline sharply and we start getting increasing numbers of monsters showing up: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is self-explanatory, while House of Frankenstein adds a brief cameo from Dracula (here played by John Carradine) to the mix. The Count gets more airtime alongside the Monster and the Wolf Man in House of Dracula, which was the last major title to feature the golden age monster line-up. None of these films have been released in HD before in the UK to my knowledge, making this quite a bonanza for fans of the franchise.

Although the franchise effectively ended in 1945, there was an encore performance three years later where Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein – the irony of the title being that they don’t meet Frankenstein at all, but more accurately the Monster. Even though I’m not usually a fan of American comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I absolutely love this film especially as the ‘monsters’ all get to play it absolutely straight while Bud and Lou handle the clowning around. It’s also only the second (and alas, final) time that Bela Lugosi played Dracula on screen, and for that alone it has an unshakeable place in film history.

That pretty much wraps up the evidence in favour of buying the Frankenstein Legacy, and I’m confident that on this occasion it’s case proved.

The Mummy – Legacy Collection

My next recommendation might come as a slightly surprising one, but I maintain that after the Frankenstein Legacy boxset comes its counterpart for The Mummy, mainly because there is minimal overlap with the previous two collections.

While The Mummy itself obviously appears on the Essential Collection, the other five films contained here don’t appear in any of the other Blu-ray boxsets. Indeed, the four follow-up sequels – The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse haven’t previously been released in the UK on DVD let alone in high-definition. (All four titles are being simultaneously released on two individual Blu-ray discs, each of which contain two films. The trouble is that they’re both quite expensive and you’ll pay quite a bit more buying them that way than simply picking up the boxset.) The main problem with The Mummy sequels is that to be entirely honest, they’re not actually all that good – which probably explains why no one in the UK has been clamouring for their release before now. Still, for completists this is a great moment to finally be able to get the full set.

On top of the official run of films, The Mummy Legacy also comes with a sixth title in the form of Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy. Again, this comes with something of a quality health warning – it was Abbott and Costello’s last studio film and they were at the end of their screen career, having got stuck in a creative rut endlessly recycling the same old material. The same could be said for the durability of the Mummy itself by this point, too. It’s enjoyable enough if you’re not too critical, but it’s a mere shadow of the original Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein classic.

Perhaps that leaves you wavering over the decision as to whether this is a good purchase? Then there’s a final argument in its favour. Contained in the extras in this boxset is a copy of Universal Horror, a 1990s documentary feature about the franchise narrated by Kenneth Branagh with interviews with all the then-surviving participants of the classic films. It’s a wonderful watch and endlessly fascinating, and would be a recommended purchase in its own right. As an under-promoted special feature tucked away on the boxset without any fanfare, it was an utter delight to find this. (I should add, the documentary was cheaply shot on video tape in 4:3 aspect ratio, and appears here in standard definition without any attempt at remastering or restoration.)

Dracula – Legacy Collection

If you’ve accepted the argument thus far to pick up the Essential Collection together with the Frankenstein and Mummy Legacy boxsets, then this is the point where we arrive at the point of “only if you’ve got money to burn” purchases.

Obviously Dracula is a must-have for any horror fan, but that’s contained in the Essential Collection already (and if you don’t have that, it’s an easy title to pick up on an individual Blu-ray release.) Wherever you get it, it will almost certainly come complete with the once-lost Spanish-language version of the movie that was filmed at the same time as the Bela Lugosi classic and on the same soundstage sets, at night while the main crew were asleep. It makes for a fascinating compare-and-contrast study, and the Spanish production comes out top in a surprising number of areas.

Of the remaining five films in this boxset, we’ve seen three of them before – House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein were all contained in the Frankenstein Legacy collection, so if you’ve picked that up already then you don’t need them again. However, the remaining two features are exclusive (for now, in high definition) to this boxset. And they’re rather difficult to overlook as a result.

The first is Dracula’s Daughter, made in 1936 and starring Gloria Holden as the titular character, the film loosely based on Bram Stoker’s short story Dracula’s Guest. The interest here is that it follows on directly from the final scene of the original film, with Edward Van Sloan reprising his role as Abraham van Helsing. Dracula himself is also briefly seen on a funeral pyre, but a mannequin replaces Lugosi for this purpose. While it’s not a patch on the first film it nonetheless has its moments, and a subtle homoerotic sub-text pleasingly went straight over the heads of the censors of the day making it at the very least an earnest and intriguing entry into the Universal horror annals.

The later Son of Dracula is somewhat more mundane, Lon Chaney Jr rather painfully miscast in the title role (actually he plays ‘Count Alucard’ and it’s not clear whether this is meant to be the original vampire’s son, or Dracula himself.) It’s a rather disposable entry and isn’t linked into any of the other Universal horror movies of the day, but completists will certainly want to check it out for themselves anyway.

In this case it’s probably best to pick up cheap copies of both of these films on DVDs that have been around for years; and if you like them, keep an eye open for Blu-ray releases on stand-alone discs in the future.

Wolf Man – Legacy Collection

Once again, if you’ve already opted to pick up the Frankenstein Legacy boxset then you’ve pretty much nullified the need to buy this one as well. Four of the films contained here are duplicates: Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein are all once again included. As for The Wolf Man, you’ll either have that on the Essential Collection or be able to pick it up as a stand-alone Blu-ray.

All that said, once again there are two titles here that are not to be found on high definition in any other boxset or individual release in the UK so far.

The first is the 1935 film Werewolf of London which could be loosely described as a ‘pilot’ for the later films. It stars Henry Hull and Charlie Chan’s Warner Oland, and the werewolf makeup is very different from that worn by Lon Chaney Jr for the subsequent The Wolf Man classic and its monster-mash crossover sequels.

The second is 1946 film She-Wolf of London which is an even odder entry to the canon – it’s not really a monster film at all, but instead a thriller more in the film noir vein. It’s not bad at all – actually, quite an entertaining watch in its own right – but it doesn’t feel like it belongs in the Universal Horror tradition. It shows how Hollywood was already moving on after the end of the Second World War, and swiftly leaving monster conceits behind for grittier fare.

As a result, The Wolf Man Legacy feels the most dispensable of the four new boxsets. But at the same time, if you’re a big Wolf Man fan then you’ll undoubtedly and understandably put it ahead of the others. And it does have one thing going in its favour – in the prices I’ve seen listed on Amazon this week, it’s a lot cheaper than its Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy counterparts making it the ‘bargain’ of the line-up.

What else?

Universal has been reissuing its golden age monster titles on DVD on a regular basis for about two decades now, but the UK has missed out on a number of constituent titles that have been available in the US for years. The release of the four Mummy sequels addresses one gaping discrepancy, but there are a few others. As well as the four Legacy collections outlined above, the US market has also seen a couple more equivalent boxsets: one consisting of five follow-ups to 1931’s The Invisible Man (including the inevitable Abbott and Costello encounter); and the other containing two tepid sequels to the 1954 classic Creature from the Black Lagoon (no Abbott and Costello this time, though.)

To be honest, I’m not really all that fussed. The films in The Invisible Man sequence are barely connected – no story lines or characters continue from film to film, one of which is a screwball comedy while another is a wartime secret agent espionage thriller. And as for Creature from the Black Lagoon, I confess I’ve never been much of a fan: the original (contained in the Essential Collection) is a fun watch but it belongs more to the 1950s era of science fiction movies like Tarantula, Them! and 20 Million Miles from Earth than it does to the classic age of the Universal monsters.

I’m not holding my breath waiting for these films to make it to the UK market, and wouldn’t rush to buy them if they did.

Universal was also behind a number of other classic horror films in the 1930s which don’t qualify for ‘monster legacy’ status. These include the wonderful Britain-set The Old Dark House directed by Frankenstein’s James Whale and starring Karloff, Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart (who found fame again in later life through her Oscar-nominated role in Titanic in 1997). The film was believed lost for decades until the 1970s and it has to be said that the version released some time ago now on DVD is not the best quality, but it’s still a great watch.

Karloff and Lugosi also got together out of monster make-up for a number of films based on Edgar Allen Poe stories – The Black Cat and The Raven are the best known. They’ve been out for several years on DVD and copies can be picked up relatively cheaply online.

For Your Further Consideration

Of the ‘essential’ monsters, then, it seems that only the Phantom of the Opera never managed to spawn a line of sequels. However, long-time fans of this blog will know that Universal had previously made a silent-era version of the story in 1925 starring Lon Chaney Sr a.k.a. “the man of a thousand faces”, and then retrofitted it for sound in 1929. For some reason, it seems that Universal no longer has the rights to release the film on home media but there are two terrific Blu-ray releases, one from Park Circus and the other from the British Film Institute. Either and indeed both are highly recommended to horror film fans, and arguably it paved the way for Universal to go on and invest in horror movies starting with Dracula and Frankenstein a couple of years later.

Chaney was also the star of another pre-sound Universal horror, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (not to be confused with the later remake starring Charles Laughton. Or the Disney version, obviously!) I’ve only ever seen this for sale as a poor quality, cut-price DVD release in the UK suggesting that it’s fallen into the public domain, but it’s still a landmark film of its day and undeniable proof of Chaney’s genius.

Another film worth looking out for is The Cat and the Canary, a seminal ‘haunted house’ thriller that today feels right out of Scooby-Doo! – and what’s the problem with that? In it, a young heiress played by Laura La Plante has to stay overnight in a spooky mansion in order to inherit a vast fortune, but one of the other prospective heirs tries to frighten her out of her mind in order to get the money for himself. Again this appears to have fallen into the public domain, and as a result is available to stream online for free from what look to be reputable and legal sources. It’s not to be confused with the 1939 comedy version starring Bob Hope.

Surprisingly, Universal never got around to adapting the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which you would have thought would be an obvious subject. In a way you could argue that The Wolf Man was itself very much a supernatural version of the same tale. There were several silent film adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde made in the 1920s, but the best talkies to look out for are the Paramount version from 1931 starring Fredric March, and the 1941 remake by MGM starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. Both have been released in the UK on the same single double-sided DVD.

If you’ll forgive a further drift away from the strict confines of the Universal back catalogue, I’ll wrap up with a couple of recommendations of horror classics from other studios. The first is the hugely influential German expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari directed by Robert Wiene which is available on a top-notch Blu-ray from Eureka! It stars Conrad Veidt, who later played the title role in Universal’s period horror The Man Who Laughs which in turn influenced the creation of Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker in the comic books.

And finally, no article on this subject could finish off without a mention of the very first screen adaptation of Dracula in 1922 – FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, a version that was so unofficial that Bram Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and successfully won a court order that all prints of the film should be destroyed. Fortunately a few survived and have been pieced together, and it remains a gripping watch almost a century after it was committed to celluloid and a must for any true student of cinema. You can read my 2013 review of Nosferatu here.

And on that blood-curling note, it’s time to finish – before the sun rises and catches me out of my coffin…

The new Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon Legacy collections are available on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK from May 8 2017.

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