Monday, October 1, 2012

UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: Blu-ray (Universal 1931-54) Universal Home Video

In its heyday, Universal Studios was Hollywood’s homegrown Transylvania, catering to the public’s intense fascination with all things supernatural and terrifying. Why anyone should wish to experience visualizations of such tales of the macabre has been a perplexing psychological question. It goes without saying that most people don’t want to be terrorized in their own lives. But on film this fear effortlessly translates into the ‘good scare’ and for good reason. We are inside the relative safety of a theatre or perhaps perched warm and cozy on the edge of our couch with a cup of cocoa nuzzled between our finger tips.  And film, perhaps better than even the imaginative properties of great literature, had rapidly become the medium where our nightmares could be collectively exorcized, even from the darkest recesses of our minds. 
Universal’s horror tradition is often accredited to Carl Laemmle Jr., the juvenile wunderkind who inherited the studio from his father. But actually, Laemmle Sr. had already established the genre as the studio’s bread and butter during the silent era, that included two Lon Chaney classics; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), among others. Despite these initial successes, Universal’s fortunes foundered and by the late 1920s when junior stepped in as president, the company had fallen into temporary receivership.   
Undeniably, the real golden age of Universal horror began under Laemmle Jr.; his foray, Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931); the celebrated retelling of Braum Stoker’s gothic tale. The film is heavily influenced by Broadway’s ‘Dracula’; a play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, and for good reason. In 1922, F.W. Murnau had created arguably the definitive homage to Stoker’s blood sucker with Nosferatu – an expressionist masterpiece that unfortunately did not have the consent of Stoker’s widow or rights permission. As such, a lengthy and costly lawsuit had concluded with a court decree that all prints of Nosteratu should be destroyed.
On this side of the Atlantic, Laemmle Jr. felt reasonably secure that his Dracula would not suffer a similar fate. The Deane/Balderston play deviated just enough from Stoker’s original to avoid injunction, and it was also a proven commodity with audiences. But perhaps the best thing about the play was that it had discovered the iconic presence of the vampire in Bela Lugosi; a soft spoken Hungarian who, ironically, was first passed over for the part by Laemmle Jr.
By all accounts the shoot was chaotic, with Browning relying heavily on Karl Freund to lens many of the scenes, while the script by Garret Fort daily evolved as a work in progress. To complicate matters and inflate the overall budget, in the days before post syncing made it possible to overdub actors for the foreign language market, Dracula was being photographed twice, by day and at night with an all-Spanish cast after the Browning unit had gone home. Viewing the two movies side by side, one is awestruck by the visual superiority of the Spanish language version. The camera is more mobile with fluid movements and impressive cinematography throughout.
But Browning’s version had Lugosi and the actor gave a startling – occasionally bone chilling – performance as the diabolical Count who keeps vampire brides in his castle cellar.  Our tale begins with solicitor, Renfield’s (Dwight Frye) perilous journey to Castle Dracula. The Count assures his victim that no harm will come to him, but later hypnotizes and devours Renfield.  The master and his hapless slave, having gone mad from being bitten, board a schooner for England. Renfield is committed to a sanatorium and Dracula meets the kindly Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston) his daughter, Mina (Helen Chander), her fiancée, John Harker (David Manners) and a close friend, Lucy Weston (Frances Dade) while attending the theatre.   
Lucy becomes transfixed by Dracula who wastes no time feasting on her blood. When Lucy dies from this encounter an autopsy reveals two small puncture wounds on her neck. Meanwhile, Renfield’s obsession with eating bugs causes Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to do an analysis of his patient’s blood. Dracula turns his attentions to Mina. Although his love bite does not destroy her, Mina too becomes dreamlike and aloof. Thus, when Dracula returns for a more cordial visit, Van Helsing and Harker quietly deduce that he is responsible for their recent tragedies.
Meanwhile, Lucy has risen from the dead to prey upon young children in the park. Van Helsing plans to take Mina away to spare her a similar fate, but instead orders Nurse Briggs (Joan Standing) to guard her with a wreath of wolf bane. Dracula attempts to hypnotize Van Helsing but is driven back by the crucifix. After Dracula’s compelling Mina to bite Harker fails, Harker and Van Helsing pursue Dracula to his coffin and wait for daylight, whereupon Van Helsing drives a stake through the Count’s heart, thus releasing Mina from his curse.
Dracula was such a colossal success that Laemmle Jr. immediately put Frankenstein (1931) into production. He now had the time and, more importantly, the money to create an ambitious work of horror. Directed by James Whale, like Dracula before it, Frankenstein is very loosely based on Mary Shelley’s immortal literary masterpiece, as reconstituted in play form by Peggy Webling.  Makeup genius Jack Pierce created an iconic monster quite unlike the one described in Shelley’s novel, making a superstar out of relatively unknown Boris Karloff. It is rumored that Karloff spent nearly six hours in Pierce’s makeup chair being transformed with toxic and occasionally painful applications. Like Lugosi, Karloff was a soft spoken cordial gentleman, quite unlike his monolithic alter ego, and therein perhaps lies the enduring success of the creature he portrays; sympathetically and with a tragic underlay of endearing sadness.
The screenplay by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort begins with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), the brilliant, though slightly demented scientist whose ambition it is to stitch together a human out of body parts stolen from recently deceased and unearthed cadavers.  However gruesome the prospect, Henry keeps the secrets of life and death mostly to himself, and, on the surface at least, leads a very normal life that includes his engagement to Elizabeth Lavenza (Mae Clarke). 
Eventually, Elizabeth learns the truth and is invited into Frankenstein’s inner sanctum to witness the miracle of life. Using a Tesla coil, Henry shocks his creation with voltage generated from a violent electrical storm. The creature is born, but without Henry realizing that the brain implanted in it once belonged to a criminal mastermind.
Part of the genuine beauty of this film is Karloff’s performance as the monster; fearful, tragic and ultimately doomed to an existence without being loved or understood. Indeed, from the moment the monster comes to life he is treated rather appallingly by Henry and his hunchback assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye), who chain their creation in the dungeon and terrorize him with flames from a torch. The monster escapes and ventures into the real world where he learns kindness from a peasant girl who encourages him to pluck the petals off a daisy and cast them upon the water of a nearby lake. Taking the exercise too literally, the monster tosses the girl in after the petals where she regrettably drowns. The monster’s shock, disbelief and genuine panic at having killed his one true friend is heartbreaking. After stalking a terrified Elizabeth on her wedding day, the monster retreats to an abandoned windmill, pursued by angry villagers who torch it and thus presumably destroy him.
Laemmle Jr. departed from literary monsters to create Universal’s first original fright with The Mummy (1932), once again with Boris Karloff. Inspired by the 1922 discovery of Tutankhaman’s tomb, the screenplay by John Balderston focuses on the resurrection of an ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep (Karloff) who, after being unearthed by an archeological dig, skulks around Cairo in search of a soul that will allow him to breathe new life into the mummified remains of his beloved Princess, Ankhesenamon.  Biding his time, Imhotep finds the very incarnation of his lover in Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), the fiancée of Frank Whemple (David Manners) who is actually the son of Sir Joseph (Arthur Byron), one of the archeologists involved in the original excavation of Imhotep’s remains.
Claiming to be a modern Egyptian named Ardath Bey, Imhotep shows the Whemples where to dig for Ankhesenamon, but shields his unsuspecting accomplices from his true purpose. Through some elaborate hypnotherapy, Imhotep reveals Helen’s past life to her, convincing her that she must become his human sacrifice. What no one knows is that centuries before Imhotep was mummified alive and a curse put on him.  In the last reel, Imhotep predictably fails to murder the unsuspecting Helen and is reduced to a pile of bones by her memories that stir the spirit of Isis to destroy a sacred scroll Imhotep had intended on using to resurrect his beloved.
By now, Universal was on a roll with multiple sequels to all three of its classic monsters planned. Undeniably, one of the most enduring and prolific remains The Bride of Frankenstein (1935); a gothic masterwork intelligently scripted by William Hurlbut.  Picking up at the end of the original film, but with a fascinating prologue where Percy Shelley (Douglas Walton) and Lord Byron (Gavin Gordon) encourage Mary Shelley (Elsa Lanchester) to further her original story, the film reunites most of the original cast and crew, including director James Whale to revive the legacy of the Frankenstein monster.
The villagers stand near the burning mill, overjoyed at their victory over the monster, but mourning the apparent death of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive); a respected member of their community. Hans (Reginald Barlow), the father of the girl who drowned in the original movie demands to see the remains of the creature, but is strangled by the monster who apparently survived his grisly fate by lurking inside a well beneath the mill. In short order the monster also murders Hans’ wife (Mary Gordon) before driving off their terrified servant, Minnie (Una O’Connor).
Henry’s lifeless body is returned to Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson) who quickly discovers that he is not dead, merely wounded and unconscious. Minnie arrives to forewarn that the monster is still very much alive and Henry, yet transfixed by the secrets of life and death, resolves to pacify his original horror by creating another to be the monster’s bride.  To this end, he engages Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), who has already had some success creating homunculi – miniature men and women.
Meanwhile, the monster saves a shepherdess (Anne Darling) from drowning. But once again his philanthropy is misconstrued by the town’s folk who attack, capturing and hauling him off to a dungeon to be probed and tortured. The monster escapes his prison and finds a friend in a blind old hermit (O.P. Heggie) living at a gypsy camp. The hermit teaches him to speak the words ‘friend’ and ‘good’.  But once more the monster is discovered and forced to flee.
Later, the monster stumbles on Pretorius’ grave robbing. The doctor confides that he has been busy making a mate for him. Fascinated, the monster returns with Pretorius to the castle where the doctor has also managed to lure Henry and Elizabeth. When Henry refuses to aid in the experiment Pretorius orders the monster to kidnap Elizabeth and hold her hostage until Henry complies. Reluctantly, Henry goes back to work. But just like her predecessor, the Bride (Elsa Lanchester) fails to obey her master. She defies the monster’s affections and retreats to Henry’s side. Bitterly disappointed, the monster declares “we belong dead”. He orders Henry and Elizabeth from the laboratory before destroying himself and his bride in a fiery explosion.  
The Bride of Frankenstein is an iconic horror movie sequel; the last time Karloff appears as the monster. But in hindsight the movie also puts a period to one of the studio’s most popular creations. In the decades to follow Universal would increasingly find it difficult to explain just how the monster had survived his fate in this film to go on terrorizing audiences in subsequent sequels.
Universal fell back on a time honored horror masterpiece, bringing H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1933) to life, starring the inimitable Claude Rains. But Wells’ nightmarish terror presented something of a challenge in that its star would never be seen. Instead, special effects trickery would create the illusion of an absence while Rains played virtually all of his scenes wrapped in a swath of bandages. However, Universal knew what it was doing when it cast Rains; an instantly recognizable voice with intense sincerity that could pull off the seemingly impossible feat of making an audience care for someone who ‘visually’ – at least – was not present.
Rains had not been the first choice for the part, but he proved the only choice in the final analysis, after Karloff, Chester Morris and Colin Clive all turned it down first. Rains is Dr. Jack Griffin, a reclusive stranger newly arrived in a tiny English village. His presence startles innkeeper Mr. Hall (Forrest Harvey) and his wife (Una O’Connor); enough for Hall to order him out of his establishment. But when the police arrive, Griffin disrobes to reveal that he is, in fact, invisible.
Tearing off into the night, Griffin is identified only by his hysterical laughter that continues to terrorize the town’s folk. Eventually, the town comes to know Griffin from Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart) who is desperately in love with him. The good doctor had been experimenting with ‘monocane’; a dangerous drug that rendered another test subject - Griffin’s dog – mad. Naturally, Flora’s father, Dr. Cranley (Henry Travers) is most concerned, even more so when Griffin forces Cranley’s assistant, Dr. Kemp (William Harrigan) to become his invisible cohort in a plot to take over the world.
Kemp attempts to alert the authorities. But, after Griffin overhears a police officer declaring the whole thing to be a colossal hoax, he decides to murder him simply to prove otherwise. Later, Kemp telephones Cranley who brings Flora with him to subdue Griffin from committing more murders. The plan backfires, and Griffin derails a train, killing many. In retaliation, the police offer a reward to anyone who can devise a plan to capture Griffin.
The chief detective (Dudley Digges) uses Kemp as bait to lure Griffin out of hiding. He dresses Kemp in an officer’s uniform and orders him to drive a car away from his house. But once the vehicle is out of range, Griffin reveals that he has been hiding in the backseat all along and helps steer the car and Kemp over the edge of a cliff. Seeking shelter inside a nearby barn, Griffin is ‘found’ by a farmer when he notices that his hay stack is snoring. The police arrive and mortally wound Griffin. With Flora at his side, Griffin admits that his experiments were evil; his body gradually becoming visible after he has died.
By the early 1940s Universal’s terrors were internationally famous. To keep the cycle going they developed another trademark creature; The Wolf Man (1941); the only classic monster in the studio’s folklore to be consistently played by the same actor, Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney often assumed hand-me-downs of the other famous monsters in Universal’s canon. But the Wolf Man was his alone and he commanded it with an uncanny knack for capturing the empathetic distortions of a man forced to live half his life as a self-destructive animal. George Waggener directs from an original screenplay by Curt Siodmak. The legend of this half man/half wolf creature is purely a Universal concoction, its poetic folklore suggesting that “even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” absolute genius in all its gothic pulp from Siodmak’s pen.
Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in Wales to reconcile with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains) after the death of his only brother. Becoming enamored with local antique dealer, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), Lawrence purchases a silver chalice with markings of a wolf that Gwen forewarns is an ill omen of the ‘werewolf’. That night Gwen’s friend, Jenny Williams (Fay Helm) is attacked by a creature not unlike the one in Gwen’s description. The chivalrous Talbot slays the beast but is gouged in the chest for his efforts. Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), a gypsy fortuneteller reveals to Talbot that the creature was actually her son, Bela (Bela Lugosi) and that he has brought the transformative curse upon himself.   
From this moment on Talbot repeatedly stalks the village with bloodthirsty desires to kill. Eventually, Sir John begins to suspect the obvious. After Gwen is attacked and narrowly escapes, Sir John murders his own son to spare her life, using the same silver tipped cane Lawrence had used to defend Jenny against her attack from Bela.
Universal went back to its own antiquity and Gaston LeRoux’s celebrated tale of death stalking the Paris opera house in Arthur Lubin’s lavishly appointed The Phantom of the Opera (1943). The original 1925 Phantom starring Lon Chaney had been a phenomenal success. But the remake proved problematic on several levels. First, LeRoux’s classic was heavily tampered with by screenwriters Eric Taylor and Hans Jacoby in an attempt to showcase some spectacular production numbers composed by Edward Ward, who basically took operatic masterworks in public domain and re-orchestrated them with newly written lyrics. Universal’s decision to transform the tale into a horror/musical hybrid was encouraged after the studio had secured the talents of baritone Nelson Eddy and soprano Susannah Foster to costar as the ill-fated lovers.
But in Claude Rains as the phantom, herein renamed Erique Claudin, the film succumbed to awkward casting that threatened to sink the entire enterprise. Rains, a superb actor, somehow managed to make the least of his performance herein. It also didn’t help matters that the Production Code forbade most of the more obvious gruesomeness that Chaney had carte blanche to explore in the original. Thus, the new Phantom of the Opera became a rather tame excursion, the chills taking a backseat to Alexander Golitzen’s resplendent production values.
As scripted, Erique (Rains) is a violinist with the opera company who has lost the use of his fingers in his left hand. Unbeknownst to the management or even the benefactress of his philanthropy, Erique has spent virtually all of his money anonymously funding the musical education of Christine Dubois (Foster). To continue this patronage Erique approaches music publishers Pleyel and Desjardins with a concerto he has written.
After the passage of some time, Erique returns to inquire about his piece, but is rudely ordered from the premises by an irritated and preoccupied Pleyel (Miles Mander). Hearing his composition being played in the next room by Franz List (Fritz Leiber), Erique assumes the publishers have stolen it for their own. Enraged, Erique attacks and murders Pleyel.  His assistant, Georgette (Renee Carson) retaliates by throwing acid in Erique’s face, thus horribly disfiguring him for life. The wounded Erique takes to the sewers beneath the city and later, finds his way to the Paris opera where he steals a prop mask to conceal his hideously scorched flesh.
Obsessed with his protégée Erique promises to make her a great star. Christine is wooed by two men; baritone Anatole Garron (Nelson Eddy) and amiable suitor, police inspector Raoul D’Aubert (Edgar Barrier). The two become quiet rivals for the chanteuse’s affections.  To secure his soft spot in Christine’s heart, the phantom decides to murder Mme. Biancarolli (Jane Farrar), the pompous diva who is standing in the way of Christine rising to the top of her profession.
The heinous act sends the opera company into a panic, with Raoul setting into motion a plan of action to snuff out the phantom. Refusing to let Christine sing, Raoul has List play Erique’s concerto instead. The phantom murders one of Raoul’s officers and then takes to the vaulted auditorium ceiling, cutting loose its massive chandelier that plummets into the audience.
Amidst all the chaos, Erique reveals himself to Christine as her most ardent admirer. He steals her away into the bowels of the opera house. But his hideous visage frightens Christine and she screams, alerting Raoul and Anatole to their whereabouts. The phantom is confronted and destroyed. In the final moments Christine is seen pursuing another suitor, leaving Anatole and Raoul to set aside their mutual jealousies and walk away as friends.    
The last truly great monster to emerge from Universal is undeniably Jack Arnold’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Introduced at a time when Universal was once again lagging behind other studios in profits, its commitment to the genre signified both a new beginning and a sad end to Universal’s own profitable cycle in horror. In hindsight The Creature from the Black Lagoon inaugurated the age of the atomic monster; preying upon America’s paranoia over the threat of a nuclear winter. The studio’s faith in the project was so firm that even before the film was released its sequel was already in the works.
The screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross begins with a geology expedition in the Amazon led by Dr. Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and funded by Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning). Scientist Dr. Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell), Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson), an ichthyologist working for an undisclosed marine biology institute, and Reed’s girlfriend, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams) have also come along. Aboard a ship captained by crusty but benign codger, Lucas (Nestor Paiva) this crew arrives at a previously established base camp only to discover that all of the inhabitants have been slaughtered.
Lucas suggests a wild animal attack as the probable cause, but actually the murderous assault has been perpetuated by a piscine amphibious humanoid (a gill man played to perfection by Ricou Browning). The doctors and Kay make journey to the Black Lagoon in search of their scientific discovery, unaware that they are being pursued by the creature who has taken a strangely sexual fascination to Kay, suggestively swimming underneath her without her knowledge. 
The gill man is captured but escapes after attacking Edwin, who is narrowly spared from death when Kay charges the creature with a lantern. Lucas suggests that they leave the lagoon post haste, but as he prepares to turn his ship around he discovers that the creature has barricaded the waterway with heavy logs in an attempt to keep them on his turf. As the crew clear away this debris Mark is mauled by the creature who abducts Kay. David, Carl and Lucas follow the creature’s tracks to a boggy lair, riddle the gill man with bullets and rescue Kay. The creature sinks beneath the murky waters, presumably dead.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is marvelously spooky. William E. Snyder’s evocative and unsettling cinematography makes the most of the obvious back lot sets and provides a visual feast for the eye. In a nonverbal performance, severely restricted by rubber prosthetics, Ricou Browning manages to imbue the creature with a fascinating sense of cryptic pathos while remaining sinister and menacing.
Universal unleashes chills and shudders with its Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Each film has been meticulously restored and remastered in 1080p and the results are exceptional to say the least. Most impressive is the work that’s been done on the oldest titles in this collection: Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. Previous DVD incarnations had exposed severe damage to the original film elements, a barrage of dirt and other age related artifacts that had done much to diminish the luster in Karl Freund and Arthur Edeson/Paul Ivano’s cinematography respectively.
But the Blu-rays have done more than ‘clean up’ these visuals; they have resurrected seemingly lost visual masterpieces from home video oblivion. The results are astounding, with film grain looking very natural and fine details abounding even during the darkest scenes. There are still age related artifacts to consider, but these have been considerably scrubbed to yield very impressive image quality.
The restoration of The Invisible Man is a tad problematic, due to its rotoscoping. The image is grainier, as is to be expected, and reveals the obviousness of its SFX. But these are not flaws in the remastering and fans should be immensely pleased with the results. The Wolf Man is probably the most impressive in 1080p; offering a very refined B&W presentation with perfectly pitched contrast and a startling amount of clarity, depth and detail.
The Phantom of the Opera, the only color film in this collection, exhibits revitalized Technicolor that often looked faded on the DVD. Herein, we get razor sharp, very colorful images. Film grain is practically nonexistent, but the image does not suffer from a ‘waxen’ characteristic so often abhorred when DNR is all too liberally applied. However, occasional mis-registration of the 3 strip Technicolor still exists, and is more noticeable in 1080p. The instances are minor, but ought to have been corrected for this release.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is the only widescreen movie in this collection, framed in its original 1:85.1 aspect ratio. Originally shot in 3D, we get both 3D and flat versions herein. Contrast is slightly weaker than on the other films and focus just a tad soft, but with film grain very nicely represented. No complaints.
The audio on all the movies is DTS mono. Each sounds great, but again, I was most impressed by the quantum leaps in overall fidelity heard on Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. While there’s still a modicum of hiss during quiescent scenes, these movies have never sounded so strong on home video; their subtle ambient effects really adding to my viewing experience.
Extras are all direct imports from previous incarnations on DVD, including extremely thorough documentaries on the making of all of these films, plus comprehensive audio commentaries and theatrical trailers. For lovers of Universal’s classic scares, this collection is a no brainer must have – and just in time for Halloween. Boo! Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4 overall
4 overall


No comments: