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Blu-ray Review: Universal Classic Monsters – The Essential Collection

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As a lad who grew up in the rural outlands of Northern California in the ’80s, there were few opportunities for me to catch many of the classic Universal horror films on the television (and absolutely no chances to see them in a theater). Thankfully, I managed to find the eight films which have been highly regarded as the truly quintessential monster masterpieces from Universal Studios over the years, and my obsession with the whole lot of ‘em only grew from childhood on. Well, most of ‘em: there was one that definitely didn’t move me the same way as the others — but more on that later.

In 2000, the Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection came to DVD, presenting us with the absolute best look at the classics, Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), Phantom of the Opera (1943), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), boasting numerous special features for the whole lot. It was like a dream come true for myself and the many other fans out there who I shared my passion for vintage horror movies with.

Now, in the age of High-Definition, we have been blessed with Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, which gives us some glorious new transfers of those aforementioned titles, the original special features from the DVD box set, and a few new extras just to sweeten the pot. Regretfully, the many (mostly poorer) sequels to these individual franchises (i.e. Dracula’s Daughter, The Mummy’s Hand, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, et al) are not included in this $159.98 (MSRP) set, so don’t go throwing out those Legacy Collection titles just yet.

The set takes us on a chronological journey into the vaults, beginning with Dracula (Disc 1). Here, Bela Lugosi takes on the role that would literally accompany him to the grave with (he was buried in his cape) as the Transylvanian bloodsucker who travels to England in search of fresh new blood. Dwight Frye inhabits a role that would result in him being typecast forever as Renfield, while Edward Van Sloan takes on the part of Van Helsing. Next up is Frankenstein (Disc 2): a part Lugosi could have had, but who ultimately lost out to some feller named Boris Karloff — who plays the monster made by Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) perfectly. Frye and Van Sloan once again play similar roles as the doctor’s hunchback assistant and mentor, respectively.

In The Mummy (Disc 3), Karloff and Van Sloan reunite once more, as the rising horror star dons more memorable make-up by Universal’s inimitable guru, Jack Pierce, as a 3,000-year-old mummy brought to life — with Van Sloan once again playing the aging good guy. James Whale’s The Invisible Man (Disc 4) finds a mostly-unseen Claude Rains as a scientist driven mad after he discovers a way to turn himself see-through; Whale also directs the acclaimed The Bride of Frankenstein (Disc 5) — with Karloff returning to the role that made him famous — one of the first tongue-in-cheek horror/comedies to ever grace us without insulting our intelligence.

Lastly, we have The Wolf Man (Disc 6), wherein producer/director George Waggner and novelist/screenwriter Curt Siodmak embark (heh) on a classic about a man who is bitten by a werewolf: a story that set Siodmak’s own made-up lycanthrope lore into cinematic stone. Claude Rains returns to play The Phantom of the Opera (Disc 7) in an off-beat Technicolor musical dramedy that I have always found to be the odd man out in any classic Universal monster collection, but at least it still carries that Gothic atmosphere present in the other movies — unlike the final entry in this set, Creature from the Black Lagoon (Disc 8), which is really an Atomic Era science fiction film, and not a Golden Age horror film.

But that’s neither here nor there. While my idea of genre classifications may not meet that of Universal’s people, it surely doesn’t matter: these are seven of the finest classic horror films ever made. Yes, I said “seven.” That version of The Phantom of the Opera can go piss up the chain of a chandelier as far as I’m concerned: its oh-so-1940’s musical qualities (the color; the lousy humor (romantic and otherwise); the fact that it stars Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster, while Rains is third billed; etc.) are far out of place (even compared to the most outlandish of comedy James Whale employs in Bride), and I’ve just flat-out never been able to keep my interest in the film. The rest of the films, however, I have worshiped since my pre-teenage years, and are a welcome addition to the other films in my Blu-ray collection.

OK, now for a little on what you really want to know about here: the transfers and the extras. Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection hits Blu-ray with an assortment of video transfers that cannot be beat (at this point in time, at least!). In the case of Dracula, there has been some major restoration performed, and that is because the original negative for the title is nowhere to be found. Instead, the best available nitrate print was used, and was cleaned up considerably. Any worries one might have, however, are quickly erased when you see the gleam in Lugosi’s eye as he bids Frye welcome — in a beautiful, now-stabilized, non-flickering, non-scratchy image that has not been scrubbed to death with DNR.

Likewise, the rest of the lot look fantastic. Black levels are quite rich (practically perfect at times), the contrasts are well-balanced, while the colors on Phantom are very vibrant. Blemishes are not entirely non-existent in these titles — which is to be expected considering the overall age of this octet — but one will still spot the occasional flaws, so no quibbling, alright? Audio-wise, the set boasts new DTS-HD Master Audio Mono tracks for each film — each one of which has had any unwanted hissing and/or buzzing removed in order to better suit your ears. Can’t beat that!

Most of the special features in this fab-a-roo set have been ported over from the old SD-DVD releases, and include audio commentaries, retrospective documentaries, trailers for all of the titles in each franchise, and more. New to this set are an assortment of “100 Years at Universal” featurettes tacked on to each disc save for Dracula, wherein we get a special behind-the-scenes look at the restoration of the film itself. Dracula also includes a High-Def presentation of the artistically-superior (in my opinion) Spanish-language version of the film that was shot at night on the same set but with an entirely different cast and crew (and which sticks closer to the original shooting script than the version with Lugosi).

Lastly in terms of new goodies, the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon includes a 3D version of the same film, which is a wonderful addition to have, since the film was originally shot and shown in the wonderful gimmicky format. After seeing Universal included this, I have to wonder if we’ll ever see a 3D Blu-ray release of its follow-up feature, Revenge of the Creature someday, along with and several other Universal 3D movies from the same period, such as It Came from Outer Space, or The Glass Web. Hell, the bad movie lover in me would settle for Jaws 3-D, but that’s probably asking too much. Fingers crossed either way, people!

The set also includes a 48-page booklet entitled “The Original House of Horror,” which is housed along with the eight-disc DigiPack inside a sturdy outer box.

The Bottom Line: Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is a joy to behold. Could it have been better? Sure, they could have included the sequels to each franchise, just so we could dispose of our Legacy Collection releases. But I shan’t complain. This is a marvelous set that presents several of the most timeless creature features in a way that we have all been dreaming of since High-Definition discs first hit stores. Highly recommended.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
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