In 2012, Universal Studios Home Entertainment teased vintage horror movie enthusiasts with the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection set on Blu-ray. Though amazing (to say nothing of welcomed) in itself, The Essential Collection offered viewers iconic “firsts” of what would (in most cases) become complete series. Next came individual Complete Legacy Collections for four of the six franchises in 2016 and 2017. Previously issued only on Standard-Definition DVD, the genre-defining world of creature features returns once more in the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, with two Legacy Collection sets making their Blu-ray debut here.
Contained within are the original Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon series (as well as a few offshoots), as produced and released by the legendary movie studio between the years of 1931 and 1956, all of which have been restored and remastered in beautiful High-Definition.
Beginning as larger-scaled productions adapting literary monster of various shapes, sizes, and opacities in the early 1930s (along with a few hit-and-miss sequels in the latter-half of the decade), Universal resurrected several monster franchises as B-unit pictures in the 1940s. It was during this time some of the studio’s wildest fantasies came to life ‒ the mashing of the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man franchises ‒ before coming to a conclusion in the mid ’50s with the short-lived aquatic Atomic Age Creature from the Black Lagoon series and several horror-comedy hybrids starring Universal’s most famous comedy duo, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
Included in this set are the following classics, which I have courageously summed up in as brief of synopses as I possibly could for this review:
- Dracula (1931) ‒ Tod Browning’s landmark genesis to the official filmic realm of fantasy stars the legendary Bela Lugosi as the eponymous vampire, who travels to England in search of a new prey. Edward Van Sloan co-stars as arch-nemesis Professor Van Helsing, while the one and only Dwight Frye cements himself in celluloid history as a delightfully mad Renfield. Helen Chandler (as Mina) and David Manning (as John Harker) also star.
- Drácula (1931) ‒ Utilizing the same script, costumes, and sets from the better-known Browning/Lugosi film, this once-lost (but much more atmospheric) variation was filmed at night with a Spanish-language cast. George Melford directs Carlos Villarías as the timeless bloodsucker in this version, the latter of whom lusts after Lupita Tovar. Barry Norton plays “Juan Harker” here, and a dynamically over-the-top Pablo Alvarez Rubio takes the cake as Renfield.
- Frankenstein (1931) ‒ Colin Clive and Dwight Frye set the bar for every mad scientist and hunchback lab assistant (respectively) the world of horror cinema has seen ever since as Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) creates a self-made man from bits and pieces of human carcasses. Director James Whale births the careers of Boris Karloff (as the Monster) and make-up artist Jack Pierce in the process. Mae Clark, John Boles, and Edward Van Sloan also star.
- The Mummy (1932) ‒ Makeup guru Jack Pierce assists Boris Karloff (billed as “Karloff the Uncanny”) in bringing another classic monster to life in this masterpiece from director Karl Freund. This time, Karloff plays the mummified ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep, who returns to life to claim the modern-day reincarnation of his lost love (Zita Johann). David Manners (as the human hero) and Edward Van Sloan (again) also star.
- The Invisible Man (1933) ‒ James Whale proves horror doesn’t always have a face in this H.G. Wells adaptation. Claude Rains is the a brilliant scientist whom things have become very clear for, thanks to his own invisibility formula. Alas, he can’t find a cure for it. Worse still, his newfound transparency is driving him quite mad. Top-billed Gloria Stuart, some truly groundbreaking special effects, and a manic Una O’Connor highlight this classic.
- The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) ‒ Universal’s first sequel and James Whale’s finest creation reunites Colin Clive and Boris Karloff, with the former being coerced by evil Ernest Thesiger into making a mate for his man-made monster. Valerie Hobson, Dwight Frye (in a different role), Una O’Connor, and a game-changing Elsa Lanchester (in a dual role as The Bride and Mary Shelley) make this one of the best horror classics ever.
- Werewolf of London (1935) ‒ Universal’s first take on the legend finds Henry Hull as a botanist who contracts a seemingly incurable case of lycanthropy in Tibet after being bitten by a werewolf. Warner Oland (best known for playing Charlie Chan) plays a mysterious scientist who knows probably a bit too much about the subject. Valerie Hobson also stars in this fun low-budget outing from director Stuart Walker.
- Dracula’s Daughter (1936) ‒ Lambert Hillyer (Batman) helms this intriguing sequel, introducing Gloria Holden as an empathetic self-loathing vampire. Otto Kruger, Edward Van Sloan (reprising his role as Van Helsing in his final appearance in the Classic Monsters universe), Marguerite Churchill, and Irving Pichel co-star, highlighted by a magnificent homoerotic moment betwixt Holden and actress Nan Grey.
- Son of Frankenstein (1939) ‒ Boris Karloff appears as The Monster for the third and final time in Rowland V. Lee’s lengthy (99 minutes) follow-up feature. Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes himself) plays Dr. Frankenstein’s grown scientist son, who inherits more than a creepy castle in Europe. Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill join the franchise as the disfigured madman Igor and one-armed police inspector, respectively.
- The Invisible Man Returns (1940) ‒ Vincent Price unveils the curtains of this prolific decade of B-unit sequels and off-shoots as a wrongly-accused fugitive who eludes the hangman’s noose thanks to the invisibility formula. Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nan Grey, and John Sutton co-star.
- The Mummy’s Hand (1940) ‒ My favorite Mummy picture casts Dick Foran, Peggy Moran, and Wallace Ford as adventurers who get wrapped up in high priest George Zucco’s patented form of supreme evilness. Former cowboy actor Tom Tyler plays the unrelated ancient Egyptian terror.
- The Invisible Woman (1940) ‒ There’s very little horror to be had here in this silly screwball fantasy starring Virginia Bruce as the transparent heroine, a slightly embarrassed John Barrymore, and John Howard. But at least this sequel features Shemp Howard!
- The Wolf Man (1941) ‒ Universal’s most famous contribution from their ’40s output finds Lon Chaney (Jr.) climbing to the top of the horror actor ladder as Lawrence Talbot, who is bitten by a transformed Bela Lugosi before turning into a werewolf himself. Top-billed Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Warren Williams, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, and Maria Ouspenskaya round out the cast in this atmospheric, all-time favorite.
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) ‒ Dr. Frankenstein’s other son (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) screws things up royally in this first B-unit sequel co-starring Bela Lugosi (as Igor), Lionel Atwill, and Lon Chaney in his one and only appearance as The Monster.
- Invisible Agent (1942) ‒ Jon Hall, as the grandson of Claude Rains’ mad scientist from the first film, decides it’s his patriotic duty to use invisibility to defeat Axis spies Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre. Ilona Massey is the love-interest in this wartime fantasy.
- The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) ‒ Lon Chaney dons the wrappings for the first time in this direct sequel to The Mummy’s Tomb, which picks up 30 years later. Turhan Bey is the human villain; George Zucco, Dick Foran, and Wallace Ford reprise their roles.
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) ‒ Two of horror cinema’s titans come face to face at last in this enjoyable (if extremely campy) sequel that successfully bridges the gap between two series. Lon Chaney (as Lawrence Talbot), Bela Lugosi (appearing as The Monster for the only time), Ilona Massey, and Patric Knowles star. (Available in the Frankenstein and Wolf Man Legacy Collections.)
- Phantom of the Opera (1943) ‒ The only Technicolor production from the whole of the entire original Universal Classic Horror universe is nothing short of a real travesty. While star Claude Rains is quite good as The Phantom, excessive musical numbers by Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster doom it to being nothing more than a novelty item. And yet, Universal insists on including it in every set for some reason.
- Son of Dracula (1943) ‒ Lon Chaney wasn’t the best choice to play Dracula, but the heavy “Southern Gothic” atmosphere of his only endeavor as the Count (and the first time we see a vampire transform into a bat) is very engaging nevertheless. Robert Paige, Louise Allbritton, and ’40s scream queen Evelyn Ankers co-star.
- The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944) ‒ Jon Hall returns in the last official outing as a psychopathic criminal who gets a chance to avenge himself thanks to mad scientist John Carradine (and his invisible dog, too!). Evelyn Ankers and Gale Sondergaard also star.
- The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) ‒ Lon Chaney returns to play his least-favorite character in this second direct sequel to The Mummy’s Hand, which jumps from Egypt to, uh, Massachusetts. John Carradine, Robert Lowery, Ramsay Ames, and George Zucco co-star.
- House of Frankenstein (1944) ‒ Another personal favorite, this one marked the return of Boris Karloff to the franchise, this time as a mad scientist who resurrects Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). J. Carrol Naish, Lionel Atwill, and George Zucco also appear in this all-star creature feature. (Available in the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man Legacy Collections.)
- The Mummy’s Curse (1944) ‒ Lon Chaney (this time donning a mask) plays the walking Egyptian dead for the last time in a story that inexplicably shifts from Massachusetts to Louisiana. Dennis Moore, Kay Harding, Virginia Christine, and Martin Kosleck also appear.
- House of Dracula (1945) ‒ Dr. Onslow Stevens regretting welcoming Dracula (John Carradine), The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange) into his home in this batty, monster mashup finale. Co-starring Lionel Atwill, Martha O’Driscoll, Jane Adams, and Skelton Knaggs. (Available in the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man Legacy Collections.)
- She-Wolf of London (1946) ‒ One of Universal’s last “serious” horror movies in the ’40s is more of a film noir than anything else. June Lockhart, Don Porter, Sara Haden, Jan Wiley, Dennis Hoey, and Martin Kosleck star in a tale of werewolf-style murders.
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) ‒ As famous as the monsters included therein themselves, this quintessential combination of comedy and horror finds Bud and Lou as hapless baggage clerks who unwittingly wind up in a sinister plan. Bela Lugosi returns to play Count Dracula for the second and last time, and is joined by Lon Chaney, Glenn Strange, Lenore Aubert, and Jane Randolph (plus a special cameo by Vincent Price). (Available in the Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man Legacy Collections.)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) ‒ Bud and Lou are at it again, this time as amateur private detectives who are at first out to get ‒ and later help ‒ a boxer (Arthur Franz) who has been framed for murder. Fortunately, he has invisibility on his side, whereas Abbott and Costello could have used some better gag writers in this mediocre picture.
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) ‒ Universal’s last attempt at a monster movie franchise was one of the greatest creature features to hail from the Atomic Age of sci-fi/horror. In the Amazon, scientists Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, and Richard Denning discover a lovesick “Gill-Man.” Jack Arnold directs this 3D classic; Whit Bissell, Nestor Paiva, Ricou Browning (as the Gill-Man in the underwater sequences), and Ben Chapman (as the monster on land) co-star in this genre-defining classic.
- Revenge of the Creature (1955) ‒ The second of three installments in this series (also in 3D) finds scientists John Agar, Lori Nelson, and John Bromfield bringing the Gill-Man to Florida to exploit it. Naturally, things go awry. Also directed by Jack Arnold, the film was partly remade as Jaws 3. Nestor Paiva and Ricou Browning return from the first film, while some young buck named Clint Eastwood makes his film debut.
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955) ‒ It was bound to happen sooner or later. Granted, it should have happened sooner, but this final melding of classic Universal monsters and one of comedy’s greatest duos still garners a chuckle or two. Marie Windsor, Michael Ansara, Dan Seymour, Richard Deacon, and Mel Welles co-star, while stuntman Eddie Parker portrays one of the worst-looking mummies in film history.
- The Creature Walks Among Us (1956) ‒ The last franchise picture from Universal takes the Gill-Man out of water, quite literally, as a group of scientists ranging from misguided to just plain psychotic attempt to humanize the creature. It doesn’t end well. Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Leigh Snowden, Gregg Palmer, Ricou Browning (as the creature underwater), and Don Megowan (playing the “grounded” Gill-Man) star in this bittersweet farewell.
Now then, with all that out of the way, the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection sports beautiful High-Definition transfers of the feature films, all of which receive MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encodes (with the exception of the aforementioned recalled disc). Most of the features are presented in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios, while some of the later ’50s flicks are in widescreen. DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtracks in English (well, except for Drácula) accompany all of the feature films, with select titles (from the Essentials Collection) sport secondary French DTS Mono audio tracks. English (SDH) subtitles are included with all feature films, and most of the franchises also include French and Spanish subs.
Special features (as well as menus) for all of the “genesis” titles are identical to those found in the Essentials Collection, while the assorted sequels tend to only include Theatrical Trailers (if even that) which are only accessible via a pop-up menu while the picture is in motion. As many reviewers and fans joyously discovered a few years ago when the standalone Frankenstein: Complete Legacy Collection in 2016, the source material for Son of Frankenstein was several seconds longer than all previous home video editions. Universal never officially addressed this discovery, but I think it deserves an honorable mention here, as it is quite exciting.
Originally released in August 2018, the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection was recently recalled due to a authoring error on the Revenge of the Creature / The Creature Walks Among Us disc. Universal is hoping to re-issue the series this month (October), but an official date has not been yet announced. Anyone who may have already purchased the set with the defective disc may trade it in for a redux by sending an email to [email protected] along with their shipping address, daytime phone number, and either a copy of your sales receipt, or a photo of the discs in their packaging.
Despite the usual complaints of “double-dipping” and ever-growing frustrations of many who feel Universal should start releasing its “other” horror classics from the same era on Blu-ray (films like Karloff/Lugosi vehicles The Raven, The Black Cat, and The Invisible Ray from the ’30s, a variety of B-unit thrillers from the ’40s, and sci-fi chillers from the ’50s remain mostly elusive, while many have yet to even see a home video release of any kind), I am happy to see a High-Definition box set of these, the best-loved (well, except for that Phantom of the Opera thing) Classic Monster Movies from Universal.
As such, I cannot help but recommend this Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection to any and all vintage horror movie buffs. Enjoy.