Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection DVD Review
Written by ZigZag
DVD released by Universal Home Entertainment
Various writers and directors
1931-1956, Region A, 2879 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on September 2nd, 2014
Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's Monster and The Mummy
Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolfman
Claude Rains as the Invisible Man and The Phantom
Elsa Lanchester as the Bride of Frankenstein
Ben Chapman as the Creature from the Black Lagoon
Dwight Frye as Renfield
Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein
Abbott & Costello as various
Like most horror kids, I grew up on the Universal Monsters through frequent late-night television broadcasts. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Invisible Man and the Phantom of the Opera became old friends. I would stop whatever I was doing in order to spend time with these guys, who always seemed to be getting into new adventures. The “villains” were almost universally victims themselves and were therefore sympathetic creatures that became all the more inviting.
My favorites were always The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man. Dracula is the only real villain in the bunch and Lugosi owned that role (on both stage and screen) despite only playing the part on film twice. Karloff's Frankenstein monster was always the most sympathetic and while the movie suffered at the hands of censors - it would be decades before these cuts were restored - he filled the creature with such sadness that his rage is completely understandable. Lon Chaney Jr. has the distinct honor of having played all of the Universal Monsters (usually in shoddy sequels), but the Wolf Man is exclusively his own. His portrayal of the cursed Larry Talbot is the most tragic of the lot.
Universal Pictures (later Universal International) discovered a winning recipe with audiences looking to escape the daily grind of the Great Depression and started cranking out one picture after another. Once they had a stable of characters, they began unleashing sequels that quickly declined in quality, particularly in The Mummy series. When the studio feared the formula was growing stale, they began teaming the monsters up for crazy fights, but the magic really was wearing thin. America's favorite comedy duo Abbott and Costello were enlisted to face the creeps in a series of kid-friendly adventures that replaced horror with comedy; because genre fans always respond favorably to their old favorites being turned into punchlines. Although financially successful, this move pushed the final nail into the coffin of these loyal icons of fright.
These films continue to be a cash cow for Universal,who re-releases them every time they attempt to reboot the legends. Allow me to provide an overview of the numerous releases these titles have received over the last fifteen years. In 1999, Steven Sommers' film The Mummy hit theaters and coincidentally the “Classic Monster Collection” DVD box was released, featuring the monsters in their original self-titled films, without sequels. Sommers returned in 2004 with Van Helsing, and this time the studio issued “The Legacy Collection” that offered each individual monster's complete franchise in separate DVD collections. The release was plagued with problematic DVD-18 discs that reportedly suffered playback issues. A gift box was released at the same time that included the collections of Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, complete with miniature character busts.
A Blu-ray release was inevitable, and in 2009 “The Essential Collection” arrived with stunning new transfers of the debut efforts from the gang, in essentially an HD reissue of the original 1999 DVD box set. More DVD releases followed in 2012 in celebration of Universal Studios' 100th anniversary. Now, the latest incarnation expands the DVD trilogy box (without busts) to include all of the “Legacy Collections” in individual keep-case packaging and gathered within one impressive box set. It includes all of the monsters, and all their sequels: 30 films spread across 21 discs. So, the question is: Is this the release I need for my library?
If you are a casual fan of the genre and have fond memories of these movies, but have never gotten around to purchasing them before, then YES! this is the box for you. There have been many upgrades made to this release, correcting the earlier problems where possible, but creating new ones in the process (more on that in a moment). Sticking with the positives, we get all of the films in the franchises in chronological order, including the crossover appearances in films like House of Dracula or Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. The sets that were timed to coincide with the Sommers films included promos for The Mummy (1999) or Van Helsing (2004). Purists will be happy to note that stuff has been scrapped from this current set. Also gone is the problematic DVD-18 format, replaced with more reliable DVD-9 discs. Universal's Dracula Untold is in theaters at the time of this release; fortunately there is no cross-promotional content.
So, now for the bad news. Compression is evident on a lot of these sequels and that's because of the over-crowding of the content. Each title has an average running time of 70 minutes and some discs host up to three movies! Despite the fact that the new collection's top selling point is having all the titles together, the presentation suggests these monsters will be divided up and sold separately. Universal started pairing their icons in the same flick like House of Frankenstein or Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and consequently these titles appear on both the Frankenstein and the Wolf Man sets. Picture quality suffers in order to get multiple copies of the same film.
The biggest insult to genre fans is the fact that Lon Chaney Sr. is always omitted from the classic line-up, despite being “The Man of a Thousand Faces” who gave Universal big wins with both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). I don't know if these are left out for issues with copyright, but since the studio keeps a firm grip on the other titles, it would seem that the problem could have been rectified over the last ninety years! The Phantom is represented only by the 1943 version starring Claude Rains, a good film, but the legendary Chaney deserves a space in this pantheon.
I believe these characters to be “gateway monsters” that opened the door and introduced me to a wonderful world of horror cinema. Over the years, my tastes expanded to include a variety of different subgenres, but if I see any of these classic faces I still stop long enough to pay my respects to these giants. It took ten years for all of the “Legacy Collection” titles to be available in one box and it is worth the wait, but they deserve a bit more finesse.
The Mummy (1932)
The Invisible Man (1933)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Werewolf of London (1935)
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
The Invisible Woman (1940)
The Mummy's Hand (1940)
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
The Mummy's Ghost (1942)
The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
Invisible Agent (1942)
Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
The Mummy's Curse (1944)
The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
She-Wolf of London (1946)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Video and Audio:
Presented here in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the films are all in really nice condition given their age. The original installments of each franchise received a full restoration for their 2012 Blu-ray release and these are the transfers used here. The sequels across the set are not quite as solid in picture quality and suffer compression issues when presented as double or sometimes a triple feature on DVD discs.
The default English mono track preserves the original audio recordings. Nothing too fancy here, but this is exactly as it should be for films of this vintage.
Holy smokes there's a lot of content here. As previously mentioned, the titular monster's first outing is given its own DVD, and it is here that the majority of the special features are located.
The Wolf Man series receives three audio commentaries, multiple documentaries that focus on the history of the films and a pair of specific pieces saluting the work of star Lon Chaney Jr. and legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce.
The Frankenstein films get four audio commentaries and a handful of documentaries, including one that showcases the legend of Boris Karloff. There is a piece on Abbott and Costello's time with the monsters and the short film Boo is also included here.
The Inivisible Man receives only a single audio commentary, a documentary, production stills and a trailer.
The Phantom of the Opera is a stand-alone feature with fewer extras, but these include a documentary, an audio commentary and marketing materials.
The Mummy collection has two audio commentaries, a pair of documentaries and the same piece celebrating Jack Pierce that appears on the Wolf Man collection.
Dracula has the unique history of having a second film crew coming in at night and creating a totally different version of the story. The Spanish version of Dracula is included on its own DVD. Many claim this version superior to Browning's and I tend to agree, but Lugosi owns this role from start to finish. Composer Philip Glass contributed an original score for the domestic version and it is included on an alternate audio track. Additional special features for this franchise include three audio commentaries, two documentaries, plus a special featurette on the awesomeness of Lugosi. Also included is the excellent retrospective Universal Horror. The Abbott and Costello segment from the Frankenstein collection returns here as well.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon gets three audio commentaries and a documentary. It is worth noting that the original film was shot in 3D, and appears in that format on the Blu-ray release, but is only 2D here.
All of the films receive trailers, galleries of production photographs and other marketing materials.