[Blu-ray Review] Relive Horror History With ‘Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection’

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After the success of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame in 1923, Universal began its now eighty-plus year horror fixation with The Phantom Of The Opera. Under the watch of Carl Laemlle Jr.’s, Universal produced Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein, both of which are among the most influential and recognizable horror films ever made – the Spanish version of Dracula, shot at night on the same sets the English-language version used, is considered to be superior and equally important by many. From the 30’s until the late 50’s, Universal produced the bulk of their “classic” monster films, including The Mummy (a property the studio has bastardized far past the point of return), The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and – a personal favorite of mine – Creature From The Black Lagoon. With make-up pioneers like Jack Pierce, incredible directors like James Whale, and horror personas like Lon Chaney Jr., Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi (and to a lesser extent, the “cross-over” film), Universal forever changed the horror landscape.

As part of their 100th anniversary celebration, Universal has done an extensive amount of work on some of their classic horror properties, resulting in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray set. Special features wise, The Essential Collection mirrors the Legacy Series and Legacy Collection releases – minus the bonus franchise films included with the Legacy Collection sets – but as far as films go, it’s a rerelease of the Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection box set that was released early last decade. For this review, I’m going to be comparing the discs to previous releases to let you know what’s new, what’s old, and what’s missing.

A/V

All of the transfers included in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection are huge improvements over their DVD counterparts, with The Bride Of Frankenstein standing out as the highlight of the set. Dracula and Frankenstein, two of the most recognizable names in horror, were restored with the utmost care. There are scratches, vertical lines, white specks, and the like but given the age of both films (and also taking into account that it’s very obvious nobody restoring the films wanted to DNR them into oblivion), it’s kind of expected – and not really distracting anyway. The picture is crisp and there’s a nice range among the black, white, and grey hues. The rest of the films range in quality from good to great, with The Wolf Man and Creature From The Black Lagoon tending to be on the soft side. Phantom Of The Opera – the only color film in the set – has some color bleeding and fluctuation issues, but it’s still a fairly strong presentation. In short, none of the presentations in the set are short of impressive; nobody should be disappointed.

Each films contains a DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track, with Dracula and The Phantom Of The Opera setting the standard. Surprisingly, Frankenstein has the most problematic track, containing a noticeable amount of hissing, but that is most likely because of the elements that are available. The rest of the films have good tracks, with many outdoing their video presentations.

Dracula

What’s New

Dracula: The Restoration (08:46) – Peter Schade, Bob O’Neil, Jeff Pirtle, and Ken Tom talk about the process of restoring Dracula using the original film nitrate and audio elements. This is a really great crash course in film restoration and shows the kind of problems a studio can come across when attempting to preserve their heritage.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian David J. Skal, Commentary with Screenwriter Steve Haberman , Alternate Score by Philip Glass – Performed by the Kronos Quartet, Dracula (1931) Spanish Version with Optional Introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner, The Road To Dracula, Lugosi: The Dark Prince, Monster Tracks

What’s Missing

Stephen Sommers on Universal’s Classic Monster: Dracula (06:43) – Super-hack Stephen Sommers talks about his interpretation of the character, with Hugh Jackman, Kate Beckinsale, and Richard Roxburgh chiming in every so often. It’s basically a fluff piece for Van Helsing, one of the worst travesties of the last decade. If anything, the set is better off for not including it.

Universal Horror (95:36) – Narrated by Kenneth Branaugh, this documentary from 1998 features interviews with familiar faces like Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Bradbury, as well as a few actors, who talk about their love for Universal Horror – there’s also some archival footage thrown into the mix. The discussion stops around the 1940’s so it’s not exactly comprehensive, but it is extensive enough for beginners. I’d recommend checking out Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy Of Horror by Michael Mallory if you want a fun coffee table book with a little more information to sink your teeth into. Universal Horror isn’t included on the Dracula disc, but it is on Frankenstein.

Frankenstein

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: Restoring The Classics (09:13) – Not nearly as thorough the Dracula restoration, this featurette is an overview of Universal’s process and plan to restore and preserve their flagship titles. It can be found on a number of their 100th Anniversary releases.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling, The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster, Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Monster Tracks, Universal Horror, Frankenstein Archives, Boo! A Short Film

What’s Missing

Stephen Sommers on Universal’s Classic Monster: Frankenstein’s Monster (06:18) – The less said about Van Helsing, the better.

The Mummy

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era (09:13) – A featurette on Universal’s founder Carl Laemmle, the construction of Universal City, Carl Laemmle, Jr., and how the family’s vision is still alive at the studio.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Paul M. Jensen, Commentary with Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns, and Brent Armstrong, Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed, He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, Unraveling The Legacy of The Mummy, The Mummy Archives
What’s Missing

Universal Horror (95:36) – It’s on the Frankenstein disc; no need to replicate the documentary now that all these films are bundled together.

The Invisible Man

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters (08:18) – A compilation of clips featuring Universal’s more prominent characters, including The Dude, Tony Montana, and the Universal Monsters.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, Production Photographs

What’s Missing

Nada, it’s all here.

The Bride of Frankenstein

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: Restoring The Classics (09:13) – Not really sure why Universal put the same featurette on two discs in the same set, but here it is in case you missed it the first time.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen, She’s Alive! Creating The Bride of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein Archive

What’s Missing

Not a thing.

The Wolf Man

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (09:25) – A tour of the Universal Studios Hollywood backlot that highlights Courthouse Square, The Court of Miracles, and few other important historical sets.

What’s Old

Commentary with Author and Film Historian Tom Weaver, Monster by Moonlight, The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man Archives

What’s Missing

Stephen Sommers on Universal’s Classic Monster: The Wolfman (05:38) – Another fluff piece for Van Helsing. Good grief.

Universal Horror (95:36) – Not exactly missing since it’s on the Frankenstein, but the Legacy Series edition did feature the documentary; actually, ALL the Legacy Series editions of the Universal Monster films did.

Phantom Of The Opera

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (09:25) – Same featurette that’s on The Wolf Man disc.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen, The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, Production Photographs

What’s Missing

Everything previously released is on the disc.

Creature From The Black Lagoon

What’s New

100 Years of Universal: The Lot (09:25) – Three times in the same set? Really?

3D Version – I don’t have a 3D TV to test it on but if it’s like the rest of the transfers in the set, I’m sure it looks good.

What’s Old

Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver, Back to the Black Lagoon, Production Photographs

What’s Missing

Nothing.

Packaging

The Universal Classic Monsters set is packaged in the same way as the Alien and Indiana Jones collections. There’s a sturdy slipcase that holds a hardcover book containing the Blu-rays discs, each housed in a thick, glossy page. Blu-rays are really hard to damage – unless you’re trying to do it intentionally – so the book functions as storage quite well. The bigger issue here is the glue that can get stuck on the discs from shipping or pushing them into the pages too far – my Wolf Man disc came with some stuck on it and it was a HUGE pain to clean off. Even so, the set has a nice presentation and also includes a 48-page booklet entitled The Original House Of Horror.

Score: 4.5/5

While some titles are better than others in terms of audio and video presentation, it would be foolish not to recommend Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection if you love Universal’s interpretations of the characters and have the cash to spare. Considering the Legacy Collection releases have bonus films on them, you might want to hold onto your old DVDs for that reason alone, but the best sequel is in this set. And remember, the U.S. set is great but the UK is region-free, running a little bit cheaper at the moment (even with the overseas shipping and conversion), and comes housed in a giant coffin case.

Source: B-D