|Bela Lugosi as Dracula (Handout)
As Universal Studios celebrates its 100 anniversary, it was inevitable its most famous monster movies would become part of the show. Sure enough, here they are on Blu-ray this week in a horror-tastic box set that does them all justice.
Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection, an eight-disc, eight-title set, is coincidentally timed with the theatrical release of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie. This is appropriate because Burton's stop-action animation is a new film that owes its very existence, not to mention its inspiration and its black-and-white photography style, to the Universal horror classics of the 1930s and '40s. Burton deliberately had his team design and shoot Frankenweenie as a homage to the lustrous look of the best of the Universal horror movies, among them James Whale's Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.
All eight titles in The Essential Collection had been restored for earlier DVD releases. Now they have been upgraded even further for the high-definition needs of Blu-ray. The results are awe-inspiring, with crisp, clean images, lustrous blacks, whites and greys, and boosted soundtracks that enhance dialogue and music. Of course, "awe-inspiring" is a relative term that operates within the limitations of low-budget movies that were released between 1931 and 1954. Yet none of these movies has ever looked better for home viewing than now. If you have only seen them as late-night fare on TV in decades past, you may be astounded.
The Universal series kicks off with Dracula (1931), of course. It would be easy to argue that it is both the best -- because its surprise success launched the studio's popular horror series on Valentine's Day -- and the worst of the major titles. Worst? Bela Lugosi (who took over the role after first-choice Lon Chaney died) gives a performance as wooden as the box Dracula slept in. That is part of the movie's cult status and its charm. But Logosi, with his thick Hungarian accent and theatrical over-acting approach, really is awful ... and perfect for what reluctant director Tod Browning was willing to achieve. Not incidentally, Browning would soon make Freaks, a legendary horror movie that is not part of this collection but which does serve as a poignant commentary on what we find "monstrous" in society. His heart was in that one.
Meanwhile, Dracula is also notable because, while Browning shot his English-language version in the daytime, a Spanish-language version with a different cast filmed on the same sets at night. That print survives, unlike most others of its kind. The box set features it among the many hours of bonus materials in the Blu-ray set (which are recycled from a similar DVD set from 2006).
Back to Universal: Frankenstein (1931) was a distinct improvement in quality over Dracula, as was Whale's later sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). After the first Frankenstein, The Mummy (1932) continued the series with flair, as did the Invisible Man (1933). Universal pumped out exploitation sequels like crazy, with The Bride of Frankenstein ranking as the only quality effort. The next significant title would wait until the next decade. The Wolf Man (1941) remains amazing, including for Jack Pierce's makeup and for its emotional story. Pierce, a Greek-American, was the most important and influential special effects makeup artist of his era. His hands are on most titles in The Essential Collection.
After The Wolf Man came Phantom of the Opera (1943), a Technicolor re-make of the 1925 silent version (although they are very different in storyline and approach). Another decade would pass before Universal could create a new horror classic in 3D, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). An era was about to end. Yet, a half century later, it still resonates.