• The Universal Horror Collection Volume 1 (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: May 21st, 2019.
    Director: Edgar G. Ulmer/ Lew Landers/Lambert Hillyer/Arthur Lubin
    Cast: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Lester Matthews, Irene Ware, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Stanley Ridges, Anne Nagel, Anne Gwynne
    Year: 1934/1935/1936/1940
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    The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 – Movie Review:

    Shout Factory brings to high definition four genuine classics of vintage horror from the Universal vaults, each picture starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

    The Black Cat:

    Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1934 and very loosely based on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, this film introduces us to honeymooners Joan (Julie Bishop, credited as Jacqueline Wells) and Peter Alison (David Manners). They’re travelling by train through Hungary when a train attendant asks them if they would be kind enough to share their compartment with one Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi). Since they’re getting off in a short while, they oblige. As they travel with Werdegast they learn of his past, and how he’s returning to his ancestral home after being held as a prisoner of war for over a decade.

    When they all get off at the same station, they travel by carriage but when said carriage has an accident in the middle of the night, the Alison’s are brought back to the home of Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff), an eccentric architect and friend of Werdegast’s. It’s then that things start to get strange and the story ties into the pasts of both Werdegast and Poelzig while Peter tries to figure out what’s going on and what his wife has to do with all of this. Oh, and there’s a cat involved in all of this too.

    The Black Cat is a seriously great film. At just over sixty-five-minutes it’s briskly paced but we get enough character development here to work. The movie is also quite stylish, at least in its second half (the early scenes on the train aren’t the most exciting to look at but what they build to matters quite a bit) and there’s some really cool costume and set decoration on display here. The script, by Ulmer and Peter Ruric, certainly won’t qualify as the most faithful Poe adaptation ever made but it does offer some great twists and the opportunity to create some genuinely eerie set pieces. There are moments of humor involving a sergeant and his lieutenant that stick out a bit alongside the otherwise quite serious film, but aside from that, this is top notch stuff.

    As to the acting, Karloff and Lugosi are both in fine form here. They both give very solid performances and create memorable characters in the film. Karloff in particular is quite chilling towards the end, cutting a very imposing figure during the finale. David Manners, who acted alongside Lugosi in 1931’s Dracula where he played Jonathan Harker, is quite good as the hero of the story while beautiful Julie Bishop makes a very fine damsel in distress.

    The Raven:

    The second Poe ‘adaptation’ in the set is Lew Landers’ 1935 take on The Raven. In this story, wealthy Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds) wants nothing more than to bring his daughter Jean (Irene Ware), who was crippled in an accident and who now suffers from brain damage, back to the fine dancer that she once was. To do this, he talks Poe-obsessed neurosurgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) – who keeps a stuffed raven on his desk - out of retirement to help.

    Vollin is an expert in his field and soon enough, he’s restored beautiful Jean to her former glory but at the same time, he can’t help but fall for the young woman. Vollin, whose brilliant mind is obviously quite deranged, quite clearly sees Jean as his Lenore. He becomes obsessed with her and in order to make her his for eternity, puts into motion a plan to kill off her father and her fiancé, Dr. Jerry Holden (Lester Matthews). To do this, he coerces a known criminal named Edmond Batemen (Karloff), whose face is horribly disfigured, to do the job for him – but of course, there are a few twists before this sixty-one-minute feature reaches its conclusion.

    This isn’t as atmospheric as the first film but it’s still top tier 1930’s horror. While not overly stylish, the film still features some impressive set pieces, highlighted by – and we’re avoiding spoilers here – a great sequence involving a mirror. Karloff’s reveal is also quite memorable, and his penchant for making monsters sympathetic really lets him shine in this part. Luogsi also does great work here. As his character’s madness and obsession becomes all encompassing, he really throws himself into the role and delivers and impressive turn. Say what you will about the guy, but he had a real knack for playing mad doctor types! Irene Ware is also quite good here, very fetching to be sure, and supporting work from Hinds and Matthews is also fine.

    Production values? Well, the film was made on a modest budget but Clifford Vaughn’s score stands out and is quite strong. The makeup effects on Karloff’s character are less than perfect but they work, while Landers’ direction, if not particularly flashy, is more than competent and he paces the film quite well.

    The Invisible Ray:

    The advertising for Lambert Hillyer’s 1936 film for Universal warned us to ‘Beware the luminous man!’ Who would that luminous man happen to be? We’ll get there. For not, meet Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff), a remarkably brilliant scientist who talks some of his fellow scientists and a few patrons into bankrolling an expedition to the heart of darkest Africa. His theory is that years ago a meteorite crashed there, and he aims to find it. When Rukh proves to be right and the group finds the meteorite in question, the good doctor is exposed to deadly radioactive toxins. Before he can die, luckily enough, fellow scientist Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi) manages to concoct an antidote – but it isn’t all coming up roses for Rukh. Benet’s serum may have prevented Rukh from succumbing to radiation poisoning but the effects of Rukh’s encounter with the meteorite still remain very real, and now his very touch has the ability to kill anyone he comes into physical contact with!

    When Rukh and the others return to London, Benet is able to use more measured doses of the radiation emoted by the meteorite to great benefit and is soon able to cure the blind. Meanwhile, the side effects of the antidote cause Rukh to slowly but surely turn into a paranoid maniac out to take down the expedition members he now believes are out to steal the discover that should have been rightfully his. Complicating matters is the fact that during the expedition, Rukh’s wife Diane (Frances Drake) fell in love with fellow expedition member Ronald Drake (Frank Lawton)!

    If this isn’t as good as the first two films in the set it’s still a very good film. Lugosi and Karloff are once again in fine form and they do as good as job here as friends in the first half of the film as they do as rivals in the second. John Colton’s script puts more emphasis on horror than on the sci-fi elements inherent in the script (and the source material from which it came, which was a story by Howard Higgin and Douglas Hodges), but given who the two leads are in this picture, that only makes sense (at least when looked at with an eye towards commercial viability). But the script is smart enough to work, it’s more thought provoking than you’d expect from your typical 1930’s B-picture, dealing with themes or morality and mortality in equal measure.

    Hillyer, who kept plenty busy cranking out crime films, westerns and horror pictures from the twenties all through the forties, paces the eighty-minute film effectively. The build up is solid and the payoff is worth it. George Robinson, who shot the Abbott & Costello monster mashups in the fifties, does a nice job with the cinematography and the production values are reasonably decent across the board. This one seems a bit underrated in the filmographies of its two leads and is worth revisiting if you haven’t seen it before.

    Black Friday:

    The fourth and final film in the set was helmed by Arthur Lubin (who made the iconic 1943 version of Phantom Of The Opera in 1940 and features a screenplay written by Curt Siodmak and Eric Taylor. That’s a pretty solid pedigree, and the results are, if not a perfect film, at least a good one.

    Black Friday introduces us to Professor Kingsley (Stanley Ridges). When the film begins, he is not long for this world. Enter Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff), a brilliant brain surgeon who manages the impossible by saving Kingsley’s life by way of an unorthodox and illegal operation wherein he replaces parts of Kingsley’s brain with those taken from the brain of an injured gangster named Red Cannon (Ridges again). While things seem fine afterwards, it isn’t long before Kingsley starts showing signs of aggression and Cannon’s persona starts becoming the dominant one.

    When Sovac learns of what’s happened to his patient and that before he went under the knife Cannon stashed away a half a million dollars in cash, he’s intrigued. Hoping to find the money before anyone else can get to it, Sovac plies Kingsley for information he hopes will help – but as Sovac gets closer to the money, Cannon again takes dominance over the docile Kingsley and sets out to get revenge against those he feels wronged him.

    As much a gangster film as it is anything else, Black Friday serves more as a showcase for Stanley Ridges’ acting ability than it does for Karloff or Lugosi. Karloff’s role is substantial enough to count but Lugosi is only in the film for one brief scene, never sharing the screen with his top-billed co-star or ever exchanging any dialogue with him. This makes it more than a little odd that he was top-billed with Karloff on the one sheet for the picture, but hey, marketing is marketing, right?

    The movie itself is decent enough. Ridges is very good in the dual role, playing the Jekyll and Hyde character quite effectively. The support from Karloff is appreciated, he too is good here. The production values are satisfactory if not remarkable but at seventy-minutes it goes by pretty quickly. Lubin controls the pacing and while this is the least atmospheric of the four films in the set and only barely qualifies as horror in the traditional sense of the word, it’s an entertaining if middle tier entry in the collective filmography of this set’s two stars.

    The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 – Blu-ray Review:

    Each of the four films is presented on its own separate Blu-ray disc in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed in black and white in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio. All films, save for The Black Cat, are advertised as coming from new 2k scans of ‘original film elements.’ The Black Cat is a bit soft in spots and it shows some visible vertical scratches here and there as well as some minor print damage, but overall it looks quite nice. The rest of the films look a bit cleaner and clearer than the first film in the set, although The Raven was shot a little soft and that look is, obviously, retained here. There’s less print damage on the other features than on The Black Cat, while grain appears naturally throughout all four features. Detail is generally pretty good, and there are no problems with any compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction to complain about. All in all, given the age of the elements, fans should be quite pleased with the quality of the video presentation in this set.

    The DTS-HD Mono tracks supplied for each film are fine. Optional subtitles are provided for each of the four features in English only. While range is understandably limited throughout the four films, there aren’t really any problems here. Dialogue stays clean, clear and easy to follow. You’ll here a little bit of hiss here and there if you listen for it but there’s nothing really distracting about it. No problems were noticed during playback.

    Extras for The Black Cat start off with a new audio commentary by author/film historian Gregory William Mank, the author of Bela Lugosi And Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story Of A Haunting Collaboration. There’s a lot of detail here about the actors’ lives, how they wound up doing all of these films for Universal, where their careers were after the success of some of their better-known Universal outings, how they did and didn’t always get along, and plenty more. A second audio commentary by author/film historian Steve Haberman is also included. It inevitably covers some of the same ground as the first track but so too does it covers lots of new material, going into detail on the director’s background, the studio’s position, and the themes and ideas explored in the picture including some of the more unusual elements included in its later half.

    Shout! Factory has also included two new featurettes, the first of which is the fifty-six-minute Dreams Within A Dream: The Classic Cinema Of Edgar Allan Poe piece, which is narrated by Doug Bradley. This is an interesting look at Poe’s legacy on the silver screen, exploring early entries like the first two films in this set as well as more modern adaptations including the Corman/Price Poe vehicles cranked out by AIP. Lots of pertinent clips and stills are used to illustrate various points made by Bradley’s narration – it’s quite an interesting retrospective.

    The second featurette is A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part One: The Black Cat, which clocks in at just under twenty-four-minutes in length. This is the first of four related featurettes included throughout the set and it examines the history of the production by way of some insight from Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank, both of whom clearly know their stuff. This piece covers some of the same ground as the two commentary tracks do but it has the added bonus of using visuals in the form of clips and stills. It’s nicely done and quite interesting.

    Rounding out the extras is some vintage footage of a ‘Black Cat Contest’ (where kids line up near the film’s stars showing off their pet black cats – one cat in particular looks like it wants to fight the rest of them), and a nice still gallery of ephemera.

    Extras for The Raven kick off with a new commentary from film historian Gary D. Rhodes who has written quite a few books involving Lugosi including Tod Browning's Dracula and Bela Lugosi And The Monogram Nine. Not surprisingly given his work, Rhodes does spend a lot of time talking about Lugosi’s work in the picture and offering plenty of insight into his performance as well as details about the actor’s personal life. So too does he cover Karloff’s work, the direction and more. Steve Haberman makes his second appearance in this set with a second commentary for The Raven and again, it’s an enjoyable talk that covers a lot of background on the film and those who made it including not just the two leads but many of the supporting players as well. Both of these tracks are very thorough and well-researched.

    This disc also includes A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Two: The Raven. Here, over the span of seventeen-minutes, Rhodes and Mank continue their thorough examination of Karloff and Lugosi’s Universal team ups, discussing where the film falls in the actors’ respective filmographies and offering a nice mix of trivia and insight into the production.

    Rounding out the extras on this second disc is a great thirteen-minute audio recording of Bela Lugosi reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart and a decent sized still gallery.

    The Invisible Ray gets a new commentary from authors/film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson. They play off one another well and find quite a bit to analyze here, including the themes that the picture deals with so interestingly as well as the expected trivia and facts about the making of the picture.

    Also found on this third disc is A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Three: The Invisible Ray. Once again, Rhodes and Mank and give a thorough overview of the actors’ work for Universal, focusing on this third film in the set for seventeen-minutes. If you enjoyed the first two entries, and if you’re a fan of either actor odds are quite good that you will, you’ll enjoy this one too.

    Rounding out the extras for the third film is a theatrical re-release trailer for the feature and a still gallery.

    The commentary on the Black Friday disc is provided by filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr. He speaks about how the film pulls from different genres, how Karloff wound up in the role he finally played in the film, Ridges work in the picture, Lugosi’s small part, the script for the film, the direction and much more.

    Once you’re through with that, check out A Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Four: Black Friday. Again, Rhodes and Mank share their thoughts on the film and detail its history as it pertains not only to Universal Studios but to the sometimes tense relationship that existed between Karloff and Lugosi. This final entry in the run clocks in at seventeen-minutes. All four of these are very enjoyable.

    Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show: “The Tell-Tale Heart” starring Boris Karloff that runs twenty-seven-minutes

    Finishing things up on the fourth disc in the set is a theatrical trailer, still gallery and an episode of The Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show with Karloff that presents Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart that runs twenty-seven-minutes (and is quite a nice addition to this release).

    Menus and chapter selection options are included on all four discs, which fit inside a flipper case. This case, in turn, fits inside a nice cardboard slipcover that also contains an insert booklet containing credits for the four features and a nice selection of vintage promotional art and images for the films included in the set.

    The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 – The Final Word:

    Loaded with extras, this set offers up four legitimate horror classics in great shape. The movies themselves hold up very well, each a great showcase for Karloff, Lugosi or both! Shout! has done a great job here. Highly recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 Blu-ray screen caps!