• Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: December 17th, 2019.
    Director: Rowland V. Lee/George Waggner/Albert S. Rogell/George Waggner
    Cast: Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, Barbara O’Neil, Vincent Price, Lionel Atwill, Lon Chaney Jr., Anne Nagel, Hugh Herbert, Broderick Crawford, Bela Lugosi, Anne Gwynne, Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran
    Year: 1939/1941/1941/1941
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    Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 – Movie Review:

    Shout Factory brings to high definition four more classics of vintage horror from the Universal vaults with their third entry in their (thankfully) ongoing Universal Horror Collection series.

    Tower Of London:

    Interestingly enough, the first film in the set, despite the presence of Boris Karloff and a young Vincent Price, isn’t really a horror film. It’s a good movie to be sure, but it never tries to really frighten the audience. The story follows Richard III (Basil Rathbone), the man who would be king and the Duke of Gloucester. He and his henchman, Mord (Boris Karloff), go about executing those who precede him in the line for England’s throne, currently sat upon by King Edward IV (Ian Hunter).

    As Richard and Mord execute those standing in the way of his ascent to power, Richard collects odd little figurines that represent each of his victims. When Edward eventually passes, the only one standing in the way of his ascension is the exiled Henry Tudor (Ralph Forbes).

    A rather tense melodrama, Tower Of London is quite well made. Rowland V. Lee paces the picture nicely and Universal put enough money behind the film to ensure that the sets and costumes all look quite good. The cinematography is quite strong and there’s plenty of atmosphere throughout the movie. The story is interesting and well-told.

    The cast make this one, however, Rathbone is great as the super sneaky Richard III, a true rat bastard if ever there was one. He and Karloff have an interesting chemistry together and work well here. Karloff is a good choice for Mord, using his rather ‘large’ screen presence effectively and it’s nice to see him here in a role that, while villainous, isn’t quite that of ‘the monster.’ Price has a supporting role in the picture as The Duke Of Clarence, a nobleman who gets involved in one of Richard III’s games – it doesn’t end well. Still, Price is Price and he gives his all, making quite an impression here. Hunter and Forbes are also pretty decent and Leo G. Carroll does fine work in his part as Lord Hastings.

    Scary? No, but very likely to appeal to horror fans anyway thanks to Karloff, Price and Rathbone all delivering very good turns in front of the camera. This is a pretty solid ninety-minutes at the movies.

    Man Made Monster:

    A much more traditional genre picture than the first entry, the first of two George Waggner films made in 1941 in this set follows Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr.), a regular Joe who happens to wind up the only survivor of a crash that winds up electrocuting everyone else on board. His story comes to the attention of Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill), a scientist curious about McCormick’s ability to withstand high doses of electricity. He coerces Dan into playing human guinea pig for his own experiments involving electricity but it isn’t long before those experiments go wrong and McCormick is turned into a living, breathing electric man!

    Eventually, Dan is so full of electricity that he begins to glow and, under the control of Rigas, is ordered to kill the doctor’s supervisor, Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who is trying to put an end to Rigas’ work. Meanwhile, Lawrence’s niece, June Lawrence (Anna Nagel), and a newspaper man named Mark Adams (Frank Albertson), try to save Dan before it’s too late…

    Chaney is okay here. Not great, but okay. Atwill, however, steals every scene that he’s in and thankfully he’s in a lot of them. He’s great in the mad scientist role, taking an otherwise fairly pedestrian horror picture and elevating it enough that, if it isn’t a classic, it is at least quite a bit of fun. Supporting work from Hinds and the lovely Nagal is welcome, and Albertson is decent in his heroic part, but this is Atwill’s show through and through – and he clearly knew it, acting circles around everyone else in the cast.

    Waggner balances thrills and drama pretty effectively and at only an hour in length the movie is over before it ever gets a chance to slow down. The effects work that makes Chaney ‘glow’ is pretty neat, done optically of course. There’s some welcome creativity on display here and the movie entertains when and where it should.

    The Black Cat:

    Our third film, directed by Albert S. Rogell in 1941, once again features Basil Rathbone. This time out, he’s cast as Montague Hartley, the son-in-law of wealthy but ailing Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus). Convinced she is soon to shuffle off this mortal coil, Henrietta has gathered her family at her massive estate to prepare. Henrietta, it should be said, keeps scores of cats around the house, none of them black as she’s a superstitious old woman, but scores of them nevertheless.

    Montague, however, is greedy. He sets up a realtor, Hubert Smith (Broderick Crawford), to find a buyer for Henrietta’s mansion once she passes. Smith and his associate, Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert), show up to check things out and soon learn that Monty, in his infinite wisdom, has been quite presumptuous as to Henrietta’s state. It turns out that she’s not going to die anytime soon and is, in fact, doing quite well.

    Anyway, even if she’s not going to die this very instant, with the family – as well as housekeeper Abigail (Gale Sondergaard) and gardener Eduardo (played by Bela Lugosi) – gathered about, she reads her last will and testament, so that everyone knows what they’ll inherit once she does go. She leaves out one detail, however – when she does pass, Abigail is to stay in the house and tend to the cats until they all die. Only after that happens will the remains of her estate be divvied up. Around this time a mysterious black cat appears, and shortly after, Henrietta is found murdered. Abigail spills the beans about the condition and tries to get everyone out of the house, just as a storm sets in. As the night passes, the truth about Monty’s relations comes to light and a second murder takes place… but Monty isn’t the only one after Henrietta’s dough.

    Not to be confused with the 1934 film of the same name (also starring Lugosi, as well as Karloff) and not at all based on the story by Poe even if the opening credits state that it was ‘suggested by’ his writing, this ninety-six-minute picture is a nice showcase, once again, for Rathbone’s ability to play a snake in the grass very effectively. He’s quite the weasel here, betraying anyone and everyone he needs to in hopes of getting to Henrietta’s money sooner than anyone else would hope he’d want to. It’s a good role for him and he definitely makes the most of it. Pay attention for an amusing Sherlock Holmes quip, well-timed and clearly intentional given that he’d played the role a couple of times before making this picture.

    Those hoping for a whole lot of Lugosi might be disappointed that his screen time here is minimal but he’s fun to watch when he is on camera. Supporting work from Crawford and Sondergaard is welcome, and Cecilia Loftus is surprisingly awesome as Henrietta. The pace drags a bit here and there but once the storm kicks in and the plot starts to move faster, it improves. There’s a lot of dialogue here, almost too much at times, and some of the comedy is less than inspired. This isn’t really a horror picture either, more of a dramatic thriller with comedic elements, but it’s got Rathbone and Lugosi in it to keep genre fans amused.

    Horror Island:

    The fourth and final film in the set, once again directed by George Waggner in 1941, is a briskly paced hour-long story sees a man named Bill Martin (Dick Foran) gather together a group, toss them in a boat and accompany them to a remote island – you could call it Horror Island if you wanted to, but it’s more like Skull Island without a King Kong.

    Anyway, Bill and his right hand man, Stuff Oliver (Fuzzy Knight), learned from a peg-legged sailor dubbed ‘The Captain’ that Sir Henry Morgan, famed scourge of the seas, left his treasure on this island and that it’s there for the taking inside a castle that Martin seems to have inherited. He sees this as a great way to get rich quick and pay off those pesky creditors that have been making his life difficult as of late. He’s got half of a treasure map while someone… or something… known as The Phantom, skulking about the island, has the other half and hopes to complete it. Bill and his crew arrive and things inevitably get murdery as various members of Bill’s crew are killed off as they get closer to the supposed to treasure.

    Horror Island isn’t very horrific, though it does have moments with some nice atmosphere. Attempts at humor fall pretty flat and much of this feels like a lesser episode of Scooby-Doo. Still, it’s reasonably well-shot and it has some moments of tension. The Phantom is a pretty lousy villain, he’s got zero personality. But hey, it features famed western movie sidekick Fuzzy Knight – which is a great name by anyone’s standard, so it has that going for it.

    A noticeable step down in quality from the other three films in this set, Horror Island is at least over quickly. If you enjoy old timey horror comedies, this might work better for you but as it stands, this, if not a complete waste of time, is more of a footnote in the Universal Horror cannon than anything else.

    Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 – 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. Detail levels aren’t bad at all for a film of this age and the picture is filmic and stable throughout. All four films look solid enough, free of compression artifacts, edge enhancement and noise reduction. Detail isn’t always perfect, but it definitely rises above previous DVD editions in some pretty noticeable ways. The Tower Of London is advertised as being taken from a new 2k scan of a ‘fine grain print’ but it actually looks a little weaker than the other three films. Still, if this isn’t HD perfection, it is overall a nice presentation of four vintage genre pictures.

    The 24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 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 hear 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 are spread across the four discs in the set as follows:

    Tower Of London:

    The main extra is an audio commentary with writer and film historian/writer/producer Steve Haberman. He starts off by talking about the genre mish-mash that the film is, noting the credits of the cast and crew, offering up trivia about the various participants and providing plenty of information about who did what in front of and behind the camera. He also talks about the importance of Karloff’s reveal in the film, which is spot on, and chats up the importance of his role in the film as well as the details in some of the sets where Karloff appears. He talks about how the movie came to be made at Universal, some of the Shakespearean elements in the film, the difficulty of shooting the battle scene in the rain with loads of extras in cardboard armor, details about some of the real life figures that are portrayed in the film, the quality of Price’s work and plenty more. There is NO dead air here at all, Haberman hits the ground running and keeps the pace up until the end and he covers a whole lot of ground.

    A still gallery, menus and chapter selection are also found on the disc.

    Man Made Monster:

    Film historian Tom Weaver and filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr deliver the commentary on this second disc. Weaver notes how this is the only film that Chaney was billed with the ‘Jr.’ after his name. He then talks about Chaney’s life and career, the performance that he gives in the film and how it seems very personable, the state of his career in the forties and more. There are some ‘actor recreation’ bits here where parts of different archival texts are ready aloud to give some background information and context to the film. Nasr talks about Essex’s story and gives plenty of background in that regard, notes how Atwill wound up in the film and more. The two commentators are recorded separately but this track is edited well so it isn’t distracting even if it is never conversational.

    A still gallery, menus and chapter selection are also found on the disc.

    The Black Cat:

    Author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes handles commentary duties for The Black Cat. In this talk, he goes over the Poe connection or lack thereof, how the story is more akin to the ‘old dark house’ subgenre of horror films, the success of the 1934 film and why Universal made a film under that title again seven years later, the use of live cats in the film and their supernatural overtones and how Universal announced the project as a horror comedy. He talks about the cast in the picture and, as he’s written quite extensively about Lugosi, of course details his involvement as well. He talks up the four writers who scripted the film, offers some insight into the production history and provides plenty of insight into what he feels works about the movie alongside loads and loads of facts and trivia. Lots of information in this track, it’s very informative.

    Additionally we get a theatrical trailer, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection.

    Horror Island:

    Filmmaker/film historian Ted Newsom delivers a commentary track for the last disc in the set. He starts by telling an anecdote about his friend Fred Olan Ray showing his young sons old Universal horror pictures and how they’d get excited when they saw the studio logo. He then goes on to talk about how this is a less memorable entry in the Universal cannon, how it’s unique for using ‘horror’ in the title (a rarity at the time), offers up loads of trivia about the cast featured in the picture, talks up the crew and the film’s director, how this film compares to The Mummy’s Hand, the cinematography employed in the film and some of the framing used, the production schedule, editing tricks used in the feature and quite a bit more. Newsom, who summarizes the film by noting that it’s no masterpiece but a fun little B-movie, knows his stuff and he’s always fun to listen to, this track being no exception.

    And again, we get a theatrical trailer, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection.

    All four discs 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.

    Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 – The Final Word:

    Shout! Factory’s release of The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 is another welcome addition to the label’s ever-expanding line of vintage genre pictures. The presentation here is quite solid and the commentary tracks all add some value to the set. The movies themselves are all pretty entertaining, very much products of their time but no less interesting or important for it.

    Click on the images below for full sized Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 Blu-ray screen caps!