• The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 (Shout! Factory) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: August 25th, 2020.
    Director: Nathan Juran/Francis D. Lyon/Will Cowan/John Gilling
    Cast: Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Lon Chaney, Paula Corday, Faith Domergue, Richard Long, Marshall Thompson, Kathleen Hughes, William Reynolds, Andra Martin, Jeffrey Stone, Carolyn Kearney, Andre Morell, Barbara Shelly, William Lucas, Freda Jackson
    Year: 1952/1958/1961
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    The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 – Movie Review:

    Shout Factory brings to high definition another four classics of vintage horror from the Universal vaults with their sixth entry (and, sadly, reportedly their last) in their ongoing Universal Horror Collection series. While these might not carry the same clout as the Frankenstein or Dracula pictures, they still have their place and so far, these sets have proven to be a lot of fun.

    The Black Castle:

    Nathan Juran’s 1952 pictures, The Black Castle, tells the tale of Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene), an adventurer type who becomes convinced that some friends of his were murdered when they wound up staying the night in the castle home of one Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally). Posing as Richard Beckett, he makes his way to the Count’s massive abode, he does what he can to make his way into the inner circle and figure out what really happened, hopefully without drawing too much attention to himself.

    A big part of the ‘why’ behind all of this is that Burton and von Bruno have a rather checkered past, though they’ve neve actually met in person and Burton aims to ensure that the Count continues to believe that to be the case. Complicating matters not inconsiderably is the presence of Countess Elga von Bruno, (Rita Corday as Paula Corday), the beautiful wife of Burton’s enemy. He, of course, quickly falls in love with her, and it’s clear from the moments after they meet that she is going to have trouble hiding her feelings for him as well. Adding to the mystery is the presence of Dr. Meissen (Boris Karloff), a physician essentially forced to work in von Bruno’s employ, and the mute Gargon (Lon Chaney Jr. in his last Universal role), a rather simple man-brute type.

    The Black Castle feels like an older movie than it is but that isn’t a bad thing at all for fans of classic horror pictures. It’s rife with atmosphere and handsomely shot, with plenty of nice, shadowy interiors adding to the fun. Juran’s direction isn’t as flashy as it could have been but there’s enough style here to complement the picture’s decent pacing. The story offers up a few memorable set pieces as the plot unfolds (a pit full of crocodiles being an obvious highlight!), even if the workmanlike script isn’t all that memorable and is loaded with a long string of clichés (enjoyable as they might be).

    Karloff’s great here, but his role is a supporting one. Chaney has no real dialogue (his drinking would have been a problem at this point in his career) but he cuts an effectively imposing figure in a few scenes. Greene is a hero we can get behind, he’s noble and likeable, while McNally makes for a great villain and Corday a lovely female lead.

    Cult Of The Cobra:

    The second film in the set, which was directed by Francis D. Lyon in 1955, takes place in 1945 where we meet a group of American servicemen stationed in Asia. While strolling through a market in this undisclosed Asian location, they meet a snake-charmer, take his picture and start up a conversation with him. It’s during this conversation that the young men learn of a cult that worships cobras and, not only that, has somehow gained the ability to quite literally transform themselves into snakes!

    Of course, the men don’t believe the snake-charmer who insists he’s telling the truth and that they meet him later that night so that he can prove it. They agree, meet him as agreed, and he sneaks them into the ceremony where the dimwit with the camera snaps a shot with his flash on. This obviously alerts the cultist to their presence and sends the Americans quickly looking for an exit. They think they’ve made it out safely enough, but soon find out that the leader of the cult has put a curse on them. Before you know it, the photographer has been bitten by a cobra and died, but the other three manage to make it back to their homeland, figuring they’ll be safe once their feet touch American soil. What they don’t count on is that they’ve been followed by a beautiful woman named Lisa Moya (
    Faith Domergue), a cultist who makes the moves on Tom (Marshall Thompson), much to the dismay of his former flame, Julia (Kathleen Hughes), who has in turned hooked up with his pal Paul (Richard Long).

    This one can’t decide if it wants to be a horror picture or a potboiler/mystery film but if you’re not in such a demanding mood it proves to be pretty entertaining if far from the best of Universal’s considerable genre output. We get a fair amount of snake action here, and some neat POV shots once Lisa turns into the snake we know she’s going to turn into, but a little more of that would have gone a long way. Lyon does a decent enough job keeping things moving, only occasionally shifting into tepid melodrama a couple of times. There’ some interesting thematic ideas at work here in terms of American versus Indian culture that gives viewers a bit of food for thought without getting overly political, and the movie is decent enough in terms of how it looks even if the effects aren’t going to floor you.

    The cast does okay, but lovely
    Faith Domergue is terribly miscast as an Asian woman, clearly looking Caucasian every second of the time she’s on screen (for better or worse, they didn’t even really try to hide it). If you think too much about the, likely accidental, racial politics of this one it hasn’t aged well, but if you can look past that it’s a decent enough way to kill some time.

    The Thing That Couldn’t Die:

    Director Will Cowan's infamous 1958 turkey The Thing That Couldn't Die tells the story of a psychic girl named Jessica Burns (Carolyn Kearney) who lives on a remote ranch with her Aunt Flavia (Peggy Converse). They work alongside two ranch hands that keep the place going and they make a living by renting out rooms to guests who want a quiet western style vacation. Jessica's life takes an interesting turn when she tries to use her psychic abilities to find water and winds up instead finding a centuries old chest. Inside this chest? The disembodied head of a sixteenth century Satanist named Gideon Drew (Robin Hughes)!

    Soon, Drew's head is controlling a ranch hand and killing people off and then later Jessica gets attacked. When the ranchers all work together and eventually find the body that the head belongs to, they bring it back to the ranch in hopes that if they reunite it things will go back to normal. No dice!

    The Thing That Couldn't Die is a fun Z-grade horror picture that recycles bits from This Island Earth and which moves at a pretty good pace. It's central concept is ridiculous, of course, but that only adds to its entertainment value. This one wound up being skewered on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that was included on volume XXIX of the Shout! Factory DVD collections of that show. The acting is about as good as the script will allow for, which is to say that it isn’t amazing, but seen in a proper presentation here it’s got more atmosphere than some would ever give it credit for. Cowan’s direction treats the goofy story seriously enough and for the film’s many flaws, you can’t say that it’s dull.

    If nothing else, this is absolutely worth seeing for Robin Hughes’ unhinged performance as the head of an ancient Satanist!

    The Shadow Of The Cat:

    Credited to BHP Productions, 1961’s The Shadow Of The Cat feels more like a Hammer film than anything else, and with good reason as there are a few alumni of the infamous British house of horror involved in this picture, which was picked up for domestic distribution by Universal Studios.

    Shot completely on set at Bray Studios, the story opens with the elder matron of a massive estate reading aloud from Poe’s The Raven. This woman is Ella Venable (Catherine Lacy), an aging and well-to-do woman who is soon after murdered, presumably by one of her money-hungry relative out to get his or her hands on a sizeable inheritance. The only witness? Her cat! Sounds familiar? Yeah, a lot about this movie will, which is probably why it remains somewhat obscure given the Hammer connections.

    Regardless, Ella is laid to rest on the grounds of the estate and after her burial, it starts to look like her husband, Walter (André Morell), was in fact the culprit. But was he? And did he act alone if he was? There are other characters to consider here as well: Edgar (Richard Warner), Jacob (William Lucas), Louise (Vanda Godsell) and Beth (Barbara Shelley), not to mention, of course, the butler (Andrew Crawford) and the maid (Freda Jackson). And if Walter’s heart condition is as bad as he makes it out to be, how could he possibly have done it? And why is he seemingly so obsessed with getting rid of that cat?

    Despite the facto that director John Gilling directed a few Hammer films (The Reptile, Pirates Of Blood River and The Plague Of The Zombies to name just a few) and the presence of a few Hammer stars (Barbara Shelley would star in Quatermass And The Pit as well as Rasputin The Mad Monk and Dracula Prince Of Darkness, Morell in The Vengeance Of She and The Mummy’s Shroud, Freda Jackson in The Brides Of Dracula and Richard Warner in The Mummy’s Shroud), this one doesn’t quite measure up to the studio’s output, feeling tame and almost wholesome in comparison to their output. Still, the picture has its charms. It’s nicely shot in black and white with good sets and decent pacing.

    Morell definitely steals the show here, doing most of his acting from the comfort of a posh bed but still somehow managing to command our attention even while his character struggles with illness. He’s very much the star of the show here and the biggest asset of the cast. Barbara Shelley also turns in memorable work, looking as lovely as you could hope and managing to create a likeable character who legitimately seems earnest and good.

    The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 – 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 their original aspect ratios, each film on their own separate Blu-ray discs (The Black Castle on a 50GB disc, the others are on 25GB discs), which gives them plenty of breathing room given their short running time. All four movies were taken from new 2k scans of fine grain film elements, according to the packaging, and they look very nice. All four transfers are very clean, showing little in the way of print damage but still retaining the natural film grain you’d expect. Contrast generally looks nice on all four black and white films, with good black levels and clean whites and a nice grayscale. There are no noticeable compression artifacts nor are there any issues with edge enhancement or noise reduction, everything looks nice and filmic.

    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:

    The Black Castle:

    The main extra on the first disc is a new audio commentary track with Tom Weaver who covers all the bases, as is the norm with his work. Lots of discussion of Richard Greene’s life and times, the performances in the picture including Karloff’s work, who did what behind the scenes, the score, the script, the sets and quite a bit more. No dull air here, Weaver keeps the talk going, offering up a good mix of facts and trivia as well as his opinions on how all of this shakes out.

    This disc also contains a fourteen-minute featurette entitled Universal Horror Strikes Back! In this piece, Kim Newman and Stephen Jones get together to talk about Universal’s horror output of the 1940’s (which isn’t really represented in this set, but I digress), how it differs from what came before, influences that worked their way into the studio’s output and more. It’s interesting stuff, these two are always as amusing to watch or listen to as they are informative and knowledgeable.

    A still gallery, menus and chapter selection are also included.

    Cult Of The Cobra:

    Tom Weaver also provides a commentary for this film, joined by Steve Kronenberg, David Schechter and Dr. Robert J. Kiss. Again, it’s a well laid out track, each participant offering up bits and pieces of trivia and insight based on their respective area of expertise. They cover the studio’s involvement, the script, the cast and crew’s work on the picture as well as insight into the personal lives of some of the principals, details on Francis D. Lyon life and times, thoughts on the score, the sets and lots more.

    A theatrical trailer, a couple of TV spots, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection are also included.

    The Thing That Couldn’t Die:

    Tom Weaver and C. Courtney Joyner handle the commentary for the third film in which Will Cowan gets a good bit of coverage. The track also details the script, the score, the contributions of the different actors and actresses that show up in the movie as well as details about their lives on and off the screen, insight into who did what behind the camera, thoughts on the production overall and plenty more. This third track is just as good as the first two, it’s very insightful.

    A theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection are also included.

    The Shadow Of The Cat:

    The commentary for this film comes courtesy of Bruce J. Hallenbeck that, again, covers all the bases that you’d hope it would. John Gilling’s work is given a thorough look and we get some details on the personal lives of the director as well as the cast and crew. Lots of detail here about the credits, insight into possible influences, thoughts on the score and the overall look of the film and plenty more. Like the other tracks, it’s detailed and very listenable.

    This disc also includes a featurette called In The Shadow Of Shelley, which is a new interview with actress Barbara Shelley. This piece runs just over twenty-four-minutes in length and it allows the storied actress to go over how she got into acting, a few career highlights and her work on this picture. Interesting stuff, and it’s nice to see her given her due with this piece.

    A still gallery, TV spot, menus and chapter selection are also included.

    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.

    The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 – The Final Word:

    The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 is another very strong entry in what has been a very enjoyable line of classic genre film boxed sets. The picture quality and overall presentations here are very nice and the commentary tracks and featurettes are welcome additions to the set. The movies themselves, always the most important part, are all quite entertaining in their own ways. Recommended!
    Click on the images below for full sized The Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 1 Comment
    1. David H's Avatar
      David H -
      Nice review! Just FYI the actress in CULT is Faith Domergue playing the character of Lisa Moya