So last week, I looked at Universal’s latest collection of their vintage SF movies, a set unfortunately limited to a Best Buy exclusive. We have another one of those today: the Universal Horror Classic Movie Archive. It, too, can be tracked down pretty easily through the Amazon marketplace.
Back in the mid-90s was when the films on all of these collections were first showing up in a home video format. It was a great time for collectors (barring that chilling moment when, for a little while, the only version of the original Dracula available was the one with the new Philip Glass score). Now, there are only so many films from that era (30s and 40s for horror, 50s for SF) that legitimately qualify as classics, so more and more B-level pictures followed in the wake of their more famous brethren. There is nothing wrong with this, as the opportunity finally came for many of us to see these things for the first time, and minor gems would inevitably crop up.
That is the case with this collection. On offer here are: The Black Cat (1941), Man Made Monster (1941), Horror Island (1941), Night Monster (1942) and Captive Wild Woman (1943). The most high-profile title here is Man Made Monster, wherein Lionel Atwill experiments on Lon Chaney Jr. (Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man), and winds up turning him into a deadly, glowing electric zombie. Pretty wild stuff, and a key entry in the younger Chaney’s filmography, establishing him as one of the top horror stars of the second wave off horror movies. Though never an actor of the range or skill of his father or Boris Karloff, Chaney could handle the sympathetic galoot with panache, and he does so here.
The Old Dark House movie was a staple of the from the 20s to the 40s. It usually took the form of a comedy-thriller, and the big names here are the likes of The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Bat (1930) and, of course, The Old Dark House (1932). That genre is represented by three lesser works here: The Black Cat (which has nothing to do with Poe), Horror Island and Night Monster. The latter title is probably the most fun, as it is played straight, and has a pretty nifty, semi-supernatural solution to its mystery.
And then there’s Captive Wild Woman, the first of the Panther Woman trilogy (the others being Jungle Woman (1944) and Jungle Captive (1945). Of all the Universal franchises of the 40s, this was the cheapest (if we exclude the films with Rondo Hatton’s Creeper character, but that’s a story for another time). Heavily reliant on stock footage despite running a mere 61 minutes, this sees John Carradine turning an ape into Acquanetta (whose name was more exotic than her character’s: Paula). The lunatic plotline (which clumsily echoes Cat People) is nonetheless notable for being of the few films of the era where the werewolf-like transformations involve a woman.
So there’s plenty here that’s cheap and silly, and not a hell of a lot that’s classic in the strict sense of the term. But vintage? Oh yes. And enjoyable? Definitely.