After nearly 90 years the Universal horror cycle stands as one of the most enduring collection of horror movies today. Their influence on modern horror is unmistakable. There have been literally thousands of incarnations of Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, but the first image that comes to your mind will always be the nightmare creations of those Universal films. Studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. was trying to break away from his father’s control and create a studio culture of his own. The results would start in 1931 when an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi jumped from the stage to the screen in Dracula, directed by Tod Browning. Laemmle’s niece, Carla Laemmle, is the girl in the coach headed for Borgo Pass as the film opens to the musical strains from Swan Lake. She is reading a travel brochure about vampires and thus speaks the very first lines ever spoken in a horror film in the era of sound. Lugosi was mesmerizing, and the film was a hit. There was a depression on, but that didn’t stop crowds from lining up around theater blocks to be hypnotized by Lugosi’s Dracula.
The success was deafening, and Universal had a new horror star. Plans were immediately begun to follow up Bram Stoker’s gothic classic with another horror classic novel. This time Lugosi would play the monster in Mary Shelly’s iconic cautionary tale Frankenstein. But Lugosi wanted no part of the role. He thought it would be silly to flail about and grunt throughout the film. He passed. Could Universal catch lightening in a bottle with another relatively unknown? Enter Boris Karloff. He had already been in a great number of films but hadn’t found the right movie to give him the same kind of recognition as the so-called leading men of the time. That all changed with Frankenstein, and suddenly Universal had two horror stars.
The hat trick came when the son of the silent-era master Lon Chaney was looking to break out. Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t quite the makeup master that his father was, but Universal didn’t need that any more. They had Jack Pierce, who would go on to inspire nearly a hundred years of makeup artists to this very day. When Lon Chaney, Jr. morphed into Pierce’s Wolf Man makeup, he was transformed, and so was the Hollywood movie business. Universal had its triumvirate, and movies were never going to be the same.
I’m often asked why I love movies so much. I can out-marathon anyone on this staff. I could literally spend days watching movies. It all started with my father. We actually didn’t have a lot in common when I was young. He worked a lot, so I didn’t have that ball-throwing experience that many sons share with their fathers. But he loved horror movies. He would buy Famous Monsters magazine and pass it on to me when he was finished. Little could either of us know that I would get to become friends with the magazine’s editor and driving force, Forry Ackerman. We also used to watch the “Creature” and “Shock” programs that came out of the Philadelphia independent stations in the late 60’s and 1970’s. It was there with my dad that I was first exposed to Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and finally The Creature From The Black Lagoon, which would become my favorite.
These films weren’t necessarily frightening. But it was at the feet of these monstrosities that I learned many of the joys of film itself. These films made wonderful use of shadow and light to tell a story. James Whale created an entirely new style of directing which allowed his use of frame and lighting to actually tell some of the story. These monsters were not just mindless evil beings out to kill and destroy. There was always a pathos to the performances and rooted deep into the stories. Anyone can scare you. But these actors and writers gave us complicated emotional characters that you could, in some ways, relate to. It wasn’t Frankenstein’s Monster’s criminal brain that drove him to kill. It was his intense feeling of isolation and the cruelty inflicted because he was different. Hell, teenagers can relate to that big-time. These films taught me the magic that a film can perform. I learned to look for those small things that made all the difference, and I discovered that it all related to film in general. Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney were my teachers, and they opened up an entire universe that I still enjoy exploring today.
As time passed, my love of the cinema grew strong. I could spend an entire day at the movies, often having to watch the same film over and over again. When Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, I led a posse that watched that film over and over from 10:00 AM until well after midnight. And that wasn’t even a great film. It wasn’t until home video matured that I was able to see these films, often for the first time uncut. It started with VHS and went to CED videodiscs, laserdiscs, DVD, Blu-ray, and now UHD Blu-ray in full 4K. Universal doesn’t put these things out with any kind of regularity. The films included:
“Among the rugged peaks that frown upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age.”
Carla Laemmle read these the first words ever spoken in a horror film that featured sound in the opening moments of Dracula. The film was based more on the Broadway play version of Dracula than the famous Bram Stoker novel. Who better to play the Count than the young Hungarian actor who immortalized him on the stage, Bela Lugosi? Lugosi brought more immortality to Dracula than the blood of his victims. Even today over 70 years later the flowing cape, the hypnotic gaze, and the accented “Good evening” of Lugosi is the image most of us draw upon when we think of Dracula specifically or vampires in general. Tod Browning’s ingenious use of lighting combined with the maniacal laugh of Dwight Frye’s Renfield still manage to be effective.
Count Dracula (Lugosi), a centuries-old vampire, has run out his string in his own Transylvania. He sends for a real estate broker to purchase a house in London where he intends to make his home. He converts the agent Renfield (Frye) into an insect-eating slave and makes his way to London. Dracula is taken with the lovely Mina (Chandler) and is pursued by the knowledgeable Van Helsing (Van Sloan).
Bela Lugosi had become the heir apparent to Lon Chaney, Sr. as Universal’s horror king with the extraordinary success of Dracula. When the studio decided that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would be its next vehicle, Lugosi adamantly turned down the role of the monster. He felt that the role was doomed to failure, mainly because there was no dialog and that audiences would not relate to the character. Enter a little- known character actor from England to fill the monster’s shoes, and the name Boris Karloff would eventually eclipse Universal’s reigning king of horror. The role would lead to the rivalry often blown out of proportion between the two greats. Let’s not forget Colin Clive’s obsessed Dr. Frankenstein and Dwight Frye’s brain-switching Karl.
Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) has stumbled onto the very secret of life itself. Along with his assistant Karl (Frye) they scavenge the cemeteries for body parts. Once assembled, this human-like creature is brought to life by the power of lightning. The creature, unknown to Frankenstein, carries the brain of a man who was criminally insane and begins to terrorize the local village. Frankenstein knows he must destroy his creation before it destroys him.
The Invisible Man 1933
Haven’t we all fantasized about what it would be like to be invisible? Most of the common perks come to mind: spying, getting into movies and amusement parks free, even the baser peeping-tom inclinations come to mind. James Whale would pair his Frankenstein masterpieces with this equally trend-setting film. The film is only loosely based on the popular H.G. Wells novel and is played more for chills. Claude Rains does such a wonderful job in the role when you consider that for most of the film he is denied a physical presence on the screen.
Jack Griffin develops a formula that can render a man invisible. When he experiments on himself, he finds that regaining his visibility another matter. Griffin slowly goes insane from the effects of the mixture. His colleague must stop him before he destroys himself and maybe the world.
Boris Karloff turned down the title role in much the same fanfare Lugosi did with Frankenstein. Although not as famous as other monsters, The Invisible Man is not without its influence. This is more the story of having power and being intoxicated and eventually corrupted by that power. Also look for Titanic’s Gloria Stewart and the hilarious Una O’Connor, who has the unfortunate luck to stumble upon the Invisible Man in all his invisibility. “There’s a souvenir for you.”
The Wolf Man 1941
“Even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers at night can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.”
Curt Siodmak penned that poem over 70 years ago as the centerpiece for a film that was to feature Boris Karloff. The film was to be called Destiny and provide Karloff with a less lumbering creature than his Frankenstein’s monster. The project was put on hold and would eventually re-emerge as The Wolfman, this time starring the son of the man of a thousand faces, Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney would later in life claim this as his favorite role, because unlike the Monster or the Mummy, it was “completely my own”.
Larry Talbot returns to his father’s home as the next baron of his Welsh town. He is smitten by the local shopkeeper’s daughter (Ankers). When he kills a wolf only later to discover it to be a man (Lugosi) he becomes tormented by the prospect of becoming a werewolf himself.
Lon Chaney’s best performance in The Wolfman surprisingly is not his portrayal of the title monster. His true acting achievement has to be the tortured Larry Talbot. The depth of this role harks to his emotional Lenny from Of Mice And Men. You’ll also enjoy the interplay with Evelyn Ankers and of course his father played by Claude Rains. The gypsy might just as well have been talking about Chaney when she tells the dead Talbot: “The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own.”
There aren’t any new extras here. You get all of the stuff that came with both the DVD and Blu-ray releases including the Spanish language version of Dracula. I’m not sure there is much more that Universal could provide at this point. My biggest disappointment is that there weren’t more films included. The Mummy appears to be a huge overlooked film here.
If you’re a fan, I don’t have to tell you how important this collection is. It’s also worth upgrading from the last Blu-ray set. Once again the discs are in scratch-potential sleeves that I’m really not fond of. There’s plenty to keep you busy for many Halloweens to come. Sit back and “Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.”