Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Jun 17, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Review)

Director

Edgar G. Ulmer/Lew Landers/Lambert Hillyer/Arthur Lubin

Release Date(s)

1934/1935/1936/1940 (June 18, 2019)

Studio(s)

Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A-

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

During the 1930s and 1940s, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were inarguably two of the most recognizable and feared faces in the horror world, especially to young kids growing up on a steady diet of Universal’s monster movies. The idea was hatched to put the two together and give them new material to work with within the confines of the thriller and suspense genres. Universal Pictures produced six of these eight films, four of which are included in Scream Factory’s newest boxed set offering – Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1.

Appropriately enough, this set begins with Karloff’s and Lugosi’s first pairing: The Black Cat (AKA The Vanishing Body and The House of Doom). In the film, a loving couple are on their honeymoon. Traveling by train, they share space with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a war veteran who is traveling to visit a man he refers to as “an old friend.” After a subsequent tragic bus ride in which the driver loses control during a heavy rainstorm, the four walk to the secluded home of Werdegast’s friend Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). Also a war veteran, Poelzig is accused of betrayal and murder by Werdegast, whose wife and child he deprived him of after he was captured and taken prisoner during the war fifteen years prior. Meanwhile, Poelzig, a worshipper of Satan, plans to sacrifice the recently betrothed wife during an upcoming Satanic ritual.

The Black Cat is one of Universal’s more interesting horror films from this era. Besides Lugosi and Karloff getting a chance to act together and giving superb performances (career bests for both of them), the exploration of the effects of the recent war hadn’t quite been dealt with in such a way on film. The movie is also not an adaptation of any of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, though the titular feline does appear, albeit shoehorned into the story unnaturally. The plot’s use of Satanism is also fascinating, and it’s a wonder that The Black Cat didn’t stir up any major controversy upon its initial release. On the contrary, it was actually Universal’s biggest money maker in 1934. And to no one’s surprise, the Karloff/Lugosi formula would continue thereafter.

One year later, 1935 to be exact, The Raven was released, which continued to drawn upon the work of Poe without fully incorporating it into the narrative. In the film, a beautiful young woman is injured during a car accident and a retired surgeon, Dr. Vollin (Lugosi), is brought in to operate. Becoming obsessed with her, he vows to take her for himself against her father’s wishes. He subsequently takes in a criminal on the run (Karloff) and performs surgery on his face to render him horribly disfigured. The unwitting lawbreaker then becomes a slave to Vollin who promises to repair him only if he helps in carrying out his evil plans by exacting revenge against the girl’s father and capturing her to end his obsession and take her for his own.

The film’s story isn’t quite as memorable or as exciting as the previous film. Indeed, it feels more like a multi-part serial than a 60-minute narrative – complete with a device that controls the opening and closing of doors, steel shutters on windows, and a room with walls that close in. The ties to Poe are such that Dr. Vollin is a collector of Poe artifacts, reciting excerpts from the original poem of The Raven with some frequency. He also has a basement full of torture devices, including a blade-equipped pendulum that’s put to dastardly use. Lugosi as Vollin is given a commanding role while Karloff’s character is more or less a Frankenstein’s Monster type post-surgery. Their performances are more than adequate, but the film isn’t quite the triumph that its predecessor is. It’s entertaining, of course, but not up to the high standard that’s been set.

The Invisible Ray, which followed in 1936, falls somewhere in between in terms of quality. In the film, astronomer Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) succeeds in building a telescope powerful enough to view Earth’s past events via light rays taken from a distant galaxy, thereby witnessing a meteorite as it crashes into the Earth’s surface a billion years prior. He and two other scientists, including Dr. Benet (Lugosi), visit Africa in hopes of finding the original crash site. Neglecting his wife in the process, Rukh becomes exposed to a form of radiation known as Radium X, which not only causes his skin to glow in the dark, but is also deadly to the touch. The radiation also begins to alter his mind and when he learns that his wife intends to leave him for someone else, he fakes his own death in order to take cold, calculated revenge against those that he deems to have wronged him, including his beloved wife.

Once again, Karloff and Lugosi are in top form in this unusual sci-fi thriller. Karloff gives a nuanced and magnetic performance as a man who slowly loses his way, as well as his mind, through almost no fault of his own. In contrast, Lugosi is his handsome and dapper counterpart, playing a kind man with good intentions who cares deeply for his friend’s well-being. The story is one of the more complex science fiction tales to come out of this period. While later films would be based more on atomic fallout and the exposure of it to nature, such as Them! and The Deadly Mantis, this film deals with its elements in a more personal way. Karloff, as per usual when portraying a villain of this caliber, allows for an enormous amount of pathos. He isn’t justified in his actions, per se, but you also hope that he can find his way back from madness.

The final film in this set (as well as the next to last film that Karloff and Lugosi would appear in together) is Black Friday, perhaps their most fascinating when it comes to its genesis. In the film, English professor George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges) is due to retire from teaching but is tragically injured during a shootout between factions of rivaling gangsters and left in critical condition. His friend, doctor Ernest Sovac (Karloff), decides to try an illegal form of brain surgery, giving George part of the brain of a dying gangster, Red Cannon, in an attempt to save his life, but also to learn the whereabouts of a hidden bounty of money to fund his medical research. The surgery is a success, but George begins randomly transforming into Red, going after those who put him in this position, as well as securing his aforementioned capital. Another gangster (Lugosi) learns of this and attempts to track him down and steal the money out from under him.

Not a story that screams horror at all, Black Friday had a complicated script approval process due to a new regime at Universal who were keen on pleasing the newly-implemented Hays code. Originally, the film was to be called Friday the Thirteenth and was more of an overt horror film about a killer who murders his victims every time the calendar falls on that particular date (imagine that). Tossed out by the studio and rewritten, the film’s marketing campaign was created in anticipation of another Karloff/Lugosi collaboration. Ultimately, it was false advertising as neither of them share a single scene together, nor are they the main stars. Stanley Ridges, who doesn’t even get top billing, is the story’s main focus. Karloff is essentially a co-star and Lugosi is present for a glorified cameo, featured only in a few short scenes. Lugosi, at this time, was also anxious to play other types of roles and get away from portraying vampires and mad scientists.

In all honesty, I actually kind of like Black Friday as I tend to get engrossed in the story a bit once it gets going, but audiences and critics weren’t altogether kind to the film upon its release, or since, mainly due to its bogus claims of having Karloff and Lugosi in a movie together. But if you take a step back from all of that and just watch the film for what it is, there’s something about it that makes it thoroughly watchable. Sadly, it wasn’t quite the note to go out on in Universal’s Karloff/Lugosi collaboration legacy, but it has more merit to it than one might initially perceive.

Scream Factory brings these four films to Blu-ray for the first time with transfers that range only slightly in quality. The Black Cat is sourced from an older DVD era transfer and the element that was used looks to have been in rough shape. Without heavy restoration efforts, it probably can’t look much better than it does here – which isn’t bad, but leaves room for improvement. Grain levels are decent, though limited, leaving a general softness and only the mildest of fine detail. Blacks are often crushed, including the storm-drenched car ride scene at the beginning of the film, which is a little muddy, but delineation improves during brighter scenes. Contrast wavers due to either the density of the utilized element or the quality of the original scan. Leftover damage is apparent, which includes instability, mild speckling, and scratches. It’s a thoroughly watchable presentation, but it’s the least of the four transfers in this set for sure.

Matters improve with The Raven, whose transfer is taken from a “new 2K scan from the original film elements.” The fresh scan reveals a more potent presentation. Although a general softness is still present, there’s certainly more clarity and depth to the image. Grain levels, contrast, and delineation are all improved, as are black levels, which are more natural, lacking in overt crush with stronger detail in the shadows. Mild speckling is leftover, but the presentation as a whole is stable and clear.

The Invisible Ray is touted to have come from a similar new 2K transfer, though it looks to be sourced from a print based upon how crushed the blacks are in many scenes. This is a film loaded with opticals so even the finest elements available aren’t going to warrant perfect results. That said, this is still another nice presentation as everything is clear and well-defined. There are constant scratches and speckling on display, and due to the unevenness of the optical printing of effects, heavy and uneven grain. Delineation is mostly good, though darker and heavily-processed scenes are slightly more difficult to make out.

Last but not least is Black Friday, which is also sourced from a new 2K transfer, also likely from a print. In contrast to the previous film, the element that’s been used is actually in much better shape, with less leftover damage. Blacks are still crushed and delineation isn’t anything to write home about, but everything appears much cleaner and clearer. Even the transitions are less problematical when it comes to sharpness. Again, not perfect, but solid.

The audio for all of the films is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD, all with optional subtitles in English SDH. The presentation of The Black Cat is flat and narrow with mild hiss present throughout. Dialogue, sound effects, and score are quite vintage in nature, but are represented well enough to never introduce any problems. The audio for The Raven is much of the same, though slightly cleaner and more pronounced with less hiss. The audio for The Invisible Ray is by far the weakest of the lot. Dialogue and score are well-represented, but the warble of a low quality source is unmistakable, which tends to only be noticeable during quieter moments in the track. There’s also mild hiss, and in one instance, a sizeable click. Finally there’s Black Friday, which is characterized by the same sort of qualities as the previous films, but with more pronounced crackle and light hiss throughout.

THE BLACK CAT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/C+/B-
THE RAVEN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B/B-
THE INVISIBLE RAY (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B-/B-/C-
BLACK FRIDAY (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B/B-

This set also offers an excellent set of extras to supplement each film as well. For The Black Cat, there are two audio commentaries to choose from: one with author and film historian Gregory William Mank, and the other with producer and film historian Steve Haberman. Mank is quite screen-specific as he gives the sordid details of the film’s production and premiere while Haberman intellectualizes and contextualizes the film while also covering many facets of the cast and crew. Also included is A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal – Part 1: The Black Cat, a 24-minute multi-part documentary (from disc to disc) with authors and film historians Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank, which delves into much of the same ground as the audio commentaries, but expands upon it. There’s also Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe, a fantastic 56-minute documentary by Constantine Nasr, narrated by Doug Bradley, which highlights a variety of films based upon Poe’s work, beginning with those made by D.W. Griffith and all the way up to Roger Corman. In addition, there’s the silent minute-long reel Vintage Footage – The Black Cat Contest in which Karloff and Lugosi personally judge black cats belonging to young children, and an animated still gallery, which features 92 images of behind-the-scenes photos, publicity photos, posters, promotional materials, lobby cards, and newspaper clippings.

For The Raven, there are two audio commentaries: one with author Gary D. Rhodes and the other with Steve Haberman. Rhodes gives a history of how the film came into being, as well as Lugosi’s involvement with it, while Haberman delves into deeper detail about the film’s cast and crew, as well as Edgar Allan Poe. Also included is A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal – Part 2: The Raven, an 18-minute continuation that covers the film even further; a fantastic 13-minute audio recording of Bela Lugosi reading Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart; and an animated still gallery, which features 87 images of publicity photos, posters, promotional materials, lobby cards, and newspaper clippings.

For The Invisible Ray, there's an audio commentary with author Tom Weaver, author and film music historian Randall Larson, and Bela Lugosi and Frances Drake re-enactors Larry Blamire and Jennifer Blaire. As with all of Tom Weaver’s commentaries, it’s more of an experience, complete with actors recreating sections of interviews of long-dead actors, as well as an abundance of great information about the film, its cast, and its crew. Continuing where it left off is A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal – Part 3: The Invisible Ray, 17 additional minutes that go into Karloff’s and Lugosi’s supposed rivalry, as well as the film in question. In addition, there’s the film’s theatrical re-release trailer and an animated still gallery, which features 73 images of publicity photos, posters, promotional materials, lobby cards, and newspaper clippings.

For Black Friday, there’s a fantastic audio commentary with filmmaker and film historian Constantine Nasr, which dives deep into the film’s history from the script process to its eventual release, including many revelations about its cast and its content. Closing out the documentary side of things is A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal – Part 4: Black Friday, the final 17 minutes of which cover much of the same ground as the commentary, but from Lugosi’s and Karloff’s perspectives. There’s also the 27-minute Inner Sanctum Mystery radio show featuring Boris Karloff in a terrific performance of an adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart; the film’s theatrical trailer; and an animated still gallery, which features 69 images of publicity photos, posters, promotional materials, lobby cards, and newspaper clippings. In addition, this set also includes a 12-page insert booklet with photos and cast and crew information about each film.

If you’re a lover of vintage Universal horror, you likely don’t need any recommendations from me about picking up this wonderful boxed set. Be rest assured that Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 is an excellent assortment of classic films making their Blu-ray debuts with nice transfers and engrossing extras that’s worth every penny of your money.

– Tim Salmons

Tags

1934, 1935, 1936, 1940, Albert Akst, Albert Conti, Anne Gwynne, Anne Nagel, Arthur Lubin, Bela Lugosi, Bernard W Burton, Bernard W_ Burton, Beulah Bondi, Black Friday, Blu-ray, Blu-ray Disc, Boris Karloff, box set, boxed set, boxset, Carl Laemmle Jr, Carl Laemmle Jr_, Charles Stumar, Clifford Vaughan, collection, Constantine Nasr, Curt Siodmak, David Boehm, David Manners, Diamond David, Edgar Allan Poe, Edgar G Ulmer, Edgar G_ Ulmer, Edmund MacDonald, Egon Brecher, Elwood Bredell, EM Asher, Eric Taylor, E_M_ Asher, Frances Drake, Frank Lawton, Frank Reicher, Franz Waxman, Gary D Rhodes, Gary D_ Rhodes, George Robinson, Georges Renavent, Gonzalo Merono, Gregory William Mank, Harry Cording, Heinz Eric Roemheld, Henry Armetta, horror, Ian Wolfe, Inez Courtney, Irene Ware, Jacqueline Wells, Jennifer Blaire, John Carradine, John Colton, John J Mescall, John J_ Mescall, Julie Bishop, Karloff, Lambert Hillyer, Larry Blamire, Lester Matthews, Lew Landers, Lucille Lund, Maidel Turner, Murray Alper, Paul Fix, Paul Weigel, Peter Ruric, Philip Cahn, pre-code, Raine Bennett, Randall Larson, Ray Curtiss, review, Samuel S Hinds, Samuel S_ Hinds, Scream Factory, Shout Factory, Shout! Factory, Spencer Charters, Stanley Ridges, Steve Haberman, suspense, The Black Cat, The Digital Bits, The Invisible Ray, The Raven, Tim Salmons, Tom Weaver, Universal Horror Collection, Universal Horror Collection Volume 1, Universal Pictures, Violet Kemble Cooper, Virginia Brissac, Volume 1, Walter Kingsford
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