DirectorNathan H. Juran, Frances D. Lyon, Will Cowan, John Gilling
Release Date(s)1952/1955/1958/1961 (August 25, 2020)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Shout!/Scream Factory)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B+
- Overall Grade: B
Dedicated to the memory of Barbara Shelley.
Scream Factory continues where they left off with their previous Universal Horror Collection, this time providing us with a variety of horror and mystery films from 1952 to 1961. The four films include The Black Castle, directed by Nathan H. Juran (The Deadly Mantis, Attack of the 50 Foot Woman); Cult of the Cobra, directed by Francis D. Lyon (Destination Inner Space, Castle of Evil); The Thing That Couldn’t Die, directed by Will Cowan (The Big Beat); and The Shadow of the Cat, directed by John Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends, The Plague of the Zombies). These films make up the Blu-ray release Universal Horror Collection: Volume 6.
In 1952’s The Black Castle, Sir Ronald Burton (Ronald Green) and his trusted servant Romley (Tudor Owen) travel to the castle of Count Carl von Bruno (Stephen McNally) and his wife Countess Elga von Bruno (Paula Corday). Burton goes by the alias Richard Beckett to hide his identity from Bruno, whom he believes possibly murdered his friends, but he must find proof if he’s to bring him to justice. Suspicious of Beckett is Bruno’s mute servant Gargon (Lon Chaney, Jr.), as well as his friends Count Steiken (John Hoyt) and Count Ernst von Melcher (Michael Pate). Aiding Burton is his coach driver Fender (Henry Corden) and the castle doctor Mesissen (Boris Karloff). Searching the castle in secret, he begins to fall for the Countess while struggling to keep his identity hidden, which if found out, could mean his death.
The Black Castle is a mostly effective mix of spy picture, swashbuckler, costume romance, and horror film. Richard Green is likable as the leading man and Stephen McNally does fine work as the villain. Karloff and Chaney, the most recognizable actors and the primary reason many people seek this film out, aren’t given as much to do as other films they’ve appeared in prior, but Karloff is certainly a little more front and center than Chaney. He’s also not playing a villain for a change, making him a more interesting character than he might have been otherwise. It has trope-ish qualities to it, borrows shots and music from other Universal horror films, and gets a little needlessly talky from time to time, but The Black Castle is enjoyable with good suspense.
In 1955’s Cult of the Cobra, six friends in the Air Force due to go back home are sightseeing along the streets of an Asian town when they encounter a snake charmer, who tells them of a secret cult of snake worshiping shapeshifters. They initially scoff at him, but Paul (Richard Long) convinces them to go along with it and see it for themselves, promising not to reveal themselves during the ceremony. Things go awry and the cult’s priest puts a death curse on all of them. Once back home, one of the men, Tom (Marshall Thompson), takes an interest in his beautiful new neighbor, Lisa (Faith Domergue). And while Paul is engaged to be married to Julia (Kathleen Hughes), he becomes suspicious of Lisa when some of the other men begin dying in freak accidents. As it turns out, Lisa is a shapeshifting cobra, and she’s come to fulfill the curse.
Several Universal horror films from this era were clearly influenced by Val Lewton, specifically Cat People, and Cult of the Cobra is no exception as the similarities are obvious. The majority of the film takes place in Tom’s and Lisa’s apartments, and the execution makes it look like a TV sitcom most of the time. The performances aren’t all that intriguing, though Faith Domergue is doing a fine job, conflicted with falling in love with Tom and giving into her animal instincts, for whatever that’s worth. The main problem with the film is the initial setup, which doesn’t allow us to curry any sympathy for these characters. A group of people walk into a sacred ritual and not only tarnish it, but intentionally set fire to it. They never once feel sorry for what they did, and we’re supposed to care about whether they live or die? As such, Cult of the Cobra winds up being an exercise in tedium, because none of these characters deserve our compassion or support.
In 1958’s The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a down-on-its-luck family is searching for an underground spring on their ranch with a dowsing rod, operated by the young and beautiful Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) at her Aunt Flavia’s (Peggy Converse) insistence. A guest, Gordon (William Hawthorne), is skeptical and doesn’t approve of encouraging this psychic nonsense. He’s proven wrong when Jessica not only finds water, but an ancient buried box that they hope will bring them riches. The box is later greedily opened in secret by the ranch’s handymen, Boyd (James Anderson) and Mike (Charles Hovarth), revealing the undead head of Gideon (Robin Hughes), an evil sorcerer, who can control the minds of others and had his head separated from his body 400 years prior as punishment for his crimes. He later takes control of the mind of another guest, Linda (Andra Martin), hoping to find his body and re-join it so that he may gain back the full might of his power.
Probably the least film in this set, The Thing That Couldn’t Die has been the subject of lampooning for years thanks to its appearance on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s not a good film, and as Tom Weaver points out in his commentary, more people probably saw it because it was released on a double bill with Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, which is definitely a lopsided pairing. None of the performances are particularly poor and the idea itself isn’t a bad one (it was later done again by Paul Naschy in Horror Rises from the Tomb), but it’s leisurely-paced and takes a very long time to get to the main course, which is over in matter of seconds. It’s also clear that this is one of the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to Universal-International’s horror output as it’s all set in one location. Decent cinematography helps make it look a little less cut-rate than it is, but The Thing That Couldn’t Die is ultimately rather dull.
In 1961’s The Shadow of the Cat, the wealthy but older Mrs. Venable is murdered by her butler, who’s acting under orders of some of her relatives, wanting to usurp an inheritance by destroying the original will, if they can find it, and replacing it with a new one. All but one of them is in on this, Beth (Barbara Shelley), whom Mrs. Venable named as her favorite, showing up at her home not long after her death. The police are unable to find the body, but the other family members have become obsessed with finding Mrs. Venable’s cat Tabitha, who witnessed the murder and has taken a dislike to all of them. Tabitha bides her time and leads each of them to their deaths, but it’s up to Beth, the police, and a sympathetic newspaper man (Conrad Phillips) to find them out.
As it turns out, The Shadow of the Cat is less of a murder mystery since we know who did the evil deed right off the bat, but more about when the villain—or in this case villains—are going to slip up andbe caught. There’s lots of wonderful atmosphere and the black-and-white cinematography is quite nice, but the film feels too long, mainly because it’s mostly characters obsessing over an animal repeatedly. The story could have been trimmed to almost sixty minutes of final screen time and been more impactful. And a film with such a premise really should have had more black humor in it than it does. Later horror anthology films and TV shows like Tales from the Darkside and Tales from the Crypt were better at this sort of thing. Outside of one bit of comic relief and an unintentionally funny moment towards the end, The Shadow of the Cat is mildly entertaining film, despite being very tedious and dry.
Scream Factory brings the four films to Blu-ray for the first time, presenting them on separate discs. The Black Castle is presented utilizing a new 2K scan of a fine grain print. The high bit rate gets the most out this presentation which offers solid, unobtrusive grain and excellent contrast. Gradations are quite good with only minor crush to the blacks. Detail is otherwise strong. Minor speckling and instability occur throughout, but the majority of the presentation is natural and filmic.
The audio is included in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s less narrow than many mono tracks, but clean with good support for dialogue, score, and sound effects. It’s also a bit quiet and needed a volume adjustment.
Cult of the Cobra also comes from a 2K scan of a fine grain print. The first film in any of these sets to be presented in widescreen, it’s a softer, grainier presentation than the previous films. It’s an organic picture with good detail and contrast, though gradations aren’t perfect as whites tend to run a little hot and shadows seem a bit too dark. Minor scratches and speckling are the only visible imperfections and the bit rate is high, but it’s not a very crisp presentation.
The audio is included in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s a clean track with fine support for dialogue and score, with only a few minor clicks in a places.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die also comes from a 2K scan of a fine grain print. It’s a much crisper presentation than its predecessor with high levels of detail and a more refined grain structure. The bit rate is high and the contrast is good, offering excellent gradations with more natural blacks and whites. Transitions are soft and there’s minor speckling and scratches, but it’s an otherwise clean and organic presentation.
The audio is included in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s yet another clean presentation that offers very good support for the various elements, especially dialogue and score.
The Shadow of the Cat also comes from a 2K scan of a fine grain print. It too is a very solid and organic presentation with a mostly healthy grain structure and a high bit rate. Contrast levels are good and gradations are pleasant, although there a few instances when scenes appear a tad too bright. High levels of detail are on display, especially in the shadows, and it’s mostly clean and stable outside of minor speckling. Transitions and cat POV shots are obviously softer (a CinemaScope lens was used to shoot them), but the majority of the presentation is crisp.
The audio is included in English mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. Like the others, it’s a clean, hiss-free presentation with fine support for dialogue and score and no other issues to report.
THE BLACK CASTLE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B+/B-
CULT OF THE COBRA (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B-/B
THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): D-/A-/B
THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/A-/B+
The following extras are included on each disc:
DISC ONE (THE BLACK CASTLE)
- Audio Commentary with Tom Weaver
- Universal Horror Strikes Back! (HD – 13:49)
- Image Gallery (HD – 33 in all – 2:27)
DISC TWO (CULT OF THE COBRA)
- Audio Commentary with Tom Weaver, Steve Kronenberg, David Schecter, and Robert J. Kiss
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:15)
- Revenge of the Creature/Cult of the Cobra TV Spots (HD – 4 in all – 1:24)
- Image Gallery (HD – 36 in all – 2:40)
DISC THREE (THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE)
- Audio Commentary with Tom Weaver and C. Courtney Joyner
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled SD – 1:56)
DISC FOUR (THE SHADOW OF THE CAT)
- Audio Commentary with Bruce G. Hallenbeck
- In the Shadow of Shelley: A Retrospective Interview (HD – 24:29)
- The Curse of the Werewolf/The Shadow of the Cat TV Spot (Upscaled SD – 1:03)
- Image Gallery (HD – 49 in all – 3:41)
The Black Castle features an audio commentary with the always entertaining and informative Tom Weaver, whom appreciates the film while delving into the history of it and its cast and crew. He also occasionally uses actor re-creations of interviews for emphasis (courtesy of Larry Blamire). Universal Horror Strikes Back! is a featurette with authors and film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones in which they discuss how much more interesting Universal horror films became in the 1940s (which is odd since the films in this set are from the 50s and 60s). The image gallery consists of 33 stills of promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. For Cult of the Cobra, Tom Weaver is joined by author Steve Kronenberg, music historian David Schecter, and author Robert J. Kiss. As per usual, Weaver is the primary driving force, occasionally allowing his co-authors and colleagues to contribute, while also continuing to include actor recreations of interviews he’s conducted. The image gallery consists of 36 stills of promotional photos, posters, and lobby cards. For The Thing That Couldn’t Die, Tom Weaver is joined by C. Courtney Joyner, the latter of whom shows up late in the commentary to talk about Western actors and locations. Weaver spends a lot of time talking about dowsing, as well as the usual facts about the history of the film and the cast and crew. The Shadow of the Cat features an audio commentary with Bruce G. Hallenbeck who discusses the cast and crew, talks about the history of the film, reads notes from the censors about the script, settles the debate as to whether or not the film is truly a Hammer Production or not, and reads portions of interviews with the filmmakers. In the Shadow of Shelley features an interview with Barbara Shelley who discusses her career and working at Hammer. She’s quite sweet and was 87 at the time of filming, but she’s very sharp and capable of remembering quite a bit. Since she passed away almost two years ago, it makes this interview not just important, but poignant. (Rest in peace, dear Barbara.) The image gallery consists of 49 stills of press photos, promotional photos, posters, lobby cards, and press ephemera. Also included in the package is a 12-page insert booklet featuring photos and information about each film, as well as a set of Blu-ray credits. Everything is housed in a four-disc amaray case within slipcase packaging.
If you’re a lover of vintage Universal horror, you likely don’t need any recommendations from me about picking up this wonderful set. Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection: Volume 6 is an excellent assortment of films that have rarely been seen by modern movie fans. Making their Blu-ray debuts with some nice transfers, it’s certainly worth your money.
- Tim Salmons