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UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 1 Blu-ray Review – Two Horror Legends in Four Frightening Films

Starring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Stanley Ridges, Frances Drake, David Manners

Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, Lew Landers, Lambert Hillyer, Arthur Lubin

Distributed by Scream Factory

universal horror collection vol 1 blu 1 1024x1290 - UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOLUME 1 Blu-ray Review - Two Horror Legends in Four Frightening Films

Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are two of the biggest names in horror for all time – that much is unarguable. Actors who not only came to define the classic horror characters which they played, but also helped shape the genre during a transitional period in cinema when “talking pictures” were new and horror was a hot commodity. Many of the Universal Classic Monster films celebrated today were released decades apart – The Phantom of the Opera came in 1925 while the last Classic Monster given to audiences was The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 – but Karloff and Lugosi co-headlined a year that saw both Frankenstein (1931) and Dracula (1931) hit the screen within nine months of each other. From that moment on both men were inextricably linked to horror and monsters, finding nearly all of their future roles falling under that rubric. Although a rivalry was suggested by the media both men struck up a comfortable working relationship on their first picture together. Nowadays, even newcomers to the world of horror know the names Karloff and Lugosi for the iconic characters they played…

…but the thing most viewers who are old-movie-averse or just unaware don’t realize is these two men did volumes of great work both together and separately. After hitting it big with their 1931 monster twofer, Universal cast Karloff and Lugosi in a handful of features starting with The Black Cat (1934), an in-name-only retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. It’s only worth pointing that out because Poe’s name is still listed in the credits. Here, newlyweds Peter (David Manners) and Joan (Julie Bishop) find their Hungarian honeymoon carriage ride unexpectedly interrupted by Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a WWI veteran who has spent the last 15 years in a Siberian prison. He intends to visit his friend, Poelzig (Karloff), an architect and former military commander who has built his new home atop the remains of the fort he controlled during the war. When an accident forces both Vitus and the couple to seek shelter at Poelzig’s, the doctor learns his old friend might be more of an enemy – stealing your “friend’s” wife, relaying she has died, stealing that same “friend’s” daughter, relaying she has also died (but not really), and betraying your people in wartime for personal gain, not to mention being a secret Satanist. It would seem Vitus is due some sweet revenge.

This is one of the last horror films to sneak by the Hays Code before it became widely enforced in July of 1934 (this was released in May), so filmmaker Edgar G. Ulmer was able to get away with making this picture much more malevolent and twisted than if it had been done any later. The sets are grand and Gothic, especially the lair in which Poelzig keeps a museum of dead, preserved women in glass cases. Some of the shots in that set are just exquisite. Vitus and Poelzig spend much of the film playing a gentleman’s game of cat-and-mouse but once the gloves come off in the finale it gets fairly nasty. Nothing is overtly shown, of course, but for 1934 even the implication of these actions was a shock. And it worked because this was one of the biggest hits for Universal that year.

Karloff and Lugosi reunited the following year for The Raven (1935), another loose retelling of a Poe classic. Jean Thatcher (Irene Ware) is injured in a car accident and the only man skilled enough to mend her is retired surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi). Jean’s father, Judge Thatcher (Samuel S. Hinds), and her boyfriend, Jerry (Lester Matthews), plead with Vollin to perform her operation; eventually, he agrees. The surgery a success, Vollin and Jean strike up a friendship and that’s when ol’ Richard decides now is a good time to bring up his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe, in particular the torture devices which he describes in his writings. Jean, unsurprisingly, doesn’t immediately dump Jerry for the now-courting Vollin. Meanwhile, an escaped murderer, Bateman (Karloff), seeks out Vollin to help change his face so he can start a new life with a new attitude. Vollin agrees but instead turns Bateman into a disfigured freak and only offers to fix his visage if the man helps trap and torture Jean and her family.

This story is no less warped than The Black Cat, even with the Hays Code in effect. Dr. Vollin is an egomaniac with a true penchant for sadism; there isn’t much gray area there. Lugosi is fiery and passionate; admirable, even if he is nuts. But Bateman, despite being a murderer, is self-aware and seems to understand what makes him a monster on the inside. This surgery could literally make him a new man and he wants a new attitude to go with the face. Karloff’s character is more tragic in this regard and, as usual, he plays the role with the right notes of redemption and grace. The make-up effects used on Karloff’s face are… less than convincing – his closed right eye is painted over with a deformed one. But the black-and-white photography conceals what it can and Karloff’s acting makes up for the rest.  

Third up in this set is The Invisible Ray (1936), which is more of a mad scientist thriller than straight horror. Karloff is again villainous, though with noble intentions as Dr. Janos Rukh, an astronomer who finds a way to capture light from the Andromeda Galaxy and use it to view past events – in this case, the crash landing of a meteor in Africa some one billion years ago. Rukh and a group of his associates, among them Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi), travel to site where the impact occurred and, acting alone, Rukh finds an unknown element present, dubbed “Radium X”. This is exciting news. Unfortunately, the element has a profound effect on Rukh, causing him to glow in the dark and making him deadly to the touch. But Radium X also offers life-saving properties, too, and after Rukh’s discovery is made known Dr. Benet vows to use it for good despite Rukh’s insistence the element is his and his alone. As the poison in Rukh’s system begins to infect his mind, he goes on a rampage against the very peers he once called friends, accusing them of thievery.

Deranged doctor films tend to work well because often their quest is something of great scientific importance – “continuing research” on something arcane is a popular excuse. These men truly think they are about to change the world, and in Dr. Rukh’s case he does. There is a real Jekyll/Hyde quality to Rukh and he’s aware of his dastardly acts instead of simply being an absolute evil. Benet tries to help his friend, offering genuine altruism, and Lugosi has some great scenes with Karloff as the two discuss possibilities for the present and future of this great discovery. The film overall is a bit uneven but no less enjoyable because of it.

Finally, we come to Black Friday (1940), which ends this foursome on an odd note. Neither Karloff nor Lugosi has the main role; instead, Stanley Ridges stars in a dual role with both of the main marquee draws taking supporting parts – in Lugosi’s case a very minor one. Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) is about to be put to death, but before the switch is pulled a reporter in the viewing room reads an account which Sovac wrote detailing how he wound up in this position. Flashback to sometime prior with Dr. Sovac and his friend, Prof. George Kingsley (Ridges), saying farewell after a meeting when a car driven by bank robber Red Cannon (how’s that for a name? also played by Ridges) crashes and hits George. In the hospital George is declared a vegetable while Red Cannon is left crippled. Dr. Sovac, sensing an opportunity to possibly bring back his old friend, puts Red’s functioning brain in George’s body… because he apparently didn’t consider the brain is what holds one’s personality. Regardless, George is revived and feeling fine… except for these strange anger spells that have been coming on lately. Dr. Sovac learns his friend George is now two people: himself and Red Cannon. Dr. Sovac also learns Red stashed half a million in cash back in NYC, so the good doctor decides to take his friend on a little trip in hopes it might jog his memory… and possibly lead to a windfall of cash to help continue his research.

Apparently, Karloff thought the lead part of George/Red would be too difficult because of the nuance required to bring two fully realized characters to life. Lugosi was to play Dr. Sovac. When Karloff’s request was accommodated he took on the doctor role leaving Lugosi with the minor part of a gangster in Red’s faction. But ever the professional, Lugosi still delivers a strong performance despite his limited screen time. Karloff is always a pleasure to watch, and his scientist role here is again duplicitous with the doctor both a friend to George and a greedy observer essentially treating his friend as an experiment. This film features the least horror in the lot – it’s really a body swap gangster picture – but what anchors it is Ridges’ killer performance. The George/Red personas are treated like Clark Kent and Superman; when Red starts to emerge suddenly George loses his glasses and gains a darker head of hair. Fun fact: this was almost called “Friday the Thirteenth”.

I’ll admit to slacking on watching classic horror films in recent years and this set was a strong reminder not to sleep on seeking out these older pictures. The lack of modern techniques and technology isn’t a hindrance in any way. Filmmakers relied on ingenuity and innovation to achieve their goals, and they didn’t waste a lot of time. Most of these films run for just over an hour and still manage to tell a complete story and showcase monster and mayhem. Karloff and Lugosi trade off in their roles – sometimes the hero, sometimes the villain, sometimes a little of both – and it’s a true pleasure to watch them inhabit new bodies with the same acting skills and presence. The first film in this set is a great starting point for those who want to see more of the work these venerable titans of horror did in their heyday.

Aside from The Black Cat every film here has been given a new 2K scan from “original film elements” and the resulting 1.33:1 1080p transfers are all in line with each other. Film grain is often heavy but never displeasing. Contrast is just above average; black levels seem like they could be richer. Emulsion scratches in the prints occasionally pop up, though nothing too egregious. Definition and fine detail are fairly good but more often than not the image is slightly soft rather than ultra-tight. Given none of these masters appear to have originated from an original negative (did those get destroyed in Universal’s big fire?) I’d say the overall image quality across the board is very good.

Each film is given an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track, the results of which are, again, pretty similar across each of the four films. Dialogue is always clear and expertly mixed, and usually riding solo because musical scores weren’t always common in these days. Only two films – The Black Cat and The Invisible Ray – have prominent scoring. Sound effects register well and are balanced nicely alongside dialogue. The mono tracks are very straightforward and have little in the way of subtle flourishes, and these audio tracks all present the soundtracks as intended. Subtitles are available on each film in English.

Special Features:

The Black Cat:

  • NEW Audio Commentary by author/film historian Gregory William Mank
  • NEW Audio Commentary by author/film historian Steve Haberman
  • NEW Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe – narrated by Doug Bradley
  • NEW A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part One: The Black Cat
  • Vintage footage – The Black Cat Contest
  • Still Gallery

The Raven:

  • NEW 2K REMASTER OF THE FILM
  • NEW Audio Commentary with author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes
  • NEW Audio Commentary with author/film historian Steve Haberman
  • NEW A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Two: The Raven
  • Audio Recording: Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart”
  • Still Gallery

The Invisible Ray:

  • NEW 2K REMASTER OF THE FILM
  • NEW Audio Commentary with authors/film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson
  • NEW A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Three: The Invisible Ray
  • Re-Release Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery

Black Friday:

  • NEW 2K REMASTER OF THE FILM
  • NEW Audio Commentary with filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr
  • NEW A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Four: Black Friday
  • Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show: “The Tell-Tale Heart” starring Boris Karloff
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery
  • The Black Cat
  • The Raven
  • The Invisible Ray
  • Black Friday
3.9

Summary

Karloff and Lugosi are two of the most important names in horror but it is equally important to celebrate more than just their most popular roles. This set brings together four films – each unique in its depiction of terror – and there are some fantastic bonus features included, too.

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Written by Anthony Arrigo

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