One aspect Universal Studios is best remembered and remains highly regarded for is their collection of monster features. Their immense impact and influence in the horror film genre is virtually irrefutable. More than any other movie production company, the studio has left an indelible mark in the cinema of horror, pretty much becoming synonymous with the genre and creating some of the most iconic figures in all the history of film. Who can deny the faces of Dracula, Frankenstein's monster or his Bride are not permanently etched into our collective memories when thinking of a scary movie or every year Halloween season rolls around. Even if you've never watched a single one of these films, you're already familiar with the names of the characters, their haunting images or the actors who portrayed them.
Universal's legacy dates are far back as the silent era when Carl Laemmle first founded the company, initially producing a variety of melodramas, westerns and serials. Thanks to the amazing work done by character actor Lon Chaney, the studio starting making a name for itself with horror hits 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' (1923) and 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925). Three years later, Carl passed the business down to his son Carl Laemmle Jr. on his 21st birthday and quickly went to work on converting future productions to include sound. He proved himself to nervous shareholders when the massively expensive war epic 'All Quiet on the Western Front' went on to become an Academy Award winner. It's during these years that the company produced many prominent motion pictures that continue to be admired, some of which are affectionately known as Universal Horror.
Laemmle Jr. was an eagerly enthusiastic and aspiring filmmaker with a great interest in horror literature. With the success of 'Western Front,' he sought to bring his favorites books to the silver screen despite the lack of an audience demand for such features. After acquiring the rights from the Stoker estate (which was the mistake made by Prana Film and F. W. Murnau's 'Nosferatu,' greatly afflicting the production and ruining the company into bankruptcy), Laemmle soon established his father's studio as the vanguard house of the horror genre with Tod Browning's 'Dracula.' It was soon followed by another adaptation of a classic novel in James Whale's 'Frankenstein.' Both went on to become box-office hits in the same year. Sadly, the ambitious film producer lost control of the company only five years later, but the studio continued producing one monster feature after another. It's a tradition of the Universal Studios name, commenced by the Laemmle family. And it has left behind a wealth of iconic motion pictures which have influenced countless moviegoers, horror aficionados and filmmakers around the world.
In the tradition of providing the most comprehensive and exhaustive coverage possible (as well as taking some inspiration from Joshua Zyber), we at High-Def Digest have decided to provide separate reviews for each film in the 'Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection' box set. Eight iconic classics of horror cinema are collected into a single, handsomely elegant package, making the contents gathered therein much too extensive to cover in a single review. Each disc also comes with an extensive set of bonus features related to a specific production, adding to the amount of time that fans will likely spend on an individual film. Therefore, this article will serve as the central hub and index to the separate reviews while also providing an overall assessment of the entire package. Click on the link for a more in-depth coverage of a particular title.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings the 'Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection' to Blu-ray in an attractive and elegantly sturdy eight-disc box set. The package is a familiar one which opens much like a book with each shiny page showing poster artwork, a brief entry on the film and disc contents. Those same pages also serve as sleeves for each disc which slide out by placing some slight pressure to the top and bottom, widening the mouth only a little. The inside is smooth and glossy to prevent the discs from scratching.
All eight films are contained on separate Region Free, BD50 discs and found inside one of the pages, respective of the order in which they were theatrically released. The package comes with a 46-page book that features a lengthy essay by Universal Horrors author Tom Weaver, entitled "A Legacy in Horror." The rest is a collection of photos and artwork with interesting blurbs and trivia on each film, the filmmakers, the actors, and on the special effects and make-up work. The side-sliding slipcover is made of a hard cardboard material with beautiful artwork and lightly embossed. At startup, each disc goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
According to a press release from Universal Studios, all eight iconic films, including the Spanish version of 'Dracula,' have been digitally restored and remastered from the original elements. As far as we're aware, the most extensive restoration efforts went towards Todd Browning's 'Dracula,' it's Spanish counterpart, James Whale's 'Frankenstein' and 'Bride of Frankenstein.'
The results of all eight classics are rather stunning and fantastic to say the least. Aside from a good deal of softness present throughout, which is likely inherent the original photography, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode of each film reveals plenty of visible information in the set design with remarkably sharp detailing in the hair and costumes. A fine layer of film grain is faithfully preserved and consistent, giving these high-def presentations an appreciable cinematic appeal. Facial complexions display great lifelike textures, exposing wrinkles and pores in a variety of sequences. Contrast and brightness are well-balanced and spot-on with rich, inky blacks throughout, providing the movies with plenty of dimensionality.
The MVC-encoded 3D presentation of Creature from the Black Lagoon, presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, adds a great deal of fun to the movie's enjoyment. With often jaw-dropping depth, the picture comes with several gimmick shots that protrude and extend beyond the screen with amusing effectiveness. Since it is the format in which it was filmed, the 3D option, which is exclusive to this Blu-ray box set, is the way to go.
Like the video, the original audio designs have been digitally restored and remastered for this Blu-ray release, with the majority of the efforts placed on the same top four films. They are all presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono.
The results are stunningly brilliant with superb, precise dialogue reproduction and an excellent sense of presence. With a sharply detailed mid-range, the soundstage feels spacious and commanding, full of warmth and distinct clarity. Background activity and effects are clear and discrete, creating an appreciably spacious environ. Music exhibits clean differentiation of the notes and instruments with an appropriate low-end, providing a good amount of depth to certain sections of the orchestra. Although a bit of hissing and noise remains audible with some slight distortion in the upper frequencies, the lossless mixes of each film are rather magnificent and are a great joy to listen for loyal fans.
Universal Studios' impact and influence in the cinema of horror is virtually irrefutable, responsible for popularizing the genre and for creating some of the most iconic figures in film history. Their indelible mark is fairly obvious and most felt every year around the Halloween season, and the faces of these monsters are permanently etched into our collective cultural memories when thinking of horror. They are a part of our lives, yet many have probably never even seen these classics all the way through. Now, they can be enjoyed on Blu-ray for the first time in this elegant eight-disc box set, featuring the main creatures often associated with Universal Horror. Each comes with excellent audio and video presentations, bringing these icons of the genre as close as possible to their former glory. And they have never looked as beautiful as they do here. Many of the supplements from previous special edition DVDs are preserved here as well, making this an exhaustive must-own for horror fans and cinephiles everywhere.