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, who quickly went to work on converting future production 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 company produced many prominent motion pictures which continue to be admired and are affectionately known as Universal Horror.
Although far from being the last in the Universal Monster legacy, 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' is often thought of as completing the famous collection of horror. When it comes to the memorable icons of the genre, there's a bit of truth behind this logic. Personally, I think it unfair and sad that the Mole People and the bug-eyed mutant from 'This Island Earth' are not included in the collective memories of moviegoers.
But still, I can understand the preference to finish the series of classic scare features with the Gill-Man. It's a terrifically entertaining creature-feature. It's also one of the more famous and celebrated productions released during the golden era of 3-D movies, a format that reached its decline soon after the release of 'Creature' thanks to the growth of TV and the widespread acceptance of anamorphic widescreen. Moreover, the movie's success invigorated a whole new legion of fans interested in revisiting Universal's horror films and put the studio back on the map as the vanguard of the genre.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the film, other than Millicent Patrick's iconic creature design, is the story of a small group of scientists on the verge of discovering a new species while exploring the Amazon. Based on an idea by producer William Alland, the movie comes at the cusp of when sci-fi horror flicks inadvertently confronted societal, cultural fears of the Cold War, the Atomic Age and science in general, popularized by the likes of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951),' 'The Thing from another World (1951)' and 'War of the Worlds (1953).'
In this darkly atmospheric classic directed by Jack Arnold, the creature we are supposed to fear and cringe at the sight of actually has a sympathetic streak, a prehistoric animal pushed into survival mode when strangers tread upon his territory. Or as Marilyn Monroe once famously said to Tom Ewell that it only craved affection, to be loved and needed. To some degree, the Blonde Bombshell makes an excellent point. The scientists interestingly turn out to be the real monsters, as portrayed by Richard Denning's obsession to capture and dissect an otherwise defenseless creature, finishing in a rather tragic, slightly sad conclusion. Nevertheless, it's a fantastic film that thoroughly entertains and excites, made all the more glorious in its native 3D format.
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.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, 'Creature' comes out from beneath the watery depths with a first-rate MVC-encoded transfer that adds a great deal of fun to the movie's enjoyment. Whether we're are swimming in the murky lagoon or chatting the day away on the boat, dimensionality is consistent and astoundingly jaw-dropping in several scenes. Fish, plant debris and other random gunk drift out of the screen and into the middle of the living room, hovering for a few seconds as if waiting to be swatted away. Characters move about in the background and trees sway in the distance to create a pleasing pop-up book effect and genuine three-dimensional space. The creature's finned claw extends beyond the screen with amusing gimmicky effectiveness, and the pointed end of the spear gun protrudes out, reaching towards your face. Although the image's parallax is terrifically astonishing, the amount of depth combined with certain camera movements can be rather dizzying at times. Still, the 3D presentation is the way to watch the classic film. (3D Video Rating: 4.5/5)
In 2D, the picture remains strong with a well-balanced contrast. Some very minor, negligible ringing around the edges does appear, however, and film grain tends to fluctuate noticeably, though not to any disastrous extent. (Both these issues are not as easy to detect while wearing the darken glasses.) Blacks are deep and true with many penetrating shadows that don't overwhelm the finer details, adding to the movie's dimensionality. Although it didn't receive the same care and treatment as 'Dracula' and 'Frankenstein,' the high-def transfer still displays sharply defined lines in the foliage and around the boat. The creature's scaly, slimy body is splendidly distinct, exposing remarkable texture in the best-looking sequences. Many soft focus and poorly-resolved scenes are inherent to the negative and photography, seen mostly during fades into the next scenes and a few optical push-ins. The sun's rays shining through the water can be easily mistaken for banding, which they are not. (2D Video Rating: 4/5)
The real surprise from this prehistoric creature-feature is the wonderful DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtrack. The several fantastic ambient effects create a wide, spacious imaging that gives the film a commanding sense of presence. Acoustics and fidelity are detailed with a great deal of warmth while the mid-range maintains excellent clarity. The creature's dinosaur-like cries are clear and pitch-perfect, and the dialogue of characters is well-prioritized. The low-end is also healthy and hearty, adding the appropriate depth to the action and music. The unique score by Herman Stein, Hans J. Salter and Henry Mancini comes with splendid distinction and separation of the instruments. The horn section, which reaches fever pitch highs on several occasions, does expose some minor distortion and noise, but it's forgivable considering the rest of this lossless mix is terrific.
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.
You can read more about the complete set and order it here!