Universal Monsters: The Essential Collection (Empire Blu-ray Review)

UniversalMonstersSquareUniversal is the Hollywood studio built by monsters, so it’s fitting that one of the cornerstones of its 100th anniversary celebration is this magnificent box set, resurrecting eight of the studio’s most celebrated horror films of the sound era, in glorious HD for the first time.

The jewel in its crown is a brand new restoration of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), which immortalised Bela Lugosi, established countless horror conventions, and now sets a new benchmark for black and white film restoration. Every scratch, flicker and glitch has gone, the sound is astonishingly crisp; even the spliced-in sea voyage footage, which always ran at a slightly faster film speed, has been slowed down and cleaned up. The same attention has been paid to the simultaneously-filmed Spanish language version, and, to a greater or lesser extent, the rest of the collection, most significantly James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931) and its superb sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935), both of which benefit from the sharper image and higher contrast, revealing a level of detail probably unseen even on their original release.

Frankenstein made a star of British truck driver Boris Karloff, and he returned with a vengeance in Dracula cinematographer (and uncredited co-director) Karl Freund’s The Mummy (1932), in which resurrected Egyptian high priest Im-Ho-Tep menaces an expedition of British explorers. While Dracula and Frankenstein bore little fealty to their source material, James Whale’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man (1933) was surprisingly faithful (probably because, unlike Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, Wells was still alive), and while the shock of the ground-breaking special effects has worn off, Claude Rains’ descent into madness remains as powerful as ever. Recently remade, somewhat less successfully than The Mummy, The Wolf Man (1941) followed the Frankenstein model in showing a more sympathetic side to the monster, as Lon Chaney Jr. succumbs to the curse of the werewolf.

Happily, the restoration team has taken care not to allow the higher definition to reveal more (in terms of makeup and effects) than the director would have wished, particularly in the clever camera trickery of The Invisible Man (1933), and the wonderful creature suit in the immensely enjoyable (but no longer scary) monster movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Of the eight films included (not counting the Spanish Dracula and 3D version – no, really! – of Creature from the Black Lagoon), only the lavish Technicolor splendour of Phantom of the Opera (1943) seems incongruous (perhaps the silent Lon Chaney version would have been a better fit?), but it, too, looks extraordinary in HD.

EXTRAS: Sequels aside, the vast array of extras from individual DVD editions are included, along with a new featurette covering Dracula’s restoration. That’s Christmas for horror fans sorted, then.

FILMS ★★★★ EXTRAS ★★★★★

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