Sunday, August 30, 2020

UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION: VOL. 6 (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)

(1952-1961) 4-DISC SET 

Label: Scream Factory

Region Code: A
Rating: Unrated
Video: 1080p HD Fullscreen (1.37:1), 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1), 1080p Widescreen (1.85:1) HD Widescreen (1.66:1)
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Directors: Nathan Juran, Francis D. Lyon, Will Cowan, John Gilling
Cast: Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr., John Hoyt, Michael Pate, Nancy Valentine, Tudor Owen, Romley, Henry Corden / Faith Domergue, Kathleen Hughes, Richard Long, Jack Kelly, David Janssen, Marshall Thompson, Edward Platt / André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas, Freda Jackson, Conrad Phillips

Universal Horror Collection Volume 6 includes four tales of terror from the archives of Universal Pictures, the true home of classic horror. Boris Karloff stars as a doctor who risks his own life to save the captives of a mad count in The Black Castle. Vengeance is sworn against six men who witness a ceremony where beautiful women turn into serpents in Cult Of The Cobra. In The Thing That Couldn’t Die, when a young psychic discovers a box that contains the living head of an executed devil worshiper … heads will roll! A cat witnesses the murder of her owner ... and this cat is hell-bent on revenge in The Shadow Of The Cat.


Duration: 82 Minutes

Rating: Unrated
Video: 1080p HD (1.37:1) B&W
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 

Director: Nathan Juran
Cast: Richard Greene, Boris Karloff, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr., John Hoyt, Michael Pate, Nancy Valentine, Tudor Owen, Romley
Henry Corden

In the Black Castle adventurer Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Greene, The Blood of Fu Manchu) believes his good friend was killed why staying at the castle of the nefarious Count von Bruno (Stephen McNally, Black Gunn). Looking to prove it he travels under a false name to the the castle and stays a few days as a guest of the Count. It turns out that though he and the Count have never met they share a shady past on the African continent. Burton is able to maintain his false identity for a bit, but things get a bit more complicated when he begins to fall in love with the Count's attractive, and apparently long suffering, wife Countess Elga von Bruno, (Rita Corday, The Body Snatcher). We also get welcomed appearances from horror icons Boris Karloff, Frankenstein) as the duplicitous Dr. Meissen, and a mute performance from Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) in his last Universal role, as a simple-minded henchman.

It's sort of standard issue thriller that holds no real surprises but it is well-directed and staged with some cool looking castle sets, complete with a torture dungeon. It's an immensely enjoyable flick for fans of vintage Gothic melodrama, and Stephen McNally is fantastic as the evil-hearted, one-eyed Count. Expectantly his character catches onto not only Burton's true identity and plans but also to the fact that he's trying to steal his wife from right under his nose, which leads to some diabolical premature burials. It's great to see Karloff in a supporting role, but it's got some meat on it and he manages to make a savory meal out of what would have been a snack is less capable hands.  

Special Features:

- NEW 2K scan from a fine grain film element
- NEW Audio Commentary with author/film historian Tom Weaver
- NEW Universal Horror Strikes Back! - a look at Universal Horror in the 40s (14 min) 
- Still Gallery (2 min) 


Duration: 82 Minutes

Rating: Unrated
Video: 1080p HD (1.85:1) B&W
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Director: Francis D. Lyon 
Cast: Faith Domergue, Kathleen Hughes, Richard Long, Jack Kelly, David Janssen, Marshall Thompson, Edward Platt

In Cult of the Cobra we have a group of six tight-knit servicemen somewhere on the Asian continent exploring a bizarre shortly before being shipped home following the end of WWII. They happen across a snake-charmer who says for a $100 U.S. he can sneak the adventure seeking GI's into a secret 
Lamian cult meeting. Sure enough he delivers on that promise, disguising the Americans in hooded robes and getting them inside a secret cult gathering where they witness a scintillating snake-dance. Things are going great until one of the GI's fucks it all up by doing the one thing he was told not to do, snap a damn  picture, with the flashbulb turned on no less! Not only that, he steals the basket containing the snake-woman on the way out with the cult leader issuing a curse on the men on their way out that "the Cobra Goddess will avenge herself!", before killing the snake charmer for his betrayal.

The snap-happy photographer is superficially injured during the escape and ends up at a hospital, but that night a venomous cobra slithers into his hospital room and kills him. The five surviving military men return to the U.S. and get on with the civilian lives in New York City. One of the GI's named Tom (Marshall Thompson, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) meets an attractive young woman who has moved in across the hall at his apartment, the alluring and mysterious Lisa (Faith Domergue, This Island Earth). Soon after meeting her the group of guys begin to die off in a series of mysterious accidents, and it seems that maybe the attractive girl next door is really a shape-shifting cobra cultist making good on the cult leader's curse. 

The flick is fun even though it settles into melodrama for longer periods than I would have liked, but when the venom starts flowing it's a good time with the guys dying off in car accidents and falling out of a window. The snake transformations all happen off-screen save for the last one and even that's not all that great, but it's a good pulpy watch and I liked the way they created a snake POV when it was stalking it's prey. 

Special Features:

- NEW 2K scan from a fine grain film element
- NEW Audio Commentary with film historians Tom Weaver, Steve Kronenberg, David Schecter and Robert J. Kiss
- Theatrical Trailer (1 min) 
- TV Spots for the double feature of Revenge of the Creature/Cult of the Cobra (1 min) 
- Still Gallery (3 min) 


Duration: 69 Minutes

Rating: Unrated
Video: 1080p HD (1.85:1) B&W
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles 
Director: Will Cowan 
Cast: William Reynolds, Andra Martin, Jeffrey Stone, Carolyn Kearney

In the schlocky The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958) we have a young woman with psychic powers named Jessica (Carolyn Kearney) who lives on a dusty dude ranch with her aging Aunt Flavia (Peggy Converse). As the film opens she is water dousing with the prerequisite forked stick to lead her to a good spot to dig a water well. While doing so she detects a great evil buried beneath the ground, and when her Aunt's ranch hands dig in that spot they find an buried ancient trunk bound with iron straps. When the trunk is eventually pried-open by a particularly strong ranch hand he finds that there is no buried treasure inside, but the disembodied head of a sixteenth century Spanish devil-worshiper named Gideon Drew (Robin Hughes, Cult of the Cobra), who was beheaded four hundred year ago for dabbling in the occult! 

Of course the head is still very much alive, and not to shabby looking for being 400 year-old,  and it's looking to be reunited with it's long-buried body, which brought to mind the story of Sleepy Hollow. The evil head is able to wordlessly possess those around it to make them do his bidding, and for the era the detached head appliance used is alright, but the film is dang goofy and is well-deserving of the MST3K skewering that it has received along with it's reputation as a z-grade stinker. That's not to say this is not a fun watch though, it absolutely is, it good hokey fun to see the head being carried around, propped up tree and boulders, dangled through windows and kept safe hidden away in a hat box or up on a closet shelf. It's silly stuff watching it now but when I was a kid seeing this on TV it gave me the chills. It certainly doesn't have that effect on me these days, but it moves fast and is full of goofy good times.  Shame on Scream Factory for not including the MST3K episode on this release, they have the rights I do believe, so that was a gaff on their end. 

Special Features:

- NEW 2K scan from a fine grain film element
- NEW Audio Commentary by authors/film historians Tom Weaver and C. Courtney Joyner
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) 


Duration: 79 Minutes

Rating: Unrated
Video: 1080p HD (1.66:1) B&W
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Mono 2.o with Optional English Subtitles 
Director John Gilling
Cast: André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas, Freda Jackson, Conrad Phillips

Brit horror film Shadow of the Cat (1961) is an early Hammer production directed by John Gilling (The Reptile) and stars a lot of familiar Hammer horror faces. Set in the 1900's it opens
 with the elderly Ella Venable (Catherine Lacey, The Mummy's Shroud) sitting in her study late at night reading a good book alongside her beloved cat Tabitha, Suddenly someone creeps into the room and strangles her with her own scarf, the murderous culprit turn out to be her butler (Andrew Crawford), but he has not acted alone. Also complicit in the crime is her husband Walter (André Morell, The Plague of the Zombies) and housemaid Clara (Freda Jackson, The Brides of Dracula), all three having conspired to murder this woman for her wealth, and fear not, this is not much of a spoiler as all this happens in the first five minutes of the film, its not a whodunit, it's a will-they-get-caught sort of thing. 

They bury her body in a wooded area on the state and report her as missing to Inspector Rowles (Alan Wheatley, Spaceways), who brings along reporter Michael Latimer (Conrad Phillips, Circus of Horrors). Something the trio of killers did not plan for was that Ella's beloved tabby cat is gonna holds a grudge against them and is gonna scratch it's way to the truth of the matter. More so than anything else the cat's presence seems to remind the killer's of their guilt in teh matter, it's a very Edgar Allen Poe The Raven/Tell-Tale Heart sort of thing, and the feline's presence begins to chip away at their sanity and rationality, leading to the death of more than one person in pursuit of the cat. 

Ella's favorite niece Beth (Barbara Shelley, The Gorgon) also arrives for a visit and is shocked to hear that her auntie is missing, noticing right away that the inhabitants of the house have a strange hatred towards the typically friendly feline, and it for them. This puts her in the mindset of something suspicious having happened to her dear auntie. It's a fun bit murder-farce, not played for comedy but certainly laced with black humor throughout that brought a smile to my face. 

Special Features:

- NEW 2K scan from a fine grain film element
- NEW Audio Commentary by author/film historian Bruce G. Hallenbeck
- NEW In the Shadow of Shelley - an interview with Barbara Shelley (24 min) HD 
- TV Spot for the double feature of THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF/THE SHADOW OF THE CAT (1 min) 
- Still Gallery (4 min) 

Audio/Video: The four films arrives on individual Blu-ray discs in their respective original aspect ratios with brand new HD scans of the original fine grain film elements. The black and white films looks exceptional, with good looking grain levels and a good amount of fine detail in clothing and textures. The blacks are nicely deep and the grayscale looks solid, it's an attractive presentation for each film. Audio on all four films comes by way of English DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is clean and  there's only a bit of hiss evident on the tracks, which is appropriate given the vintage of these films. 

Each film gets it's own dedicated audio commentary from film historians and authors. Tom Weaver tackles The Black Castle,  and Weaver alongside Steve Kronenberg, David Schecter and Robert J. Kiss sink their fangs into Cult of the Cobra, and Weaver teams-up with C. Courtney Joyner get at The Thing That Couldn't Die. Bruce G. Hallenbeck finishes up on Shadow of the Cat without any input from Weaver. All are great tracks with tons of production notes, cast anecdotes, facts and trivia and plenty of commentating on what's happening onscreen, it's all great stuff.

Three of the films have still galleries with promo images, lobby cards and movie posters, and both Cult of the Cobra and The Thing That Couldn't Die have trailers, the former having a double-feature trailer alongside Revenge of the Creature, and a TV spot for the The Curse of the Werewolf and The Shadow of the Cat double-feature! 

I have been a bit irritated that each of these sets, which are not inexpensive, have not have more in the way of extras. While they have all had audio commentaries for each of the films actual featurettes and interviews have been sparse, so I am a happy horror boy this week to see that we get two new interviews on this sixth installment. The first is a 14-minute  'Universal Horror Strikes Back!' with Brit authors/critics 
Kim Newman and Stephen Jones about Universal horror in the 1940s. Interestingly this set is of Universal films is from the fifties and early sixties, which made me think this was supposed to be on an earlier volume of the series but maybe the guys fell behind on a deadline.

The other interview is the 24-minute 'In the Shadow of Shelley' with actress Barbara Shelley who looks back at her career, which is quite a wonderful body of work, including Village of the Damned (1960), The Secret of Blood Island (1964), The Gorgon (1964), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) and 
Quatermass and the Pit (1967). She is on in years but has a solid recollection of her career, I loved hearing her reminisce about her glory days and what it was like working with some of the greats, including Christopher Lee. 

The four-disc set arrives in an oversized flipper keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork that follows the design and format as the previous five volumes of the series. This includes the accompanying slipcover with the same artwork, and a booklet containing promotional artwork along with cast and crew credits. 

More screenshots from the Blu-rays: