Wednesday, October 13, 2021

UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION (1931-1941) (UPHE 4K UHD Review)

UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION (1931-1941) 

Label: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
Region Code: Region-Free
Rating: Unrated
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 2160p UHD & 1080p HD Full Screen (1.33:1) 
Directors: Tod Browning, James Whale, James Waggner 
Cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Gloria Stuart, Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Dudley Digges, Una O'Connor, Henry Travers, Forrester Harvey, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, Lon Chaney Jr.

Synopsis: From the era of silent movies through present day, Universal Pictures has been regarded as the home of the monsters. Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection showcases 4 of the most iconic monsters in motion picture history including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man. Starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains in the roles that they made famous, these original films set the standard for a new horror genre with revolutionary makeup, mood-altering cinematography and groundbreaking special effects.

DRACULA (1931)
Duration: 75 Minutes 
Director: Tod Browning 
Cast: Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Frederick Kerr

Starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning (Freaks) Universal's take on Bram Stoker's Dracula has proven to be an indelible entry in the bloodsucking genre, opening with Renfield's doomed journey to Castle Dracula where he must contend with not only giant-sized cobwebs, but the vampire brides of the the bloodsucking Count Dracula. Mentally enslaved by Dracula Redfield joins him on his journey from the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania to England, where the vampire sets his sights on the gorgeous daughters of the local high society, glamouring them with his magnetic stare and feasting on their blood at night. As a kid what creeped me out most about this version of the story was the bug-eating human slave that Renfield becomes, it boggled my mind what could possess a man to eat bugs! Lugosi is an otherworldly yet still charming presence with a thick Hungarian accent and mesmeric eyes that still pull you in, ninety-years on.   

Special Features: 
- Dracula (1931) Spanish Version (103 min) with Introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner (4 min) 
- The Road To Dracula (35 min) 
- Lugosi: The Dark Prince (36 min) 
- Dracula: The Restoration (9 min) 
- Monster Tracks
- Alternate Score by Phillip Glass performed by The Kronos Quartet (74 min) 
- Audio Commentary by Film Historian David J. Skal 
- Audio Commentary by Steve Haberman
- Trailer Gallery (6 min) 

FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
Duration: 71 Minutes 
Director: James Whale 
Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Edward van Sloan, Frederick Kerr

I remember seeing Frankenstein for the first time on TV as a kid still in the single-digits, it might well be one of the first scary movies I ever watched, and it was both fascinating and frightening, completely captivating my still fertile mind with a tale of the re-animated dead brought to life by science.  Now celebrating it's 90th anniversary the movie still has plenty of mad scientist charm, and the superlative performance from Karloff as The Monster has stood the test of time, his emotive yet wordless performance and physical transformation is still a stunner the better part of a hundred years later. This was the first scary film I ever watched as a kid where you felt sorry for the monster, and that's all due to the masterful turn from Karloff who managed to be both scary in a brute sort of way, but also sympathetic. 

Special Features:
- The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made A Monster (46 min) 
- Karloff: The Gentle Monster (38 min) 
- Universal Horror (96 min) 
- Frankenstein Archives (9 min) 
- Boo! A Short Films (9 min) 
Audio Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer 
Audio Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling
- 100 Years of Universal: Restoring The Classics
- Trailer Gallery 

THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) 
Duration: 72 Minutes
Director: James Whale 
Cast: Gloria Stuart, Claude Rains, William Harrigan, Dudley Digges, Una O'Connor, Henry Travers, Forrester Harvey

The Invisible man, directed by James Whale (Frankenstein) and based on H. G. Wells' The Invisible Man (1897),  it's an early sci-fi thriller/comedy that tells the tale of a scientist named Jack Griffin (Claude Rains, The Wolf Man)  who invents a invisibility serum that drives him mad, with the unseen doc terrorizing a small English village in the process. Watching it even now what stands out about it is the impressive array of special effects used to convince audiences that they were witnessing an invisible man eighty-years ago! Wrapped in a medical bandages and wearing sunglasses with a fake nose the initial introduction to the Griffin arriving at a tavern during a heavy snowstorm is terrific, as his stay at the inn; where hysterical inn keeper Mrs. Hall (Una O'Connor) becomes quite flustered by her newest patron and his strange ways. Griffin ends up murdering a few people here and there before derailing a train resulting in the deaths of hundreds, spurring a police hunt for the invisible man! The effects still hold-up, even more so on this UHD release, a terrific tale of a medical man turned maniacal murderer full of groundbreaking special effects and some sharp wit. 

Special Features: 
- Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed! (35 min) 
- Production Photographs (5 min) 
- Audio Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer
- 100 years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters 
- Trailer Gallery 

THE WOLF MAN (1941) 
Duration: 70 Minutes 
Director: James Waggner 
Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, Lon Chaney Jr.

The Wolf Man starring Lon Chaney Jr. is the story of a cursed man who after an encounter in the woods with a wolf transforms into a werewolf whenever the moon is full. Brought to life by Chaney's sympathetic performance and some terrific make-up effects from Universal's legendary Jack Pierce this tale of lycanthropic terror still pleases today. Chaney's Larry Talbot is an average guy visiting his pops in Wales when a nighttime walk in the woods changes his life forever. Talbot's struggle to deal with the curse is the heart of the tragic tale, all wrapped up a veneer of moody fog shrouded wooded areas and terrific make-up effects that are iconic for a reason. It's true that the time-lapse dissolves are quite dated looking but at the time this was peak make-up FX technology, and in that spirit it's still a hoot. 

Special Features: 
- Monster By Moonlight (32 min) 
- The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth (10 min) 
- Pure In Heart: The Life & Legacy on Lon Chaney Jr. (37 min) 
- He Who Made Monsters: The Life & Art of Jack Pierce (26 min) 
- The Wolf Man Archives (7 min) 
- Audio Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
- 100 Years of Universal: The Lot (9 min) 
- Trailer Gallery 


Audio/Video: All four classic Universal Monsters films arrive in glorious UHD from Universal in the original 1.33:1 full frame  aspect ratios in 2160p UHD, plus we get the recycled 1080p HD Blu-rays from the 2012 set. Coming into this I was a bit skeptical how much these 80-90 year-old classics would benefit from the UHD upgrade, but my skepticism was irradiated soon enough. These are fantastic looking upgrades that make me appreciate the studios continued work to preserve their work legacy. I do believe that Universal are using the same 4K scans they used for their 2012 Blu-ray releases, though I would swear some additional clean-up/restoration has been applied, when watching the accompanying Blu-rays, which are recycled from the 2012 box set I noticed a few bits and specs I previously noted on The Wolf Man Blu-ray were no longer present on the UHD discs. The 4K resolution actually appears granier than the Blu-rays, which to me is a good thing, but with more refined grain structures. It also doesn't look processed or digital in any way. I won't say that general audiences will experience a lot of wow-factor if they've seen the Blu-rays,  but if you're familiar with these films the uptick is subtle but appreciable. The image is more consistent and stable throughout with very little film flicker, which is more present on the Blu-ray counterparts. What surprised me the most is how Dracula and Frankenstein are more stable and subtley improved, but both The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man benefit the most from the UHD upgrade, the uptick in resolution and HDR sort of levels the playing field so to speak, offering more depth and color-balance, the medical bandage wrappings of the invisible man look fantastic, and the opening scene of him walking the road into the village during a blizzard catches the eye like never before. Other highlights on the set include the scene of Renfield encountering the massive spiderweb at the beginning of Dracula, and the scenes of Lon Chaney Jr's Wolfman stalking through the fog-shrouded forests, and the fiery climax of Frankenstein all stand-out. 

The films also benefit from the HDR color-grading which gives the monochromatic horrors a color-balance uniformity and depth of black levels that have been previously unseen on any format, with brighter, truer whites and an impressive gray scale with gorgeous layered contrast that gives the vintage terror depth and clarity that surpasses even the already impressive 2012 Blu-ray counterparts. The UHD can appear darker than the Blu-ray counterpart at first blush, and it is, but with the darker image comes more shadowy depth and pleasing contrast, with brighter whites and a more nuanced grayscale that offer more detail and textures, it's darker but superior on all levels. 

Audio on all four film is the same English  DTS-HD MA dual mono 2.0 with optional English subtitles from the 2012 set, but that's fine because it was a solid restoration and sounds terrific with a vintage patina that does have some hiss inherent to it, and a bit trebly in the upper registers, but that's expected and otherwise all four films sounds great with uncompressed audio, and I am not too surprised that films of these vintage did not get an Atmos upgrade, not that I would have minded.   

Universal carry-over all the extras from their previous 2012 Blu-rays on both the 4K UHD discs and the recycled Blu-rays, these hours of handsomely produced bonus features were great nearly a decade ago and they're still great today with a wealth of commentaries, documentaries and featurettes exploring the monsters and the men who made them. Some might bemoan the fact that we do not get new extras to celebrate these films but sometimes just having these film in luxurious UHD is the treat, we don't need any additional tricks. This is actually a 5-film set, as the Dracula UHD also features the Spanish version of the film, which was shot on the same sets with a cemetery different cast, and its presented in UHD! 

The 8-disc set arrives in a thick cardboard sleeved hardcover digibook with a flimsy slipcover with raised lettering, its basically the same packaging style as Universals The Alfred Hitchcock Classics Collection set.  While I do like the artwork and glossy image adorned sleeves that feature reproductions of the iconic illustrated movie posters I have never been a huge fans of the way that the discs must be pulled and pushed into the sleeves, which requires that you be a bit fingers-on in extracting the discs, which causes fingerprints to get on the business side of disc. At least the digibook is a nice thick cardboard stock, the flimsy slipcover that houses the digibook is cheap by comparison and should have been a rigid slipbox. As I was kindly sent a promotional copy for review I won't complain too much about the damage the slip incurred during shipping that creased the spine and dented corners of the slipbox, but I would strongly encourage you to order from retailer that ships in sturdy boxes or pick-it up from your favorite brick and mortar store where you can eyeball it for damage prior to purchase. Inside you will also find a redemption code fora dogital UHD version of all four films. 

The 5-film Universal Classic Monsters: Icons of Horror Collection is a gorgeous 
presentation of these vintage terrors, the PQ is near flawless and the films themselves continue to be timeless masterpieces that set the stage for horror for the next 100 years. If you're a connoisseur of vintage black and whiten cinema and/or you want to see these seminal scare-films in the absolute best presentations this set is a must-have. Here's hoping that we get another volume, or better yet, another complete 30-film UHD set. This stellar 5-film presentation has definitely whet my appetite for more vintage Universal horror on Ultra HD! 

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