Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection (1931-1956) DVD Review: Too Little, Too Late

Cinema's iconic creature features are re-released yet again in another SD-DVD set.
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When I was just a tiny little lad, I - like many other small children - had an intense fear of monsters, the sight of blood, and scary movies in general. People find that hard to believe these days, especially seeing as how I proudly own a copy of Cannibal Holocaust on Blu-ray in my collection, and have probably viewed just about every style of gory, scary, and horrible (in every way) monster movie imaginable at this point in time. In fact, it's safe to say that I've grown somewhat immune to that variety of film, despite my nearly lifelong admiration of horror movies; a one-time obsession that most assuredly began with multiple viewings of the 1931 versions of Dracula and Frankenstein way back when.

I suppose that that classic, iconic Universal horror duo only fueled the fire for my desire to push past my fear of monsters, blood, and scary movies. And they succeeded admirably; soon, I was at my local library checking out the only book (which was actually a vintage magazine more than anything) on Universal's filmic monster legacy. As the home video boom of the '80s started to expand into the following decade, the occasional other franchise critter (such as The Wolf Man, The Mummy) and sequel movie (i.e. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) made their way into my collection; a later dream job as a video store manager enabled me to complete the various legacies on VHS, before Universal finally began to issue the movies on DVD in the early 2000s.

Well, here we are in 2014, and I can't say much has changed since then. My admiration for the classic Universal monster movies has only increased over time; not only from a nostalgic point of view, but also via the perspective of lost romanticism as many of these movies were intended to be seen. Imhotep (the reanimated antagonist of The Mummy) is not so much a monster as a man determined to reunite with his love, who has been reincarnated in another woman; likewise, Dracula's Daughter isn't after blood as much as she is release from the horrors of inherent vampirism passed unto her by her father and his cursed family lineage. Sadly, that's about all that has changed over the course of time as - with the exception of a wonderful Blu-ray set two years ago (Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection), every release Universal has put out has only been on Standard-Definition DVD.

What's worse is that many of the previously issued Legacy Collection sets of 2004 (released to capitalize on that godawful Van Helsing film, with a collection of Stephen Sommers interviews that offended fans more than anything) would sometimes pack four films on dual-sided double-layer DVDs (DVD-18) for, which has caused many an issue with playback over the course of time according to some consumers. Understandably so, these movies would consist of sequels (and in one instance, a lesser-known predecessor) movies that would range from being just as fun as the original to completely absurd, which often set up entirely new storylines (The Mummy sequels have an entirely different storyline as opposed to the original film, whereas every followup to James Whale's incredible The Invisible Man is a different, practically unrelated tale) or completely forget what happened in the previous entries (at one point, even the eternal character of Dracula has no clue as to where he is or how he got there).

Fortunately, there are no controversial DVD-18 discs to be found here, though there are several instances in this outing (which, for the record, is a quintuple-dip for the origin films and a triple-dip for the rest) of there being sequel films presented three to one DVD-9. If you're not good at math, this equates to "compression". Granted, one such feature that is compressed with two other movies in two different Complete Legacy Collections, House of Frankenstein, is presented uncompressed in a third. However, at the same time, the two features it accompanied in the other sets still ultimately suffer from being compressed. The ball has been officially dropped and allowed to roll far away from the court in several other key departments, as well. First off, it's 2014. HD is the norm for television now, and 4K Blu-ray is set to debut next year. And yet, here we've been offered up with another SD-DVD set. With a $200 retail price at that. Granted, the "origin" titles (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al) are presented in their latest (stable) HD-transfers with a plethora of special features (as seen and available in better quality in the aforementioned Blu-ray set), but that's simply not enough, folks.

Here's where things get very confusing and annoying. This so-called "Complete" collection essentially consists of individual re-releases of the new versions of the Legacy Collections packed together. Now, whereas the original Legacy sets were what you could call "title specific" (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was included in The Wolf Man set but not the Frankenstein one; likewise, the Dracula/Frankenstein/Wolf Man triple header House of Dracula was only featured in the Dracula collection), they no longer are here. If say Dracula was in the film, regardless of the title, that movie is now in the individual (new) Legacy set. Now the problem there - after the compression issue, that is - is that several movies are included at least twice (three times in some cases) throughout the entire package.

Really? Do we need three copies of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in the same set? Granted it's a genuine classic and all-time favorite, but come on! While I would expect nothing less were I to buy just one individual (new) Legacy Collection, a little reorganizing just for the sake of this multi-set would have been considerate, not to mention it would have spared us the compression issue. Speaking of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, it and the other Abbott and Costello Meet… features (...the Mummy, ...the Invisible Man) are included here for the first time. They are also available in the must-own Abbott and Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection set (itself a redux of four individual Best of sets released before that).

And while I don't disprove the inclusion of those comedic horrors (after all, ...Meet Frankenstein not only gave Bela Lugosi an ironic second and final chance to reprise the role that made him famous on film, but also served as the final film for three famous monsters at once) here, here I am to speak what I do know [end bizarre, completely inappropriate Shakespeare reference]: this set is by no means complete in my opinion. There were numerous other horror series and standalone tales produced by Universal throughout their Golden Age of filmmaking during '30s and '40s, including the superior Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff outings The Black Cat and The Raven, as well as the rarely-seen Jungle Woman series.

Are they here? No. Should they be here? In my opinion, most definitely. They are essential films if one were trying to make a complete collection. Fortunately, most of them - not all, mind you - can be found in the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive, The Bela Lugosi Collection, and TCM's out-of-print Universal Cult Horror Collection (the individual titles of which have been re-released as separate discs). Sadly, poor Jungle Woman still hasn't found her way to even DVD, and is only available via used retail VHS copies.

Instead, we get yet another release of the 1943 Technicolor Nelson Eddy/Susanna Foster musical Phantom of the Opera, which has never fit in with this lineup and never will. Someone at Universal must keep mistaking this for the 1925 silent version with Lon Chaney Sr. or something. I can't explain why it's always included in this lot, especially as it was a single film outing and nothing more. Similarly, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a series that wholly does not belong in an assortment of Golden Age horrors, as it was produced during a time when the studio's output was focused on Atomic Age monsters of the '50s. That trilogy should be included in The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection if you ask me.

But nobody's asked me. Nor did they ask anybody else, for that matter. And so, we get what I believe is the fifth Standard-Definition digital home video release of some movies and the third of others with multiple copies of some movies included in the very same set. We are not allotted what I would consider a complete collection here, nor do we receive this lineup on Blu-ray (several of the sequel movies have been broadcast in HD on television, so we know such masters exist). What we do get, however, is a colorful 48-page booklet housed in the box. Is that fair? Is it what we fans truly want? No, and no. And quite possibly worst of all, this collection was released on my birthday. I guess that wish didn't come true, eh? (Hey, at least the Stephen Sommers interviews are gone!)

As a point of reference, the titles in this set include:

  • Dracula (1931)
  • The Spanish Version of Dracula (1931) [presented as a bonus feature]
  • Frankenstein (1931)
  • The Mummy (1932)
  • The Invisible Man (1933)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  • Werewolf of London (1935)
  • Dracula's Daughter (1936)
  • Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
  • The Invisible Woman (1940)
  • The Mummy's Hand (1940)
  • The Wolf Man (1941)
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
  • The Mummy's Ghost (1942)
  • The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
  • Invisible Agent (1942)
  • Phantom of the Opera (1943)
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
  • Son of Dracula (1943)
  • House of Frankenstein (1944)
  • The Mummy's Curse (1944)
  • The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
  • House of Dracula (1945)
  • She-Wolf of London (1946)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
  • Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
  • Revenge of the Creature (1955)
  • The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

While the newer transfers of films like Dracula are a plus, they are also easily available on Blu-ray. Having the sequel/followup/precursor films available to us on single-sided dual-layer DVD-9 discs is also nice, but here they are occasionally compressed to include three films per disc, and several titles are mercilessly repeated throughout the set. Had this set debuted in 2004, everyone would have probably bought it. Even with a $200 price tag. But such a price is unfeasible today for SD-DVD when 4K Blu-ray is fast approaching on the horizon. In short, the Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection is a real disappointment. This is a prime example of "too little, too late" - though I wouldn't go as far as to not recommend it to anyone who hasn't already picked up the sets before. If you're worried about compression issues over a generally panned sequel like The Mummy's Curse, you could still pick up the older Legacy Collections for much less. Of course then, you may experience some playback problems with those dreaded DVD-18 discs. Likewise, if you have yet to purchase a Blu-ray player, this set might be a good Halloween (or even Christmas) gift.

If you've already purchased these movies once, thrice, or five times before, however, then you'll most likely want to avoid this set (or pick it up real cheap).

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