Universal horror will always be synonymous with a handful of monsters and the dozens of films the studio made starring them. We’re talking Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the Wolf Man. These are the enduring staples of a genre that lasted from the 1920s through the 1950s and whose legacy lasts even today.
But Universal Studios made loads of other horror films staring dozens of other monsters, murderers, and villains. Most of these have long been forgotten, but now Scream Factory is bringing them back in high definition in their Universal Horror Collections. So far each collection has consisted of four lesser-known films but that are mostly well worth watching. Volume 1 featured four non-monster films that starred two actors who started it all off - Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Volume 2 featured the lesser-known, but still quite good duo of Lionel Atwill and George Zucco.
Volume 3 is a more mixed affair featuring a variety of actors and genres. There is a historical drama that only counts as horror by the widest possible definition of the term, and two films that are more comedic than horrific, but they at least feature scary old castles and plenty of murder. The great Basi Rathbone stars in two films, with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lionel Atwill all making appearances in separate films in this collection. Horror icons Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr. make appearances as well.
It is tempting at this point to say something about the bottom of the barrel-scraping or to ponder how many more collections Scream Factory can get away with, but that’s not really fair. Certainly, the four films presented in this collection are not top-tier movies, but neither are they the dregs. If one is honest, one has to admit that there are many movies starring the main Universal Monsters that aren’t exactly classic. There were dozens of sequels after all. No, this collection is not where someone unfamiliar with the genre should begin their cinematic journey. But for aficionados and collectors, this set is full of gems.
The first film, Tower of London (1939), is the least “horror” of any of the films released in all three sets. It is really a historical drama that happens to star Boris Karloff as a club-footed executioner, which is pretty much the sole reason its included in this set. It tells the story of how Richard III (Basil Rathbone) became King of England by murdering everyone above him in the line of succession.
This material was covered better by William Shakespeare a few hundred years prior, but there is a certain joy in watching Rathbone organize the murders with relish and Karloff gleefully executing them. Vincent Price’s turn as the Duke of Clarence is minor but terrific and his death by drowning in a vat of wine is one for the ages.
Man-Made Monster (1941) is the most strictly horror of all the films presented here. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays Dan McCormick, a sideshow artist whose act involves him electrocuting himself every night. After an accident where a bus runs into a high power line kills everyone but Dan, two scientists - Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill) and Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) take an interest. They believe Dan may be immune to electricity and if they can figure out how that is, then they might prevent the hundreds of deaths by electrocution that occur each year.
Dr. Lawrence is of the "mad scientist" variety and he thinks he can turn Dan into an electrobiological zombie - basically human slaves who live off of electricity. He begins giving Dan higher and higher doses of electricity until his entire body beings to glow and he gives a deadly shock to any living thing he touches. Cue a glowing, electrified Dan roaming the countryside frying anyone he touches.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Lon Chaney, Jr., his acting style is too goofy to be scary, too silly to make me feel empathetic to his situation. It is no different here. He plays Dan like a sad-sack rube who doesn’t know enough to fight back against what's happening to him until it's too late. The electric special effects are pretty great, but the film is definitely second tier.
The Black Cat (1941) is yet another adaptation of the Edgar Alan Poe story of the same name (though it has more in common with The Cat and the Canary than anything Poe wrote). The story is about a greedy family who all congregate at a creepy old mansion where they wait on their rich mother to die and (hopefully) inherit her fortune. When they discover they will not receive one cent until the housekeeper Abigail (Gale Sondergaard) dies, along with the many cats living on the estate, the murdering begins.
Comic relief is provided by two antique dealers (Broderick Crawford and Hugh Herbert) who have perfected an Abbott and Costello imitation. Basil Rathbone is the eldest and most sinister son while Bela Lugosi (who also starred in an earlier adaptation of The Black Cat which was included in Volume 1) plays the gardener who is always skulking around.
It is a slight film, but a very enjoyable one. There is everything you want in a haunted house murder mystery - creepy setting, hidden passageways, evocative lighting, and lots of laughs.
The last film in this collection is another horror-comedy hybrid called Horror Island (1941). In it, a bunch of eccentrics find themselves in a creepy mansion on a deserted island. Supposedly, there is pirate treasure buried somewhere and the cast spends their time looking for it, all the while somebody is picking them off one by one.
Once it gets going, it is a lot of fun, but it takes a long time to get everybody on the island. The long set up involves two struggling businessmen (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Night) who happen upon a peg-legged old sailor (Tobias Clump) who presents half a map pointing them to an island filled with pirate treasure. It just so happens one of the men owns that old island. They only half believe the treasure story but figure they can make money selling trips to the island for tourists looking for a thrill. All of this takes up half the film’s time and its not worth even half that. But once they make it to the island and the bodies start piling up its all grand fun.
Volume 3 of the Universal Horror Collection is a bit of a mixed bag. None of these films are top-shelf movies from the Universal Horror department, but there is quite a bit to like, especially in the two comedies. Fans will definitely want to own it, and while I wouldn’t use this as introductory material, once you’ve exhausted all of the big named monster movies this is a nice way to keep your appetite satisfied.
Scream Factory has given all of these films new HD transfers and new audio commentaries by film critics and historians.