Blu-ray Review: Universal Horror Collection Volume 1

Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff defined undead horror in the early sound era. The duo made immediate impact of screaming moviegoers with Dracula and Frankenstein. One man rose from the grave while the other was stitched together from corpses. Both actors would become superstars with their names selling tickets to audiences that were going to either be scared out of their seats or hide beneath them. Universal wisely brought the duo together without covering them in Jack Pierce’s monster makeup. Scream Factory’s Universal Horror Collection Volume 1 brings together the four times Bela and Boris teamed up at the studio for non-monster projects.

The Black Cat (1934 – 66 minutes) was the first time the duo shared the screen and it is a complete nightmare. The movie snuck out right before the Hayes Code took effect so there’s a lot of stuff shown or alluded to that would be banned by the end of the year. A newlywed couple shares a train compartment with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Béla Lugosi). He had gone off to fight in World War I and by the time he returned, his wife was gone. He’s returning to see his old pal Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). Because of an accident, Vitus has to take the couple with him to Hjalmar’s creepy mansion. This reunion is as horrifying as you’d expect from Bela and Boris meeting up. Turns out Hjalmar has a lot of secrets including his role as a Satanist and being part of the reason why Vitus’ wife has disappeared. For a rather short movie, there’s a lot of wickedness packed into the frames. One of the characters gets skinned alive towards the end of the film (although not seen). This must have been a nightmare inducer on the scale of Frankenstein to horror fans in the ’30s. The film was a massive hit at the time. While the film is supposedly based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Black Cat,” there’s not much of that story here. The doctor has a horrifying fear of felines.

The Raven (1935 – 61 minutes) reunited the duo with another Edgar Allen Poe title. At least this time we get the poem quoted during the film. A woman gets in a horrible car accident and her father and boyfriend beg surgeon Dr. Richard Vollin (Lugosi) to come out of retirement to heal her. The operation is a success and the family learns so much about the doctor. Turns out he’s a serious Poe fan. But instead of merely collecting first editions, the doctor has been gathering up the torture devices described in the stories. He also has a serious crush on his patient. But her father does not want to old surgeon to marry his daughter. This leads to plotting revenge on the family using the help of a murderer (Karloff). Can the family survive the literary onslaught?

The Invisible Ray (1936 – 79 minutes) has Karloff and Lugosi as scientists, but only one of them gets to be the mad scientists. Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff) is an astronomer with a telescope that can see into the past through deep space. Dr. Benet (Bela Lugosi) peeps a meteorite smash into Africa that contains amazing property. The scientist go in search of the heavenly crashed object. The call the rock Radium X. Benet wants to use it for good, but Rukh has other plans for his new discovery. This scientific morality tale allows the duo to face off over a radioactive future.

Black Friday (1940 – 70 minutes) is a gangster flick with a science fiction angle. A college professor (Each Dawn I Die‘s Stanley Ridges) gets run over in a car containing a gangster. Dr. Ernest Sovac (Karloff) must save his friend’s life by transplanting the gangster’s brain into his friend’s head. This goes weird when the bookish guy becomes criminal. He wants to recover his hidden loot. Also looking for the money is his old gang that includes Bela Lugosi. The film doesn’t quite make sense even if the script was co-written by Curt Siodmak (The Wolf Man). How exactly are you saving someone if you have removed their brain? Didn’t Karloff merely save his friend’s body? Didn’t he learn anything from Frankenstein? While Lugosi is given second bill, the star of the film is Ridges with the dual role. According to the bonus features, Karloff was supposed to be the professor turned gangster and Lugosi was the doctor. But Karloff realized he wouldn’t have been able to pull off the mobster element and stepped back his role.

These four titles (along with the Bela only Murderers At the Rouge Morgue) originally came out on The Bela Lugosi Collection back in 2005. This is a welcomed upgrade since it was a bare bones release where five films were crammed onto a single flipper DVD. Now each film is on it’s own Blu-ray with bonus features so you can properly appreciate them. Bela and Boris proved they were worthy adversaries on the screen whether they were undead or trying to kill each other. Universal Horror Collection Volume 1 puts a spotlight on their tandem top billings that weren’t also shared with Frankenstein or Dracula.

For those curious, Volume 2 is slated for July 23 with the quartet of Murders In the Zoo, The Mad Doctor of Market Street, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx and The Mad Ghoul. These had previously been released as burn on demand DVD-Rs.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The new black and white transfers bring out the details. This is exceptionally great on The Black Cat with the sinister production design at Karloff’s house. The audio is DTS-HD MA mono for all four films. The levels are fine and the sound is smooth. The movies are subtitled.

Audio Commentary with Author/Film Historian Gregory William Mank and a second with Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman track down the history of The Black Cat and the two icons coming together for their first project.

Dreams Within A Dream: The Classic Cinema Of Edgar Allan Poe (56:02) narrated By Doug Bradley. That’s right, the narrator is Pinhead from the Hell Raiser movies. The documentary investigates Hollywood’s treatment of the author over the decades.

A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part One: The Black Cat (23:34) has Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank discuss how there was no serious backlash when the film was released.

The Black Cat Contest (0:49) has little kids show off their black cats to Bela and Boris in their Black Cat wardrobe.

Still Gallery (8:47) includes plenty of behind the scenes footage from the production and posters.

Audio Commentary With Author/Film Historian Gary D. Rhodes and second with Author/Film Historian Steve Haberman delve into The Raven

A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Two: The Raven (17:25) talks about how Boris wasn’t a jealous actor since even though he had the multi-picture deal at Universal, he allowed Lugosi to have the bigger role in the film.

Audio Recording: Bela Lugosi Reads “The Tell-Tale Heart” (13:22) which should be fun to play in any Poe class.

Still Gallery (8:18) includes Bela with the stuff raven, publicity pictures, posters, newspaper ads and lobby cards.

Audio Commentary With Authors/Film Historians Tom Weaver And Randall Larson as they discuss The Invisible Ray.

A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Three: The Invisible Ray (16:36) talks about the duo playing dueling scientists.

Re-Release Theatrical Trailer (1:44) sets up the science of the film.

Still Gallery (7:00) has Boris, Bela and the ray gun. There’s publicity photos, posters, newspaper ads and lobby cards.

Audio Commentary With Filmmaker/Film Historian Constantine Nasr goes into this final Universal outing between the two actors.

A Good Game: Karloff And Lugosi At Universal Part Four: Black Friday (17:04) dips into how Karloff changed up the roles. They also take a perspective on the bond between the two men and their twin legacies.

Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show: “The Tell-Tale Heart” Starring Boris Karloff (26:45) is great to hear on a stormy night.

Theatrical Trailer (1:55) really oversells Lugosi’s screentime in Black Friday.

Still Gallery (6:37) includes publicity photos, posters, lobby cards and newspaper ads.

Scream Factory presents Universal Horror Collection Volume 1. Starring: Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Rated: Unrated. Boxset Contents: 4 movies on 4 Blu-rays. Released: June 18, 2019.

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