Blu-ray Review: Universal Horror Collection Volume 2

As a Svengoolie fan, there’s few things more exciting than digging deep into the Universal vault’s horror titles. The various Classic Monsters titles are great with the various Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man stories intersecting. But what really gets exciting is a chance to see the more obscure scary titles that Universal produced during this same period. For a while in the Aughties, Universal would put out compilations with four to five of the films around Halloween time to delight fans of black and white horror. Before coming close to releasing the titles that were once part of the Shock Theater syndication package, Universal shut the door on the vault. The studio was more pleased in repackaging the Classic Monsters a few more times. Then in 2012 word got out that a few classics were coming and indeed Universal Cult Horror Collection arrived with five films. However this was not good news. While they were never before released on DVD, the boxset was made of manufacture on demand DVD-Rs and carried a high price tag compared to the earlier collections. It was a bit deflating. But now you can get excited since Universal Horror Collection Volume 2 brings 4 of the 5 titles to Blu-ray that isn’t burn on demand.

Murders In the Zoo (1933 – 66 minutes) is a Paramount film that Universal snagged when they bought their rival’s early film vault. For people who think early horror films aren’t really that scary, this Pre-Code release opens with a nightmare inducing scene that makes A. Edward Sutherland the grandfather of the Torture films by Eli Roth and the Saw franchise. Eric Gorman (Son of Frankenstein‘s Lionel Atwill) is zoologist who goes to Africa to collect more exotic animals to put on exhibit. He’s also an extremely jealous and violent husband who loses his cool with his hunting buddy. He swears the guy kissed his wife (Island of Lost Soul‘s Kathleen Burke) and revenge by making sure his lips won’t kiss her again. It’s a grotesque moment that must have shocked your great grandmother when she went to the Bijou expecting to see a murder mystery. When Gorman and his flirty wife return to the zoo, they discover the place needs an influx of big donor cash. He also finds his wife making eyes at another zoo employee. He finds the perfect way to kill from chatting with the scientist in charge of the snake house (Randolph Scott). He uses a charity dinner in the carnivore house as the location to get rid of his latest rival. In order to cover his tracks, he releases animals from their cages and they go wild on the property. This part of the film gets a huge warning from Svengoolie since they really did just let the fierce creatures loose without really caring if they attack each other. This was before Hollywood had to prove no animals were harmed in the making of their motion pictures. Murder In the Zoo is a brutal film on many levels. This film should carry the same cult status as Freaks and Island of Lost Souls as an example of why the Motion Picture Code had to tone American cinema.

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942 – 60 minutes) brings back Lionel Atwill as a crazed man. Although this time he’s Dr. Ralph Benson, a mad scientist. He’s obsessed with trying to bring back people from the dead. In his basement lab, he lures in a down on his luck guy with the promise of $1,000 to serve as a human guinea pig. The doctor puts the guy under, but can’t bring him back since the police bust in the door. The Mad Doctor jumps on a cruise ship heading into the pacific to escape the law. Even though this is a 60 minute film, the tone shifts as we meet his fellow passengers that includes Una Merkel (The Bank Dick) and Claire Dodd (The Black Cat). There’s a bit of a flirty romantic comedy that breaks out on the deck, but not for long. The boat doesn’t quite meet it’s destination. The Doctor and a small group of passengers wash up on an island inhabited by natives that want the doctor to see him do his experiment. The Mad Doctor seems to be a classic B-movie with the script written around the various sets and stock footage lurking around Universal Studios. Director Joseph H. Lewis (Gun Crazy) really does a fine job of piecing things together to give us a scary doctor and a touch of romance on a remote island.

The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942 – 66 minutes) is about a serial killer that’s tracking down murderers who’ve been found not guilty in court. He’s eager to dish out his own brand of justice when the legal system lets society down. His only clue is he leaves a note with “Rx” on the victim as he prescribes justice. It’s almost the premise to Dexter. Lionel Atwill is back as a suspicious doctor who is being tracked by private investigator Jerry Church (Of Human Bondage‘s Patric Knowles). You might think this sounds like a murder mystery. Why is it in this collection? Well eventually the mysterious Doctor Rx wants to swap the brain of one of the characters with a gorilla. He’s not just a killer, but mad scientist. The film isn’t too serious thanks to Mantan Moreland (King of the Zombies) playing Church’s butler. He knows how to crack up a scene. Also there’s a visit from Shemp Howard from the Three Stooges as a police detective who likes to drink on the job. There’s a fine scene when Shemp attempts to hit the bottle in Mantan’s kitchen.

The Mad Ghoul (1943 – 65 minutes) is another classic film about how it doesn’t pay to be the teacher’s pet. Dr. Alfred Morris (The Mummy’s Ghost‘s George Zucco) gives a lecture about an ancient culture’s creation of a poison gas and a strange way they would revive their victim. He promises his class that he will use the summer break to explore his theory of what was done. Super student Ted Allison (Calling Dr. Death‘s David Bruce) volunteers to be his research assistant. This turns bad fast and gets even worse. Turns out the Morris has the hots for his student’s singing girlfriend (The Wolf Man‘s Evelyn Ankers). He uses his experiment to get Ted to break up with her and more. The Mad Ghoul lets us know that Atwill wasn’t the only English actor who could play a diabolical man of science. Zucco is so creepy when he turns on his authoritative voice.

For those who didn’t buy the DVD-Rs, Universal Horror Collection Volume 2 is worth the wait. House of Horror with Rondo Hatton is the missing, but hopefully will be on a Volume 3 if you buy this collection to prove there’s a market for Universal Horror. The four films are restored to their black and white glory. We get to see two of the best evil smart guys from the glory days of black and white horror in Atwill and Zucco. Murders In the Zoo remains a harsh experience with its horrific images that wouldn’t return to the screen until perhaps The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is a great boxset for fans of Svengoolie that want to go beyond the usual Universal monsters.

The video is 1.33 full frame for all four films. The four transfers look so nice in 1080p. The black and white films bring out the creeps especially when Atwill fills the screen. The audio is DTS-HD MA Mono for all four films. The levels are fine and smooth. The movies are subtitled.

Audio Commentary on Murders In the Zoo from historian Greg Mank. Has fun talking about the pre-Code film. He points out that it upset censors around the world and scenes they liked to snip.

Image Gallery (1:48) has production photos, posters and lobby cards for Murders In the Zoo.

Trailer (1:41) is heavy on the Mad Doctor and his Market Street experiment and less on the romance.

Image Gallery (5:55) has production photos, posters and lobby cards for Mad Doctor.

Gloriously Wicked: The Life and Legacy of Lionel Atwill (19:02) points out how Lionel was the man for playing deviants and mad doctors. He was a major Broadway star when he headed out to Hollywood. Gregory William Mank talks about how Atwill was a bit of a freak in real life. He threw wild parties that eventually became his downfall. Mank explores how this ruined his reputation that should have had him up with Lugosi and Karloff.

Image Gallery (5:16) has production photos, posters and lobby cards for Doctor Rx.

Audio Commentary on Mad Ghoul from historian Thomas Reeder. He serves up the details on the cast, crew and production.

Image Gallery (5:51) has production photos, posters and lobby cards for Mad Ghoul.

Press Kit (1:01) is what theater owners and the press would get to give background on the film and clip art for the newspaper ads. Remember when they used to do that?

Scream Factory presents Universal Horror Collection Volume 2. Starring: Lionel Atwill, George Zucco, Shemp Howard, David Bruce, Evelyn Ankers, Patric Knowles & Mantan Moreland. Rated: Unrated. Boxset Contents: 4 Movies on 4 Blu-rays. Released: July 23, 2019

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