Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray)

September 3, 2019 19 Min Read

Review by: Jake Keet

Plot: What’s it about?

I remember as a young boy the thrill of excitement as I watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents. A lot of times I was literally watching this from the bath tub in my parents’ master bath which held a small black and white television. Those black and white images made an impact on me as I watched stories that ranged from the story of Jack the Ripper to strange premonitions to elaborate espionage stories. That show instilled in me a love of the old macabre black and white films. It was later that I discovered Vincent Price and The House on Haunted Hill. It was even later in life that I began to watch the Val Lewton produced RKO films. Fans of these types of films should be ecstatic to see Shout!Factory’s new box set which contains four pairings of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff from their time working together at Universal Pictures. Two of the films also borrow loosely from thematic elements from the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, although neither are adaptations of his work in any shape or form. Over the past couple weeks I sat down and watched each of the films and the great special features included. For my money, this is easily one of the most enjoyable box sets that has come out this year.

The Black Cat

“The black cat is deathless. Deathless is evil.”

A young couple ride on a train to the European town of Visegrad. Peter Alison and his wife Joan, due to a misbooking, are joined in their compartment by Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi.) He had gone to war and then had been imprisoned for fifteen years in the prison of Kurgaal. Mrs. Alison bears a striking resemblance to the girl Vitus had left behind. When the train pulls into the station, it is raining outside. They all hail a driver. En route, the driver explains that they are passing by an area that in the war was one of the bloodiest areas. There was a massive cemetery there called Fort Marmaris. On top of that cemetery a house had been built. The car veers off the road and crashes. The driver is killed and Mrs. Alison is knocked unconscious. The travelers seek refuge in the large house owned by architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff.) The owner of the house had betrayed his people to the Russians and then returned and built his house on their graves. On top of that, Vitus and Hjalmar have unfinished business. When alone, Vitus asks him where his wife Karen is. Hjalmar claims that she had died while Vitus was imprisoned. The plot continues to thicken but Hjalmar has a lot going on including having a collection of women he is preserving in glass cases. Meanwhile, Vitus is deathly afraid of cats.

This is the type of film I love to find. There is a great thrill when you discover an old film that still works well eighty years later. The atmosphere in the film is through the roof. It’s mysterious and strange and soaked in rain. The film is not based on the Poe story The Black Cat, but it is Poe inspired.

The music is made up of classical snippets from Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach, which is a fitting score for the film. It gives the proceedings an air of elegance. Karloff is striking in his dark robe and Lugosi is great as Vitus. There is a lot to enjoy here and this is probably my favorite of the four films in the set.

The Raven

“Maybe if a man looks ugly, he does ugly things.”

As the movie begins a young woman named Jean Thatcher accidentally veers off the road when she misses a detour. Her father Judge Hatcher insists that they save her. They contact Dr. Vollin (Bela Lugosi.) He is in the middle of explaining to a guest that he considers the raven (a symbol of death) to be his talisman. He rejects the notion of helping them but when the father arrives at his house and speaks with him, Dr. Vollin agrees to perform surgery on the woman. When she is brought back to normal, she finds herself enchanted by this Poe loving doctor. Dr. Vollin finds himself enchanted by her. He lives in a large mansion. His love of Poe led to him constructing all of the torture devices from his stories at his home. Judge Hatcher tries to warn off Dr. Vollin from his daughter Jean so that she may marry another named Jerry. Dr. Vollin vehemently refuses to stay away from his daughter. When an escaped and dangerous fugitive named Edmund Bateman (Boris Karloff) arrives at Dr. Vollin’s house one night, Dr. Vollin agrees to perform plastic surgery on the man on the condition that he kill for him. Edmund asks for the surgery first and asks that Vollin make him look more attractive. The doctor makes him look monstrous. The doctor assures him that once his task is completed he will make him look handsome. The doctor sends out invitations to the Hatchers and their friends to join him at his home and stay overnight.

Like The Black Cat, The Raven has almost nothing to do with Edgar Allan Poe’s classic poem, but it shows its affinity for Poe through the instruments of torture collected by Dr. Vollin. It also includes a recitation of the poem by Lugosi which is enjoyable. Like The Black Cat,Lugosi and Karloff are given some great material to work with. I particularly enjoyed the deranged quality of the story. When you see Karloff after his surgery, it is impossible to not smile at the horrific results. The accompanying supplements discussed how interesting it is to think that this film passed the muster with the censors with all of its bizarre elements. Universal was definitely pushing the envelope.

While the film is not quite as enjoyable as The Black Cat, it comes in a close second place. It is certainly atmospheric, but it doesn’t quite reach the heights of the prior film. There are some really interesting tricks played in the film that are of note. My favorite involves an elevator late in the film that is still a very effective plot device. When you see it, you will know what I am talking about. Overall – this is a great addition to the set.

The Invisible Ray

“Who are we on this youngest and smallest of planets to say that the INVISIBLE RAY is impossible to science?”

On a stormy night in a mansion, Mother Rukh talks to Anna – her daughter in law – about her fears for her son Janos as he demonstrates some science to the villagers outside the home. Mother Rukh went blind years earlier attempting to view a ray from andromeda. Sir Francis, Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi,) Lady Stephens and her nephew Ray all arrive at the home of Dr. Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff.) Dr. Rukh has brought them all there to have them witness as he directs a ray to his observatory from Andromeda, putting his life at risk. He is able to take his visitors on a visual journey through space to Andromeda and then show them the meteor hitting our earth in Africa. They all go to Africa so that Dr Tenet can focus on Astrochemistry and Dr. Rukh can look for the Radium X deposits from the meteor landing. Dr. Rukh scrapes some deposits off of a wall of an excavation site with the assistance of some natives. He puts the scrapings into a machine and he is able to manifest the power to destroy things with an invisible ray. Unfortunately, the radiation poisons him and he begins to glow. Everything that he touches dies. Dr. Benet concocts a formula that keeps the poisoning from taking effect. While Janos is away working, Diana leaves him for Ronald. Meanwhile, the scientists, Sir Francis and Dr. Benet, share Janos’ Radium X discovery with the world. Its healing qualities give Dr. Benet fame and fortune. To enact a plan, Janos fakes his death. He plans to exact revenge on all those who wronged him.

This modern take on the Midas touch is interesting. This film had the biggest budget of the four collaborations and lends itself to some really interesting set designs. This is also the longest of the four films, running nearly thirty minutes longer than the other films in the set. While I enjoyed this film, I enjoyed the first two films in the set more. The Edgar Allan Poe influence on the first two films just appealed to me a little bit more. This is a fun science fiction film that will please audiences that love a mad scientist. It’s also gives Lugosi and Karloff some good material to appear onscreen with one another.

Black Friday

“I had to operate to give you another body.”

Dr. Ernest Sovacs (Boris Karloff) walks the long corridor to the electrical chair. He gives a newspaper man the record of the case of George Kingsley and the note with it proclaims that he “dies a scientist.” Flashing back, a professor named George Kingsley is picked up by his friend Ernest after conducting a lecture. Some mobsters in a shootout fly down the street in their cars. A car veers off the road and crashes into George. The mobster in the car, Red Cannon, is paralyzed. Dr. Sovacs realizes the only way to save George would be to transplant part of the mobster’s brain into George’s brain. The operation is successful. When Sovacs learns that Red Cannon had hidden away $500,000 he begins to try to get the information out of George by bringing out Cannon’s personality. It isn’t long before Cannon – realizing that he is in a new body and no longer in danger from the police and the gang that murdered him – begins to exact revenge on the men that paralyzed him.

Out of the four films in the set, this is the least loved. The reason why this film is not as well liked comes down to casting. Originally Karloff was meant to play Kingsley and Lugosi was meant to play Sovacs. This would have lent itself to a much more enjoyable film. This is not to slight the performance by Stanley Ridges. He actually does a great job in the film. Unfortunately, Lugosi is just unable to convince as a gangster with his thick Hungarian accent. Also – the chemistry of Lugosi and Karloff is lost on the film since they never appear on screen together. The film itself is still worth your time, but it does not hold a candle to the first couple films in the collection.

Video: How’s it look?

No fans should be scared to pick up the new Universal Horror Collection, Volume 1. The image is never frightening. All of the films have been given new 2K scans of the films’ original materials. These scans show the age of the properties, but have been restored well. Fine detail is pretty decent but is going to be on par with other properties from the 1930s. The backgrounds will feel somewhat blurry to modern film watchers, but that is due to the camera technology of the time more than anything. The films show grain but I never found it to be excessive. Fans should be happy overall.

Audio: How’s it sound?

Shout!Factory have provided nice DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono tracks for each film. The dialogue is remarkably clear for how old these films are. The scores on the films have been given adequate attention and come across nicely. While there is not a single track here that measures against modern films, it is pretty remarkable how nice everything sounds considering these movies were made when films with sound were a new thing.

Supplements: What are the extras?

The Black Cat (Disc One)

  • Audio Commentary – features author Gregory William Mank.
  • Audio Commentary – features author Steve Haberman.
  • A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal: Part 1 – The Black Cat– in the first of a four part series included in this set, authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank (who have written books on Lugosi and Karloff) discuss The Black Cat and the true relationship between Lugosi and Karloff. Despite what I had always believed, it seems that the two stars were quite friendly with one another. Also discussed is the path of their careers that led to working together on the Universal films in this set. A really great piece that leads well into the other three pieces.
  • Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe – this nearly hour long piece discusses the numerous adaptations of Poe’s works. I liked this piece as it showed how varied the attempts to realize his work are.
  • The Black Cat Contest – a small press reel.
  • Still Gallery 

The Raven (Disc Two)

  • Audio Commentary – features author Gregory William Mank.
  • Audio Commentary – features author Steve Haberman.
  • A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal: Part 2 – The Raven – authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank continue their discussion. This time they direct their attention to The Raven.
  • Audio Recording – Bela Lugosi reads Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.”
  • Still Gallery 

The Invisible Ray (Disc Three)

  • Audio Commentary – features authors Tom Weaver and Randall Larson.
  • A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal: Part 3 – The Invisible Ray – authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank discuss The Invisible Ray and the careers of the two stars. The grand production of the film is cited. There is also a good discussion of the diminishing results for Lugosi’s career moving forward while Karloff was able to maintain a strong career.
  • Still Gallery 
  • Theatrical Trailer

Black Friday (Disc Four)

  • Audio Commentary – features film historian Constantine Nasr.
  • A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal: Part 4 – Black Friday – authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank discuss the final collaboration between the two actors at Universal and why the film is not as fondly remembered as the others in the set. A lively discussion of the personal fortunes of the two actors is also discussed.
  • Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Hour – an audio performance of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Boris Karloff.
  • Still Gallery
  • Theatrical Trailer

The Bottom Line

Universal Horror Collection Volume 1 is a great box set. For an affordable price, viewers can be treated to four pairings of two cinematic icons. Watching Lugosi and Karloff act together is a unique joy that I hope will be enjoyed by many. The supplemental features are well done and excellently curated. I highly recommend adding this set to your collection if you have any interest in classic horror.

Disc Scores