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Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 (Blu-ray Review)

The Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 from Scream Factory may have had a name change as well as key art facelift since its original announcement (Then the “Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi Collection), but the film inside remain the same. In fact, we are probably benefiting from that change as this looks like a series with no limitations now. Exciting are the possibilities and directions it could take. This collection features 4 non-Classic Monster films featuring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff together, complete with some new commentaries and featurettes. For vintage horror nuts like myself, this is a very exciting and big sublicensing deal for Scream Factory. You’ll be able to add it to your shelf on June 18th.

The Black Cat 

American honeymooners in Budapest, Hungary follow a mad doctor (Bela Lugosi) and become trapped in the Art Deco manor home of a black-lipped architect who also happens to be a Satan-worshiping priest (Boris Karloff) when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident.

The Black Cat marks the second team up of legendary horror icons Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Following the Murders In The Rue Morgue, the two paired as rival scientists in this film revolving around satanic rituals and sacrifice. Oddly both manage to get evil turns in even though one is clearly the antagonist of the film. This script is perfectly set for them to spar off in many scenes of debate and rivalry.

This film also has a good share of haunts and cryptic thrills beyond just the headlining thespians. While really not having much to do with the Poe story for which it is supposedly based, it manages to deliver its own shocking, gruesome and groundbreaking horrors for modern (of the time) audiences. There are eerie visuals of women in glass caskets, floating with their hair up which is amazing. A full on ritual is on display as well. Much of the set design and such it top notch as well. Hard for any vintage horror nut not to get a kick out of this one.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: The Black Cat is the only film in this set not to advertise a new 2K transfer. As such, this HD master isn’t half bad. The film itself is a little softer and in a more grainy looking condition. Though, it shouldn’t hamper any viewing. It still features a good look with some good details coming through.

Depth:  Depth of filed is decent. In more cleaner looking scenes the distancing is better and more apparently. Motion is smooth and cinematic.

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty deep, carrying a little more grain with them. Details are a bit tougher to discern in darker areas, but its not problematic and more complimentary to the classic feel.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are a good white/gray with a consistent appearance throughout. Facial features and textures only really make themselves truly apparent in close ups and the shots pulled back not much further.

Noise/Artifacts: As mentioned there is some grain but no real noise problems or anything of that ilk.

Audio 

Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The Black Cat comes with a solid theatrical mono mix that gives you a nice vintage feel with a soft analog hiss laying base to everything. This is mostly a dialogue movie, but the balance of the effects and score in here is pretty well done on its own.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are solid and come with a little analog hiss as mentioned before. Lugosi’s voice booms pretty well here.

The Raven 

A brilliant surgeon (Bela Lugosi) is spurned after he saves the life of a beautiful dancer. He becomes mad when he finds he can’t have her, seeking revenge using his obsession with Edgar Allan Poe’s devices of torture and a hideous man (Boris Karloff).

Being on a roll, The Raven followed right after The Black Cat. Once again borrowing an Edgar Allan Poe title in merely name only, The Raven proves a bit goofier of an affair. This film is Lugosi’s to lead as a more straight man, but Karloff casually and effortlessly steals the show as his goon. Another monster to add to his cabinet, Karloff didn’t take this movie too seriously, but the fun he’s having does show through a bit in the feature.

The Raven’s Poe connection comes merely in Lugosi’s obsession with Poe related death traps and relics. He recites The Raven in the film which feels a bit too heavy handed. If it wasn’t for Karloff I’m not sure how revered this one might be. Its still solid entertainment from the two, but on the lower end. It kind hangs around in place until the final act kicks into gear which is a bit too late and doesn’t last for long. Still, worthwhile enjoyment, but a more lower point of such when it comes to the two.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: The Raven debuts on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a 2K scan of the original film elements. This one looks a bit more fresh than the previous Black Cat, but the negative looks like its still in a rougher condition as streaks and such do show through. Its a much more crisp picture, with good detail, but still a little softer around the edges. Though, in a more romantic, possibly intended fashion.

Depth:  There is some decent spacing on display here and some becomes more apparent time to time. A scene where Lugosi operates an elevator with an effect done by way of rear projection looks quite well done. Motion is smooth and cinematic.

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty deep and carry a little more grain with them. Some of the darker fabrics, hair and surfaces make detail a bit harder to make out but nothing is really troublesome. No crushing found.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones keep a consistent gray/white throughout the duration of the film. Facial features are reasonable decent with texture visible to degrees of reasonable expectation. The details of the make-up on Karloff are notably impressive in close ups and medium shots.

Noise/Artifacts: Some heavier grain at times and print scuffs/streaks, but nothing horribly distracting.

Audio 

Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The Raven comes with a nice, of its time, sound audio display in the mono track on this disc. It plays as effective as any classic monster movie of this time would and has a charm that comes with some of the dated sound recording display within the source of the mix. This probably par for the course with this set, and that’s absolutely fine given the appropriate expectations for these films.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are plenty discernible with a nice source related vinyl hiss accompaniment.

The Invisible Ray 

A scientist (Bela Lugosi) becomes murderous after discovering, and being exposed to the radiation of, a powerful new element called Radium X. He then seeks an antidote for a radium-poisoned colleague (Boris Karloff) with the touch of death.

Maybe a both underseen and better than its been credit entry in not only this set, but the whole line of Karloff/Lugosi titles, The Invisible Ray delivers a quite unique and a bit more expansive film than your typical Universal horror outing of the 1930s. Expansive in the way that it appears they have done some location shooting for it and most of the settings aren’t confined to some house with a dungeon/laboratory below. Yes, it includes those things as well, but the film overall just has a bit more exotic feel to it.

Nowadays this one is likely to hit a modern viewer as more science fiction than horror, but back in the 1930s-50s science-fiction related stories WERE horror. Once again we are treated to another standoff of scientists/doctors as Karloff and Lugosi dramatically spar off with one another. They both don some interesting facial hair (In Karloff’s case, haircut as well) for this one. Karloff especially has an excellent twist and turn into vile madness. I really enjoyed revisiting this one as it was one of my favorite pieces on this set.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: The Invisible Ray debuts on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a 2K scan of the original film elements. This transfer might be the cream of the crop for the four movies in this set (Black Friday not far behind). It still carries some aging elements from the print, but for a viewer like me that’s understandable and adds to the charm. While crisp, the image has a slight touch of softness probably due to the lighting techniques of the era. Details are pretty strong with reasonable expectations.

Depth: Solid depth of filed on display here, moreso present when in an interior. Movements are smooth, natural and have no motion issues.

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty rich and do carry a slightly more present amount of grain. They are perfectly complimentary and add definition, clarity and a bit of a gothic element to the film. No crushing witnessed.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones carry that white/gray appearance with a terrific consistency for the duration of the motion picture. Facial features are pretty good in close ups and most medium shots.

Noise/Artifacts: No digital issues, but there is some print streaks, scratches, dirt and scuffs that show up regularly. However, they almost feel a part of the picture and at times you have to focus on them to really notice.

Audio 

Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The Invisible Ray features a solid mono track with good, present sound, but has a bit of a warbly layer behind its audio that almost sounds like a poor streaming signal at times. This distortion was present on the clips used for it in the “A Good Game” featurette. I’m not sure this is a source issue as it sounds a bit more like a digital one.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are good and clear, but you can catch a sort of warbly distortion behind them.

Black Friday 

As Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) makes his way to the electric chair, he recalls the events that landed him on death row. After placing brain matter from a violent gangster into the mind of a dying teacher named George Kingsley (Stanley Ridges), Sovac watches his patient take on violent tendencies. When Sovac learns, through an almost-possessed Kingsley, about a hidden stash of mob money, the doctor entices the criminal in Kingsley to come out — with murderous results.

Well, this one qualifies for the set, albeit barely. Yes, this is a film starring both horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. But, watching the film you’ll see it barely qualifies. This is a Boris Karloff film that has Bela Lugosi in it. Lugosi shows up for pretty much one scene and never shares a frame or bit of dialogue with Karloff in the film. It is what it is, but those who have never seen Black Friday should be pre-empted by that before getting into it.

Black Friday is an interesting hybrid of sorts. Its main crux is a mad scientist horror story, but its done so in the realm of a 1940s gangster film. That’s a neat angle and something you wouldn’t think was being done or thought of much at all on the big screen back in the day regarding a hybrid. It plays all right and isn’t long, but stuff slowly starts to wear out though a nice performance by Karloff keeps it afloat.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Black Friday debuts on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a 2K scan of the original film elements. The picture on this one is more comparable to The Invisible Ray, albeit with what looks to be a better print. Details are pretty strong and it has a surprisingly sharp image overall.

Depth:  This one came with some pretty good foreground background spacing, especially in the club and hotel room sequences. Motion was rather smooth and cinematic in nature with no distortion issues.

Black Levels: Blacks are deep and pretty rich. Like all the other films, grain has a little more character in darker elements. No crushing witnessed.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones carry that white/gray appearance with a terrific consistency for the duration of the motion picture. Facial features are pretty good in close ups and most medium shots.

Noise/Artifacts: Just some more grain, dirt, scratches present at times. No digital issues occur.

Audio 

Format(s): English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD MA

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Black Friday wraps this up with a pretty rock solid mono track. It features a nice balance between effects, vocals and music. The score can take just an ever so slight precedence, but is never overbearing or overtaking of any other elements. This is a solid and pretty “as expected” in terms of expectations for the sound quality on a film of this age.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear with a nice faint analog hiss accompaniment.

Extras 

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 1 is a 4-Blu-ray disc set with each film presented on its own disc. This set also includes a short insert booklet that features some notes and marketing images/posters for the films.

The Black Cat

Audio Commentary

  • By author/film historian Gregory William Mank
  • By author/film historian Steve Haberman

A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part One: The Black Cat (HD, 23:34) – A retrospective look back at the film with noted Lugosi & Karloff authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank. This builds the sort of lead in to what would be the famous actor team up and focuses on their experience for The Black Cat. In a fun way, Rhodes plays as sort of the Lugosi side of things while Mank covers the Karloff angle. Interestingly enough, they play into the times are paint a picture what a kind of punk rock, rebellious horror film this was for the time and surprisingly didn’t see a massive backlash for its satanism and hinting at incest.

Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe (HD, 56:02) – Narrated by Doug Bradley. This takes a bit of a film by film retrospective look at Poe adaptations in cinema as a visual essay with plenty of examples via clips and still images.

Vintage footage: The Black Cat Contest (HD, :49) – No audio, but as some footage of Lugosi & Karloff with kids as well as some black cats at the event.

Still Gallery (HD, 8:47)

The Raven

Audio Commentary

  • With author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes
  • With author/film historian Steve Haberman

A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Two-Part 2: The Raven (HD, 17:25) – Continuing where the last left off, Rhodes and Mank now dive into the work on The Rave, which Mank humorously discusses that Karloff did this as a sort of “Yeah, sure, fine” kind of movie and didn’t think much of it.

Audio Recording: Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart” (HD, 13:22)

Still Gallery (HD, 8:18) 

The Invisible Ray

Audio Commentary

  • With authors/film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson

A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal-Part 3: The Invisible Ray (HD, 16:36) – On this third entry, the duo of Mank and Rhodes come to the production on The Invisible Ray with where both actors’ careers and the studio were at the time as they branched to a story more science fiction in nature.

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:44)

Still Gallery (HD, 7:00)

Black Friday

Audio Commentary

  • With filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr

A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal-Part 4: Black Friday (HD, 17:04) – Mank and Rhodes close off this 4 part adventure with a discussion on Black Friday and how things had changed for the performers in the time since both broke out into stardom in the early 1930s. This was a really nice series and the two gentlemen here bring a true “Turner Classic Movies” feel to this little series of retrospective glances.

Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show: “The Tell-Tale Heart” Starring Boris Karloff (HD, 26:45)

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:55)

Still Gallery (HD, 6:37) 

Summary 

Scream Factory’s first Universal Horror Collection, focusing on Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff collaborations, did not disappointment. The films feature very solid and appreciative transfers to go along with some very educational and informative bonus materials. There are also a couple nice archival things here as well. A must have for horror fans.

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Writer/Reviewer, lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash, Brandon hosts the Cult Cinema Cavalcade podcast on the Creative Zombie Studios Network (www.cultcinemacavalcade.com) You can also find more essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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