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Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 (Blu-ray Review)

What started out as merely a Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff collection has pivoted into a pretty swell, and less limited, release line for Scream Factory. That original release became the Universal Horror Collection which has now spawned 4 volumes (The fourth coming in 2020), featuring various films that aren’t captured under the “Classic Monster” banner. Films, actors, directors and effects artists that all deserve their due on Blu. Volume 3 sees a more all-star lineup (In terms of casting) that feels a bit of a rebound after Volume 2’s Lionel Atwill heavy set. This third in the collection features Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr., Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill (Again!). Any classic horror hound would love to probably have this as a gift, so make sure you lock one in using our paid link for next week’s release (December 17th) and swoop in with the ultimate surprise gift this holiday season.

Tower of London (1939)

Ambitious Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), brother of King Edward IV (Ian Hunter), maneuvers to get the powerful John Wyatt (John Sutton) to France, then has his brother make him the Lord Protectorate for Edward’s sons, the two young princes. Impatient that the ill Edward clings to life, Richard arranges his death, as well as that of his other brother, the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price). With only the princes remaining, Richard’s obsession to rule shows no sign of abating.

I appreciate the film’s arrival on Blu-ray  and its inclusion in this set, but be forewarned, it doesn’t play 100% as a horror film. Tower of London primarily is a historical drama that has some darker edges to it. It does feature Vincent Price (In just his third role), Boris Karlof in monstrous getup and Basil Rathbone, but this one is more an action/period drama if anything. And I’ll give the film credit, it has some very impressive medieval battle sequences for its time. In fact, there are many of them that are staged in such a way that you could take a frame and craft a piece of art of it for your wall. The costumes are good, lighting perfect and just the overall scope and scale looks pretty huge. The film itself is pretty ho-hum when not doing battle, most the drama scene but save a few feeling underwhelming.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Tower of London arrives in the set featuring a new 2K scan of a fine print of the film. Warts and all, this one looks pretty nifty. It has a very cinematic look, with a nice layer of grain, making the details and definition look largely unsullied. The print itself is a little rough around the edges at times, but overall it has a nice, consistent look and classical feel.

Depth:  Some pretty good depth of field on display here, especially in the interiors of the castles and during the elaborate knight sword battles. You can also make out a little bit of the refined appearance of the rear projection used. No motion distortion issues on display at all as movements are smooth and cinematic.

Black Levels: Blacks are plenty deep, carrying a heavier grain in the darkest corners. No crushing witnessed.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones carry a consistent, gray/white appearance with the stronger details carrying more in close-ups.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Tower of London comes with a pretty solid mono track, given the age and quality of the source. While it has a pretty balanced mix, there is an analog hiss and some struggles to hit some of the louder moments. Overall, I’ll lean on the side of the restoration being the best they could muster up, and quite likely the best we’ll ever got.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are plenty good and audible no matter the level of intensity going on with the score or effects. An analog hiss accompanies the dialogue as a nice ambient base.

Man Made Monster (1941)

A mad scientist (Lionel Atwill) makes an electric man (Lon Chaney Jr.) who glows and must wear a rubber suit.

Here’s the film that put people on notice about Lon Chaney Jr. Notable coming up as being the spawn of the man who gave many a great make-up/monstrous performances, he quickly became a commodity of his own. Man Made Monster predates his turn as The Wolf Man and gives you the qualities you’d find in all his tragic and deeper performances down the line. In fact, it was the gig on this film that linked him to a Universal contract and eventually had the dominoes fall in his favor to play the harried character he would be forever known as the iconic version of. Man Made Monster is, in itself, a pretty solid, radioactive-esque treat that really does impress for having a nice focus on character over monster. Its not just Chaney, but its there in the script and direction. However, we forget, these films HAD to be interesting in the non-effects department as they couldn’t afford or crutch on them and had to be interesting between the spectacle in order to be memorable and legendary.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Man Made Monster has no information regarding its transfer, which is probably an HD master or at best a 2K scan from a print. Overall, it has a nice clarity to it and is pretty swimming in some details. This one is pretty up to par with most of the better Universal Horror Volumes with its look.

Depth:  Foreground and background relations are quite spread. One thing I enjoy about these old films is the details on backdrops versus location shooting and such that I’m not sure we could really make out before high definition transfers.

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty rich, leaning more in the natural direction with a little bit more grain in the darker corners. No crushing witnessed.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are a gray/white, holding true the entirety of the film. Facial features are decent, mostly showcasing the best details in close ups.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Man Made Monster comes with a solid man made mono track (Pats self on back). It features a pretty solid blend of the effects, vocals and score, though don’t expect it to be the cleanest of things. The quieter, dialogue driven scenes between a low amount of characters prove it best and do sound pretty in a classical sense.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is plenty clear in any given moment, with the expected analog his as a foundation.

The Black Cat (1941)

The family of wealthy, elderly Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) gathers for an advance reading of her will. Believing Henrietta is near death, her nephew, Montague (Basil Rathbone), has brought along realtor Gil Smith (Broderick Crawford). Dismayed that the family anticipates her demise, Henrietta reads her will and stuns everyone by adding that no one can inherit until the estate guardian, Abigail (Gale Sondergaard), dies. When Henrietta is murdered, Abigail fears her own life is in danger.

Whew, another old movie of The Black Cat arrives on Blu-ray, eh? This was quite the popular Poe story to do a cinematic adaptation of for a long while. This makes for the fourth to come on Blu-ray. And its the second of which to star Bela Lugosi (Be it in a pretty limited role). All versions of The Black Cat seem to more or less find a general idea of the Poe work and craft an original film around it. This particular rendition finds itself to be a murder mystery with a pair of bumbling detectives (In the form of antique dealers) trying to find the murderer in an old giant (fun) house. While it may not be my favorite Black Cat (I fawn over Lucio Fulci an unhealthy amount, folks), this one is pretty beautiful in a spooky way. Its also pretty fun and maybe my favorite film in this set.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: The Black Cat hasn’t much on its transfer, though probably is an HD master or 2K scan at best. This one is a bit of darker film considering its setting. Details are pretty decent, though its quite shadowy. Blacks saturate decently and overall it has a bit of spooky appearance that I enjoyed.

Depth:  As dark as this film is, there is a pretty impressive (Given what it is) push back on foreground and background. Movements are smooth and cinematic with no struggles on motion.

Black Levels: Blacks are deep, and can be a bit consuming, with details hard to come by in the shadows. Its swallowed a bit, but I can imagine much to be done to improve them. Grain is a little heavier on this one due to its pretty darkened nature. No crushing is abound at any point though.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin tones are that gray/white, with no issues on consistency in any point of the film. Details prove present in close ups, but don’t expect much from further out than that.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: The Black Cat features an original mono mix to help clue into a murder. Hitting the repeat button, it features a mix of its time that has an analog his to it with good vocals, music and effects that when get to big highs or levels of intensity can peak/faulter just a tad. But if you watch a lot of films of this time or are familiar/forgiving knowing the circumstances, you’re used to watching this and know there isn’t much that can be done.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Like all the films in this set (And the others), it features a pretty soft, but plenty audible dialogue with an analog vinyl hiss to keep as a comforting classical backdrop.

Horror Island (1941)

Young people (Dick Foran, Peggy Moran) and a peg-legged sailor (Leo Carrillo) look for buried treasure at a haunted castle.

Horror Island doesn’t boast any big horror icons or notable stars we remember over time today like the others in this set, but it manages to be one of the more pure horror contributions. An aspect, or subgenre, we don’t talk about with “types” of horror movies are pirates. There are a lot of terrifying and horrific imagery, characters, monsters and thrill related scenes when it comes to that kind of story that lends itself easily to horror but tends to be more thought of with swashbucklers. Pirates themselves can be super scary. But if you think of the dark caverns, creaky ships, skulls, ghosts and sea monsters it makes too much sense. While the sense of adventure is clearly there, Horror Island tends to lean on the more sinister aspects. Its a pretty fun movie I’d never checked out until this set and could make for a fun piece of a classic Hollywood thrills/terrors marathon.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Once again, nothing detailed too much about the transfer of Horror Island on this release. Though, as always, it relies on the strength of its source. This one has a bit of toughness to it, heavier in grain, but still managing to showcase some solid detail with nice depth and saturation of the black levels. I enjoy some of this more traditional and true rough around the edges appearances, though those who love the DNR’d “clean” look may not be as apathetic.

Depth:  

Black Levels: Blacks are pretty deep and closer to natural levels than lighter grays. No crushing witnessed during this viewing for the review.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: Skin takes on that typical gray/white coloring and has no difficulty with flickering or consistency at any time. Details are apparent in the close ups, but not so much luck further out.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: And for the last time, Horror Island features a stirring little mono track, blended neatly with its vocals, music and effects that try their best not to step on one another, but isn’t successful all the time. Its the kind of mix you’d expect from this set, so you’re definitely going to be just fine if these films are your cup of tea.

Height: N/A

Low Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals come out pretty clear with a thicker analog hiss, but nothing too bothersome or drastically different from the rest of the pack.

Extras

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 is a 4-Disc set and includes an insert booklet with content listings and additional information and promotional images for the films.

Tower of London

Audio Commentary

  • With author/film historian Steve Haberman

Image Gallery (HD, 3:06)

Man Made Monster

Audio Commentary

  • With author/film historian Tom Weaver & filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr

Image Gallery (HD, 1:53)

The Black Cat

Audio Commentary

  • With author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes

Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1:49)

Image Gallery (HD, 4:20)

Horror Island

Audio Commentary

  • By filmmaker/film historian Ted Newsom

Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1:30)

Image Gallery (HD, 1:53)

Summary

In this third Universal Horror Collection, we have a bit of a step up in the “flashy” department, sporting big name actors and titles (The Black Cat, no matter which one, stands out as familiar.) Scream Factory brings it all in with some of the best work that they are able to do and manage a consistency that has traveled among the sets. While there are no new featurettes to speak of, the commentaries do well to provide the best 2nd or 3rd hand information we can get considering the age of these films. I’m definitely liking what they are doing here and look forward to the fourth volume next year.

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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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