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Universal Horror Collection: Volume 4 (Blu-ray Review)

Scream Factory is continuing its new line of vault “horror” titles collecting dust in the Universal Studios library with Universal Horror Collection: Volume 4. These have all been released a sets of four, typically starring the icons of the time (Lots of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill). For the fourth incarnation of the series, the films included are; 1937’s Night Key, Night Monster (1942), The Climax (1944) and House of Horrors (1946). Now, I had to be “that” guy, but some of these have been steering in the direction of “Is this really a horror movie?”. To make up for that, I can accept “No, but it has one of horror’s biggest stars of the time in it” as a worthy reason to include a film in these sets. And I’m also not aware if something that feels not at all like a horror movie now, may have been or may have been sold as one (Some of the posters suggest as much) when it was released. This new set will release on March 17th and you can pre-order a copy now using the paid Amazon Associates link following the review.

Night Key (1937)

The inventor of a burglar alarm (Boris Karloff) attempts to get back at the man who stole the profits to his invention (Samuel S. Hinds) before he goes blind. The device is then subverted by gangsters (One played by Alan Baxter) who apply pressure to the inventor and use his device to facilitate burglaries.

When I call into question the “horror” nature of some of these choices for sets (Like a complete pompous a-hole), this is the type of films I’m curious to know about. Night Key more or less is a gangster film with a science fiction hook. Was that enough to scare people? Was a heightened thrill element considered enough? Science fiction has been a part of the Scream Factory line (And a WELCOME one) and this one just skates by on qualifying. The film showcases more of the hallmarks of an old 1930-50s mobster film than it does anything else. It features a lot of fast talking and tough guys in suits.

Boris Karloff is our key link here in the film and he’s quite enjoyable and both heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. He’s blind in this film and there are too many moments that come across as absolutely genuine. Its a fabulous performance that will get you at times in an unexpected emotional level. He’s also quite committed in vetting against the villains and pulls of his desperation and fight very well.

At just barely over an hour the film rarely is any sort of boring and the rapid pace of the dialogue on display makes for a pretty fun time. It has a swell enough heist/man desperately unable to seek help plot that works just enough. Night Key is not a film you really need to push yourself to see, but if you’re a Karloff fan, I’d say you should definitely make the effort. And as I mentioned, it is only pretty much an hour of your time.

Night Monster (1942)

Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), a rich recluse, invites the doctors who left him a hopeless cripple to his desolate mansion in the swamps as one by one they meet horrible deaths.

Night Monster is a bit of a who done it monster movie that also plays as monster in the shadows movie that slowly burns away until we finally get a good look at it. The film plays incredibly satisfactory in both regards. It smartly plays the paranormal card at the same time playing the skeptic card as well. This movie may actually outsmart you or use your overdone knowledge of genre films against you, driving one mad as it plays many tropes and stereotypes. You probably are like “Oh, its definitely this, I’ll just wait for that to be spelled out for me” at multiple times in the film.  All is well and fun, and quite possibly future proofed from 1942!

One of the confirmations that this film knows what its doing comes from the marketing. Trailers and posters for the film boast the starring of Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill in the film. Two prominent horror stars of the Universal hey day. What’s quite funny is how much of a red herring that and their actual roles in the film are. One winds up an ancillary character, ONLY suspect just because of who is playing the part. Had it been some random Hal Hoblanski, no one would bat an eye. The other winds up being one of the first people in the film to get bumped off. Heck, you might even expect him to come back from the dead since his demise is so early.

A murder mystery monster movie (Not counting slasher films where it is quite the common place) is quite a fun place to be and one that doesn’t explore much but from time to time. Night Monster is probably one of its earliest efforts. I do recall an Amicus murder mystery were wolf movie that would come down the line. Its plenty fun with some gruesome (for the time) deaths, haunted house sets, intense sequences (While it is rather tame, there IS an attempted rape early in the film) and nice spooky ghost effects. There are some great dialogue exchanges and horror film classic discoveries. All in all, a fun movie to be included in these Universal collections.

The Climax (1944)

An opera-house doctor (Boris Karloff) tries to silence a soprano (Susanna Foster) who looks like one he strangled years earlier.

The origins and idea of The Climax are by far the most interesting thing about the film. Universal had originally set out for The Climax to be a sequel to their Phantom of the Opera remake that came in the line of their classic monster series. Taken on its own, you can get those inklings, but once knowing that information it becomes a lot more clear the ideas and intentions of the film. And no, it doesn’t quite work at all, though trying to spin something new without using the Phantom is kind of admirable. Its was wonder this film was left floating to wind up on one of these Blu-ray sets and not included as a second film on the Universal Classic Monsters Phantom of the Opera portion as that one oddly has just one film and could have used something for a companion whether it be worthy or good or not. I mean, look at some of the “canon official” sequels the The Mummy or The Invisible Man and tell me The Climax couldn’t have been paired with Phantom of the Opera and made sense.

Boris Karloff is a treat here (As always, he’s kind of a phone book actor and has such a fantastic one of a kind voice), but aside from his appearances, this movie offers nothing. There are beautiful costumes and sets, for which this film was nominated for an Oscar for its Art Direction.  Aside from that, the movie offers a bunch of boring musical stage number that neither choreograph well or film with any sense of interest. The songs themselves are my cup of tea and kind of add to the boredom. The film’s horror really isn’t much at all as the film is much more concerned with its dramatics and never honestly feels of much dread. I hate to pile onto this thing as I watched it with continually declining interest, but it truly is a slog and the weakest contribution to this set. There’s really a difficultly to which to write about the film too, as nothing much engaging happens and that’s the biggest crime of all. Scenes of Karloff of amuse time to time but not all of them do. Not helping matters is that it also happens to be the longest film in it as well (Its a forever feeling 90 minutes). You have to be one curious Phantom of the Opera/Boris Karloff fan to check out The Climax.

House of Horrors (1946)

An insane sculptor sends the disfigured criminal he saved from drowning to kill the critics who denounced him.

Rondo Hatton enters the fold here on the Universal Horror Collection series with 1946’s House of Horrors. The iconic actor plays “The Creeper” for which he had been credited before as but a different character altogether. And it was in this film the design for the coveted bust for the Rondo Award was done. He’s a pretty menacing character by appearance (Poor guy, but damn did he own up to it. Something majority don’t have the gull to do), but he also delivers in his movements and approach. Hatton’s performance here is also quite worthy too. Its scary just how dis-affectionate he is. One of my favorite moments is when he’s being read an article about a woman’s murder the previous night and the (unknowing) character asks why anyone would kill her and he just so matter of factly responds “She screamed.” It so without compassion or care for humanity that its downright disturbing.

While we know who is doing the brutal slayings in the film, the other characters are unaware and have a murder mystery to solve. It leads to the setup of another artist character who fits the bill of all the potential motives for the kills, all drawing back to a pretty snooty and harsh art critic. These scenes are full of “Oh no, you idiots” or being put in suspense knowing that the artist Morrow’s action are only going to make him more of a prime suspect and possibly have him take the fall for all of this.

Artist Steven Morrow is played by actor Robert Lowery. Yes, he had appeared in a film previously on these Universal Horror Collection sets, but he’s notable for other reasons. He is the second actor to play the live action Batman, donning the cape and cowl three years following this movie in the aptly titled Batman and Robin movie serial (The second Batman movie serial). Funny enough, the dastardly art critic in the film is played by a young Alan Napier. And damn, for what little screen time he has, Napier is pretty damn good and it has me wanting to see out other early works of his. Twenty years later, he’d be recognizable as the faithful red-phone answering butler, Alfred to Adam West’s 1966 iteration of Batman. Quite the funny Bat-coincidence occurring in the film.

House of Horrors is a pretty fun little horror film with a good monster and solid crime-ish plot. Its got a sort of modernized Jack the Ripper feel and look to it, taking place in the current year as opposed to the 1800s.  At just over an hour, its kinda hard not to give it a chance or to be bored watching it. The film moves and is driven by some strong performances. Its a bit lighter on the graphic violence, always ending in a scream and a big shadow, but the fun detective work and a nice turn from Lowery make it worth the trade.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Layers: BD-50 (4 Discs)

Night Key

  • Clarity/Detail: Night Key‘s debut on Blu-ray features a 2K scan of a fine film grain element. The transfer overall is quite impressive, looking rather youthful in its old age, showcasing a decent set of details with a good crisp picture.
  • Depth: For what its worth and its age, there is an impressive amount of spacing here, likely because the grain is left pretty much intact and helps to keep things pushback and free moving. No issues with rapid movements or the like.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are very deep and try their best to hit their natural levels. There is a bit of consuming darkness and shadows, but it comes with the territory and adds to the film’s flavor and defining of characters and objects. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones are a consistent white/gray from start to finish of the film.  Facial features show best the closer the shot is to the actor’s face, but there are some impressive wrinkles, stubble and make-up textures appearing with reasonable expectations.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Night Monster

  • Clarity/Detail: Night Monster‘s debut on Blu-ray features a 2K scan of a fine film grain element. The film fares quite handsomely in its transfer with good detail and nice refined, sharp picture. Details are pretty solid, the closer something is, the better you’re going to get of it given the source. It has a very nice look of shadow and saturation among the whites, blacks and grays that make up every frame of the film.
  • Depth: The film has a wonderful depth of field with good spacing as especially seen in the mansion interiors. Spacing is quite great from characters to objects, with the exteriors managing to showcase some surprisingly good scale. No motion distortions with rapid movements and the like.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are pretty rich and deep becoming almost a character itself in the film. It provides great shadow and definition for the characters and really refines the look of the story. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones are white/gray and have no issues maintaining a consistent look from start to finish. Facial details are pretty fine, obviously showing texture better the closer up to the performer the frame is.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

The Climax

  • Clarity/Detail: The Climax‘s debut on Blu-ray features a 2K scan of the interpositive. It also happens to be the only film in this set and (from what I remember) the first of the Universal Horror Collection series to be in color. This one features a glamorous technicolor look to it with a nice healthy layer of grain intact to keep details honest and the depth quite keen in showing the scope of these gorgeous theater houses and cobblestone-esque alleyways. Its no The Red Shoes in terms of technicolor beauty on Blu-ray, but most aren’t and this is still a pretty decent looker.
  • Depth: As mentioned, the grain carried helps with the depth of field. And between the stairwells, lobbies, auditorium seating, stage and downtown streets, the image really captures some good scope in this transfer. Movements are natural and consistent with no blur, jitter or other distortions haunting it.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are deep enough but carry just hair of that lighter touch to them. Details remain pretty consistent no matter the shadow or darkness in the frame. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  Colors look quite beautiful and this one definitely has them to show off in the fabrics, wallpaper, carpets and upholstery in the film. Reds, greens and blues certainly highlight the palette an truly enrich the frames and object with which they inhabit.
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones are natural and appear consistent throughout. However, when going through testing remote functionality, a flicker was created, so it is EVER so slight and pretty much unnoticeable in regular playback speed.  Facial features and textures are obviously in better vision the close the character appears in the frame but some longer shots do impress from time to time in moments of the film.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

House of Horrors

  • Clarity/Detail: House of Horror‘s debut on Blu-ray has no information provided regarding a transfer, so it is likely just an existing HD master. The film looks plenty good enough and does as well as one would expect with its sharpness and clarity (Which is to say its quite well done). Details come through very well with clothing fabric textures, surfaces and the like.
  • Depth: Decent depth of field here. Its a pretty dark movie, but in some of the more well lit sequences you get an all right sense of spacing and pushback. Movements are natural, smooth and have no problems with distortion.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are on the darker end of the spectrum, mostly good with shadows and darker exteriors. There was a moment of crushing I noticed during a darker office sequence on a shot from behind Alan Napier on the shadows of his cheekbones. I didn’t see much more than that but wouldn’t be surprised if others reported them.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones are the typical gray/white from start to finish of the film. Facial features, like those of the legendary Rondo Hatton, are plenty clear from most reasonable distances.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

Night Key

  • Dynamics: Night Key features what is likely the original theatrical mono mix. It shines pretty well, with very little in the way of old school analog peaking and hiss. It does lag in the deeper tones as to be expected, but does feature a good balance of the score/vocals/effects that never trounce once another or dominates the airspace.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and crisp and in particular Boris Karloff’s voice sounds wonderful.

Night Monster

  • Dynamics: Night Monster features a pretty nice track that has some of the better low end representation of the movies that appear on the disc. No, nothing really bumps, it just is able to get a little deeper. There are moments of some analog peaking and audio hisses and pops in the source. That primarily happens in the more quiet moments in the film. However, it is a well mixed and set track that its shortcomings wind up feeling a charming piece of watching a vintage film.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and pretty crisp for the majority of it, some scenes do have a bit of a weaker source or probably always sounded a bit hissy or with a tad of peaking.

The Climax

  • Dynamics: The Climax features a pretty rock solid mix in its lossless mono presentation. There are many moments of musical numbers that get big and the track impressively handles that without any troubles in peaking or other distortion. Its woven quite well and is a great representation in a “for its time” fashion.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are pretty clear and intact with minimal analog hiss as a base behind it all.

House of Horrors

  • Dynamics: House of Horrors features a very clear and clean audio track that services the film quite well. Yes, the low end material doesn’t really hit too deep as is expected, but otherwise this is a neatly balanced little bit that’ll get the trick done with a minimum of hissing and peaking from the source.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals come across quite solid and are the shining glory for the audio mix, picking up some really good bits of diction and finding a good range of voices displayed with good clarity.

Extras

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 4 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.

Night Key

Audio Commentary

  • With film historians Tom Weaver and Dr. Robert J. Kiss

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 1:39)

Production Art Gallery (HD, 3:59)

Image Gallery (HD, 3:27)

Night Monster

Audio Commentary

  • With film historian Gary D. Rhodes

Theatrical Trailer (SD, 1:09)

Image Gallery (HD, 3:59)

The Climax

Audio Commentary

  • With film historians Kim Newman and Stephen Jones

Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:08) – In B&W

Image Gallery (HD, 4:26)

House of Horrors

Audio Commentary

  • By film historian Scott Gallinghouse

The Creeper: Rondo Hatton at Universal (HD, 22:24) – Rick Baker, Fred Olen Ray, Larry Blamire and film historians Micahel Hoey, Bob Burns, Ted Newsome and C. Courtney Joyner collaborate as talking heads discussing the life of icon horror actor Rondo Hatton. From the mustard gas war incident the instigated a deformity within him to his career as a “creeper” in the movie industry, they carefully touch on and admire his bravery and contributions to film history. They even touch upon the annual genre awards in his namesake and share how the statue was modeled to resemble the sculpture of him from House of Horrors.

Image Gallery (HD, 5:19)

Summary

Scream Factory continues to turn out these very nice Universal Horror Collections with good care and at the same time uncovering or dusting off some forgotten gems along the way. Their fourth collection might possibly have the best looking transfers of any of them so far, as all of the films included look rather handsome. If you’re keeping up with the sets, then its a no-brainer, you surely know what you’re in for. These films definitely fall into the category of “Might be their last ever release on physical media”, so even if one is unsure, it could be better to pull the trigger now and then find a taker later if it wasn’t your cup of tea. But, for the fans and collectors this set is once again and pretty solid recommend.

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Brandon is the host, producer, writer and editor of The Brandon Peters Show (thebrandonpetersshow.com) on the Creative Zombie Studios Network. At Why So Blu he is a Writer/Reviewer. Brandon is a 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. You can also find older essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

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