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Universal Horror Collection: Volume 6 (Blu-ray Review)

For the past (a little over a) year, Scream Factory has been blessing us every couple months with a Universal Horror Collection. Each set gathering four films from the 1930s-1950s that weren’t of the Classic Monsters canon and putting them onto Blu-ray for the first time. Many of them starring legends like Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill. The previous set even put out a monster’s entire series (“Cheena, the Ape Woman”) for the first time. Some primarily science fiction movies have squeezed their way into these sets as well, and are certainly a welcomed addition. Sadly, Scream Factory has announced that this sixth set will be the last one in the series. I’m sure if they are able to, they will pick it up again, but for now, that’s all She-Wolf of London wrote. Its going out with a bang too, with films featuring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Barbara Shelley. You can pre-order the set from the paid Amazon link below to complete your set when it arrives August 25th.

The Black Castle (1952)

An Englishman enters an Austrian nobleman’s castle, complete with torture chamber and moat, while investigating the disappearance of two of his friends.

The Black Castle offers a myriad of things in its short runtime. Adventure, creepy caverns/corridors, sword fighting, forbidden romance and an eerie spell. For horror fans, it has some nice elements like a spooky castle to explore and a devious villain with an eyepatch. The cast sports both Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. in a pair of monster-ish supporting roles. Chaney is simply a goon, but always fully realizing his parts and elevating them just by his presence. Karloff relishes here in a role of many with a secret that you waver between whether or not he can be trusted.

Funny enough, the film starts with that overused trope of dropping us in the middle of a later act and our narrator musing “That’s me. You’re probably wondering how I got myself in this situation” and then flashing back and catching up. It wasn’t as overabundant back then, but amusing nonetheless to see in practice. While The Black Castle offers no real monsters, ghosts or paranormal, it does offer some suspense, scary locations and a spooky event feeling out of an Edgar Allan Poe story. There are films in these sets that have pushed the limits of their inclusion in a Horror collection, but this one is definitely a worthy “not 100% straight horror” addition.

Cult Of The Cobra (1955)

Two GIs (Richard Long, Marshall Thompson) out of six cursed by snake worshippers expose a killer snake goddess (Faith Domergue) in New York.

Cult of the Cobra is one of those classic entries in the mystery horror movies of “wait as long as you can to reveal the monster and who is the monster” canon. There is the lure of turning men into cobras set throughout and weird spiritual magic, but mostly this plays into the paranormal murder mystery subgenre which is quite populate in film history. Its almost a tale of two halves, with the eerie foreign land discover section and the “back home now, things are strange” playing as separate halves.

One of the fun parts of this film is easily Faith Domergue in the role of our antagonist. She’s got quite a visual presence to go along with just killing it in terms of being a spy-like monster in disguise. For the longest time watching it was driving me nuts on where I knew her from. I finally looked it up and YEAH, she was the female lead in This Island Earth! And thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, I’m quite familiar with it and her and tie her to her non-line “Cal, I farted.” So much fun. And this one is decent enough, though not too incredibly engaging in its second half.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

A 400-year-old disembodied head hypnotizes a female psychic, who recovered it using a dowsing rod, to search for the rest of its body.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die is a nifty little horror thriller that features a headless creature from the undead casting a spell upon people to help him in his quest to reunited with his body. The film features plenty of terror, scary situation and groovy special effects in the realm of make-up, props and visuals. This is perhaps both the most true to form horror film that’s been in these sets and a quality feature in quite a while.

In addition, its a decently acted and well directed film too. There are some terrific gliding and panning shots featured in the film. It also really excels in knowing how to light dread and deceit. Andra Martin is also a show stealer here, providing some outstanding work once she’s been put under the spell and chews up every scene she can without having to dip into the ham at all. She tells a lot with just her eyes and her grin even. The lucky combination of these among some other things make this one of the top movies across this set.

The Shadow Of The Cat (1961)

A house cat sees her owner murdered by two servants under orders from her husband, and becomes ferociously bent on revenge.

Our set comes to a close with perhaps the best film all around in the set. And its still a bit weird, dealing with a killer cat. And said cat is literally just a normal looking cat. The film has fun though, playing with the cat’s perspective and the sort of insanity of those who believe in its deadly escapades versus the skeptics finding it ridiculous. All in all, somehow, the script, commitment of the actors, cinematography and the overall direction makes this thing buyable. Its quite a feat.

The Shadow of the Cat is limited to one locale, and a lot of the time one room, but they truly make the most of it. Its able to find different angles, perspectives and motivations for scenes that keep this thing anything but boring. I had mentioned the photography being a key contributor and its rich black and white elegance leads to some shots looking like they’d work as photographs or paintings that could pass for well decor artwork. Besides its pretty nature, the film does brings an intensity to it, with heightened drama and good performers that make it the best film outright, without any excuses or leniency, on this set.

Video

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 (The Black Castle); 1.85:1 (Cult of the Cobra, The Thing That Couldn’t Die); 1.66:1 (Shadow of the Cat)

Layers: BD-50 (4 Discs)

The Black Castle

  • Clarity/Detail: The Black Castle finds itself on Blu-ray for the first time with a 2K scan of a fine grain film element. The results are a clean image with a nice layer of grain and good, fine details patterns and textures present in this crisp image.
  • Depth: Some solid spacing and free moving is present everywhere. Good pushback and dimensions open up the image well. Movements are smooth and cinematic with no distortions.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are deep and flirt with a nature level. There is a good deal of shadow and definition provided and details are well kept intact. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones come in the form of a grayish-white look and is consistent throughout. Impressively facial features like wrinkles, dimples and folds can be made from most distances and textures appears better the closer it gets.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Cult of the Cobra

  • Clarity/Detail: Cult of the Cobra debuts on Blu-ray courtesy of a 2K transfer from a fine grain element.  It features a pretty beautifully restored widescreen image. The picture is a little soft, with a nice and present grain structure. Details are quite strong, as expected turning up better in closer images. But a particular example is you could make out the texture of wood under paint brush strokes on a door in one moment. There are occasional specks and really slight streaks in a couple moments, but this one does look very good.
  • Depth: Solid dimensional work here with good spacing and freedom between background and foreground. Characters flounder around loosely and smoothly with no jitter or blurring problems.
  • Black Levels: Black levels are gorgeously close to natural here and allow details to flourish no matter how darkened the room or nighttime sequence is. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones have a gray/white palette on display and it maintains consistency for the entirety of the film. Facial textures and features fare better the closer the person is to the frame.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

The Thing That Couldn’t Die

  • Clarity/Detail: The Thing That Couldn’t Die‘s Blu-ray debut comes courtesy of a 2K scan of a fine grain film element. This one features ones of the best images of the set. It looks the most cleaned up, sharp and fresh to this point. The image is the most three dimensional and carries plenty of stronger details and textures in every frame.
  • Depth: The depth is quite spacious with the cabin interior showing some good scale and varied space for the actors and objects to coerce in. Movements are natural and cinematic, with good confidence and ease.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are pretty close to natural, deep and quite beautiful in their shadowing. No details are lost in this image, with finer points like hair follicles, patterns and textures coming through with ease. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones are white/gray with a consistent look all the way through the movie. Facial features and textures show up best in closer images but fare well far out too. The make-up job on the decapitated head shines very impressively with all sorts of information clear as day.
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

The Shadow of the Cat

  • Clarity/Detail: The Shadow of the Cat debuts on blu-ray with a new 2K scan of a fine grain film element. Granted, yes, it is the most recent of the films (at 59 years young), but it does carry the best image quality on the entire set. Its weakness comes in the “cat vision” sequences that are shot with a weird lens or distorted in post. Outside of those, this image is pretty pristine with a sharp, crisp look that carries loads of detail, texture and black and white saturation for a terrific presentation.
  • Depth: The depth of field here is outstanding, with really good pushback and spacing between foreground and background imagery. Characters move loosely and freely in and out of the frame. No motion distortions present to cause any sort of jitter or blur during the more rapidly shot scenes or actor movements.
  • Black Levels: Blacks are deep, natural-like and well saturated. No matter how deep, patterns and textures make themselves quite known. Super dark suits even have clearly visible pin stripes. Upholstery patterns and texture show up in the shadows. No crushing witnessed.
  • Color Reproduction:  N/A (Black & White)
  • Flesh Tones: Skin tones find that gray/white look I keep writing over and over about and it has a consistent appearance start to finish of the movie. Facial features and textures fare impressive here, being able to discern stuff pretty decently from far away, let alone great intricacies close up (including Andre Morell’s super stringy thin mustache).
  • Noise/Artifacts: Clean

Audio

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

Subtitles: English

The Black Castle

  • Dynamics: The film comes with its monaural audio from its theatrical mix. Its a nice, balanced and relatively clean presentation, with minimal peaking issues and fine analog static layer at its core. The score has some deeper elements that come through and the foley layering has some neat touches to it.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear with no real peaking issues and have a solid analog hiss as a base.

Cult of the Cobra

  • Dynamics: Cult of the Cobra has a nice, clean and fresh sounding mono track. It has a slight emphasis on vocals, but a really nice clear cut presentation of effects and foley with nice brushes of gusto from the score. Overall, this is a very complete feeling audio performance.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and distinct with a very slight underlying analog audio hiss.

The Thing That Couldn’t Die

  • Dynamics: Thing That Couldn’t Die has a mono track that couldn’t be bad if it tried. This mix is a nice, balanced one with good volume settings and great relations of the vocals, score and effects. Its lacking on the lower end frequencies, but still sounds quite pleasurable for the best possible presentation.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear and crisp with a very slight analog hiss present under the dialogue.

The Shadow of the Cat

  • Dynamics: The Shadow of the Cat comes with the sound of the mono. This mix is quite clear, clean and feels warmingly of its present time with a very faint analog sourced hiss laying the foundation. There are nice little intricacies and ambiance set throughout the film with a good balance between those effects and the vocals and score. Its carries no real girth on the low ends (as to be expected), but makes up for it with no real peaking troubles and good volume settings.
  • Height: N/A
  • Low-Frequency Extension: N/A
  • Surround Sound Presentation: N/A
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are quite clean and clear. Plenty audible and at the forefront of the mix.

Extras

Universal Horror Collection: Volume 6 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 Castle

Audio Commentary

  • By Tom Weaver

Universal Horror Strikes Back! (HD, 13:49) – Film Critic/Author Kim Newman and Author/Editor Stephen Jones discuss the Universal horror films of the 1940s. The influences and the transition from the 1930s are gone over as well. While this is welcome and a neat conversation, there are no 1940s films in this set and none are discussed on this. They DO discuss films from the previous sets as well as ones they won’t be putting out (Inner Sanctum Mysteries).

Image Gallery (HD, 2:27)

Cult of the Cobra

Audio Commentary

  • With Tom Weaver, Steve Kronenberg, David Schecter and Dr. Robert J. Kiss

Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2:15)

TV Spots (SD, 1:24)

Image Gallery (HD, 2:40)

The Thing That Couldn’t Die

Audio Commentary

  • By Tom Weaver and C. Courtney Joyner

Trailer (SD, 1:56)

The Shadow of the Cat

Audio Commentary

  • By Bruce G. Hallenbeck

In the Shadow of Shelley (HD, 24:29) – A career retrospective interview with Barbara Shelley herself! She’s quite old and a bit frail in appearance, but she’s able to recall her career with good detail and making for a rather full 25 minutes.

Television Spot (SD, 1:03)

Image Gallery (HD, 3:41)

Summary

Scream Factory caps off an impressive year of wonderful Universal Horror Collection sets with a quadrant of movies that showcase a nice enjoyable range of classic terrors. Each film has a very pretty transfer to go with terrific original audio presentations. To be expected, extras are limited but plenty admirable. Two new video featurettes and one of them with Barbara Shelley is an absolute win for this set. If you’ve been collecting these all along and are a fanatic of classic horror or B-pictures, this is an easy pick up.

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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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