The Universal Studios Monsters Classic Collection
Who needs rowdy kids ringing the doorbell or poisoned-candy scares? You can tell it must be Halloween time: video companies are suddenly releasing every horror film they can find in their vaults. This year, it’s MCA Home Video with 10 tapes released as The Universal Studios Monsters Classic Collection (unrated, $14.98 each). Of course, the creepiest examples of Universal’s Golden Age output—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon—have been out on tape for ages, so what we get this holiday season are mostly sequels of variable interest.
Ironically, the one indisputable classic here—1933’s Island of Lost Souls—is a ringer actually made at Paramount. An adaptation of H.G. Wells’ cautionary tale about genetic engineering, Island triumphs over its mad-scientist-tampering-in-God’s-domain clichés thanks to a wittily over-the-top performance by Charles Laughton and some of the most nightmarish art direction and creature makeup in the history of film. Wells is also represented by Invisible Agent (1942), a lively sequel pitting his transparent hero against the Axis, with Peter Lorre doing a sadistic Nazi turn that seems to have inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. On the other hand, 1941’s The Invisible Woman—a rich-twit-falls-for-working-girl farce rather than a horror flick—has nothing to do with Wells and everything to do with former matinee idol John Barrymore in sad decline. Considerably better are 1942’s stylish The Ghost of Frankenstein, with Bela Lugosi reprising his hunchbacked Ygor from The Son of Frankenstein and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as an urbane monster maker, and House of Dracula, the 1945 series closer in which John Carradine’s vampire, Lon Chaney’s Wolfman, and Glenn Strange’s Frankie finally get what they deserve. Both of these are undernourished in the narrative department, but director Erle C. Kenton (who did Island) manages a few creepy visual flourishes.
After that, things get pretty grim. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944) are pure assembly-line jobs, featuring Chaney, as the title character, limping through formulaic plots; the only juice comes from some of Universal’s cooler B villains (George Zucco, Martin Kosleck, Turhan Bey) as obligatory high-priest bad guys. The ’50s entries are even worse. While the original Creature From the Black Lagoon derived its scares from a claustrophobic sense of space, with its monster menacing ship-bound prey, the two sequels lose dramatic tension by liberating the Creature. 1955’s Revenge of the Creature, with the Gill Man stuck, like Flipper, in a Florida marine park, is a monsters-have-feelings-too bummer, and 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us, in which well-meaning scientists try to turn the poor thing into a human, takes this frightless approach even further. After those misfires, Universal wouldn’t scare anyone again until 1960, when freelancer Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho spawned a whole new horror cycle, not to mention some nice exhibits in Universal’s theme parks. Island of Lost Souls: A Invisible Agent, Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Dracula: B The rest: C+