All reviews by Loey Lockerby
Halloween is almost here, which means film geeks have a socially acceptable excuse for watching horror movie marathons (like we need one). Sure, we've all seen the classics, but it's always fun to go back and take another look, especially if you're introducing them to an unsuspecting novice. Thanks to the wonders of DVD, many of the all-time greats can be enjoyed in crisp digital formats, with loads of extras.
Universal was the first studio to build its reputation on horror films, and these multi-disc sets cover every creepy franchise from the company's glory days. The best movies overall can be found on the "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" collections, which made it to their third incarnations before slipping into mediocrity. The former collection contains not only Tod Browning's stagey but-atmospheric 1931 original, but the Spanish version as well, which was filmed simultaneously with Carlos Villarias in the lead. Neither film is truly great, but both are interesting, and Bela Lugosi remains unforgettable in his iconic role. Also included is the underrated Dracula's Daughter (1936), the first official sequel, with Gloria Holden as the Count's melancholy offspring. The series then moves on to the overrated Son of Dracula (1943) and the 1945 monsterfest House of Dracula.
The "Frankenstein" set also starts off well, with James Whale's 1931 masterpiece and its even better 1935 sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. These witty and inventive films are justly revered by fans of the genre, and feature terrific performances by Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Elsa Lanchester and Ernest Thesiger. The next in the series, Son of Frankenstein (1939) is also top-notch, with Basil Rathbone in the title role, Karloff back in action and Lugosi in one of his best performances as Ygor, the hunchbacked assistant. Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and the inevitable House of Frankenstein (1944) round out the package.
The other sets center on The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with their numerous sequels. In each case, the originals are smart, suspenseful and deserving of their classic status. The follow-ups not so much. In fact, they're really only of interest for containing early work by actors like Vincent Price (in 1940's The Invisible Man Returns) and Clint Eastwood (in Revenge of the Creature from 1955).
All the collections have impressive extras, at least on the earlier films. Historians such as Rudy Behlmer and Tom Weaver contribute commentary tracks, and there are documentaries in each set discussing the background of their respective series. You can even get a special set of the Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, complete with detailed busts of the monsters. It's enough to make up for the inclusion of promotional features for Van Helsing, Universal's awful bid to modernize some of these franchises. Any attempt by director Stephen Sommers to justify his movie's existence will simply remind viewers of how superior its predecessors really are.
Val Lewton was a producer for RKO's B-movie unit in the 1940s, but his films are hardly the cheap time-fillers found on most double bills. His horror features, in particular, are masterful works of suspense, and he provided a training ground for such renowned directors as Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.
After years of being lauded by horror fans, Lewton finally gets his due with this DVD release of his classic thrillers. The best (and best-known) get the deluxe treatment, starting with Lewton's first RKO effort, The Cat People (1942), directed by Tourneur. Sad, creepy and intelligent, this story of a young woman (Simone Simon) fighting her inner monster set the tone for what was to come. It was followed by a sort-of sequel in 1944, Wise's The Curse of the Cat People, which has little to do with the original but remains an excellent film in its own right.
Perhaps the best of the bunch is another Tourneur picture, I Walked with a Zombie (1943), whose silly title belies its serious, dreamlike tone. Taken from a magazine story about a nurse's encounters with Haitian voodoo rituals, it combines a tragic love story with some truly disturbing imagery. Also making 1943 a great Lewton year are The Leopard Man, in which a series of bizarre murders plagues a New Mexico border town, and The Seventh Victim, which deals with sophisticated Manhattanites who happen to be in a Satanic cult. Both obviously have unusual storylines, and Lewton and his directors (Tourneur and Mark Robson, respectively) make the most of them.
Lewton secured the services of horror legend Boris Karloff for three of his films, including Robson's chilling Bedlam (1946), set in the infamous asylum, and lesser-known (but worthwhile) plague drama Isle of the Dead (1945). Bela Lugosi even got in on the act for The Body Snatcher, Wise's loose adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson story.
Rounding out the set is The Ghost Ship (1943), a straight thriller about a psychotic freighter captain, which is devoid of extras, as is Isle of the Dead. All the other films, however, contain commentary tracks from historians, filmmakers and even Wise himself. There is also a feature-length documentary, "Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy," which focuses, naturally, on his horror output. If you haven't discovered these great films yet, this is a perfect way to do so.
Robin Hardy's 1973 low-budget cult film hasn't been restored completely - there are apparently a good 10 minutes or so still missing - but Anchor Bay did its best to put it all together for this special edition release. The Wicker Man was the stuff of legend through the '70s and early '80s, and those of us who sought it out usually saw the truncated American theatrical release print. That is included in this set, and it's a powerful piece of work on its own. There's really never been another film like it (forget the wretched 2006 remake). It's a mystery, at least superficially, about the clash of pagan and Christian faiths, with Edward Woodward (as a devout Scottish cop) and Christopher Lee (as the leader of a remote island society) doing some of their best work. It's also got one whopper of an ending.
The longer version of The Wicker Man is only available in this set (look for the pine box with the title figure on the cover). It contains several scenes that add depth to the story, particularly in an early segment detailing the extent of Woodward's self-righteous piety. He comes off as slightly less abrasive later, when he's railing at the islanders for their blasphemies, if you know just how deeply serious he is about his own beliefs.
This thoughtful screenwriting, by playwright Anthony Shaffer, combined with its unique setting, have earned The Wicker Man a deserved place in the horror pantheon. The boxed set also contains a documentary about the film's convoluted history, during which it was subjected to drastic editing and bad initial distribution. Avoid this feature if you haven't seen the film yet, though. It reveals everything, and you do NOT want this one ruined ahead of time.
Loey Lockerby can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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