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Movie Review: Unlocking Cinema with Universal's CLASSIC MONSTERS: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION

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I became the rabid, movie-obsessed geek I am today because of Universal Studios’ Classic Monsters line.  See, once upon a time, the AMC channel used to play vintage movies instead of just haranguing its viewers with anti-DishTV ads, and around Halloween time, AMC would stack its programming full of those iconic horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s.  It played them all – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and every second/third/fourth-rate sequel those originals inspired – and I did my best to devour every last one.  Forget, for a moment, that ghouls and goblins usually shouldn’t fill a four-year-old‘s ideal viewing diet: what I vibrated to was the discovery of a new moral order.  The movies I’d seen previously were ethically ironclad.  Good fights Bad, Good beats Bad, and never the twain shall meet.  The monster-centric features, however, suggested that tautology could shatter under only the slightest deviations.

Take Dracula.  The granddaddy of all movie vampires (Nosferatu is the great-granddaddy), Dracula is pure evil.  He seduces our women, he drinks our blood, and he never, ever, drinks wine.  He’s a Bad News Dude, except that in director Tod Browning’s 1931 take on the Bram Stoker creation, Dracula maintains a curious sympathy.  Sure, he’s a predator, but aren’t we all?  We all kill and subjugate other life-forms in socially acceptable manners; the only difference with Dracula is he’s more upfront about his bloodlust.  And as played by the great Bela Lugosi, he remains weirdly charismatic even when he’s trying to cultivate an undead army.  One of the delightful ways that Universal always managed to skew the viewer’s favor towards the baddies was by making the hero as blandly inconsequential as possible, and Dracula is no exception.  If I’m Helen Chandler’s Mina, and I have to choose between David Manners’ drab, humorless Jonathan Harker and Lugosi’s exotic appeal, I’m not making a choice – I’m going with the guy least likely to inspire narcolepsy on our honeymoon.   Because Dracula premiered in 1931, it had to play by the Production Code’s rules, which meant the immoral villain died at the end, but the damage was done.  I’d gotten a look at the Big Bad, and he wasn’t so [insert non-cloying adjective for “bad” here] as I’d thought.

James Whale’s Frankenstein, released the same year, pushed my sympathy for the devil even further.  An openly gay filmmaker operating in a time when Hollywood eschewed anything “open” or “gay,” Whale knew a little something about the hypocrisy of moral authority, and his film reflected a strong distain for the status quo. Yes, Frankenstein’s monster (Boris Karloff, approaching the role as if it were Lennie in Of Mice and Men) is a physical abomination, stitched together from rotting corpses and capable of great brutality, but emotionally, he’s operating on the level of a three-year-old kid or a really enthusiastic Golden Retriever.  He lacks the cognitive tools to comprehend how devastating his actions can be (in the movie’s famous “shock” scene, the monster drowns a young girl with no malice whatsoever; he sees her tossing flowers in a lake, and so he assumes that’s what you do with all pretty things), and he lacks those tools because Dr. Frankenstein never thought to include them in the programming.  That’s the kicker: though Frankenstein built his monster in the spirit of scientific inquiry and discovery, he still violates every moral/spiritual/physical law to achieve this breakthrough, and he barely takes the responsibility necessary to shepherd his creation into the world.  I mean, the reason the monster goes ape-s**t in the first place is because Frankenstein turns him over to the care of his mentally unstable gopher Fritz (the great Dwight Frye), who wastes no time in torturing the monster to the point of enragement.  As such, we regard the monster’s death at the end with a curious relief; finally, he can escape all these crazy humans!

Of course, given Frankenstein‘s box-office success, the monster didn’t stay dead, but 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein couldn’t seem less like a cynical cash-grab; if anything, Whale’s opening reveal that the monster had survived thumbs its nose at the convention that the baddie must pay for his/her sins.  This time around, the monster becomes more and more human as he tries to find his place in the world.  Under the tutelage of a kindly blind man, the monster learns how to speak, and he ultimately develops the emotional vocabulary necessary to make a sole, touching request of Frankenstein: he wants a bride, someone with whom he can peaceably spend the remainder of his days.  This being a horror film, everything goes wrong, but the mayhem comes as a result of Frankenstein’s twisted mentor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger, vamping it up like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show).  Once again, the monster gets swept up by forces beyond his control, and in that sense, his suicide at the end plays like an act of true heroism – he’s the only character pure and uncomplicated enough to restore order to the world.

Both The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) abstain from giving their title characters the kind of overt sympathy that Frankenstein’s monster had; they definitely hew closer to Dracula as more malevolent, creeping beasties.  Still, as in Dracula, we aren’t paying witness to simplistic dialectics: each film offers up some kind of perversion of a sacred ideal.  With The Mummy, it’s the notion of true love.  Karloff’s resurrected Imhotep is a serial monogamist, committed to the idea of being with the same woman for the rest of his life.  Problem is, life-long loves have a funny way of turning into obsession, and Imhotep decides the only way he can be with his beloved is by mummifying her modern reincarnation (Zita Johann) into his undead companion.  The Invisible Man, on the other hand, finishes the job that Frankenstein started.  Whereas Frankenstein was a generally decent guy whose actions created a monster, The Invisible Man‘s Dr. Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) turns himself into a monster through some science gone bad.  The glee that Griffin evinces when maiming and killing in his see-through state has the power to shock, and the reason we recoil is because we’re watching human ingenuity curdle and rot.

But what of human decency? Through all of these films, we find ourselves allying more and more with the “bad guy,” and it’s only fitting that the next film makes us the monster.  In George Waggner’s classic 1941 chiller The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) is an Everyman, normal, genial, slightly awkward.  He’s also savage and bloodthirsty, and he has a propensity for sprouting fur and teeth.  Ostensibly, the change occurs when the moon is full; as the story goes, a werewolf attacks Talbot, cursing him with the Beast Within.  Larry’s tragedy is that unlike Frankenstein or the Invisible Man, his lycanthropy isn’t his fault: he’s in the wrong place in the wrong time.  Yet somehow, that randomness proves scarier than any deliberate action.  On a purely narrative level, it’s unpredictable – anyone can turn into a werewolf.  Thematically, though, it speaks to every good person who just snaps.  Whether it’s the postal worker on a rampage or a calculated charmer like Ted Bundy, we always hear the same thing, “They seemed so nice.”  Larry’s the same way, but he’s still a killer, even if he doesn’t know it.  It’s the end of human decency as we know it, and I feel anything but fine.

The 1943 version of Phantom of the Opera hits the same beats as The Wolf Man to increasingly diminished results.  The Invisible Man‘s Claude Rains is back as a struggling French violinist whose disfigurement turns him into a psychopath, and he slinks to the sewers for his reven…snore.  Whatever promise this setup holds can’t flourish under the film’s gaudy Technicolor aesthetic and snoozy central love triangle (between Susanna Foster, Edgar Barrier, and bland crooner Nelson Eddy).  Avoid this pandering, unintentionally funny mess, and stick with the much creepier Lon Chaney Sr. version.

We end with The Creature from the Black Lagoon from 1954, which restores much of the luster to the Universal Monster brand that The Phantom of the Opera sapped away.  Creature builds off The Wolf Man, fusing the hero and villain into one indistinguishable frame.  The Creature never looks normal – he’s a scaled, repulsively slimy beast – and he’s prone to violent maulings, but when he sees Julia Adams’ beautiful researcher, it’s all over for him.  He’s in love, and he doesn’t want to turn Adams into a monster or kill her so no one else can have her; he just wants to be with her.  The world, alas, has other plans, and the tragic unraveling of the Creature’s dreams lends The Creature from the Black Lagoon the texture of a Beauty and the Beast tale.  We feel for him since, like all of us, he makes the mistake of wanting something he cannot have.

Watching these films as a child, I realized that if Good and Evil weren’t always so clearly defined in cinema, what did that say about their relationship in the real world?  These films taught me that movies could reveal the nasty, sexy little secrets behind every conservative façade, and I’ve never stopped trying to uncover more of them.

Universal’s gorgeous Classic Monsters Collection presents these eight films – really nine!  More on this later – in very solid digital transfers.  As Dracula and the two Frankensteins recently received high-end HD restorations, they look the best, but even the unrestored films look sharp and are loaded with detail.  The Phantom of the Opera‘s Technicolor palette looks especially impressive, as does the depth and clarity of The Creature from the Black Lagoon‘s 3D version.  All the flicks also get atmospheric monaural DTS-HD Master Audio tracks.

Supplements are incredibly comprehensive, and I’ll refer you HERE for a full breakdown of the set’s gifts.  Of the many options, the best include featurettes on the film’s restorations, audio commentaries and trivia tracks on all features, behind-the-scenes documentaries, and – best of all – a restored version of the Spanish version of Dracula, which found a different cast and crew filming on the same sets as the Lugosi Dracula (to avoid overlaps, the Spanish crew worked at night, and the English crew would shoot in the day).  The Spanish version is incredible, with better camerawork and a more sensual atmosphere – if lead actor Carlos Villarias’ work as Dracula were even close to Lugosi’s (it isn’t), this might be the definitive Dracula adaptation.

I have personal reasons for adoring this set, but it’s really invaluable for true film aficionados.  The modern horror film began here.

Universal’s Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection streets on October 2nd.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.