Chris Hicks: Truth in advertising: Universal's 'Classic Monsters' really are classics

Published: Thursday, Oct. 25 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

"Creature From the Black Lagoon"

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Believe it or not, sometimes when something is advertised as “classic,” it really is.

OK, I’m as cynical as the next guy. These days overworked hyperbole has reached such a zenith that it’s easy to wonder if the word “classic” even has value anymore. After all, we live in an age when just about every movie that’s been out for five minutes is declared on Twitter by some critic somewhere to be “a classic,” and then the studio uses that line in quotes for the film’s marketing as we hear it over and over again.

So it’s understandable if you roll your eyes when you see the Blu-ray box set titled in big red letters: “Classic Monsters.” But then you notice the “Universal” name above it, referring to Universal Pictures.

Hey — monsters! That’s what made Universal’s name during the 1930s and right on through the 1950s, and as you gaze at the iconic images on the box, you see that against a black background is a wispy vision of the studio’s eight most famous creepy creatures: Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster and his Bride, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Phantom of the Opera and the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

And with one exception, the photos are of the stars that created and are most famous for playing these roles on film — Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Lon Chaney Jr. and Claude Rains.

“Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” features meticulous upgraded transfers of each of these eight movies: “Dracula” (1931), “Frankenstein” (1931), “The Mummy” (1932), “The Invisible Man” (1933), “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “The Wolf Man” (1941), “Phantom of the Opera” (1943) and “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954).

Filling out the set are all of the bonus features from each film’s earlier editions, including the Kenneth Branagh documentary on Universal horror films, the Spanish-language “Dracula,” the version of “Dracula” bolstered by a Philip Glass/Kronos Quartet score and the 3-D version of “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”

If you aren’t convinced about how much difference Blu-ray can make to a black-and-white film, this set may do it. That also applies also to the stereo sound upgrade, which is equally dramatic.

And modern filmmakers, who often fall back on pop songs and bombastic orchestrations to inform the audience when something is supposed to be funny or exciting or scary, could learn something from the use of silence in the first five films. Sometimes the scariest moments come when there is no music to be heard on the soundtrack and the quiet, as they say, becomes deafening.

To my mind, admittedly belonging to someone who loves older films, each of these movies holds up remarkably well. “Dracula” benefits from Lugosi’s having honed the role on the stage and his brides are still plenty creepy. And the two “Frankensteins” could not be better, and since they are so short — 70 and 75 minutes, respectively — they can be watched in an evening as a sort of two-part miniseries. Karloff is both tender and horrifying, and the climax of “The Bride of Frankenstein” as Lanchester shows up is both comic and frightening.

“The Mummy” is another strong entry, with Karloff hot off his “Frankenstein” success creating another character that has been copied in many films, though never with the quiet chills of this one. Similarly, “The Invisible Man” gives a wonderful showcase to Rains and he runs with it. His insane giggle coming out of nowhere will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the special effects are still fantastic.

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