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

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 2 2015 12:36 a.m. MDT

"Creature From the Black Lagoon" (Deseret News archives)

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.

“The Wolf Man” marked Lon Chaney Jr.’s entrance into the horror world with his sympathetic portrayal of a poor sap bitten by a werewolf and thereby cursed to turn into a ravaging animal with every full moon, and Rains is equally fine as his tragically disbelieving father.

Although a bit too much time is given to the operatic performances of Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster in “Phantom of the Opera,” the disfigured composer is wonderfully played here by Rains. And the vivid Technicolor transfer of the only color movie in this set is quite stunning.

Still — and this is the exception I referred to above regarding the box art — it must be said that the 1925 silent Lon Chaney “Phantom of the Opera” will forever be the definitive version and should have been considered for this set.

Finally, there’s the “Gill-Man” of “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” played by two obscure actors — one on land and another underwater — as the character pursues Julie Adams. In 3-D when it was initially released, this is arguably the campiest choice in this set but the film is still enjoyable, and I must confess it takes me back to the first time I saw it, when I wore those silly plastic glasses and the creature leaped out at me from the big screen. An extra point here for nostalgia.

If you’re looking to run a Halloween movie marathon this weekend, you can’t do better than these. Still fantastic chills and thrills after all these years.

EMAIL: hicks@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company