For most of us, it was our first exposure to the joys of classic old horror, monster and sci-fi movies - such as Them, It Came From Outer Space, The Day The Earth Stood Still, the Hammer Horror films ... and especially the Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein was the first horror film I ever saw. I was eight years old, and it was the Friday night Creature Feature on TV. It did, of course, terrify me – as did The Mummy, Dracula and The Wolf Man when I got around to see them too.
By today's standards, these films are pretty tame as far as scares go, but they are rightly considered absolute classics. And it's great to see these four Blu-ray box sets – The Frankenstein Legacy Collection, The Dracula Legacy Collection, The Mummy Legacy Collection and The Wolf Man Legacy Collection – from Universal bringing together all the original films and many of their sequels and spinoffs, all beautifully remastered and looking better than ever before.
Not all the films in all fours sets were made available for review. Of course, I have seen the four originals (and the brilliant Bride of Frankenstein) many times, and can recommend them highly. We were sent five films to look at from the 27 that make up these four sets: House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Son of Dracula (1943), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).
House of Frankenstein is an ensemble film the exploits of Doctor Niemann (Boris Karloff, not playing the monster this time) and his assistant, the hunchback Daniel (J Carrol Naish). The pair escape from prison during a storm and Niemann kills and then pretends to be Professor Lampini (George Zucco), who runs a travelling Carnival of Horrors which includes the remains of Count Dracula (John Carradine), who Niemann brings back to life. The Dracula stuff is rather dull, but the film picks up when, in the second half, it introduces Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange) and Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr), who have been frozen under the ruin's of Frankenstein's castle. It's fun to see all the classic monsters together in one film, but they don't all come together at once and overall it's a pretty mediocre effort with a few poor performances.
House of Dracula is another ensemble film and a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein. John Carradine returns as Count Dracula, with Lon Chaney Jr once again playing Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange back as Frankenstein's Monster. The film takes place in one setting - the residence of a Dr Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), who is visited by both Dracula and Talbot who are seeking "cures" for their conditions. And coincidentally, the good doctor also happens to have Frankenstein's Monster secured away in his basement, where he is trying to bring him back to life. As with HoF the monsters really don't spend an awful lot of time together, and Franky gets not a lot more than a cameo appearance. It has a few nice ideas (vampirism as a disease rather than being something supernatural) but tries to cram too much into its short running time.
Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Dracula are both, sadly, pretty mediocre affairs but still worth a look for curiosity value. Dracula’s Daughter is a direct sequel to the original Dracula and follows on from the death of Count Dracula at the hand of Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan). Countess Marya Zaleski (Gloria Holden), was bitten by Dracula and is now a vampire, steals the Count’s body to destroy it, hoping that will break the spell and return her to normal. There's a strong central performance from Holden, but it's avery talky and fairly slow-moving affair, despite the lesbian undertones. Son of Dracula sees Lon Chaney Jr lose the fur and don the cape as the Hungarian Count Alucard, who is invited to New Orleans by Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton) to visit her father's plantation. Soon her father is dead and she is married to Alucard (who is, in reality, Dracula) and her family and former fiance suspect foul play. Chaney lacks Lugosi's screen presence as the Count, and this is probably the weakest entry in Universal's Dracula series – although Caldwell does make a terrific femme fatale.
When I was a boy, Saturday afternoons were set aside for watching great old movies on TV – classics usually starring the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope (their Road movies are wonderful) or Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis. And sometimes we'd get an Abbott and Costello romp. Their Universal "monster meetups" are legendary, with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein being the absolute cream of the crop (as well as Frankenstein's Monster, it also has Dracula and the Wolf Man). Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (the comedy duo’s final film for Universal) is a lesser entry, but still a reasonably fun affair. The plot sees Abbott and Costello in Egypt looking to get back to the States and they somehow get involved with the death of archaeologist Gustav Zoomer (Kurt Katch) and the hunt for a missing treasure that is being guarded by the mummy Klaris. As with all A&C films, the plot is immaterial and is simply there to provide a background to the boys' banter and slapstick. Here, though, they seem very much to be just going through the motions. Despite being credited in the film as as Peter and Freddie, their characters are just Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, and they call each other Abbott and Costello throughout. There's nothing here that is quite as good as their classic Who's On First routine, but it does have a few amusing moments and Mummy completists are sure to love it.
One small dwnside of these gorgeous restorations is that it makes the "special effects" – quite cutting edge in their day – look a little naff by today's CGI standards. Effects such as Dracula turning into a bat are clearly hand-drawn animation, and turning Chaney into the Wolfman was done by sticking a bit of fur on his face and hands and shooting a frame, and then sticking on a bit more fur and shooting another frame, and so on. But for those of us who have a deep affection for these old films, this simply adds to their creaky charms.