DVD REVIEWS (2/1/01):

UNIVERSALLY GOOD DVDs!

Films Covered: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Invisible Man (1933), and The Phantom of the Opera (1943); each title available now from MCA/Universal Home Video, $29.99 SRP or $20.99 (plus shipping) online from www.dvdplanet.com or by phone at 1-800-624-3078. All DVDs are Special Editions, with plenty of extras.

     Occasionally, in an e-mail or at a convention, someone will ask how I got so "into" Bela Lugosi, assuming it probably came from viewing Dracula (1931) on Shock Theatre or reading FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND.
     Though the original Shock Theatre program and imitators pre-dated me, I did see Dracula (1931) when I was around age three or four. Oddly, though, the major image left in my mind from that viewing was not Lugosi; it was the three vampire women who hover so close to Dwight Frye's Renfield.
     And, I did love FAMOUS MONSTERS while growing up, though by the time I discovered it on newsstands in 1978 or 1979, I was already hooked on Lugosi.
     The original cause of my interest in Lugosi was a Saturday morning TV airing of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), a wonderful classic that seems just as fresh with every re-viewing. Everything seems to fall into place in the film; everything seems as perfect as possible...like the feeling that emerges after watching, say, Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
     For one, Abbott and Costello themselves seem more "on" than they do in their films of the early-World War II period. By the end of the war, the act seemed old and the duo seemed not to be as enjoying themselves in quite the same way. A&C Meet Frank was a return to the earlier excitement.
     As for the monsters, Lon Chaney, Jr. offers a very strong performance as the Wolf Man, playing the sympathetic and straight part for all it's worth next to Lou's shenanigans. Glenn Strange's Frankenstein Monster may be a long way from the depth of a Karloff characterization, but it's perfect for the film. Lumbering, slow, strong, and occasionally even talking, Strange's depiction works perfectly as a scare-factor for the comedy team.
     Then there's Bela Lugosi's Dracula. True, he's a less romantic Dracula than the Lugosi of seventeen years earlier in the 1931 film. He's also a little heavier and more aged. But in some ways his voice, look, and timing are easily a match for the classic 1931 portrayal.
     After all those many years, Lugosi had honed the character to minute detail. Rather than age working against him, it helps in making him seem every bit the centuries-old vampire. And this is all in addition to the spectacular man-to-bat animated transformations that still have the ability to impress.
     All of the monsters play it straight, even when, say, the Frankenstein Monster is scared when he first sees Lou Costello. But when Dracula (under a pseudonym and dressed in a smoking jacket) is entertaining the comedy team and others at his home, Lugosi illustrates his knack for subtle, dry humor as he admonishes Lou to be more careful, all the while plotting to steal his brain.
     I could go on and on about other wonderful touches, from the sets and lighting to Lenore Aubert's performance as Dracula's moll to the cameo by Vincent Price as the Invisible Man.
     Of course, as I sing these praises, I'm aware of the continual complaints about one shot in the film in which Lugosi/Dracula's reflection is cast in a mirror while he bites Lenore Aubert. But the composition is so interesting (as it is throughout the film) that this lapse has never bothered me.
     What does bother me, though, are the horror film books and historians who always point to A&C Meet Frankenstein as if it was degrading for the monsters to play opposite the comedy team. True, the film may be said to have closed the era of classic Universal Monsters, but it's equally valid to say that that era ended with World War II. After all, it's not as if the A&C film broke some kind of serious tradition that was popular in 1946 and 1947. The serious years of the Universal horror films of the Golden Age had already ended, so A&C can't really be blamed.
     Plus, it's easy to mount an argument that A&C Meet Frank is actually a better, slicker film than some of the last Universal horrors from the latter days of World War II. I think it'd be hard to claim House of Dracula (1945) is a superior film, for example.
     To me, then, the film is a tremendous, fun, and respectful coda to the Universal horror era, rather than an insulting movie that brought an end to those films.
     And I do love it. I love that the DVD is now available. Unlike the other Universal horrors, though, the film is appropriately part of the Universal Studios "Comedy Legends" series.
     The DVD box uses poster art from the film, and the disc itself not only mimics the font from the film but also features a picture of Bud and Lou. The notes on the back of the disc are great, but a brief mention that the film "continues the horror-comedy" series implies that A&C Meet Frankenstein's release had been preceded by other films, when in fact it was this movie that spurred the other pairings of A&C with monsters into motion.
     Right after popping in the disc, we see a beautiful menu screen that merges pix of the monsters with a lighting/electrified movie title font. The faces of Bud and Lou with animated cartoon bodies seem to be scurrying away from the bad guys. The movie poster art comes to life, more or less.
     One of the big extras is the documentary film by David Skal, Abbott and Costello Meet the Monsters, which includes on-camera work by Skal, Bela G. Lugosi, Ron Palumbo (author, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD), Bob Madison, Chris Costello, and Bob Burns. Kudos in particular to Madison, who comes across so very interestingly that I wish he had had even more screen time than he does.
     The documentary itself is fun, with the highlight being bloopers from A&C Meet Frankenstein. Though they've circulated before (and more bloopers exist than those included in the documentary), it's nice to have them as a permanent addition to this DVD.
     Best of all, though, is Greg Mank's audio commentary, on which the inside scoop I hear is how impressed the Universal folks were at how he so quickly and perfectly spouted it onto tape at a recording studio. No surprise, of course, to those of us who know him. Not only is Greg a wonderful person, he's also a tremendous talent. And it shows (or is heard, I should say) on the commentary. Erudite, informative, and fun.
     Other goodies include the trailer we all know and love, some production photographs, notes, and cast/crew info. It goes without saying in a magazine like MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT, but just in case, the decree should go out to all horror buffs to buy this DVD with all speed. A must-have.

--Gary Don Rhodes

     With considerably less hoopla than accompanied last year's initial batch of Classic Monster Collection discs, Universal recently unleashed three more of its beloved horror classics on DVD. While the original five DVDs saw a staggered release (reaching video stores on consecutive months) and enjoyed a massive promotional push, the new trio were dumped in stores simultaneously and relatively unceremoniously.
     Luckily, while Universal may have cut back on the marketing razzle-dazzle, it hasn't scrimped on the product itself. Although some of the prints used are less than ideal, they generally are of comparable quality to the initial five installments of the series and represent a giant leap forward from the quality of the VHS releases of these films.
     The Creature from the Black Lagoon ranks as the most satisfying DVD of this batch. There's hardly a gripe worthy quibbling about. For starters, the disc offers a letter-perfect transfer of a pristine, fine-grain print. This handsome transfer stands alongside Frankenstein and the Spanish Dracula as among the best-quality prints Universal has so far offered. Of course, it's also the most recent film so far issued, which helps.
     The film probably ranks as Universal's most beloved picture from the 1950s. And its title character almost undeniably represents the most recognizable of the Golden Age of sci-fi monsters. It's worth noting that, while the film was originally released in 3-D, the DVD offers the film in the standard flat (2-D) format. Based on the lousy 3-D prints I've seen at recent revival showings of Creature, my guess is that high-quality source material for a 3-D version was probably impossible to locate. (Opening the DVD case to find a set of cardboard 3-D glasses would have been great fun, however!)
     Historian David Skal continues his commendable work with Universal, once again writing and overseeing all of the supplemental materials for all of these DVDs. He also hosts the Creature documentary, which is crammed with background material and behind-the-scenes information. Fellow historian Tom Weaver, who provided the running comment for The Wolf Man DVD, serves up another delightful audio commentary, jam-packed with his unique blend of fascinating factoids and wry asides. About the only thing I don't love about this disc was that Weaver apparently ran out of time before he could tell any stories about Nestor "Lukas" Paiva.
     Add to this package a fistful of original theatrical trailers, production photos, notes, bios, and other indispensable whatnots and you have a DVD well worth its $30 sticker price.
     With the release of The Invisible Man, all four of James Whale's Universal horror classics finally are available on DVD. (The Old Dark House is available from Image Entertainment/Kino Video.) Unfortunately, this transfer is a disappointment. While it's not as poor as the print used for the DVD release of Tod Browning's Dracula, this Invisible Man's flaws are all too opaque-the source print is scratchy and at times badly speckled. Although this version remains an improvement over the previously available VHS transfer, it's far less impressive than it could have been. Certainly this film---undeniably one of the very finest from the Golden Age of cinema horror---deserved better.
     As sometimes appeared to be the case with the initial round of DVDs, Universal seems to have put more care into the disc's bonus materials than into the film itself. The documentary, Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, not only uncovers the secrets to the film's truly special effects, it also features insightful and entertaining interviews with star Claude Rains' daughter, Jessica, as well as historians and filmmakers. Historian Rudy Behlmer hosts the documentary and provides the DVD's running commentary.
     Behlmer's Invisible Man commentary is a marked improvement over his underwhelming running comments for Frankenstein. Here, Behlmer takes disparate information about special effects, script revisions, cast bios, and background on author H.G. Wells and weaves this data into a coherent and entertaining discussion. Of course, the disc also includes the requisite photos and bios, but, oddly, no trailers.
     Universal execs obviously think much higher of The Phantom of the Opera (1943) than most monster fans, who typically complain that this picture contains too much opera and not enough phantom! I---and I believe most Universal fans---could name a dozen or more films I would have preferred to see reach DVD ahead of this Phantom.
     It's too bad the studio quashed a suggested double-feature release that would have paired this version and the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom. Perhaps they were afraid that seeing the two films side-by-side would only point out what a tepid affair the Claude Rains remake truly is.
     Surprisingly, this feature---among the most recent so far released by Universal---was again transferred from a mediocre print. In fact, this Phantom shares many of the same flaws as The Invisible Man, although to a lesser degree. The film looks worn or maybe just dirty, with visible scratches and noticeable speckling. These blemishes become only more obvious in blazing Technicolor.
     Luckily, the film's bonus materials come to the rescue. The Opera Ghost, A Phantom Unmasked documentary, traces the Phantom's trail from Gaston Leroux's original novel, through its various screen incarnations, on through to Andrew Lloyd Weber's popular musical play. The documentary delivers detailed background data on the 1925 film, the 1943 version, and the later Hammer Studios remake. Perhaps the most exciting, it features sample footage from the ultrarare 1930 sound-dubbed version of the original Chaney Phantom. Historian Scott MacQueen hosts the documentary and provides the feature's insightful running commentary. All of the other standard bells and whistles are tossed in as well, this time including the original theatrical trailer.
     By the way, in case you missed any of the previous Universal DVDs, you can now buy all eight Classic Monster Collection DVDs (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon) in a boxed set.
     Perhaps the best news of all is that, according to my sources, Universal is surging full-steam ahead with another batch of horror and sci-fi DVDs. It Came from Outer Space, a title originally announced as part of this year's series, is already complete and awaiting release. Also in the works: Son of Frankenstein, Dracula's Daughter, Werewolf of London, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and a double feature of The Black Cat and The Raven. All of these titles remain tentative until the studio makes an official announcement.

--Mark Clark

FIENDISHLY FUN DVD!

Film Covered: Fiend Without a Face (1958), available now from Criterion/Voyager, $39.95 SRP or $27.97 (plus shipping) online from www.dvdplanet.com or by phone at 1-800-624-3078.

     I think a Fiend Without a Face would make an excellent pet and if enclosed within a proper terrarium, would surely be the center of attention in any den. However, not having access to the required nuclear apparatus to conjure up one of the little devils, and possibly requiring more than the average atomic boost to increase my thought processes to fiend-producing capacity, owning the Criterion DVD release of Fiend Without a Face is the next best thing for me.
     Mastered from a 35mm composite fine-grain master and digitally cleaned, the Criterion Collection widescreen Fiend is an alarmingly good buy with plenty of extras and a rich, lustrous black & white picture guaranteed to deliver 74 minutes of giddily gruesome spine-crunching, brain-sucking entertainment. And I mean "brain-sucking" in a good way.
     Anointed by countless stills reproduced in countless issues of monster fan magazines, Fiend Without a Face is a classic monsters-on-the-loose movie chock full of the 1950s themes we love so well. In Fiend, Americans have built an Air Force installation in Canada where they are beta-testing a new atom-powered radar system designed to get the drop on the Evil Empire should they try to launch an attack on the freedom-loving nations of the planet. But the locals grow increasingly suspicious of the Air Force base, blaming it for any misery they experience including the decreasing milk production of their cows. Suspicion escalates into paranoia when locals begin to die grisly deaths at the maw of unseen creatures. Victims writhe in agony and grasp their necks as genuinely terrible feeding sounds, comparable to those you can hear inside an uptown oyster bar, heighten the horror.
     The civilian and military communities polarize as local hothead Constable Gibbons (Robert MacKenzie) leads an armed posse into the woods convinced that the "Fiend" is nothing more than a renegade GI. Meanwhile, Major Cummings (Marshall Thompson) tries to allay civilian fears and get to the bottom of the mystery while simultaneously trying to allay the fears and get to the bottom of comely Barbara Griselle (former fire maiden Kim Parker), whose brother was hideously killed during the pre-credit sequence.
     Add a dash of mad science messing in areas that mankind should leave alone, and the results are invisible Fiends willed into creation that quickly grow stronger and take control of their existence by boosting their power source and snacking on civilians and soldiers alike. The Fiends grow strong enough to become visible, looking like antennae-adorned human brains with attached prehensile spinal column and protruding arm-like nerves that allow them to climb like inchworms and leap like leopards at their prey. These guys are cool. Massing an attack on the home of Professor Walgate (Kynaston Reeves) where Cummings, Griselle and some others have barricaded themselves, the Fiendish assault is the high point of the picture and is every bit as fun as the saucer attack in Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.
     There's a lot of familiar 1950s sci-fi monster territory, but some nice touches including genuinely creepy thrills (especially a gruesome shock featuring Constable Gibbons) and innovative, imaginative monsters lift Fiend Without a Face above the pack. The only monster that I can think of that reminds me of the Fiends style-wise is the animated guts-on-the-prowl in Peter Jackson's Dead Alive. Sure, films like The Day the Earth Stood Still may go great with wine and cheese, but Fiend is the perfect accompaniment to tacos or pizza.
     But as enjoyable as the movie is, the value of this DVD is boosted immeasurably by the atomic commentary provided by affable Fiend executive producer Richard Gordon and genre writer Tom "He's Everywhere" Weaver. Weaver sets 'em up and Gordon knocks 'em down as the duo wring out a commentary juicier than the inside of a Faceless Fiend. And speaking of Fiend innards, if you ever wondered just what that stuff is inside them, my wife Anne, watching the movie for the first time, guessed the right substance but the wrong flavor. Yep, Gordon goes into plenty of detail about Fiendish special effects and how Ruppell & Nordhoff built and animated the true stars of the motion picture. Also, there's plenty production history and behind-the-scenes info. Find out what Boris Karloff thought about leading lady Kim Parker and what the British parliament(!) thought about Fiend Without a Face. (Parliamentary reaction was such that I can't help but imagine that had the House of Commons been invaded by actual Fiends, the poor little Fiendies would have died of starvation.) After watching the movie, I initially intended to only sample the commentary and save the rest for later but wound up listening all the way through. Gordon is a smooth, witty raconteur with an ironclad memory and Tom is downright uncanny asking the right question or volunteering the perfect cue at precisely the right time, making this easily one of the most enjoyable commentaries I've heard.
     Other extras packed into this DVD are an illustrated essay on British sci-fi/horror filmmaking by film historian Bruce Eder; a collection of trailers; a gallery of still photographs "and ephemera" with commentary; and vintage advertisements and lobby cards. The informative liner notes are written by Bruce Kawin. The movie is widescreen (1.66:1 aspect ratio) and is enhanced for 16:9 televisions. Switchable English subtitles are included.
     Ably directed by Arthur Crabtree, Fiend Without a Face is the only science fiction/horror movie I can think of that offers more than its title promises--there are enough Fiends on the loose grazing on gray matter to satisfy the most jaded monster movie fan. Now THIS is spinal tap.

--Gary L. Prange


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MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT
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