UNIVERSAL HORROR COLLECTION VOL. 1 Celebrates Karloff & Lugosi

Shout! Factory packages together The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday

Most horror fans know the Universal archive is brimming with classics, but for every familiar title there are scores unknown to wider audiences. Many of these stem from a rich collaborative period in the ‘30s and ‘40s, where genre icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi paired up to deliver a series of films featuring roles more distinct than the notable figures they were synonymous with. Honoring the pair, Shout! Factory are releasing restored and remastered versions of some of their collaborations. Volume 1 presents macabre fare The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday.

The Black Cat

Ex-soldier Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), after being released from a lengthy stint in prison, seeks out a traitorous and twisted former member of his company, Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff), a traitor who betrayed his fellow troops and whose wicked acts have led him to become the leader of a twisted Satanic cult. A pair of American newlyweds, Peter Alison (David Manners) and Joan (Jacqueline Wells), land in the middle of this reunion after a series of chance events, the beautiful young woman’s presence bringing to light some of the warped pursuits and instincts within both men.

For the ‘30s, The Black Cat is a surprisingly dark and twisted affair. Based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, guilt, revenge, and death all serve as foundational themes that have warped these two men to varying degrees. Rival scientists, one is more twisted than the other, so Karloff and Lugosi each get the chance to flex their nefariousness. Perverse acts of science and nature unfold, along with male control and objectification of women, with a reveal of the disturbing fate that has befallen Werdegast’s family at Poelzig’s hand setting the film up for a dark climax. With nifty effects, unsettling visuals, and atmospheric camera work, it feels like a top quality production rooted in period authenticity

The Package

Unlike the other three movies in this set, The Black Cat does not claim to result from a new 2K transfer; that being said, the film does still look pretty good. Blacks are deep, detail is good, damage is minimal, with grain being a little on the heavier side with a smattering of softer moments.

  • Audio Commentary: By author/film historian Gregory William Mank & by author/film historian Steve Haberman.
  • Good Game — Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part One — The Black Cat: Horror authors Gary D. Rhodes and Gregory William Mank delve into the relationship and collaborative output of these two actors, focusing on The Black Cat and its subject matter and reception upon release. Each film has its own segment in this series.
  • Dreams Within a Dream — The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe: A thorough and engaging documentary, running an hour and narrated by Doug Bradley, it is essentially a retrospective looking (clips and stills) at the various adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories that have made it to the big screen over the years.
  • Vintage footage — The Black Cat Contest: Less than a minute, some on-set footage of Lugosi & Karloff playing with some kids and cats.
  • Still Gallery: Nearly 9 minutes in length, all images lifted from the film.

The Raven

Another film stemming from the work of Poe, Bela is at the forefront here in The Raven, while Boris does as much as he can with a more limited role. Lugosi is tortured brain surgeon Dr. Vollin, rejected in love, and instead turning his attentions to an assortment of torture machines. Karloff is a criminal Edmond Bateman, corralled into assisting the doctor in his nefarious schemes.

Like The Black Cat, it’s about these two twisted figures and a young innocent couple being caught up in their sinister affairs, specifically machines inspired by Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum. It feels less refined that the first film in the volume, embracing a more manic air — Lugosi goes pretty HAM with the role, while Karloff feels to be amusing himself aplenty with his lesser role.

The Package

The Raven is the first film in the release to showcase a new 2K transfer. The image is certainly crisper, with a better amount of detail on show, although some definition is lost in some darker scenes. There is perhaps a little more damage evident here too, presumably from the source print.

Extra Features:

  • Audio Commentary: The first with author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes, the second with author/film historian Steve Haberman.
  • A Good Game — Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Two — The Raven: Continues the featurette started with The Black Cat, similar in approach but obviously redirecting focus to The Raven. Some of the personal reflections of the two stars are shared concerning their burgeoning collaborative work too.
  • Audio Recording — Bela Lugosi reads “The Tell-Tale Heart”: The second best reading of the story I have heard, only beaten by a live rendering by Nicolas Cage I had the good fortune to hear in Austin, Texas a few years ago.
  • Still Gallery: As above.

The Invisible Ray

Here we see Karloff step to the fore as Janos Rukh, a classical mad scientist type. A little predictable in nature, but fun all the same. Lugosi plays a rather good-natured doctor and moral counterpoint. Rukh identifies a meteorite that landed in Africa thousands of years ago that he suspects has healing properties. A voyage later, the madman is in possession of a relic that has immense destructive power.

The exploration/adventure components added to the horror make the film a little different and intriguing. It also adds a scope not really seen in the moodier companion films in this volume. Rukh’s obsession is buried in a scientific rationale that reflects on views in a decade when the understanding of chemistry and radioactive material was still in its infancy. These elements (no pun intended) now seem far goofier components of the film, but serve as both entertainment and a time capsule for the era. It all ends as these tales often do: play God with nature and you’ll regret it. It’s a clumsy oversimplification, especially as some of the good/bad effects of this meteorite have actually manifested in things like chemotherapy and radiation targeting of tumors. An enjoyable slice of early sci-fi horror.

The Package

Another 2K transfer and perhaps the best looking one in this collection. Solid blacks, impressive detail, and a natural grain throughout. There is a natural weathering to the presentation, again from the source, that feels entirely appropriate for it.

  • Audio Commentary: With authors/film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson.
  • A Good Game — Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Three — The Invisible Ray: Mank and Rhodes continue to look at the Lugosi/Karloff collaborations and how the stories themselves begin to shift a little with changing demand from movie goers.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery

Black Friday

Wrapping up the collection is a rather odd venture, a mad scientist/body horror feature that once again flips genres, taking inspiration from a gangster film. Karloff is pioneering brain surgeon Dr. Sovac, and Lugosi is a (Hungarian?) New York gangster, Eric Marnay. Conflict between two rival gangs causes fatal injury to the head of one of the families, and it is on Sovac to transfer his mind into the body of a sweet English Professor (horror actor Stanley Ridges) who was also caught up in the accident. The result is a Jekyll and Hyde kind of tale, but stemming from the body share of two personalities in one body rather than a shifting entity.

It’s an oddly cobbled together film, as if the two leads weren’t deployed or prepared correctly and other characters/actors were deployed to plug the gaps. There is certainly a physicality to the role taken by Ridges, which is clearly beyond either of the two icons. There’s also an odd framing device, a muddled plot, and issues with pace and tone. But as an exercise in pushing the horror genre into new realms, and for the impressive range and commitment of Stanley Ridges, it’s still worth a look.

The Package

Top quality transfer, from detail, to blacks and contrast, as well as looking natural without over-processing. A few scratches and blemishes here and there, but nothing to detract from a fine presentation.

  • Audio Commentary: With filmmaker/film historian Constantine Nasr.
  • A Good Game — Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Four — Black Friday: Nicely closes out the four part series, looking back and also putting the stars in context with how the series has shifted their respective standings and careers.
  • Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show — “The Tell-Tale Heart” Starring Boris Karloff: More Poe goodness.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Still Gallery

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking to dip your toes into some classic horror, this is the set for you. Not just in how it celebrates two horror icons, but in how it also offers a fine and diverse set of films, each backed up with a fine restoration and a truly impressive array of special features. Admirable work from the fine folks at Shout! Factory.

The Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1 is available via Shout! Factory from June 18th, 2019.

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