For several months toward the end of elementary school I became obsessed with American horror films from the 1930s and ‘40s, especially those produced by European émigrés during Carl Laemmle Jr.‘s famously insolvent tenure at Universal Studios. The trajectory of my fixation turned out to be much like the narrative formula followed by the movies themselves: It had an abrupt start, an occasionally preposterous middle, and an apocalyptic if arbitrary resolution.
Appropriately, the climactic ending is what I remember most vividly from those years, though it didn’t involve the outwitting of any malevolent spirits or overzealous science fair projects. During the summer between sixth and seventh grade, I visited the memorabilia-stuffed mansion of the late Forrest J. Ackerman, an occasion captured on video by my father and some of his editing students from our local college. Perhaps my dwindling interest in this era of filmmaking was the result of my shock at seeing so many spaceships and rubber masks demystified that day; or maybe the surfeit of fascinating objects represented the fulfillment of my fanaticism. Either way, soon after I toured Ackerman’s encyclopedic museum my monster studies would stall, with sharp preoccupation inevitably dulling into nostalgia.
I might have also been simply exhausted with Universal’s macabre output by then. For the last year and a half I had glutted myself on early Hollywood horror, and thought of little else; nothing else at the time seemed to reward deep thinking to the extent that those surprisingly convoluted films did. My initiation to the genre was appropriately a baptism by alienating details, administered by my father’s Laserdisc of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. The gnarled mythology of that near-incomprehensible monster crossover enthralled me, from the brain transplant that the Frankenstein monster (played there by Bela Lugosi) had undergone in the previous sequel, to the flash-puberty that transforms Lon Cheney Jr. into a furry predator. Though I couldn’t have understood it quite so precisely at that age, the gross materialism of this universe was shocking. It’s a place where men are corporeally affected by their mistakes, and where a pastiche of moribund parts is enlivened by electricity alone. Replacing one brain with another means that a new consciousness lives inside, manipulating the body like a poor puppet. I’d done the obligatory science unit on Darwin in the 5th grade, but this anti-transcendentalism was different; it was almost casual.
The pseudo-scientific content was foreign to me largely due to my Christian upbringing. Not coincidentally, my horror phase coincided with my spiritual skepticism’s first murmurs, which were—much to my parents’ chagrin—initially the result of turning rudimentary critical thinking skills upon the “word of God” itself: a perennial rite of passage for would-be lapsed evangelicals. I further found in Universal monster films a compromise of sorts between the dissonant pedagogical models of school and church: Despite the involvement of supernatural elements (such as Dracula’s vampirism), the movies’ characters strive to understand and disarm these threats systematically, if not quite scientifically. Van Helsing, for example, must “prove” Dracula’s true nature using a mirror before acting on his suspicions. The death and resurrection-oriented plot devices are also often blasphemous, but hokey values eventually subsume this iconoclasm. I precociously seized on the agnostic ambiguity such oppositions evinced, and engaged in furtively faith-based fights with my parents under the pretense of defending the Promethean hubris of Dr. Frankenstein, or the what-goes-around-comes-around gnosticism of the Wolf Man. Secretly, of course, I relished these characters’ implicit theistic denial, but their stories were tragic and mystical enough to interpret as surreptitious Christ parables too.
Indeed, each of the brief films, most of which are no longer than 70 minutes, is like a fable brought to life with either creeping uncanniness or garish spook-effect; by swaddling existential homilies in ghost stories, the movies inadvertently gloss the tenets of secular humanism. The lesson of James Whale’s quasi-nihilistic The Invisible Man, for example, is that even if life is nothing but an optical illusion, that hardly gives you the right to act like an asshole. Karl Freund’s The Mummy similarly teaches that destructive acts committed for either love or discovery will only satisfy arrogance. (An ancillary point might be that Freund’s fluid camera can sensualize even the most mundane of props.) Whale’s Frankenstein and most of its many sequels, meanwhile, issue the cardinal warning that one needs a better reason to play God than a desire to be God.
Reading the movies in this manner runs the risk of optimistic over-simplification, but the films themselves are hardly so thematically facile. After much exquisite mayhem, each experiences a kind of begrudging, last-minute, deathbed conversion to moral rightness: Boris Karloff’s mummy nearly sacrifices the scion of an Egyptian princess; the Invisible Man almost gets away with murder; in Frankenstein, the monster just about manages to slay his own progenitor (his “god”). These disproportionate narrative structures reflect cosmic truths without teaching them, perhaps without even really believing them. After all, actually buying into the triumph of benevolence over malignancy as depicted would be like preferring David Manners to Lugosi, or Dudley Digges to Claude Rains. We’ve all relieved when the good guys persevere. But only suckers root for them.
A large part of the enduring success of Universal's monster films is that they're such fun to look at; to this day they remain an effective gateway into the pleasures of silent cinema due to their dumbing down of German expressionism. For the sake of comprehensiveness, I would have preferred that this Blu-ray set dispense with later monster flicks, such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, and instead focus purely on the Teutonic triumphs from the '30s; expressionist classics like Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Old Dark House remain pitifully unreleased. Some of the early benchmarks that are included here furthermore suffer in terms of transfer quality; my once-cherished Laserdisc of the restored Frankenstein looked cleaner than the print used for this set. Still, it's hard to fault a collection that features such flawless high-def presentations of The Invisible Man and The Mummy; in the latter, Boris Karloff's bewitchingly lit eyes appear to be burning. Sound mixes are also uniformly superb, with every appropriated theme from Swan Lake slithering up irresistibly from between bits of dialogue.
The set's packaging boasts of 12-plus hours of supplemental material, but only about a fourth of it is worthwhile. For those who have followed past releases of Universal monster films through laserdisc and DVD, there will be few revelations; all featurettes and documentaries have been tacked on in standard definition, and all of the audio commentaries are recycled. By far the most impressive bonus is a spanking new 1080p transfer of Drácula, the Spanish-language film shot concurrently with the better-known English-speaking masterpiece. Though overlong, director George Melford's take on Bram Stoker's novel remains far subtler and more narratively adept than Tod Browning's. Highlights from other discs include Christopher Frayling's relatively new gothic and myth-minded commentary on Frankenstein; Boo!, a strangely comic short film from 1932 that's perhaps the first horror film mash-up satire; and two copies of the same featurette on make-up artist Jack Pierce, to whom every neck was a Sistine Chapel in need of a meticulous scar-mural. Kevin Brownlow's documentary "Universal Horror" also provides a fine crash course in the studio's history. Still, I don't see why these discs couldn't have featured a few sequels in 1080p as well. Who's gonna buy a standalone Blu-ray of Ghost of Frankenstein anyway?
Essential, but just barely. The addition of a few Frankenstein sequels and James Whale's Edgar Allen Poe films would have made horror fans all over Region-1 ecstatic.