Universal’s classic monster movies scare up a good time in 4K Ultra HD

Updated: Oct 29


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS

Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula and Boris Karloff as “The Monster.”


(Click on an image to scroll through the larger versions)




“UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION”

4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1931, 1933, 1941; unrated; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Movies Anywhere (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: The 45-minute featurette “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster”








WITH HALLOWEEN just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to pick up Universal’s most iconic monster films on 4K Ultra HD.

A decade ago, when Universal was preparing to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the studio spent millions of dollars restoring its crown jewels. Four monster movies from the Golden Era got the white-glove treatment: “Dracula” (1931), “Frankenstein” (1931), “The Invisible Man” (1933), and “The Wolf Man” (1941). Each of the original 35mm camera negatives or best surviving elements were scanned in 4K, millions of marks, scratches, and film flicker were removed, and any film wobble was stabilized.

For its new 4K presentation, HDR toning was applied to each of the 4K masters. The results vary depending on the condition of the original source. The best of the bunch is clearly “Frankenstein.” The four films are available in a box set, and “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “The Wolf Man” are sold separately in exclusive Best Buy Steelbook versions.


We’re examining the two films celebrating their 90th anniversary.


(1) “Dracula” premiered on Valentine’s Day in 1931. (2) A stagecoach carrying English businessman Renfield arrives in a small Transylvania town just before sunset. He’s to arrange a lease of the Carfax Abbey in England for Count Dracula. (3&4) Dracula and his three vampire brides awake from their coffins.






“Dracula” - Under the direction of Tod Browning, it was released as a romantic thriller on Valentine’s Day in 1931. Based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, the mystical character has haunted adults and children for decades. The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall said in his review that “Mr. Browning is fortunate in having in the leading role in this eerie work, Bela Lugosi, who played the same part on the stage when it was presented here in October 1927. What with Mr. Browning’s imaginative direction and Mr. Lugosi’s makeup and weird gestures, this picture succeeds to some extent in its Guignol intentions.”

Originally, Lon Chaney was scheduled to play the lead, after his successful silent roles in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” But he died just before the cameras started rolling. Lugosi was an unknown Hungarian actor who spoke with a thick accent. He trained at Budapest Academy of Theatrical Arts and played in a number of romantic and dramatic roles on stage and in films before moving to the U.S. and getting the Broadway production.

Universal decided to film two versions when production started on October 10, 1930. The English-language version would be filmed during the day on the Universal lot, while a Spanish cast was filmed at night using the same sets and position marks. Count Dracula was played by Carlos Villarias with George Melford in the director’s chair. It was released a couple of weeks after the English version in Havana, Cuba, then a month later in New York City and Los Angeles. Both versions are available on the 4K disc.


“For one who has not lived even a single lifetime, you are a wise man, Van Helsing. Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.” – Count Dracula


(1) Spanish actor Carlos Villarias plays Count Dracula in the Spanish version that premiered in Havana, Cuba several weeks after the English version. (2&3) Dracula (Bela Lugosi) salivates when Renfield cuts his finger and blood appears but covers his face when a crucifix falls from Renfield’s neck.





“Frankenstein” - After the success of “Dracula,” which pulled Universal out of possible bankruptcy, studio founder Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Jr. needed a sequel. They first considered an adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde and a Sherlock Holmes mystery, but settled on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s1818 gothic novel “Frankenstein,” written when she was a teenager. The monster’s trademark flat head was created by makeup artist Jack Pierce and English director James Whale.

Boris Karloff played Frankenstein after Lugosi turned down the role. In the opening titles, Karloff is uncredited with a question mark but gets full credit at the end. The role was his 81st motion picture. Whale saw his face and was “fascinated by the bone structure,” says makeup artist Rick Baker during the “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” featurette. The heavy brow was fabricated out of cotton, spirit gum, and collodion, a strong-smelling, solvent-like plastic. Layers of the material were used to build up the form. “This technique was quite painful – especially so close to his eyes,” says Baker. Karloff spent 3½ hours every day having the makeup applied and removed, says the actor’s daughter, Sarah.

The opening of “Frankenstein” featured a special prologue -- part showmanship but also because of real apprehension that the “monster might be too much for nervous audiences of the Great Depression,” says film historian David J. Skal, who hosts the “Frankenstein Files.”

“I think it may thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now is your chance to… Well, we’ve warned you.” – Prologue, actor Edward Van Sloan

The late film historian Rudy Behlmer says, “Karloff’s performance is definitely unique and one of the great performances in my estimation, in film.”



(1) “Frankenstein” premiered on November 21, 1931, based on the novel “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (London, 1818), and the composition of John L. Balderston from the play “Frankenstein” by Peggy Webling (England, 1927). (2) Actor Edward Van Sloan provides a prologue warning to the moviegoers. (3&4) Gravediggers, left, Fritz (Dwight Frye) devoted assistant to scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), claim a corpse for their upcoming experiment. (5) Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) lectures at Goldstadt Medical College. (6) Henry Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). (7) Elizabeth and her good friend Victor Moritz (John Boles) visit Dr. Waldman, and he tells them that Henry had left the college to pursue an experiment of recreating human life.




EXTRAS

“Dracula” - The 4K disc offers three featurettes, including “The Road to Dracula” with host Carla Laemmle, niece of the studio head (she also had the film’s first speaking part as a passenger on a stagecoach). A number of interviews provides a history lesson about the 500-year-old vampire, who leaves his castle in Transylvania for new blood in England.


“Lugosi: The Dark Prince” highlights his career. “He was attractive, he was seductive; there was nothing repellent about him. He was able to hypnotize and lure the audience to be on his side and see the world through his own vampiric eyes,” says biographer Gregory William Mank.


“Restoration of Dracula” details the 4K restoration.

The disc includes an archive photo gallery of movie posters, production photographs, and a pop-up text track with Dracula factoids. Two commentaries are provided; the best is with Skal, who quickly pinpoints Geraldine Dvorak, the former MGM stand-in for Greta Garbo, playing a blonde bride of Dracula. She’s the first supernatural vampire seen in a Hollywood film, just before the camera tracks toward Lugosi, he says.

“Frankenstein” - The 4K disc includes three featurettes: “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” hosted by Skal. In an interview, Behlmer says stage performances started to come shortly after Shelley’s novel was published. The first was “The Fate of Frankenstein” in 1823, with Thomas Potter Cooke as the monster. The 1927 British stage version by playwright Peggy Webling had the biggest influence on Whale’s film adaptation. Hamilton Deane played the monster.




“It’s Alive”

(1&2) Henry Frankenstein prepares to raise the dead creature toward an opening of his laboratory during an electrical storm. (3&4) After multiple flashes and crashes of thunder Frankenstein lowers the creature. His hand begins to move. “Look. It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive.”




The second featurette, “Karloff: The Gentle Monster,” highlights the actor's career. “Boris Karloff brought a quality to the horror film that hadn’t been seen since the death of Lon Chaney,” says screenwriter/film historian Steve Haberman. “It’s not a quality that you would immediately associate with a horror icon. What it is is vulnerability.” British film historian Sir Christopher Frayling considers Karloff’s performance a silent film performance in a sound movie. “He’s doing all these wonderful pantomime gestures. And you feel incredibly, sympathetic towards him as if he’s a sort of recalcitrant child.”

The 95-minute “Universal Horror” featurette, narrated by actor Kenneth Branagh, traces the studio’s long history of horror films. It features interviews from film historians, actors, and authors, including Ray Bradbury (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”). “I wouldn’t be the kind of writer I’m today if it weren’t for the early horror films, especially those of Universal,” he says. You also get a peek into the home of editor/writer Forrest Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland”), who turned his Hollywood home into a sci-fi and horror museum.

The 4K disc also includes a pop-up factoid track and commentaries with Frayling and Behlmer, who chronicles the birth of the monster on a stormy night in June 1816 by a 19-year-old woman lying half-awake in a villa on the shores of Lake Leman in Switzerland.


(1) Boris Karloff spent 3 1/2 hours in the makeup chair as they applied the makeup. (2&3) Fritz tries to scare “The Monster” with fire, but the Monster escapes from Frankenstein’s laboratory. (4&5) Little Maria (Marilyn Harris) gives the Monster a flower, but she ends up dead in the lake.




AUDIO

“Dracula” – Filmed during the early years of talkies, the audio track had huge issues. Universal removed hundreds of pops, ticks, bumps, and a heavy dose of hiss. The wear and tear of time posed the biggest challenges, says re-recording mixer. The opening title sequence, which features Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” was damaged on the English version, so they pulled the music from the undamaged Spanish version.

A compelling, 1999 score by Philip Glass and performed by the adventurous Kronos Quartet is a nice change-up to the original score.

“Frankenstein” – No details were provided, but pops, ticks, and hiss were removed to give a clean and natural mono soundtrack with a short original score from composer Bernhard Kaun.

VIDEO

“Dracula” - A second-generation nitrate positive made from the original camera negative was the source for the English version. The film had been stored at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and was shipped to Burbank, Calif., for the restoration. The Spanish version runs nearly 30 minutes longer. The original camera negative was still in decent condition, except for the badly damaged third reel. It was replaced by a second-generation positive print.

Both versions were scanned in 4K, with a liquid bath filling in the majority of the scratches and marks. Sourced from the first-generation negative, the 4K resolution is sharper. The English version is slightly softer, but both extract a healthy dose of natural film grain.

The HDR grading is the standard HDR10; mid-tones and highlights are more defined and the shadows are darker without losing definition.

“Frankenstein” – The film source information was not provided, but it seems to be a second-generation positive print, which was scanned and mastered in 4K. The HDR grading is similar to the results found on “Dracula,” with more natural film grain and a more defined grayscale in the mid-tones and highlights. Overall sharpness is slightly better than the previous Blu-ray.


- Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer


(1) Henry and Elizabeth prepare for their wedding. (2-4) The Monster gains access to Elizabeth’s room as she dresses for the wedding. She screams and Henry finds her unconscious on the bed.






(1&2) Little Maria’s father carries her into town, and an angry search party is formed to find the monster. (3-6) Henry joins the hunt into the mountains and the two engage in a struggle that continues to an abandoned mill.

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