By Joe Lozowsky

If I could have perfect releases on DVD of one film series--and only one series--it would be the Universal monster classics of the 30s and 40s. After Universal Home Video stalled for a couple of long years at the dawn of the DVD format, they were forced to toss fans a few bones after the bottom fell out of their DIVX barrel. Well, how does it feel to acquire these beloved treasures? Not so good, I'm afraid.

The measly handful of titles that I'm discussing here are: DRACULA (1931), FRANKENSTEIN (1931), BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), THE MUMMY (1932), and THE WOLFMAN (1941). I hear that we will be getting blessed with another minuscule selection of titles for the year 2000 (oh, be still my heart!). What has been quite astonishing to me is that so many magazines have reviewed these discs and quibbles have been relatively minor! There are a number of ways to skin a cat, but let me approach this review starting with the "least offensive" discs in this collection and work my way down...WAY down.

FRANKENSTEIN was the first DVD in the Universal series to be released. I was amazed at the breathtaking audio quality on this presentation. Background noise was eliminated, and the overall effect was dazzling candy to the ears. The picture was acceptable, easily the best look that the picture has ever had on home video thus far. It was truly a promising start for these movies on DVD when we were treated to the restoration for the very first time of Colin Clive's immortal line: "In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to BE God!" Oh boy, what a job this Universal Home Video was doing! I believed that we fans were lined up for a generous sack of gifts from this company, just like several years back when they issued a dozen or so horror classics on VHS in one shot. Well, it was to turn out that the video company was riding us for a fall...

THE WOLFMAN was not too bad. Naturally, the source material is not as old, but I've seen other early 30s genre films look good on DVD despite their age (Roan's WHITE ZOMBIE and Criterion's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, to name only two). But back to THE WOLFMAN... Though the image is decent and crisp, there are spots and marks on the picture, which should have been eliminated. Most annoying of all is a tiny imperfection which nobody else has spotted yet: During the first half of the film I notice a slight "twitching" effect just a second prior to the end of each shot and before the next one. This defect is also noticeable when I freeze the picture and slowly advance the image with the remote. The problem is so slight that I didn't even catch it on my initial viewing of the disc, but it's there.

DRACULA was a real letdown. This film warrants special attention, and the print looks horrendous in spots, particularly at the beginning. Some critics say that the start of this movie is the only thing it has going for it (I disagree), but it's true that those scenes are the best, and should have been lovingly enhanced. Don't hand me that "age" excuse, because the aforementioned Roan release of WHITE ZOMBIE blows DRACULA away...and that was a cheap production. In fact, we need look no further than this DRACULA disc to see how age doesn't necessarily mar a motion picture: the SPANISH DRACULA (also 1931) is included as a companion piece on this edition, and it looks almost like a new movie when compared to the Bela Lugosi version presented here. This is a good chance to squeeze a small degree of praise here...the addition of the Spanish version on the same disc is quite a nice bonus. It is the best thing about this edition, although some of the picture has poor quality where one reel was not as pristine as the others. But this is perfectly acceptable with a more obscure film. It's NOT acceptable with the basic Universal Horror classics. Oh, and lest I forget, the sound quality on the DVD of Lugosi's DRACULA needs an overhaul too.

THE MUMMY is a sad disc. The soundtrack is quite noisy (is this the same company that authored the premiere FRANKENSTEIN disc?) and the picture quality ranges from decent in most spots to disgraceful in others. During the moments where Boris Karloff's Ardath Bey confronts Edward Van Sloan and David Manners in the house, it looks like somebody spilled a cup of coffee over the negative.

What the hell was Universal thinking with their DVD release of arguably the greatest classic of all, BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN? I've saved the worst for last here, folks. I almost screamed louder than Una O'Connor when I saw this dupey, grainy print on my television screen. I prayed that maybe I accidentally put a VHS 16mm replica inside the disc player by mistake. Of course, this was impossible because DVD decks cannot play tapes, and I never owned an inferior 16mm dupe of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in the first place. And as if the visual quality wasn't poor enough, I noticed that the image was cropped a little too tightly on top of the screen.

If there were only a handful of Universal titles worthy to get special treatment and care, it should be this initial batch of classics. A frame-by-frame and painstaking cleanup is required. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, perhaps more than any other 1930s genre film aside from KING KONG, deserves special care and restoration. I can accept a film like 1932's version of THE OLD DARK HOUSE (available from Image, and a great buy) to look grainy, due to its rare status and years of neglect. But I have seen better 35mm prints of the above classics in revival houses during the last couple of years.
Each of these discs includes trailers, and that's a nice thing. There are also still galleries, but I take issue with the fact that the camera pans across the photos; I'd prefer to have them still and to jog them myself with my remote. As for the commentary tracks that go along with these movies, I personally find them dull and unworthy with the exception of Tom Weaver's excellent and informative take on THE WOLFMAN. He is a writer that I have admired, if he is a tad too rough at times (but then again, what would he call THIS article?). There are documentaries for each disc which are good for newcomers, but old hat for those of us that know the whole story. The most treasured artifact appears in the DRACULA documentary: Edward Van Sloan's original curtaincall at the end of the movie where he warns the audience that "there are such things!" It's understandable in this case that the film quality is rough here; we're lucky to have it at all after so many years. However, I would have liked it tagged on at the end of the actual feature itself.

I hope somebody at Universal will read this review and note that only love for someone or something makes a person critical. I wish the company would get their act together and put our more titles each year and work at enhancing the quality of these special movies. All I know is that THE INVISIBLE MAN is slated to be one of the next releases, and if the scratchy and speckled print on the old VHS tape is any indication...