Directors: Albert S. Rogell, George Waggner, Ford Beebe, Edward Dmytryk

Continuing its association with Best Buy, Universal has released a third exclusive genre set (the second this season). The UNIVERSAL HORROR CLASSIC MOVIE ARCHIVE follows the established format of the Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collections from Universal, featuring five films that range from cult favorites to lesser-known flicks. And as with the former sets, this one is also in limited release – once it’s gone, that’s it.

THE BLACK CAT (1941, b&w, directed by Albert Rogell) stars Basil Rathbone as a conniving relative of dying matriarch, Henrietta (Cecilia Loftus). Each relative has their own sinister plans for making sure they inherit the most wealth but Henrietta has other plans for her wealth. After going over her will to the disgust of almost all of the relatives, Henrietta is mysteriously poisoned, leading each potentially guilty relative to point fingers and try to solve the crime. While THE BLACK CAT intends to be an old dark house flick, it’s more of a comedy exploiting the characters and the situations.

Among the greedy scheming heirs are Broderick Crawford (ALL THE KING’S MEN), Anne Gwynne (BLACK FRIDAY, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Gladys Cooper (REBECCA), and a very young, pre-SHANE Alan Ladd. Rounding out the cast are Bela Lugosi, as Eduardo the mysterious gardener (looking like Ygor from SON OF and HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), and Gale Sondergaard (CAT & THE CANARY, INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE) as the creepy maid, Abigail. Along for the ride is the oblivious antique dealer, Mr. Penny, quirkily played by Hugh Herbert (KISMET and over 100 other films!) – the highlight of the film, besides Bela.

MAN MADE MONSTER (1941, b&w, directed by George Waggner), is the tale of circus performer Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr., THE WOLF MAN) who is the sole survivor of an automobile accident that involves him getting electrocuted due to a fallen pole cause by the wreck. Due to his circus act – doing tricks with electricity – Dan survives without any long-term effects. His physician, Dr. Lawrence (Samuel Hinds -- THE RAVEN, SON OF DRACULA), asks Dan to help him study the effects of electricity and see if he can help find an immunity to the dangers of electrocution. Assisting Dr. Lawrence is Dr. Rigas, played by Lionel Atwill (DOCTOR X, MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN), who secretly plans to take control of electricity to create and control a new breed of man that will enable him to gain power. Dr. Rigas begins to give treatments to Dan in hopes of leading to his theories of creating supermen with electricity. Once Dan has become in need of electricity to stay energized, Rigas goes for the final treatment, increasing the charge and fully recreating Dan as a glowing monster! Rigas has also made a rubber suit to help keep Dan’s new-found powers contained. Now Dan is able to wreck havoc and help Rigas become mad scientist in charge of an army of men as his command!

Chaney’s understated performance is very pleasing, perhaps one of his better Average Joe roles in his list of popular characters. Atwill is also superb as Rigas, the maniacal would-be Frankenstein. Never do we truly fear Dan as a monster, but we feel pity for this man who has unknowingly been brainwashed and taken over by Rigas, forced to do his bidding. Chaney’s performance shows that he was a master at being the Everyman, taken advantage by others with ulterior motives.

HORROR ISLAND (1941, b&w, directed by George Waggner) is a silly hidden treasure/old dark house movie in the vein of THE BLACK CAT, but even more comedic and without any significant horror actors that the other films boast. Capt. Bill Martin (Dick Foran) and his first mate (Fuzzy Knight) are down on their luck, constantly being harassed by bill collectors when they are approached by peglegged sailor, Tobias Clump (Leo Carrillo) who asks for their help in finding a treasure hidden on Capt. Martin’s inherited island for a share of the loot. With no other options in sight, the two take on the salty dog’s offer. Unfortunately, half the map Tobias has is missing, taken from him by The Phantom, a mysterious creep who has already killed in search of the same treasure. Capt. Martin organizes a haunted house tour of the island and suckers some oddballs in on the deal to have fun and make some extra dough along the way. Naturally, this leads to a bunch of red herrings, double-takes, and other situations.

The fourth feature, NIGHT MONSTER (1942, b&w), directed by Ford Beebe), is the underdog of the set. Instead of opting for a humorous approach to the ensemble cast in an old dark house, Beebe constructs a mysterious and genuinely creepy flick about a gathering of doctors and a reporter at the mansion of Kurt Ingston (Ralph Morgan), a disabled man. Also involved is Ingston’s daughter, who is on the brink of losing her mind and is controlled for undisclosed reasons by the maid (Sarah Judd) and butler (a superb Bela Lugosi). The evening takes a sinister turn when the body of a former servant shows up with a bit of someone else’s pooled blood by her. The visitors of Ingston (including Lionel Atwill) are shown a demonstration by Mr. Singh, a yogi working with healing Ingston that adds a serious amount of eeriness to the evening’s happenings (which I won’t spoil). As the night goes on, the visitors turn to victims and an enormous silhouetted shape is seen creeping about. Is it one of the visitors? Is it Ingston’s massive, degenerate assistant (Leif Erickson)? Or…?

The serious tone of the movie is very refreshing. A true eerie feeling resonates throughout the film. The sound, lighting and set design all add up to a wonderfully dark surprise. The insinuations throughout the film are daring and quite frankly disturbing for an American film of this time. Between the magical elements, the dark nature of some characters, and the crumbling of a woman’s mind all creates a very well-done thriller.

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1942, b&w, directed by Edward Dmytryk (THE DEVIL COMMANDS, THE CAINE MUTINY) is another pleasing gem in the collection. A popular cult fave, CWW shows up for the first time on DVD in a nicely rendered presentation. Animal tamer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returns back from Africa to the US with a haul of wild animals for a new season at the circus, hoping to spark new interest and show off the best new attraction – Cheela the Ape! Along with Fred, we also get to meet his girlfriend Beth (Evelyn Ankers) and her sister who has been institutionalized for an illness. Luckily for her, her doctor is Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), a specialist in experimental glandular treatments. One afternoon Beth brings Dr. Walters along to the circus to meet Fred and see the new animals. While there, Dr. Walters witnesses how intelligent Cheela the Ape is and decides to kidnap and experiment on her using hormones from Beth’s sister to create a human woman out of Cheela, proving the force hormones have on life! Once done, Cheela is turned into the exotically beautiful Paula Dupree (played by the marvelously-named Acquanetta!) – who goes on to meet Fred and become part of the show after rescuing him from lions and tigers during a rehearsal. Little does anyone else know who Paula truly is.

Carradine and the rest of the cast give superb performances in CWW. Dmytryk creates an exciting mess of situations that build up to a thrilling climax between Paula and Dr. Walters. This is one of the best performances the reviewer has seen from John Carradine – his level of mania is perfect for the role, brimming on the edge of evil while still maintaining his humanity (also, there are many scenes where one gets a sense of how similar David and John are in their performance styles).

All five films are presented in their original fullscreen ratio of 1.33:1, in glorious black & white. All transfers are similar in that they are mostly well done. While the level of detail and blacks are strong in all of the films, there is a high degree of grain showing the age of each film. Some parts of each film show scratches and reveal damage that may have been done throughout the years in storage. The graininess and small bits of damage are not distracting to the overall presentations. The packaging is not as sturdy as the Sci-Fi Collections from Universal – no plastic slipcover – but the art is very eye-catching in its design and colors. Three of the films have RealArt re-release trailers as well.

The Universal Set is not perfect, but enjoyable and recommended overall – the good movies outweigh any of the less interesting bits of the other movies. With some reflection, the humor of some of the films may be due to the state of the US in 1941 to 1942 in World War II, which may lead viewers to take these aspects into account while watching the features. So, toss these discs in, turn off the lights and sit back – but if you hear a bump or a knock, you never know who...or what it may be! (Ben Gart)