There's still only a nickel's worth of fright in these old-fashioned terror flicks, but Judge Brett Cullum still was horrified that they've been overlooked all these years.
6 Masterworks of Terror!
In the '30s studios were going horror crazy with good reason. Universal had been saved by its monster films, including Dracula and Frankenstein, because terror pictures always—surprisingly—made more money than they cost to produce. Audiences loved spooky tales of the supernatural, and film was the perfect medium to deliver them. Whenever Hollywood gets a hold of a profitable idea, they milk it for all it's worth, and the collection in my hands now proves that fact. Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection assembles six features made on the Warner Brothers and MGM lots as the studios tried to replicate Universal's success with vampires, ghouls, and mad scientists. The films are all camp classics of the genre, but nowhere near as iconic as the Universal "monster mashes." Many of these films haven't been seen in their original versions since they were in nickel movie houses back in the day. So how does Warner Brothers treat the Legends of Horror Collection?
Facts of the Case
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Doctor X (1932)
Mark of the Vampire (1935)
Mad Love (1935)
The Devil Doll (1936)
The Return of Doctor X (1939)
All of the featured movies represent the creaky good-natured horror that was a trademark of the era. Sets are shadowy, characters are all played over the top, and camp rules the night as supernatural happenings slam through the everyday world. Classic horror fans will be in heaven as the DVDs unspool a double feature of fright on each disc. Big-name actors such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Fay Wray, Humphrey Bogart, Lionel Atwill, Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Lionel Barrymore seem to be having as much fun as the audience vamping it up in their respective roles (okay, Bogart wasn't too happy about it, but he's still a hoot in The Return of Doctor X).
Transfers vary in quality throughout the set with the later films looking much better than the earlier ones. Notable among the presentations are the two-strip Technicolor print of Doctor X as well as the uncut delivery of The Mask of Fu Manchu. Both of these 1932 features look worn, but we've never seen them in these incarnations. You won't mind the grain and scratches, because they lend a quirky charm particular to these old-time flicks. Doctor X's limited color palette is a unique experience, and the process works well for a horror tale. The later pictures look clear as a bell in many cases (The Return of Doctor X looks brand-new), and receive near-pristine transfers. Audio wavers now and then like the picture, but for the most part captures all the orchestral melodrama and insanely loud female screams well in the original mono mixes. The Mask of Fu Manchu's reinserted sequences look worse than the proper feature, but the footage helps flesh out the main character.
Five of the six movies receive full-length commentaries, with only The Devil Doll missing a track to further explore it (hear me grumble, since it's one of my favorites). The participants are academics who reveal historical anecdotes as well as appropriately salacious gossip about the directors, actors, and productions. The commentaries are as much fun as the features, proving film scholars love these projects as much as we do. It's a great package of extras for some old-time shockers. The packaging includes a nice cardboard case housing three slim-line cases with the original posters displayed for each title.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Hollywood Legends of Horror doesn't feature any truly unforgettable classics, or any film on par with the Universal monster series or Val Lewton's psychological revolutions for RKO. The six films are admittedly "also rans," projects made to make money and offer audiences a good time more than anything else. Even when they were made, the pictures were "B"-level popcorn sellers the studios tossed off without much care about quality or artisanship. They all feel light and airy for horror films, even from the '30s. While Lugosi, Lorre, and Karloff were committed to the genre, most of the other actors seem merely to be passing time slumming in scary movies.
The secret behind this set is that it's not a group of classic movies, but a stretch of old-fashioned fun that can't be denied. Mad scientists, vampires, Fu Manchu, zombie bunnies, and fast-talking reporters hot on the trails of them all—these are the familiar elements celebrated in Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection. This sextet of cinema is nowhere near as significant as the Val Lewton box set or the Universal Legacy releases, but it provides as many sly smiles and good-natured eye rolls as one could expect. Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection is a '30s horror collectors dream of significant actors taking on quirky roles in creepy camp. It's the perfect Halloween collection release, a treat for film buffs who yearn for black-and-white fright in great abundance. Wonderful packaging and a healthy dose of extras add to all the fun.
Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection is an undeniable treat with a few tricks up its sleeves. Not guilty of anything more than a sly wink and a spooky smile, it's the most fun you'll have this year with a horror collection.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary for Mark of the Vampire by Film Historians Kim Newman and Steve Jones
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