Judge Christopher Kulik has stood for 90 years and might stand for 90 more.
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It's time for another round of double-dips from Warner Bros., now using the TCM trademark to make compilations of classics. Along with Murder Mysteries and Science Fiction, we now have a set of four horror films, all of them having the distinction of being released in different decades. Sounds tempting, but is this set really worth a purchase?
Facts of the Case
Freaks (1932): A traveling circus sideshow is the setting of this legendary cult classic. Little person Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three) is in love with Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Docks of New York), a sexy trapeze artist. An engagement is made, much to the worry of Hans' lady friend Frieda, (Daisy Earles, The Greatest Show on Earth). Cleopatra's motives are far from sincere, however, as she plans on marrying Hans and then eloping with the beefy Hercules (Henry Victor, To Be or Not To Be). With the help of Hans' fellow "freaks," they vow revenge against Cleopatra and Hercules.
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1941): Adequate adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story. A brilliant, kindly doctor (Spencer Tracy, Woman of the Year) is determined to understand human emotion—in particular, our clash of good and evil feelings—by taking a serum that turns him into Mr. Hyde, a demented fiend of gross desires. Hyde's main target is a bar floozy named Ivy (Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca).
House Of Wax (1953): New York, 1910. Eccentric wax sculptor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price, Edward Scissorhands) is proud of his museum collection. However, his financial advisor/partner is exasperated they haven't generated revenue, forcing him to take drastic measures. After knocking out Jarrod, he torches the museum, which leads to an insurance check. Several months later, the partner and his girlfriend are murdered by a horribly deformed Jarrod, who's running a new wax museum with a deaf-mute assistant named Igor (Charles Bronson, Death Wish). Little do his patrons realize his new collection includes his recent victims!
The Haunting (1963): Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House makes for an unbearably chilling film, remaining leagues ahead of the dreadful 1999 remake of the same name. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson, Zombie) is determined to prove a 90-year-old mansion is plagued by paranormal activity. He hires fellow investigators Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris, The Member of the Wedding), Theadora (Claire Bloom, Limelight), and Luke Sanderson (Russ Tamblyn, West Side Story). Certain nocturnal noises frazzle Eleanor's and Theodora's nerves, while skeptic Luke refuses to believe ghosts exist in the house.
Warner Bros. must have been presented with a challenge in selecting four classic horror films for this set. They are not exactly a studio renowned for thrillers or monsters like Universal. The only true studio title on this set is House of Wax, as all the others are actually MGM titles that Warner Bros. acquired the rights for in the late-90s. The selections here are somewhat odd, considering Freaks and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lean more toward melodrama than horror. No matter, as all are fine films in their right.
Released in 1932, Freaks is the infamous film directed by Tod Browning (Dracula) that, well, freaked out audiences at the time of its release. Originally planned as a response to Universal's dominance in the horror market, it was greeted with disdain from most audiences, who found it sick and repulsive. Truth is, they just didn't get it. It wasn't until the 1960s when an entirely new generation embraced Freaks as a masterpiece of the macabre. The characters who populate the film are unforgettable, including Prince Randian (a man with no arms and legs), conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, bearded lady Olga Roderick, and microcephalic Schlitzie, who's better known as one of the "Pinheads" in the film.
The monochrome print of Freaks holds up amazingly well. Being a nearly 80-year-old film, there is expected wear, tear, and grain, but the print is generally clean. The mono track is unremarkable, but it's palatable enough. If some of the dialogue is unintelligible, it's more due to the some of the actor's reading of lines and not the sound track. (As with all four films, subtitles are available in English, French, and Spanish.). The extras from the 2004 DVD are all ported over, with a commentary by historian David J. Skal and a documentary ("Freaks: Sideshow Cinema") providing as much information about the film as one would hope for. The only downside is Skal tends to repeat things in both bonus features. He also hosts a featurette about the three alternate endings MGM used to appease audience disgust at the time of release.
The 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is entertaining enough, but misses greatness by a few yards. Director Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind) does a good job telling the story on a visual level, and the film exhibits that gorgeous gloss MGM was known for at the time. Surprisingly, the weakest element is Tracy, who is bland as Dr. Jekyll and not really creepy as his alter ego. Another problem is screenwriter John Lee Mahin's insistence on following the superior 1932 version (which netted Frederic March a Best Actor Oscar) almost scene-for-scene, and even adding an extra 20 minutes to the narrative for no reason. Also, both of its leading ladies—Bergman and Lana Turner—aren't given a worthy showcase.
Originally released on a dual-sided DVD with the 1932 version, Warner provides a crisp, lovely print of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Scratches and dirt are minimal, with the blacks and whites saturated well. The mono track is very serviceable, with dialogue and score coming through beautifully. Not counting a trailer, extras are virtually nil, which is disappointing. A commentary by a film scholar would have been satisfactory, maybe even a documentary about all of the early versions of this oft-filmed tale.
The 1953 version of House of Wax is actually a remake of the 1932's Mystery of the Wax Museum, which I actually champion despite House's immense popularity. The major difference between both films are the female characters, with the original having scream queen Fay Wray as the object of the sculpter's desire and a hardboiled reporter dame in Glenda Farrell. The ladies in House of Wax are really nothing more than shrieking victims, which is a bit sexist. Otherwise, the film remains colorful, atmospheric, and exciting, with Price still quite scary as the sculptor. And viewing it should make one forget about the dismal 2005 "remake" with Paris Hilton.
Unfortunately, House of Wax hasn't aged well. The color print suffers from lots of grain, scratches, and spots. Audio-wise, Warner has provided a Surround track which is reasonably potent, making the best of David Buttolph's frightening score. Extras are limited to a 3-minute newsreel, which is mostly silent, documenting the premiere. Look sharp and you may spot Ronald Reagan and Shelley Winters attending the 6 am "breakfast screening."
Finally, we get to The Haunting, the greatest ghost story ever put on film, a close race with Poltergeist. Director Robert Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding remain faithful to Jackson's novel for the most part. They also generate shocks solely through atmosphere, camera angles and effects, never utilizing a drop of blood. And the cast is uniformly excellent, with Bloom and Harris especially noteworthy.
The black and white, 2:35:1 anamorphic print for The Haunting is very good, but does boast occasional flaws and imperfections. The mono track is better than expected, with the creaky sound effects and slamming noises coming through spectacularly. Extras are plentiful, beginning with a full-length audio commentary with Wise, Gidding, and the four stars. Even though all the participants were recorded separately, their stories and memories are fascinating to listen to, making it one the best commentaries I've ever heard. Rounding out the bonus features are still galleries and a "ghost story" essay, which were also on the original 2003 disc.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Admittedly, $19.99 is a decent price for this set, but the "decreasing warehouse stock" vibe is so blatant. For one thing, the menu screens for House of Wax and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde say to flip the disc over for the earlier screen treatments, which, of course, exist on the original dual-layer releases but not here.
Unless you don't own any of these films and like at least a couple of them, this set is not really worth it…except for possibility a gift for a classic horror buff.
The films are found not guilty, but Warner Bros. is charged with blatant
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Scales of Justice, Freaks
Perp Profile, Freaks
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Freaks
• Alternate Endings
Scales of Justice, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Perp Profile, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Scales of Justice, House Of Wax
Perp Profile, House Of Wax
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, House Of Wax
• Premiere Newsreel
Scales of Justice, The Haunting
Perp Profile, The Haunting
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Haunting
Review content copyright © 2009 Christopher Kulik; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.