Blu-ray Review: Universal Horror Collection: Volume 3 (1939 – 1941)

January 2, 2020

Written by DanXIII

Daniel XIII; the result of an arcane ritual involving a King Diamond album, a box of Count Chocula, and a copy of Swank magazine, is a screenwriter, actor, artist, and reviewer of fright flicks…Who hates ya baby?

Straight up; the last two Universal Horror Collections brought to us courtesy of those wonderful warlocks over at Scream Factory have been nothing if not a whole monstrous mess of fright flick fun (don’t believe me? Head here and here and read my thoughts on the matter for your own sinister self!)! Let’s see if Volume 3 lives up to the legacy of it’s predecessors!

First up we travel to the not-so-jolly land of 15th century England with 1939’s Tower of London!

Hunchbacked Richard Duke of Gloucester (Basil Rathbone), is sixth in line in succession to the throne, and he is pretty pissed about that let me tell ya. So what does that damned deformed dastard… err, bastard do to remedy that situation? Why he begins secretly eliminating those ahead of him in line with the help of his putrid pal Mord (Boris Karloff), the bloodthirsty town executioner (equally deformed as his boss; in this case with a club-foot). Things go swimmingly and soon he becomes Richard III, King of England… but will his reign be a long one?

Full of melodrama, and some surprisingly dark material, Tower of London is like Shakespeare by way of Edgar Allan Poe (Mord even has a pet Raven that rides around on his shoulder like some hell-spawned pirate’s parrot… but more on this freaky fellow in a tick). We get castles filled with dark shadows, misshapen villains, plenty of murder and a dash of madness; this is full on Gothic thriller territory in many respects, mixed and matched skillfully (courtesy of writer/director Rowland V. Lee… who also brought us the vastly underrated Son of Frankenstein in the same year) with historical drama and royal politics.

But the ghoulish goodness mentioned above is made even more wonderful by the top-shelf cast assembled for this picture, with the villains of the piece completely stealing the show. Rathbone is simply excellent as the scheming, dollhouse aficionado, that despite his twisted outward appearance, is a megalomaniac psychopathic genius… and even becomes a pseudo-demigod to his right hand man Mord.

Now ol’ Mord is another story unto himself; everything about this fiend just fires on all cylinders from appearance to demeanor (both horrifying), and Karloff simply steals every single scene he is in.

Also of note, this film also features an early co-staring role from the one and only Vincent Price; a true bonus indeed for those of us balls deep in the horror biz!

Speaking of bonuses, this disc features but two; an image gallery and a brand-new audio commentary by author/film historian Steve Haberman (who not only gives an in-depth analysis of the film’s production, but also examines how the picture’s events match-up to their historical counter-parts).

 

 

Next up we get 1941’s Man-Made Monster!

After surviving a deadly bus accident involving high voltage power lines (realized with some great miniature effects), Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney, Jr.), discovers he is immune to electricity. This attracts the attention of  Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), who wants to find out why this mother fucker can take the shock treatment like a goddamned ace.

That’s all well and dandy, but Lawrence’s colleague, Dr. Paul Rigas (Lionel Atwill) has a wild hair up his ass in regards to creating an army of electrically charged mindless supermen that will do his bidding… and guess who he decides to make patient zero in his evil scheme? A real shocker of a picture follows!

Man-Made Monster is a real-gem of a fright flick featuring another great sympathetic turn from Chaney, once again portraying a simple every-man thrust into a sinister scenario far beyond his abilities to cope with.

It also features some gorgeous photography, fun set-pieces (the rampage sequence is particularly fantastic), a great comic-book protagonist (and with his rubber suit and glowing skin how could it not) and a fast-moving story (and at a runtime of fifty-nine minutes it better not drag)!

Speaking of the story, we get a new audio commentary… a fascinating back and forth affair featuring East coast author/film historian Tom Weaver (who gives his normal witty and informed conversation) and West coast filmmaker/ film historian Constantine Nasr, who sheds some very convincing light on the fact that the film’s story may well have been plagiarized.

While we are on the subject of bonus features, as on Disc One, an image gallery is present here as well.

 

 

Following that, 1941’s The Black Cat slinks in!

A family of real vulture types, led by swank-as-fuck Montague Hartley (Basil Rathbone) sit and wait for their loaded aunt Henrietta Winslow (Cecilia Loftus) to kick the bucket so they can rake in the dough.

Since she is roughly older than Methuselah, Henny isn’t long for this world anyway… but someone speeds up the process with a lil’ dab of the ol’ murder biz… but those greedy bastards can’t collect until her housekeeper Abigail Doone (Gale Sondergaard) and all her cats die (and this place has more pussy inside of it than the Bunny Ranch).

Soon it’s up to antique dealing Abbott and Costello clones Hubert Smith (Broderick Crawford) and Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert) to find the one what did it. Bumbling nonsense ensues.

The Black Cat presents it’s murder mystery with tongue firmly-in-cheek, and it is an enjoyable lil’ terror romp indeed! You get an old dark house, a dysfunctional family, plenty of red herrings; everything that makes these types of pictures so damn enjoyable, but you also get those comedy stylings mentioned above (which I enjoyed, but your mileage may vary… ), and that makes for a fine watch for any horror hound.

Speaking of you fright fans, the only real problem with The Black Cat is that a features a too-brief role for Bela Lugosi, in which he is completely wasted. Why have a legend on hand if you aren’t going to use him to the fullest?!!

As for extras we get the now familiar image gallery and an audio commentary (this one courtesy of author/film historian Gary D. Rhodes that goes in depth into the film’s production in a scholarly, but by no means dry, fashion), and this time the film’s theatrical trailer is thrown in as well!

 

 

 

Last up comes Horror Island (1941)!

Jack-of-All-Trades, chronic masturbator, and sailor (don your sleuthing hat and watch the film to discover which of those descriptions isn’t true… and even if it isn’t, it so very is) Bill Martin (Dick Foran) just so happens to own a lump of turd of an island… an island that our hero discovers may be home to a “tray-sure”, thanks to half off a map he gets from a peg-leg… pirate? I mean he looks more like a gypsy… but… hmmm… nope, I just don’t fucking have a clue… anyway, this dude, Tobias Clump (Leo Carrillo)… oh for fuck’s sake… ends up tagging along with Bill and his pal Stuff (Fuzzy Knight)… okay, what the actual fuck with the names… even that last dude’s real name is ridiculous… as they trek to the island… along with a gaggle of goofs they’ve sold tickets to promising an island treasure hunt.

All of this would be a nice afternoon’s diversion, but there’s one small problem… a mysterious cloaked figure called the Phantom is murder-crazed and on the island to claim the treasure as his own!

Regardless of that great big “horror” in the title, Horror Island is more of a comedy… and a solid comedy as it is, and one that features with a large cast of broad characters, elements of high adventure and pulp novels, and a few jolts thrown in for good measure… hell, this one even managed to squeeze in an “old dark house” just for shits n’ grins.

That’s seems like a lot of things to cram into just over an hour runtime, but this picture actually pulls it off! Part of the reason this hodge-podge works so well is that it seldom takes itself seriously. You get a constant flurry of wise-cracks, characters that are like cartoons brought to life, some fun plot-twists… just an enjoyable B picture through and through that probably had way more entertainment value than the “A”‘s it was paired with.

As for special features, you know the drill; trailer, still gallery, commentary (this one provided by author/film historian Ted Newsom who provides plenty of detail on the production and those involved).

 

 

 

This is yet another solid collection from the lower tier of the Universal horror archives and, and once again is well worth owning for fans of classic chillers (especially those on the lighter side)!

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