The newest edition from Shout Factory of Universal Horror Collection is really more of four films with mixed genres, and folks looking for strictly horror might be a tad disappointed. It does, in all fairness, feature horror icons like Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Vincent Price (and so many more). However for collectors looking to complete the library being released from Scream Factory, as they continue chronicling a lot of the more obscure and notable Universal horror films, this is right up your alley. It’s light in the supplemental material, but here’s hoping the impending volume four gives us a bit more meat to chew on.
Although it’s put in the horror peg, “Tower of London” from 1939 is mainly a drama with a cast of horror icons filling out the cast. The displaced King Henry lives in the Tower of London hoping the Prince of Wales will arrive and displace the new king, King Edward IV (Ian Hunter.) The duplicitous Duke of Gloucester Richard (Basil Rathbone) plans to eliminate all of the heirs that stand in the way of the throne. His handy henchman and executioner Mord (Boris Karloff) carry out his will, worshipping Richard as his King and lord. There are some who suspect Richard, such as the Duke of Clarence (Vincent Price,) but most are unaware of his machinations. A young couple also finds their love affair interrupted by Richard. This is a solid drama with some very good writing and performances, and it’s always great to see Karloff play villain.
You could make the case for “Man Made Monster” from 1941 being the closest thing to a monster movie here, but it’s mainly science fiction mystery. However, there is Lon Chaney in the title role, so that’s never a con. After a bus veers off the road and hits an electric pole in a freak accident, five people are killed. However, one survivor (Lon Chaney) shows no effect from the electrocution of the bus. He actually is in a business of performing electrical tricks. He is kept in the hospital for observation. Meanwhile, mad scientist (Lionel Atwill) works on how man can wield electricity. Realizing that the man has developed some form of immunity to electricity, the scientist manages to conduct an experiment on him.
He is changed into an electric monster. Eventually he grows addicted to electricity and begins running amok. This is a wonky and fun monster movie with Chaney giving it his all as always. I recommend it for a quick but fun monster movie fix.
One of the many cinematic iterations of the Poe short story, “The Black Cat” from 1941 is a very good murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christia. At a mansion a family awaits news from the doctor about Henrietta Winslow. Two men, Gil and Mr. Penny, show up at the house hoping to purchase items from the estate. Cat obsessed Henrietta reads her will to her relatives. Gil sits down with her afterward and they discuss his intent to purchase the estate. Meanwhile somebody tries to poison her milk, and accidentally kills a cat. The stipulation of the will reads that Abigail and the cats must die before a penny is doled out. After Abigail is murdered, the family tries to find out who the culprit is. This is one of those mystery thrillers that set the template for the sub-genre including spooky shadows, secret passage ways, and the ever ominous black cat. It’s a very good murder mystery if you’re a fan of whodunits, and includes appearances by Bela Lugosi, and Alan Ladd respectively.
“Horror Island” from 1941 is mainly a comedy with some horror elements here and there, and your mileage may vary with this title. Down-on-his-luck entrepreneur Bill Martin and sidekick Stuff Oliver try to stay one step of creditors in their seedy waterfront office when they meet “The Captain,” a peg-legged old sailor. The Captain is convinced that the treasure of pirate Sir Henry Morgan is hidden somewhere in a castle on an offshore island recently inherited by Martin. His proof is a treasure map, half of which has been stolen by a mysterious phantom who lurks in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to steal the other half.
Sensing a moneymaking opportunity, Bill tries to recruit customers willing to pay $50 apiece for a “treasure hunt” outing to the “haunted” island. Among those signing up is Bill’s cousin George, who has recently offered $20,000 to buy the supposedly worthless island. As they’re all stalked by the phantom, they try to figure out who the killer is. All things said, this is a fine adventure comedy with some great genre tropes to celebrate, as well as the classic Agatha Christie formula is practices quite well. If you like whodunits with a hint of “Scooby Doo” mystery, this is a fine finisher.
The Tower of London Disc features an Audio Commentary with film historian Steve Haberman going through the history and critiquing the film, as well as an Image Gallery. The Man Made Monster includes an Audio Commentary by film historians Tom Weaver and Constantine Nasr both of whom offer insight on the film, as well as an image gallery, The Black Cat includes an Audio Commentary by film historian Gary D. Rhodes, an Image Gallery, and the original Theatrical Trailer. Finally, Horror Island features an Audio Commentary by film historian Ted Newsom, an Image Gallery, and the original Theatrical Trailer.