A documentary examining the early days of horror films, particularly those crafted at Universal Studios during the 1930s.

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Cast

Cast overview, first billed only:
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Narrator (voice)
...
Himself
...
Herself
...
Himself
Carla Laemmle ...
Herself
Sara Karloff ...
Herself, daughter of Boris Karloff
Forrest J. Ackerman ...
Himself (as Forrest Ackerman)
David J. Skal ...
Himself
...
Herself
...
Herself
...
Himself (archive footage)
Anne Carré ...
Herself, widow of Ben Carré
...
Himself
Nicholas Webster ...
Himself
...
Herself
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A documentary examining the early days of horror films, particularly those crafted at Universal Studios during the 1930s.

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8 October 1998 (USA)  »

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Terror Universal  »

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UNIVERSAL HORROR (TV) (Kevin Brownlow, 1998) ***
5 October 2011 | by (Naxxar, Malta) – See all my reviews

I acquired this via an imperfect VHS copy culled from a U.K. TV screening (which was followed, as per the closing announcement, by one of the very films it dealt with i.e. James Whale's sublime THE OLD DARK HOUSE {1932}), rather than any of the "Anniversary Edition" DVDs on which it has been featured (since I never got around to upgrading them)! Given his reputation as a film restorer, Brownlow is well-known for his love of Silent cinema, so it is somewhat surprising to find him involved in this valediction to the Golden Age of Horror (which it is, since he does not exclusively treat the Universal Studios product) though, not that a considerable amount of time is devoted to the genre efforts which emanated from that pre-Talkie era.

Therein, however, lies the documentary's chief problem: while I loved the fact that such masterpieces as Paul Leni's Silent THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) and Michael Curtiz's Warners-produced MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) were discussed in some detail (more predictably, we also get Paramount's magnificent 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE and RKO's no-less-startling KING KONG {1933}), this resulted in a number of Universal films being either not given their due or omitted entirely! The appraisal of the second phase of their heyday proves especially skimpy: considering that we would get various SE DVDs over the next few years of Dracula, FRANKENSTEIN (both 1931), THE MUMMY (1932), et al, where their histories are exhaustively illustrated, one would have liked this to delve deeper behind the scenes of some lesser but still classic stuff such as the atypical 'prestige' production TOWER OF London (1939), seen briefly in the opening credits and then never again, THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940), which is completely neglected, and the troubled FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943), again, mentioned only in passing!

Indeed, of the myriad sequels to the original Universal monster movies, unsurprisingly, the only two to receive the requisite attention (since they are among the very best the studio turned out) are the second and third Frankenstein outings (with some on-set clowning relating to the latter being intriguingly shown in color!), with the maligned-but-irresistible 'monster mashes' or their subsequent spoofing at the hands of comic duo Abbott & Costello hardly being addressed at all! That said, we do get to learn some new anecdotes (at least, speaking for myself) including the now-lost MGM effort London AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), directed by Tod Browning and starring Lon Chaney, having apparently inspired a vicious murder and that, similarly, the Bela Lugosi/Boris Karloff vehicle THE RAVEN (1935) was singled out as being representative of the "degenerate" level to which Horror had sunk. Also, I had always wondered why Edgar G. Ulmer never worked again for the studio during this time after the first Karloff/Lugosi teaming in THE BLACK CAT (1934), which we are also told was among their most commercially successful ventures, and this was because the director fell in love with a woman who was married to the Laemmles, the family that ran Universal!

Needless to say, the documentary is fascinating and makes for a thrilling catalog of some of the most memorable moments not only in horror but movie history, with interjections from several historians, buffs (who watched these pictures in their childhood when they first emerged), relatives of the people who made them and, in a handful of cases, among the very few remaining survivors from that era – actresses Lupita Tovar (Mina in the renowned alternate Spanish-language version of Dracula), Fay Wray, Gloria Stuart and screenwriter Curt Siodmak. However, as I said, I missed hearing about a good many titles (like, say, Universal's first stab at the "Wolf Man" myth in WEREWOLF OF London {1935}, the just-as-seminal 'mad doctor' flick THE INVISIBLE RAY {1936} – once more starring Karloff and Lugosi – but also strictly 'B' stuff such as the "Inner Sanctum" series or the unlikely "Jungle Woman" and "Creeper" franchises) that, in the long run, I feel one is better off reading a book on the subject if he is to get 'the full story'!


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