"Universal Horror" is a bit of a misnomer, as this documentary also covers horror films, especially of the early 1930s, from other studios, including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920 and 1931/32, Paramount), "Island of Lost Souls" (1932, Paramount), "King Kong" (1933, RKO) and "Mystery of the Wax Museum" (1933, Warner Bros.), as well as a host of silent films from Weimar Germany and elsewhere--dating as far back as "The Red Spectre" (1907, Pathé), which is compared to a scene in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and concluding with Abel Gance's 1937/38 remake "J'Accuse!" Attention, of course, is also given to some of the Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy and Wolf Man films of Universal, as well as other studio entries, such as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), "The Cat and the Canary" (1927), "The Old Dark House" (1932), "The Invisible Man" (1933), "The Black Cat" (1934), "The Raven" (1935) and others.
Examining so many films doesn't allow time for too much in-depth analysis, but as the relatively lackluster and derivative video documentaries devoted to single films also available on Universal home video collections, e.g. "The Frankenstein Files" (2002) and "Monster by Moonlight" (1999), demonstrate, more time doesn't equal better insight. Having already read David Skal's book "Hollywood Gothic," for instance, I don't care for more than his brief statement in this documentary for his rather spurious argument that the Spanish-language "Dracula" is technically superior to its English-language counterpart, both having been produced by Universal in 1931.
Kevin Brownlow is the best in the business of making documentaries on classic cinema, and I especially enjoy when he's provided more length than here, as in the mini-series format for his programs on silent cinema in the U.S. ("Hollywood" (1980)) and Europe ("Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood" (1995)), or when he narrows his focus and examines fresh material, as in the use of discarded footage in "Unknown Chaplin" (1983). Regardless, "Universal Horror" moves briskly from film to film, providing a few interesting comparisons and background tidbits for each along the way. For example, clips of "The Golem" (1920) and "The Magician" (1926) are shown to demonstrate the influence on "Frankenstein" (1931), "The Mummy" (1932) is referred to as essentially a remake of "Dracula" (1931) and examples of Bauhaus architecture are compared to the style's adoption in "The Black Cat." The performances of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and the makeup work by the likes of Jack Pierce are praised, too, and the special effects behind "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," "The Invisible Man" and "King Kong" are explained. "Universal Horror" is surely worth a look, especially if one only wants a feature-length introduction to the golden age of horror cinema.
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