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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics



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#1 of 2 ONLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted October 14 2009 - 03:34 PM

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Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics

The Walking Dead (1935)/ Frankenstein 1970 (1958)/ You'll Find Out (1940)/ Zombies on Broadway (1945)


 

This was only Kyser's second feature film, and one can sense that he was more comfortable in the broad comedy schtick bits akin to his radio show than in the more dramatic plot-driven scenes.  While not an especially accomplished film actor, Kyser's goofy charm and slightly exaggerated North Carolina twang make him an engaging enough  personality to guide the viewer through the film. 

As for the film's "horror legend" stunt casting antagonists: Karloff's character is fairly dull and one-dimensional, Lugosi's turbaned spiritualist is an example of the typecasting that would dog his entire career, and Lorre's dryly ironic villain comes off the best of the trio.  Lorre plays off the trust of the film's protagonists in ways that both amuse and generate a bit of much needed suspense.


Zombies on Broadway (1945 - RKO - 68 Minutes)**½

Directed by: Robert Alton

Starring: Wally Brown, Alan Carney, Bela Lugosi, Anne Jeffreys, Sheldon Leonard

In Zombies on Broadway, the comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney play hapless New York Club promoters Jerry Miles and Mike Streger. They have unwisely chosen to go into business with gangster Ace Miller (Leonard) who is trying to open a legitimate club on Broadway. Jerry and Mike pitch him a "Zombies" theme, blanketing the city with publicity declaring that there will be a real zombie on display at the club. When the actor hired to play the zombie is exposed, Ace puts them on a boat bound for the island of San Sebastian where Dr. Paul Renault (Lugosi) is experimenting with scientific methods for zombie creation equivalent to the black magic practiced by the natives. Physically and mentally ill-equipped to deal with either black magic or mad scientists, Jerry and Mike will need a lot of luck and all the help they can get from Anne Jeffreys, a nightclub singer stranded on the island, if they expect to survive, let alone make it back to New York with a zombie in tow.

Once again, we have a comedy film with horror elements with Lugosi playing to type, this time as a mad scientist. Brown and Carney were a comedy team in the Abbott and Costello vein, although they normally played characters named Jerry and Mike and their films were made for even less money. I honestly do not have a lot to say about this film other than it was mildly amusing despite a premise that was beyond forced and production values that looked like their Craft Services table would have qualified for free government cheese.

Brown and Carney do not quite have the timing and chemistry of better remembered comedy duos of the era, but they throw themselves at the corny material with gusto. Anne Jeffreys is mildly amusing as a woman who is not too smart, but is still smarter than Brown and Carney combined. Sheldon Leonard makes a pretty good heavy, but the film dispenses with him for all but its first and last reels. Lugosi pretty much phones in his turn as the zombie scientist, although his exit from the film is accomplished through a pretty good (if old) gag.

The "poor man's Damon Runyon" bookends in Manhattan never really dovetail properly with the "poor man's zombie island" middle passage. The film rushes through the plot at a breakneck pace with little regard for proper exposition to justify why characters are doing what they are doing. This is probably better than methodically attempting to explain why characters would be doing senseless things, and results in a mercifully short run time under 70 minutes. That being said, the movie does improve appreciably when a monkey becomes a key character about half way through.

The Video***

All of the films are presented in black and white transfers appropriate to their original theatrical aspect ratios. This means that The Walking Dead, You'll Find Out, and Zombies on Broadway are presented in 4:3 full frame video while Frankenstein 1970 is presented in a 16:9 enhanced 2.4:1 presentation.

The Walking Dead is a good transfer of a film element in rough shape. Detail is mediocre to bad and there is a lot of visible positive and negative film damage. Greyscale is consistent throughout without undue contrast manipulation in the video domain.  Shadow detail is reasonably good for a relatively high contrast source element. It looks like a lot of work went into creating a reasonable looking video master, but there was not a lot of "touching up" in the digital video domain.

Frankenstein 1970 is presented with a pleasing range of contrast that never threatens to blow out whites or crush blacks, and visible film element damage is minimal. There is occasional fluctuation of density in some of the darker "thin negative" scenes such as the first time Karloff descends to his secret laboratory, but it is minor and not distracting. It does appear as if the film grain has been softened/filtered somewhat, which will be most noticeable on very large displays.

You'll Find Out gets perhaps the best video presentation in the set, marred only by some element damage that results in vertical bands of varying contrast during the film's early going. Other than that, it has the most detailed and natural looking film-like appearance of the four films. There is minor element damage visible from time to time, but nothing severe.

Zombies on Broadway is by far the worst presentation of the bunch. It looks like a video master from fifteen years ago or more. There are video artifacts galore, sometimes including second order ringing along high contrast edges. It appears to be encoded in 30fps video mode, so you will get aliasing unless your hardware detects it or you manually force it to play in video mode. Worst of all, the presentation is lacking in detail due to the mediocre transfer and artifacts.

The Audio **½

All of the films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio tracks. The Walking Dead has the worst fidelity by a pretty wide margin, with very little high end and an overall "muffled" quality reflective of its age.

Frankenstein 1970 is the newest and sounds the best of the bunch. This primarily benefits its score which is above average for a low budget production of its era. There are some mild noise reduction artifacts that affect things like the sound of the reverb decay during certain scenes that take place in an underground cavern. This may bother critical listeners, but I suspect most viewers will not notice it.

You'll Find Out and Zombies on Broadway fall somewhere in between the others, with the former being a little better than the latter due to either a better noise reduction process or a lighter hand in applying it.

The Extras ***

Extras consist of the following commentaries and trailers. The trailers are all presented in 4:3 full frame video with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio:

The Walking Dead

Commentary by Historian Greg Mank - Mank provides an engaging and well-researched commentary for the best film in this collection. In addition to the expected biographical information about cast and filmmakers, he provides information gleaned from production documents and Boris Karloff's hand annotated original script. Mank has a easy on the ears delivery, and manages to fill the whole commentary with useful information while avoiding the usual traps of long silences or narration of scenes the viewer can see for themselves.

Frankenstein 1970

Commentary by Actress Charlotte Austin and Historians Bob Burns and Tom Weaver - Anyone familiar with Burns and Weaver knows that they are uniquely qualified to comment on monster movies of any era, and they do not disappoint on this track. Austin is also a welcome presence on the track, is an enjoyable speaker, and has a very good memory. All three participants sit together, and while the commentary is generally led by Weaver, he encourages Burns and Austin to chip in frequently and brings things back to the topic at hand whenever they go off on tangents. The commentary includes a lot of well-researched information about the film's production. Some of the best bits come from early draft treatments/scripts and memos from censors that illustrate how the film evolved from its initial conception (mostly for the better, believe it or not). Austin is even game to read/perform in character some of the deleted bits from the screenplay.

The Theatrical Trailer (1:02) is illustrative of Frankenstein 1970's low-budget origins and gets right to the film's selling hook by starting off with a voiceover proclaiming "Karloff, Karloff, Karloff!"

You'll Find Out

The Theatrical Trailer (2:23) is a pretty fair presentation of what the film has to offer to an audience: Kay Kyser's band, the "Masters of Menace", and five musical numbers.

Zombies on Broadway

There are no extras associated with Zombies on Broadway

Packaging

The films and related extras are spread across two single-sided dual-layered DVD-9 discs. Disc one is referred to on the packaging as "Quintessential Karloff" and includes The Walking Dead and Frankenstein 1970. Disc Two is referred to as "The Hungarian Horrormeister" and includes You'll Find Out and Zombies on Broadway. Both discs are contained in a standard sized "Ecobox" plastic DVD case with a hinged tray allowing it to accommodate two discs. The plastic case is in turn bound in a cardboard slipcover which has identical front cover artwork, but different text information on the back cover compared to the hard case's cover insert. The disc menus are well authored with easy navigation through the films, extras, and subtitle options and convenient navigation links to return to the top menu to select which of the films on the disc the viewer wants to see. There are chapter stops, but no chapter menus.

Summary ***

While not quite living up to the title's promise of providing "Horror Classics", the box does pull together four diverse films featuring Karloff and/or Lugosi. Their presentations are nearly as diverse as their contents with Zombies on Broadway being especially problematic due to what looks like a very old video transfer with poor detail and plentiful video artifacts. The Walking Dead is the best film in the collection, but appears to be derived from a pretty worn down source element. Extras consist of trailers for You'll Find Out and Frankenstein 1970 and two outstanding historian-led commentaries on The Walking Dead and Frankenstein 1970.


Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 2 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

Robert Crawford

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Posted October 14 2009 - 10:16 PM

Thanks for the fine review.  I wish "The Walking Dead" was in a boxset with other films that I'm more interested in seeing, but I might pick this up if I find a good price on it.





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