DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Oct 14, 2009.

  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
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    Kenneth McAlinden
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    Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics

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

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 1935-1958

    Rating: NR

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3/2.4:1

    Subtitles: English SDH, French

    Release Date: October 6, 2009
    Just in time for Halloween, Warner has dipped into their vaults, including the classic Warner Bros., Allied Artists, and RKO catalogs, to bring audiences four films featuring horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Two of them are straight horror offerings while the other two are comedies with horror movie trappings.

    The Films

    The Walking Dead (1936 - Warner Bros. - 66 minutes)****

    Directed by: Michael Curtiz

    Starring: Boris Karloff, Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Marguerite Churchill, Warren Hull, Barton MacLane, Henry O'Neill, Joe King

    In The Walking Dead, a group of racketeers headed up by a slick lawyer named Nolan (Cortez) sets up ex-con recently released from prison John Ellman (Karloff) to take the fall for the murder of a judge. Young couple Jimmy (Hull) and Nancy (Churchill) are the only witnesses to know the truth, but are intimidated by the gangsters to keep quiet. When they learn that Ellman is about to be executed, they finally come forward, but thanks to interference from Nolan, they are minutes too late to stop the execution. Dr. Evan Beaumont (Gwenn), for whom Jimmy and Nancy work as laboratory assistants, intervenes and performs a radical post-mortem procedure that brings Ellman back from the dead. The revived Ellman initially has little memory of his past life but slowly begins to recognize those who wronged him and methodically pursues them one by one.

    Far and away the best film in this collection, and the only one that deserves the "Horror Classic" designation, is The Walking Dead. This film began Karloff's mostly successful association with Warner Bros. through the late 1930s that included such films as West of Shanghai, The Invisible Menace, Devil's Island, and British Intelligence. Under the assured direction of Michael Curtiz, it has the breakneck pace and attractive cinematography typical of the Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s mixed with atmospheric science fiction/horror elements more associated with the Universal monster films of the era.

    At a time when those enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code were cracking down hard on both gangster and horror films, the team of screenwriters (there are five separate people with story and/or script credit), deftly maneuvered their way around the Code's restrictions to come up with an entertaining and original plot mixing familiar elements in a novel way. As was the "Warner Bros. way", the plot incorporates numerous "ripped from the headlines" topics that were subjects of public fascination at the time including organized crime, the electric chair, and the Lindbergh heart.

    The familiar character "types" are also spun in slightly new directions. Karloff's back from the grave ex-con is a sympathetic tragic figure who becomes not so much a rampaging or misunderstood monster as an agent of divine justice. Edmund Gwenn's Dr. Beaumont is cut from familiar "mad scientist" cloth with generous doses of ego, but is more driven by a curiosity to divine the secrets of the afterlife than the typical God-complex informing most such characters.

    Frankenstein 1970 (1958 - Allied Artists - 83 Minutes)**

    Directed by: Howard W. Koch

    Starring: Boris Karloff, Don 'Red' Barry, Jana Lund, Tom Duggan, Charlotte Austin, Norbert Schiller, Rudolph Anders, Irwin Berke, John Dennis, Franz Roehn, Joe Ploski, Otto Reichow, Mike Lane

    In Frankenstein 1970 Boris Karloff plays Baron Victor Von Frankenstein, a direct descendent of the original mad doctor who experimented with reanimating the dead 230 years earlier. Victor is a scientist who survived a war experience (presumably World War II) where he was beaten, disfigured, and impressed into participating in unspeakable medical experiments. Decades later, he now lives in his sprawling ancestral home attended by his gentle obedient servant Shuter (Schiller) and his estate manager Wilhelm Gottfried (Anders). In order to raise money for the atomic reactor needed for his latest scientific endeavor, he allows a film crew, inclusive of director Mike Shaw (Berry), Shaw's ex-wife/script girl Judy Stevens (Austin), lead actress Carolyn Hayes (Lund), and publicist Doug Row (Duggan) to shoot in and around the grounds of his castle [Note to reader: Do not tell the heads of any rogue nations seeking nuclear capability about this or they will all start hosting film crews]. Unfortunately for all in the castle, his latest endeavor is a reboot of the "family business", and they all become candidates for involuntary organ donations.

    Of all of the films made in the 1950s that tried to milk a few more dollars out of the Frankenstein story, this Allied Artists production ... well ... was the one that starred Boris Karloff. Unfortunately for Karloff and his fans, this film wound up being only slightly better than "Poverty Row" films such as Frankenstein's Daughter, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and How to Make a Monster. At approximately the same time over in the UK, Hammer studios was much more successfully revitalizing the "Frankenstein brand" with a pair of gory color spectacles featuring Peter Cushing as the mad Doctor.

    As for the subject at hand, Frankenstein 1970 starts promisingly enough with a scene of a monster steadfastly pursuing the lovely and terrified Jana Lund into a lake that suggests some good old fashioned monster mayhem to come, but then pulls the rug out from the viewer to reveal that we are watching a movie in a movie. The subsequent film tries, with limited success, to update the basics of the Frankenstein story by incorporating modern advancements in atomic energy, television production, and women's support undergarments.

    Despite some bad decisions such as making the monster look like a mummy with a lampshade on his head and employing a toilet flushing sound effect for the Baron's body and organ disposal unit, the film's main problem rests on the shoulders of its lead actor. The film plays like the director and editor were being paid based on how many frames of film included Karloff. Many of his scenes seem to go on forever, resulting in what feels like a hammy and overindulged central performance.

    The cast is rounded out with some interesting players, including confrontational talk show host turned actor Tom Duggan as the film within the film's publicist, former western star Don "Red" Barry giving off a low budget Cagney vibe as the film's spirited director, and B-movie darlings Jana Lund and Charlotte Austin as the eye candy (no, seriously, the Baron and monster are after their eyes!).

    As cheesy as the film eventually becomes, it does squeeze a little bit of production value out of its sets borrowed from Warner Bros. "Too Much Too Soon", its scope cinematography (In the 1950s, when your producer's last name is "Schenck", you presumably got the inside track on CinemasScope lenses even if you were making a low budget film.), and there is a gruesomely clever bit of editing in the scene where the Monster finally finds a suitable pair of eyes. Otherwise, this film is only recommended for Karloff or Frankenstein completists.

    You'll Find Out (1940 - RKO - 96 Minutes)***

    Directed by: David Butler

    Starring: Kay Kyser, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Helen Parrish, Dennis O'Keefe, Alma Kruger, Joseph Eggenton, and the Kay Kyser Band featuring: Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms, Ish Kabibble, and Sully Mason

    You'll Find Out is a hybrid musical/comedy/suspense/haunted house tale in which popular radio stars Kay Kyser and his band (playing themselves) are convinced by their manager, Chuck Deems (O'Keefe) to play the birthday party of his fiance, Janis Bellacrest (Parrish), at her family's mansion. The mansion's primary resident is Janis' Aunt Margo, a widow who populates her home with many bizarre and possibly menacing artifacts, and is attended by her butler Jurgen (Eggenton), a resident spiritualist who calls himself Prince Saliano (Lugosi), and her family's long-time legal representative, Judge Spencer Mainwaring (Karloff). Seeking to debunk her Aunt's superstitious beliefs, Janis also invites Professor Karl Fenninger (Lorre), an expert at exposing occultist frauds. The house full of musicians and debutantes is thrown into a panic when instances of curiously severe weather and paranormal activities leave them stranded in what appears to be a haunted house and when several near miss accidents suggest that someone is trying to kill Janis.

    As the only film in which horror legends Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre all appeared together, You'll Find Out will always be an answer to a decent trivia question, but the film is much more directed at fans of Kay Kyser and his band than at fans of horror movies.  While it has all of the standard "haunted house" trappings including trap doors, hidden passages behind walls, and artwork with spy-holes cut in it, the film eschews any attempt at mystery by revealing who is behind the spooky goings on early (arguably when you see Karloff, Lugosi, and Lorre's names in the credits) and seems only half way committed to any sort of "will they survive/get away with it" suspense.  Setting aside its presence in a "Horror Classics" collection and judging it as the film it actually aspires to be, it is an entertaining time passer with just enough plot from which to hang the music and comedy bits from Kyser and his band. It also fit within an emerging 1940 "horror-comedy" trend that included Paramount's The Ghost Breakers and Universal's The Mummy's Hand and The Invisible Woman.

    Fan's of Kay Kyser (such as Edith Bunker from the TV series "All in the Family") will get a lot to enjoy including an opening scene that stages a recording of his "Kollege of Musical Knowledge" radio show.  Musical numbers highlight the impressively high tenor of Harry Babbitt, the charming alto of Janice Simms, and a couple of novelty songs giving Ish Kabibble a chance to show off his dumb-guy comedy chops.  For folks unfamiliar with Kabibble (real name Merwyn Bogue), he was a popular trumpet player featured in Kyser's band for several years who developed an intentionally dopey comic persona and look.  He and the Three Stooges' Moe Howard were the twin towers of bowl-cut hair comedians from whom Jerry Lewis and Jim Carrey circa Dumb and Dumber picked up the torch.  

    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


    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.

  2. Robert Crawford

    Robert Crawford Moderator

    Dec 9, 1998
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    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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