Four of Hollywood's best-known and most beloved horror classics receive 4K UHD upgrades, and the resulting Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection (what a mouthful!) will make a ghoulishly great goody bag gift this Halloween season. Impressive HDR presentations of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man comprise this sleek set that provides fans with state-of-the-art video transfers while faithfully honoring the artistry, craftsmanship, and enduring legacies of these eerie, endlessly entertaining creature features. Highly Recommended.
If you're at all familiar with my HDD reviews, you can probably guess my annual Halloween viewing doesn't include visits with Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. I'm a retro, old school guy who likes his horror in good old black-and-white with plenty of atmosphere, a minimum of gore, and delivered by such genre icons as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man. So you can only imagine my excitement when Universal announced the release of four of its best-known, most beloved horror classics in 4K UHD just in time for All Hallows' Eve.
Though it might be easy to confuse the Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection with any number of other similarly titled box sets produced by the studio over the past few years, this one stands apart, delivering such flagship titles as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man in 4K UHD for the first time. Their debut in the ultra high-def format won't only delight horror buffs. On the contrary, anyone who loves classic movies and wants to see them in the highest possible resolution will surely welcome this release, which - much like Dr. Frankenstein himself - breathes new life into films produced 80+ years ago (Dracula and Frankenstein both celebrated their 90th birthdays this year).
Some might worry the enhanced definition might take some of the bite (pardon the pun, Count Dracula) out of these eerie thrillers by calling more attention to painted backdrops, thick makeup, and primitive special effects, yet after viewing each film in the set, my admiration for the artistry on display only increased. The creativity, ingenuity, meticulous attention to detail and ambitious nature of all the films make a greater impression than ever before and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Golden Age classics do benefit from and deserve to undergo the 4K UHD treatment.
Are there any cons to this upgrade? Yes. (See my video review below.) The pros, however, outweigh them. Seeing Bela Lugosi's piercing stare, Boris Karloff's anguished cries, Claude Rains' invisible antics, and Lon Chaney Jr.'s animalistic transformation in 4K UHD is a dream (nightmare?) come true and only whets my appetite for more Universal monsters like The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Phantom of the Opera, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in the same format.
The best news of all is that Universal respects and remains eager to continually foster and preserve the legacy of these beautifully crafted, entertaining, and historically significant movies. Though this set might not be as popular as the studio's recent Alfred Hitchcock 4K UHD collection, it's arguably more significant, due to the advanced age of the included films. In this season of trick-or-treat, the Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection is one piece of (eye) candy you'll want in your goody bag.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Much like its previous 2012 Blu-ray counterpart, Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection arrives on 4K Ultra HD packaged in an attractive, sturdy, hardcover book inside a slipcase with raised lettering. A leaflet containing the code to access the Movies Anywhere digital copy is tucked inside the book's back cover. While the beautifully sleek presentation, distinguished by glossy "pages" that feature a color reproduction of each film's original poster art along with stylish black-and-white scene stills and publicity photos, pleases the eye, its functionality leaves much to be desired. A tight slot at the edge of each page houses either the 4K UHD or Blu-ray disc for each film. The problem is the discs do not slide out easily, facilitating the need to grab the edge of each disc to retrieve it. That cumbersome process often leaves a stray fingerprint on the disc that can hinder playback. During my viewing of Frankenstein, the image suddenly began breaking up and playback sputtered and stalled. I finally had to remove the disc, clean off the tiny fingerprint portion on the edge, and fire up the film again before I could continue watching. Universal seems to favor this type of packaging - the Alfred Hitchcock 4K UHD set also employs it - but it's definitely not consumer-friendly.
Video codec for the 4K UHD discs is 2160/HEVC H.265 (HDR); for the Blu-ray discs, it's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4. Audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the discs are inserted into the player, the full-motion menus with music immediately pop up; no previews or promos precede them.
As a diehard classics fan who relishes the (so far) all-too-rare experience of watching films from Hollywood's Golden Age in 4K Ultra HD, I must admit I couldn't wait for this release. And yet I knew I had to temper my excitement and keep my expectations in check, because let's face it, we're dealing with 80-to-90-year-old movies shot on antiquated equipment that was never meant to yield images in such astonishingly high resolution. The trick for Universal was to upgrade these movies without both destroying their integrity and making them look as artificial and grotesque as Frankenstein's monster. I'm happy - and relieved - to report the studio completely succeeded in that regard, but that doesn't mean everyone will be thrilled with the results. These 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfers presented in HDR must be taken with a proverbial grain of salt and regarded with both a realistic eye and measured perspective to appropriately appreciate them.
First off, Universal already set the bar quite high with its stunning Blu-ray transfers of all four films, but the studio definitely left room for improvement and seems to have checked all the boxes with this 4K UHD edition. Enhancements are generally subtle, but noticeable. Though the masters seem to be the same ones Universal used for the Blu-rays, additional clean-up has been performed, so now there's nary a nick, mark, or errant scratch on any of the transfers. (The Wolf Man, which was littered with mild print damage, benefits the most in this regard.) Vibrancy and contrast have been pumped up a notch as well, but great care has been taken to maintain the film-like appearance of each movie.
That's an important point, because grain is far more prevalent on the 4K editions of each film, especially the 90-year-old Dracula and Frankenstein, than it is on the standard Blu-rays. (The Invisible Man exhibits the least amount of grain.) Films from the very early 1930s can look quite grainy in high definition, and UHD magnifies that texture. As a result, solid backgrounds in both Dracula and Frankenstein can seem rather snowy at times and that might distract and disgruntle some viewers. Sometimes you have to rob Peter to pay Paul, and in this case, a bit more grain is the price that must be paid for a bit more clarity. That's right, a bit more clarity. Don't expect a revelatory viewing experience, especially with Dracula and Frankenstein. These two films have been nicely tweaked and discerning eyes will spot the enhancements, but their respective transfers don't make a jaw-dropping impression. If you prefer less grain, you might prefer the standard Blu-rays, because the heightened grain on the 4K UHD discs is slightly more noticeable than the heightened clarity.
Don't misunderstand. Dracula in 4K UHD sports more depth, sharper shadows and silhouettes, lusher black levels, and a more pronounced juxtaposition of light and dark. The close-up of Helen Chandler at the climax is breathtaking, the individual strands of the massive spider web that Dwight Frye's Renfield confronts early in the film also grabs attention, and Lugosi's hypnotic stares are more penetrating. In Frankenstein, fine background details are definitely sharper (the castle bricks are more contoured and laboratory machinery looks crisper), the wrinkles in Dr. Frankenstein's white lab jacket are more distinct, the surgical instruments exude a brighter, cleaner shine, and you can pick out individual faces in the mob during the exterior village street scenes. All these attributes make a strong case for upgrading both films.
After viewing Dracula and Frankenstein, I wasn't completely won over by this set, despite appreciating the myriad improvements. My attitude changed, however, when I watched The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, both of which possess a distinct wow factor. The opening titles of both films pop with dimensionality, and the slightly higher grain levels allow the mattes and painted backdrops, which stuck out like sore thumbs in the 1080p transfers, to weave more seamlessly into the fabric of each movie. The image in The Invisible Man is perfectly balanced, with grain, grayscale, and contrast working in tandem to create an immersive experience. The beer bubbles in the glass mugs are wonderfully clear, Una O'Connor's cheap costume jewelry sparkles and gleams, details in flowers, hay, and snow thrust us into the atmosphere, and the texture of Dr. Griffin's bandages and gloves heighten the illusion of invisibility underneath. The HDR transfer is much more crisp and vibrant than its Blu-ray counterpart, flaunts better contrast and shadow delineation, and exhibits less crush. Happily, all the terrific special effects remain just as fluid and, well, invisible as they are on the Blu-ray.
Print damage plagues The Wolf Man Blu-ray (which also looks overly smooth and flat), but the UHD transfer erases 99% of the damage and stabilizes the picture as well. More grain injects more life, authenticity, and dimensionality into the image. Fog and mist are more distinct, the werewolf hairs appear more coarse and scraggly, Ouspenskaya's spangled necklaces and hoop earrings look more vibrant, and the glistening sweat on Chaney's face stands out a tad more. Both The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man Blu-rays pale in comparison to the more highly regarded Dracula and Frankenstein, but the HDR transfers right that wrong and put all four films on the same visual playing field.
As far as upgrading goes, the 4K UHD transfers of The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man stand head and shoulders above their respective 1080p renderings. Dracula and Frankenstein also best their Blu-ray counterparts, but the victory is by a slimmer margin. Bottom line: If you love these movies, by all means treat yourself to this 4K UHD collection. The transfers may not meet your lofty expectations, but they do these classics proud.
The audio has not been upgraded for this release, which is hardly surprising considering the advanced age of all the films. All four movies feature DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks. Here's what my colleague M. Enois Duarte wrote about the sound back in 2012:
"Like the video, the original audio designs have been digitally restored and remastered for this Blu-ray release...They are all presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. The results are stunningly brilliant with superb, precise dialogue reproduction and an excellent sense of presence. With a sharply detailed mid-range, the soundstage feels spacious and commanding, full of warmth and distinct clarity. Background activity and effects are clear and discrete, creating an appreciably spacious environ. Music exhibits clean differentiation of the notes and instruments with an appropriate low-end, providing a good amount of depth to certain sections of the orchestra. Although a bit of hissing and noise remains audible with some slight distortion in the upper frequencies, the lossless mixes of each film are rather magnificent and are a great joy to listen for loyal fans."
All the extras from the previous Blu-rays have been ported over to this 4K UHD release. (There are no new supplements.) The good news is all the special features - and there are hours of them - are included on both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray discs, so there's no need to swap out discs to view the featurettes, photo galleries, and trailers and listen to the audio commentaries. For reviews of all the extras on each disc, please refer to HDD's individual reviews of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man.
No tricks, all treat! Universal drops its 4K UHD collection of four classic monster movies into our goody bag, and for film fans, it's way better than a candy-corn sugar high! Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man comprise the Universal Classic Monsters Icons of Horror Collection and they all look terrific, thanks to carefully curated HDR presentations that heighten clarity and detail levels while maintaining an authentic film-like appearance. While the differences between the 4K UHD and standard Blu-ray versions may be subtle, they're substantial enough to merit an upgrade if these iconic thrillers make you howl at the moon. Highly Recommended.