Blu-ray Review: Universal Terror (1937-1952)

Boris Karloff was the Danny Trejo of his time, appearing in several movies per year, and ending his career with over 200 credits to his legendary name. While some have been lost to time, more and more of his more obscure work continue to re-emerge thanks in particular to Eureka Entertainment, who bring yet another small batch of the icon’s titles to Blu-ray under the blanket title of Universal Terror – Night Key (1937), The Climax (1944) and The Back Castle (1952)

Contrary to what the title, “Universal Terror”, suggests, this is the departure from Karloff’s usual brand of gothic horror as we have three stories that range from urban crime to murder mystery. Night Key involves an inventor (Karloff) of a ground-breaking alarm system who uses it against a security firm to prove a point, but organised crime eventually gets hold of the technology and uses it to their advantage. If you watched Eureka’s previous release of Karloff at Columbia, this is very typical stuff in terms of general premise and plot, but it’s still the most enjoyable thanks to its cast of characters and central idea, which could easily be adapted to a modern setting.

It’s clear that with The Climax, the studio had in its possession some very lavish sets and decided to build a movie around them to avoid letting them go to waste. Disappointingly, the result is basically a recycling of Phantom of the Opera to put it politely, in which Karloff plays a physician obsessed with an opera singer whose voice resembles his late mistress. While I agree the sets are quite stunning and detailed, the story is a little flat, no pun intended. Karloff’s presence is also quite limited, as it is in The Black Castle, which takes us to the home of a sinister Austrian Count (Stephen McNally) where two of his guests disappeared, and a close friend of the recently vanished, Sir Ronald Burton (Richard Green), is there is investigate. This is a more traditional story with its gloomy setting and Lon Chaney Jr. making a cameo as mutate servant, plus Stephen McNally as our villain, Count Karl von Bruno, carries much of the film between Karloff’s brief interjections. Australian-born actor, Michael Pate, as Count Ernst von Melcher is a catty sidekick to the main antagonist, adding to the variety brought by the supporting players, including Karloff, who as naturally gets to have his moment by the end of the film.

VIDEO AND AUDIO

Night Key and The Black Castle come presented from 2K scans of fine grain film elements, while The Climax is from a 2K scan of the interpositive and all three features look impressive considering their relative obscurity. It’s quite reassuring that Karloff’s seemingly endless filmography will survive for generations to come based on their quality and availability. Sound is rather thin, which is to be expected, but in terms of clarity and volume, I honestly can’t fault the audio tracks. Optional HOH English subtitles are included.

 

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Brand new audio commentary tracks on Night Key and The Climax with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
  • Brand new audio commentary track on The Black Castle with author Stephen Jones and author/critic Kim Newman
  • Stills Galleries
  • Trailers
  • A limited-edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by Karloff expert Stephen Jacobs (author of Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster) (2000 copies)
  • Limited Edition slipcase (2000 copies)

It’s not surprising the like of Lyons, Rigby and Newman have been asked to give their take on these three classics given their bank of knowledge on the subject and their commentary’s certainty adds to the set’s value, especially in the case of The Climax, which is a bit of a chore to get through on its own. Eureka’s signature slipcase is one of my personal favourites. It’s a shame they didn’t include a poster of the artwork and booklet as these always make nice collector items in addition to providing more information about the films.

Universal Terror is, to say the least, an interesting assortment of titles you probably haven’t seen nor heard of, but if you’re a fan of ‘Sir Boris’ or just an insane completist, then I definitely suggest adding it to your cart.

UNIVERSAL TERROR

(1937-52, director: Various)

★★★½

 

direct blu-ray screen captures

 

 

You can follow cinematic randomness on Twitter and Facebook where you’ll find all my cinematic exploits. Thank you for visiting!