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01 August, 2009

DVD Review: Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection

Title: Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collections, Vols. 1&2

Year of Release—Film: Various

Year of Release—DVD: 2006, 2007

DVD Label: Universal Studios Home Entertainment / BestBuy Exculsive


THE MOVIES

Following in the wake of their excellent Legacy releases in 2004, Universal has continued the excavation of their film vault, first with the Bela Lugosi Franchise Collection and Hammer Classic Collection in 2005, and continuing into 2006 with several notable releases. These include the Karloff Franchise Collection, the 75th Anniversary editions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, and the long-awaited complete INNER SANCTUM Collection.

Included in that shipment of sweetness from Universal’s vaults was a set that I’d personally waited years for: The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection. This five-movie set, including TARANTULA; THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN; THE MOLE PEOPLE; THE MONOLITH MONSTERS; and MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS, features almost all of the best of Universal’s hits from the heyday of the Drive-In B-movies, when Science became far more than something you took in 3rd period. But “almost” could’ve been so much better.

In what must be a glaring oversight, the movie I consider to be Universal’s best ‘50’s Giant Bug B-Pic, 1957’s THE DEADLY MANTIS, has been left off. I can think of no valid reason for Universal’s continuing lack of respect for this classic, which still has not been released on DVD, and can only hope it gets it’s fair due sooner rather than later.

TARANTULA—(1955)

One of the best Giant Bug movies of the era, TARANTULA was Universal’s answer to WB’s THEM, released the previous year. Though not as technically well done, relying on occasionally flawed photographic effects rather than physical props, the plot was good and the acting, led by John Agar as Dr. Matt Hastings and Mara Corday as the ridiculously-named Steve Clayton, was far better than the average B-Pic.

But if the photographic effects weren’t quite up to snuff, Bud Westmore’s make-up work easily makes you forget it, with some of Universal’s best creature designs of the ‘50’s. Leo G. Carroll, who would be immortalized twenty years later in the lyrics of “Science-Fiction Double-Feature”, the opening theme to THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (“I knew Leo G. Carroll/ Was over a barrel/ When Tarantula took to the hills…”) was heavily made-up as a victim of the same growth serum which created the giant spider, and looked impressively disgusting.

Though the ending is weak and anticlimactic, the picture holds up well overall, and its inclusion in this set was a no-brainer; it is easily the best of the set.

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN—(1957)

Never a personal favorite of mine, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN has nevertheless been long regarded as one of the best Sci-Fi films of the decade; indeed, some consider it one of the best ever.

Directed by the prolific Jack Arnold, and starring Grant Williams and Randy Stuart, the plot concerns Scott and Louise Carey, a young couple out for a pleasant day of boating. A strange glowing cloud washes over the boat while the Scott is alone on deck. Months later, a routine physical discovers that the man is steadily shrinking, and it’s accelerating. Soon, he finds himself doing battle with enormous felines and huge spiders.

As I stated, this is not one of my favorite movies of the period. Though it certainly was well-scripted, well-directed, and well-acted, it was also slow, predictable, and Williams’ Carey was completely unlikable. While it conveyed the horror of what was happening to Carey well enough, I just found it impossible to care.

Still, this is regarded as one of the great films of the 1950’s Sci-Fi genre, and it certainly belongs in this set.

THE MOLE PEOPLE—(1956)

Perhaps the weakest of the five films on this set, it nonetheless has long been a personal favorite of mine. Directed by Virgil Vogel, and starring John Agar, Hugh Beaumont, Alan Napier, and Cynthia Patrick, THE MOLE PEOPLE is a curious mix of a standard Man-in-a-Rubber-Suit creature feature and “Lost World” adventure film, similar in theme to AT THE WORLD’S CORE or JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.

Though the plot of the film is weak, and the ending is horribly contrived, the movie moves along at a rapid clip, and the production is beautifully designed, a hallmark of Universal’s Horrors from the earliest times. Bud Westmore’s Creature designs are good, but the effect that impressed me so much when I first watched this one was the scene following the sacrifice of the young maidens, as their shrouded bodies were carried out of the death chamber, a burned and blackened arm fell from underneath the sheet… very gruesome for 1956, and very memorable for the young Unimonster.

THE MONOLITH MONSTERS—(1957)

My personal favorite of the five movies on this set, this was one of my favorite movies as a child, one for which I hunted for several years. [The quest for this film was the subject of a previous column of mine, “Childhood Terrors Recaptured”] Though produced using what must be considered Universal’s “C-List” of actors and director, that doesn’t keep it from being one of their better efforts in the fifties.

Directed by John Sherwood and starring Lola Albright, Grant Williams, and Les Tremayne, this movie had one of the most intelligent, well-conceived plots in ‘50’s B-Movies. A geologist discovers a strange new mineral is associated with a string of unexplained deaths in the small desert town of San Angelo. Dave Miller, the geologist (played ably by Williams) eventually discovers that the rock fragments are part of a meteor that landed in the desert outside the town. When exposed to water, not only do these rocks have the ability to kill by draining the body of silica, but they are also capable of growth and reproduction. Just as this discovery is made, a peal of thunder is heard, and rain begins to pour down onto the desert floor.

The special effects in this movie are incredible, especially the scenes of the monoliths rising and crashing onto the desert, only to have a new monolith rise from every broken shard. The performances, considering the name-recognition level of the cast, far exceed expectations, and the script, by Norman Jolley and Robert Fresco, from a story by CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON director Jack Arnold, is one of the best examples of ‘50’s Sci-Fi. Personally, I think it’s great that it’s one of the decade’s best, and I’m pleased that it’s finally getting some long-overdue attention from Universal.

MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS—(1958)

Of all the Sci-Fi Horrors Universal released in the 1950’s, this was perhaps the closest to the traditional “Horror Film” that they were so well known for a mere decade before. Directed by Universal’s best B-movie director of the post-war years, Jack Arnold, and written by David Duncan, (who penned such Sci-Fi and Horror classics as THE BLACK SCORPION, THE TIME MACHINE, and FANTASTIC VOYAGE) MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS was a average plot for the time, elevated by above average performances (most notably by lead Arthur Franz…), decent special effects, and Bud Westmore’s excellent make-up work. The cast, led by Franz, and featuring Joanna Moore, Judson Pratt, and a young Troy Donahue, does a very credible job with a script that was, admittedly, weaker than most in this collection.

As I intimated before, this is not the best movie in this collection, but it certainly isn’t the worst, either. MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS is a standard, entertaining B-picture, typical for it’s time, but still worthy of inclusion in the set.

This is an attractively packaged set, as you would expect from Universal. The five films are contained on three single-sided discs, and subtitles are included for all films. The movies themselves appear to be the best prints extant, though it’s obvious that no money was invested in archival restoration of these aging films.

Overall, the set is what we’ve come to expect from Universal: Clean, well-done, handsomely packaged, but with a minimum of restoration work.

There are no special features included in this collection; a situation that, frankly speaking, is unforgivable. When compared to Warner Home Video’s excellent offerings of films from this decade, the lack of even a stills gallery is damning. Universal, ever parsimonious, unwilling to spend a dime unless guaranteed a dollar in return, betrays its own stinginess with the failure to give this set the treatment it, and its fans, deserve.

Though this set has long been desired by fans of 1950’s B-Movies, as

well as fans of Universal’s Horrors, it is telling that what distinguishes it the most is what is left off, rather than what is included. The lack of Special Features, as well as the failure to include THE DEADLY MANTIS, means that I can’t give it as strong a recommendation as I would like to, but I can honestly say it’s well worth the $30 list price.

Could it be better? Yes, and it should’ve been. But when it comes to

Universal, I know to take what I can get.


Vol. 2

THE MOVIE(s)

It’s no secret that I love the cheesy, B-Grade sci-fi horrors of the 1950’s. In fact, next to the classic Universal Monsters of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, there’s no type of genre film I enjoy more. This is the second collection of Sci-Fi gems Universal and Best Buy® have collaborated on, and I hope they keep them coming!

When I reviewed the first Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection last year, I said that the only faults I had with the set were the lack of special features, and the failure to include my favorite Giant Bug movie, THE DEADLY MANTIS. I am overjoyed to say that at least one of those faults has been corrected.


DR. CYCLOPS—(1940)

Though it seems an odd title for inclusion in this set, as it was originally produced by Paramount, and released in 1940, DR. CYCLOPS is certainly an entertaining film that has long deserved proper respect, and it definitely gets it here.

While the Special Effects are good, especially considering the age of the film, the story is a bit of a weak point. The characters are poorly drawn and badly acted, offering the viewer scant reason to care about their eventual fates. And though the plot would become overused in the following decade, here it was still sufficiently fresh that it helps, rather than hinders the film. It is an interesting concept, though it does tend to wander from point to point, but as I mentioned it does what it was intended to do.

One thing that cannot be faulted is the spectacular color photography, on a par with the best of the era. It is captured perfectly in the DVD transfer, and puts my ratty old VHS to shame.

While not my favorite film in this collection, this is an enjoyable one, and a nice addition to my DVD library.

CULT OF THE COBRA—(1955)

This is one that I had not seen before this collection, and I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the quality of the movie. Though the premise is somewhat thin, and the film has often been derided, I found it to be very entertaining.

The cast is excellent, and would go on to comprise a who’s who of ‘60’s TV stars. Richard Long, Marshall Thompson, and David Janssen lead the way as GI’s who had witnessed a sacred ceremony while in Southwest Asia, calling down a curse upon their heads. Faith Domergue is the embodiment of that curse, (please someone, curse me with something like that!) as a priestess of the cult, a woman who can transform herself into a cobra… or a cobra that can change into a woman, whichever the case may be.

As I stated, the premise is thin… but no more so than most b-pictures of the ‘50’s. And like most of it’s peers, it holds up well enough when supported by competent acting and Francis Lyon’s workmanlike direction. The photography is Universal’s usually high quality effort, and what few special effects there are about average for the period.

On the whole, this is one of my favorite films in this set, and one that I’m glad to be able to check off my “Need” list.

THE LAND UNKNOWN—(1956)

This is another of those Universals that had escaped my efforts to add to the collection, and while I’m glad that I finally have it, I must admit that it fails to please as much as did the previous entry in this list. Though it’s not a bad film, the unusually feeble production values simply don’t serve the purpose here.

The cast, led by Jock Mahoney and Shawn Smith, does an adequate job, but they receive little in the way of support from anyone, including the screenwriters, special effects crew, or even the director, Virgil Vogel. The story is weak, the dialogue unrealistic, even by 1950’s standards, and the creature effects are even more so. In a production from AIP or Republic, you might accept a man in a rubber T-Rex suit… but not from Universal, which was producing state-of-the-art genre films in this period, films such as CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THIS ISLAND EARTH, and THE MONOLITH MONSTERS. Especially in comparison to the pioneering suit-mation being done at that time by Toho Studios in Japan, the cheapness of the Clifford Stine effects really stand out.

The plot of the film is a simple one, and would be revisited with varied success throughout the 1960’s and ‘70’s. A helicopter carrying a team of researchers finds a hidden valley in Antarctica, with a tropical jungle environment and thriving prehistoric life. The team becomes stranded, and must survive their harsh surroundings. The same premise was followed much more satisfyingly in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH several years later, and quite frankly, I’d rather watch that again.

Still, it is a Universal that I had not seen prior to this, and I am happy to include it in my collection.

THE DEADLY MANTIS—(1957)

This is my all-time favorite Giant Bug movie, and one that I have waited for years to see released to DVD. Though it generally is held in lower regard than 1954’s THEM, and while even I would have to admit that, objectively speaking, THEM is a much better story, I’ve always loved this film.

Once again the plot is familiar to fans of the B-Pictures of the 1950’s. An earthquake in the South Atlantic causes a reaction on the other side of the world, and a giant prehistoric mantis is released from its icy tomb. Resurrected, it begins hunting for food, and heading south for warmer climes. Along the way it runs afoul of a paleontologist, his photographer, and an Air Force officer (played well by William Hopper, Alix Talton, and Craig Stevens…). The supporting cast is good, as is Nathan Juran’s direction, helped immeasurably by a superb job of special effects from Clifford Stine.

Ok, so it’s not a great movie, and it does go a little overboard on it’s use of stock footage, but it’s still one of my favorite movies, and it’s inclusion in this set is a no-brainer.

THE LEECH WOMAN—(1960)

This is, in my opinion of course, the weakest film in the set, and one that I would’ve been happy to see put off in favor of a more deserving film from the Universal vaults, such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.

The story concerns an elderly woman who learns a method of restoring her youth and beauty. The drawback is that the process requires a steady supply of fresh blood, and the effects wear off quickly.

The plot is convoluted and obtuse, and the dialogue is stiff at best… but seldom delivers its best. The acting is almost uniformly bad, and in every way, this resembles much more the type and quality of film coming from AIP or Allied Artists, not the great Universal.

Still, it is well presented here, and if it does happen to be a film you enjoy, then you’ll be pleased with this release.

The three-disc set is well done, and beautifully packaged. As is standard with releases from Universal Studios Home Entertainment, the movies are subtitled, always a plus with me, and the transfers are absolutely perfect, especially the DR. CYCLOPS print.

As with the first Best Buy/Universal sets, there are no special features, save for an occasional trailer.

Speaking as someone hopelessly addicted to the cheesy B-Movies of the 1950’s, I dream about sets such as this. The inclusion of my favorite of the Giant Bug movies certainly doesn’t hurt. While the exclusive nature of the Universal/Best Buy releases draws much criticism for making the discs hard to acquire and inflating the price, I fail to understand how that truly works a hardship on someone who really wants the sets. Best Buys are not scarce, and it’s always possible to purchase the discs on-line.

Still, it’s not a set that I would wait too long to pick up, unless you want to pay the exorbitant prices that the first set is commanding on eBay… upwards of $125.00 in some cases. There’s little doubt that, once supplies of this set dry up, it will begin to appreciate considerably. And if you love these movies as much as I, and have as little free cash as I, then you don’t want that to happen!



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