Universal Cult Horror Collection (2009, Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
This set was originally released in 2009 exclusively through Turner Classic Movie’s website. It appears they only make it available during the Halloween season so I was quick to order a copy from TCM.com when it was offered again this year. As you can tell by the title the five films included are definitely cult status. Heck, you might even say they are obscure in some cases.
Sadly, there are no trailers to any of the films but TCM & Universal did a great job in putting together a nice package and special features. Every film is loaded with photos, trivia and has an informative TCMDb (Turner Classic Movies Database) article. I’ve become a big fan of the TCMDb articles but I don’t think there is any directory for them on TCM’s website, which is a shame.
House of Horrors (1946)
This is solid B-movie fare featuring a sculptor out for revenge on those who gives him bad reviews by sending The Creeper after them. Taking obvious inspiration from Rondo Hatton’s role as “The Oxton Creeper” in Universal’s Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death (1944), “The Creeper” was a late attempt at Universal trying to start up a new monster series. It appears Universal made an honest attempt at building a series around Rondo as The Creeper because House of Horrors and it’s prequel The Brute Man were both filmed before Hatton passed away. Despite good intentions, Universal sold off the rights to The Brute Man to low-budget studio PRC. Both films were released in 1946.
Rondo Hatton suffered from acromelagy in real life (it was thought he had picked it up during World War I) and that is what gave him such unique facial features. It was complications from this same disease that would end Hatton’s life in the form of a heart attack at the age of 51 in February 1946.
Bill Goodwin plays the suspicious detective in this movie which was pretty fun for me because despite acting in a number of movies from the early ’40s to mid ’50s, he was primarily an announcer who is best known for is work on the Burns & Allen radio show.
Murders in the Zoo (1933)
Murders in the Zoo is actually a movie that Paramount released but Universal ended up gaining ownership of this film (and most of Paramount’s pre-1950 films) in 1962, thus explaining its inclusion in this set. Of course, it stars a man who is no stranger to Universal’s horror output — Lionel Atwill.
This is one of the stronger entries in this collection and partly because it was made pre-Code. Meaning the use of violence & sex is a lot more liberal. The movie starts off in a shocking way showing Atwill’s character sewing a man’s mouth shut in its full gory glory! Atwill plays an insanely jealous husband who will not only kill a man for sleeping with his wife but will also kill a man just for hitting on his wife. Wouldn’t it just be simpler to kill the wife? Oh wait, I spoke too soon…
Good horror number with Atwill at his villainous best and Charlie Ruggles providing some truly humorous moments as the cowardly publicist for the zoo. Ruggles would later go on to play an equally hilarious cowardly butler in The Invisible Woman.
The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
Given the title you’d think this movie takes place in a lab located on some seedy city street (or at least I thought that) but that’s not the case. The movie briefly takes place in a lab where Dr. Benson (Atwill) ends up accidentally killing his human test subject when he is not able to bring him back to life from suspended animation.
On the run from the law, the movie shifts to a cruise liner headed for New Zealand and then ends up on an uncivilized island for the majority of hte film after the ship goes down in flames after engine trouble. From there the rest of the surviving passengers try to survive and get off the island as the mad doctor has set himself up as some type of god after saving the life of one of the locals. The islands’ residents believed her to be dead but it was just a heart attack that Benson saved her from though he continues to let them think he has the power to restore life.
I thought there was a bit too much comedy in this movie and the movie lacked atmosphere given its tropical location. In addition to that, there’s really no lead protagonist. It’s just a group of survivors and two of them are comic relief — the dingbat Aunt Margaret (played by Una Merkel) and the not-so-bright boxer Red Hogan (Nat Pendleton). Gonna have to say this movie is kind of a bore.
The Mad Ghoul (1943)
Reportedly this was another attempt to get a new monster series going. From what I have read, this movie was not well-received by film critics but was a success at the box office. I guess it didn’t just didn’t make enough money to warrant a sequel. It tells the tale of a jealous professor (George Zucco as Dr. Morris) who wants woman that belongs to his student/lab assistant (David Bruce as Ted).
The doctor had recently discovered how to make an ancient nerve gas that can put any living creature in a mindless zombie-like state so he uses it on Ted and orders him to commit murders in order to obtain the fresh heart fluid needed for Ted to continue living (in his ghoulish state, Ted carves out these hearts). These ghoulish trances are only temporary and when Ted returns to normal he initially believes his evil deeds to be only dreams and he doesn’t understand why he always feel so sick. Apparently, it is only under great stress that Ted reverts (unknowingly) back into his ghoulish state.
This was one Universal movie that I have wanted to see for years after reading some reviews giving it a lot of high praise. While enjoyable, I felt the plot was a bit convoluted and silly. The whole point was Dr. Morris didn’t want Ted with Isabel (Evelyn Ankers) anymore. Once he became poisoned, why not just let Ted sit and rot and die instead of having him go out and murder people for their hearts? It only complicated matters and led to the doctor’s own downfall!
The Strange Case of Doctor Rx (1942)
Like The Mad Doctor of Market Street, The Strange Case of Doctor Rx doesn’t really fall under horror at all. This is a comedy-thriller that always comes off feeling like a Saturday matinee serial thanks to the look and voice of the avenging “Doctor Rx”. The story here is that a number of acquitted criminals are being killed by a character calling himself Doctor Rx and the soon-to-be-wed P.I. Jerry Church (Patric Knowles) becomes unwillingly involved in the case.
According to the TCMDb article, this movie was shot with an incomplete script, rewrites were being made on a daily basis and a lot of the dialogue was improvised. It shows. The movie falls apart at the end with a quick jump to the characters automatically knowing and apprehending Doctor Rx and then we’re quickly told through the characters’ own dialogue how this all came about. Would’ve been a lot better had we been discovering the clues as the characters were and if we saw how Church escaped Doctor Rx’s clutches in the previous scene. Definitely the weakest of the “cult” films in this set and pretty forgettable.
Interesting to note that The Three Stooges’ Shemp Howard has a role here as a prominent bumbling policeman (he was also in The Invisible Woman as one of the mobsters).
I can’t say I’m sorry I bought this set but I do think given the quality and obscurity of these films, the price is a bit steep (got it on sale for $39.99, regular price is $49.99) but TCM has presented and packaged these films with class and respect, something you don’t see much in the realm of horror. With the exception of Murders in the Zoo none of these movies really standout though. That said, it’s great these films are available on DVD now (you can also purchase them individually from TCM for $19.99 a piece) and I’m happy I’ve had the chance to watch them but I would recommend to anyone who wants this set to wait and see if they can snag a used copy from Amazon or eBay.