Four classic horror films from Universal, undoubted pioneers of horror in the early 20th century, are being released on Blu-ray for the first time in the UK from April 17th by Eureka Entertainment. The two-disc Blu-ray features Murders at the Zoo (1933), Night Monster (1942), Horror Island (1941), and House of Horrors (1946), and while the first title is the only which really gives many clues as to what the film is about the four of them are a joy to watch. The limited edition set also includes 1080p presentation of the four films which undoubtedly made these films more enjoyable to watch than many films of the eras quality when found online, and the high-quality subtitles were a welcome addition too, as well as the audio commentary.
But of course, the main attraction is the films themselves, and it is always a treat to watch horror films from this era, and these were no exception. What is interesting is that the first film of the set, Murders at the Zoo, is the only film which is pre-Hay's code, meaning that despite being arguably the wackiest of the lot it was less restricted by the “guidelines” for films of the age to follow. The easiest way to see this is that this is the only film where you see the bodies of those murdered, with the other three getting more creative, usually showing us a hand falling or a leg poking out from behind furniture. It is worthwhile bearing in mind that Murders in the Zoo was censored and even banned in many countries at the time, only one year before the Hay's Code came into effect, and so it represents an interesting microcosm of what audiences and censors found shocking at the time.
While light on gore and scares, the films are unfortunately laden with the tropes and stereotypes you would expect of 30's and 40's horror and are heavy on the orientalism, sexism, and ableism that are sometimes difficult to watch, but acknowledging them when you go into it and watch them is useful, and perhaps chuckling at the number of women who faint at the slightest disturbance. The films star cult icons such as Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and Rondo Hatton, all of whom it is always a treat to see on screen, and this box set provides a glimpse into being a horror fan of the time seeing these actors in lesser-known roles. You can really see the influence these films had, for better and for worse, on more modern horror and characters, which is fascinating throughout.
Murders at the Zoo, as mentioned above, was the most violent of the films, featuring a wealthy, jealous zoologist who brings animals he collects on his travels to a Zoo, where to raise funds and publicity, they hold a banquet for the wealthy with the animals around them. Suspecting his wife of having an affair, the zoologist uses one of his animals to murder her lover, starting off a string of crimes in the zoo. The variety of situations the characters of these films find themselves in is a huge part of the joy of these movies, and a zoo is a perfect place to start. The film, while straightforward, is great fun, and the performances are more compelling than many of this era and genre.
Moving from the zoo we go to a classic horror setting of a large house, set back from the local town by its marshes where something more sinister than its loud frogs seems to be lurking in Night Monster. The comedy in this one is certainly less deliberate than in the previous film, and the greatest fears are found in an all-encompassing shadow, thick fog, frogs going silent, and a hazy skeleton, but the characters were quite interesting. A famous, female psychiatrist, a series of rather dramatic doctors, Bela Lugosi playing a creepy butler, and a woman being told she is crazy by her disabled brother and the housekeeper helping him hide a dark secret make up a wonderful ensemble, and in particular, the interactions between the women were frequent and meaningful, a rare treat for an early 40s B-movie. However, the cliched and ableist depictions of disability detract from any Bechdel test brownie points, but it is nonetheless an entertaining movie.
In Horror Island, a moneymaking scheme on his grandfather's old island turns deadly for Bill Martin (Dick Foran) as several parties begin hunting for treasure that isn't part of the attractions. This film plays out the most like a Scooby Doo episode, which is no bad thing, especially if you are used to the tone of the previous two. We again end up with an isolated ensemble of interesting characters, which proves funny and bizarre to witness as a viewer. The whodunit style of this film was rather satisfying, if somewhat rushed, but the creepy castle on the island was full of atmosphere.
And finally we follow a mad sculptor who finds “the creeper”, played by Rando Hatton, whose facial differences inspire the sculptor to continue his work when disillusioned, but soon utilises the creeper to take revenge on “heartless, ignorant critics” who aren't too fond of his art. Despite being called House of Horrors, this film mostly takes place on the streets and in artists' studios and has a film-noir quality that adds intrigue to the film, as do the fun characters and ensuring police chase and trap. As silly but atmospheric as the others, the film's main scares problematically rely on Hatton, and the scenes of him stalking his victims certainly provide a chill despite being unable to show any violence.
Of course, gore is not what makes horror, but if you are looking for a real fright this is not where to get it. All four movies are as funny as they are suspenseful, and with the exception of House of Horrors, audiences go through each film with a comedic protagonist as a guide and comic relief throughout. Both the comedy and horror are somewhat melodramatic by today's standards, but this is a huge part of the charm of films of this era and it is such fun to watch the Scooby-Doo style escapades and to see some lesser-known thrillers from the vaults of Universal Pictures.