DVDs & Blu-rays: The Halloween Edition, Part 1 (The Early Horror Classics)

Lon Chaney stars in the scary silent The Penalty. He's Blizzard, a ruthless gangster who had his legs mistakenly amputated as a child. The tragedy has driven him mad and he hatched a twisted scheme to exact revenge on the doctor who crippled him. He intends to kidnap the doctor's daughter's fiancé, take the man's legs and have them grafted onto his own stumps.

Chaney wore a torturous costume made from wooden buckets and several leather straps (his legs were tied behind him and his knees sat in the buckets). The effect was so believable that the studio included a short epilogue showing the actor out of character -- and with both his legs intact -- with the original release (the epilogue footage does not survive). Chaney went on to star in Treasure Island (also in 1920), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). The Penalty, universally considered an early horror classic, cemented Chaney's reputation as a star.

Extras on this release include a video tour of Chaney's double amputee costume, his actual makeup case, an essay by Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake, the essay: The Penalty: Novel, Script to Screen, scene comparisons (novel, screenplay, film), a gallery of photographs and artwork along with original theatrical trailers from Chaney's The Big City and While the City Sleeps, surviving footage of Chaney's The Miracle Man, and Chaney's one-reel Western By the Sun's Rays.

You can get a set of landmark classic horror films this week, just in time for Halloween. First up is the director James Whale's 1931 Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff as the monster (a role originally slated for Bela Lugosi, who supposedly left the project because the monster in the early versions of the script was little more than a killing machine and not the misunderstood creature Karloff eventually portrayed). The monster's look was created by Universal Studios makeup wiz Jack Pierce. Or James Whale. Or some combination thereof. Artistic credit was a fluid thing in the early days of Hollywood.

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The current version of Frankenstein has had several of its more controversial moments restored, including the doctor's line: "Now I know what it feels like to be God!"; footage of Frankenstein's assistant torturing the monster, who's in chains; a close-up of a needle injection; and footage from the scene of the monster accidentally killing a little girl he befriended.

The introduction of the king of all vampires, Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, is another of today's anticipated horror releases with Bela Lugosi in the title role. The Blu-ray version of Dracula has a few interesting extras, including the complete Spanish version starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar, which was shot simultaneously on the same sets by Paul Kohner; the David J. Skal documentary The Road to Dracula; an optional score by Philip Glass; and poster and photo montage.

Two more horror classics hitting the shelves as Blu-ray releases today are The Wolf Man and The Mummy. Director George Waggner's 1941 The Wolf Man stars Lon Chaney Jr. as a man unfortunate enough to be attacked by a werewolf. Once bitten, he too begins to transform into the hairy wolf-like creature.

In Karl Freund's 1932 film The Mummy, Boris Karloff appears as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest who has his mummified remains accidentally reanimated by a group of archaeologists. Makeup artist Jack Pierce spent eight hours a day transforming Karloff into the bandaged, ancient mummy.

The last two releases we'll include here are Arthur Lubin's 1943 The Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains and director James Whale's 1933 The Invisible Man, also starring Rains. While Rains has only limited screen time in each, he is nonetheless the unquestionable star of both and manages to infuse each character with monstrous and human qualities.


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