B&W, 1952, 81 mins. 34 secs.
Directed by Nathan Juran
Starring Boris Karloff, Richard Greene, Stephen McNally, Rita Corday, Lon Chaney Jr., John Hoyt
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

B&W, 1955, 79 mins. 59 secs.
Directed by Francis D. Lyon
Starring Faith Domergue, Richard Long,
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD), Universal (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1958, 69 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Will Cowan
Starring William Reynolds, Andra Martin, Carolyn Kearney, Peggy Converse, Charles Horvath
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

B&W, 1961, 78 mins. 42 sec.
Directed by John Gilling
Starring André Morell, Barbara Shelley, William Lucas, Freda Jackson, Conrad Phillips, Catherine Lacey
Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Final Cut (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)

For The Black Castlethe sixth and apparently final excursion The Black Castlein its line of very welcome box sets of Universal horror classics, Scream Factory takes a hard left turn away from the prior batch of jungle-themed monster movies. This time there's no unifying theme per se apart from the fact that all of these came out between 1952-1961 and have flown somewhat under the radar on home video to varying degrees. One title in particular is going to be a big draw for a lot of horror fans and seemed unlikely to ever get the Blu-ray treatment according to prior reports, but more on that in a moment...

First up is The Black Castle, one of those Gothic historical adventure films with enough spooky elements to very marginally qualify as horror (a la Tower of London and The Black Room). Luckily it has Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. providing plenty of genre credentials and, perhaps most importantly, marked the feature directing debut for Austrian-born Nathan Juran, who went on to a wild career with The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Deadly Mantis, Hellcats of the Navy, Jack the Giant Killer, The Boy Who Cried Werewolf, and First Men in the Moon. Here we have another variation on the idea of a wicked nobleman, in this case Count Carl von Bruno (McNally), whose Austrian castle is home to an odd variety of characters including benevolent Dr. Meissen (Karloff) and the unfortunate Gargon (Chaney Jr.). Due to an overseas atrocity involving a native attack, the Count is picking off various members of the British militia -- with two of his possible victims drawing the attention of Sir Ronald Burton (Greene). In this den of wickedness (which even extends to hunting down human) he The Black Castlefinds a potential ally in the Count's victimized wife, Elga (Corday), but bringing the villain to justice could cost him his life.

Though it doesn't really boast an original bone in its body, The Black Castle The Black Castleis a diverting slice of dark melodrama with plenty of visual style and some nice suspense and thrills paying off in the final stretch. Fans of Karloff and particularly Chaney will only get some modest time with the actors here as neither one could be called a lead by any stretch, but the real stars acquit themselves well and even engage in some rough and tumble sword fights doing many of their own stunts. Solidifying its credentials in the Universal horror canon, the film also makes prominent use of some very familiar music themes from prior monster favorites, which is really charming if your ears are attuned to spotting familiar tracks like this.

Readily available since its VHS bow in 1995 from Universal, The Black Castle hit DVD a couple of times, in 2006 as part of a five-film Boris Karloff Collection (along with Tower of London, The Climax, The Strange Door, and Night Key) and then again in 2014 as a standalone DVD-R from the Universal Vault Series. Like the other films in this set, this one is listed as a "new 2K scan from a fine grain element" and looks quite solid with a nicely detailed look on par with the stronger past entries that received new scans in the series. The DTS-HD MA mono track is also in fine shape and features optional English subtitles, as do the other films. Tom Weaver provides another sturdy audio commentary here covering the vast amount of recycling here (both music cues and production design), the coattails of The Strange Door it was riding, the ins and outs of sword fighting without a stunt double, and highlights from three interviews he conducted connected to the film. On the video side, "Universal Horror Strikes Back!" (13m49s) is a discussion with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones (with reverb-heavy sound) about the "all bets are off" state of the studio's horror output after its golden age including a move to contemporary settings, curious detours like the jungle films and Inner Sanctum series, and genre mash ups working in elements like crime films. An image gallery (2m27s) is also included.

Three years later, the '50s were really in full swing and the entire feel of Universal's genre output had shifted significantly with the "people standing Cult of the Cobraaround talking in sparse rooms" approach that would typify some of its sci-fi films as well. That's not a negative though as that approach could also provide lots of pulpy Cult of the Cobrafun with some genuinely oddball plot concepts. For proof, look no further than the next two chronological films in the set starting with Cult of the Cobra, a fascinating little study in domestic anxieties about men who had come home from war and were hitting speed bumps assimilating into society, not to mention a bit of xenophobia when they ended up marrying women from abroad. Of course, you can overlook that subtext if you prefer and just enjoy a fast-paced body count chiller with an unusual approach to its monster material. Paired up on its initial release with Revenge of the Creature, it was also the lone genre entry from prolific TV director Francis D. Lyon for the studio and provides an opportunity to see a young David Janssen (as an ill-fated bowling alley owner) long before he hit it big with The Fugitive.

For a hundred bucks, six exceptionally unintelligent American G.I.s in Asia are eager to attend a secret ceremony of the Lamians, a local cobra cult, where they're promised a look at "she who is a snake and yet a woman." Disguised in robes and expressly ordered to take no photos, they're taken to what amounts to a nocturnal floor show that's somewhere between the earlier Uni film Cobra Woman and the later dance number in Vampire Circus. Of course, one of them is dumb enough to snap a photo with a big flash bulb, setting off a brawl during which one of them swipes a basket with a cobra that had turned into a slinky dancing woman. The cult leader orders that they will all die one by one, and sure enough, during pursuit one of them gets a snakebite after an alley run-in with a mysterious woman and gets finished off later that night in the hospital. Back home, the men find their lives infiltrated by a beautiful but sinister woman, Lisa (Domergue), who plays a key role in their deaths, scares off any horse in her path, and upends their lives including their impending marriages.

Many critics have compared this one to Cat People over the years due to its concept of a woman transforming into an animal, though their approaches are light years apart with this feeling closer to the avenging female kill list idea of the 1940 novel, The Bride Wore Black. It's also novel to see a Universal horror film focused almost entirely on victimizing the male Cult of the Cobramembers of its cast, though of course it does shift gears a Cult of the Cobralittle at the end to imperil its lone "good girl" played by Kathleen Hughes. The fact that the men are all deeply unsympathetic (even ostensible leading man Richard Long, a familiar face from everything ranging from The Twilight Zone to House on Haunted Hill) makes things even more interesting as a kind of commentary about entitled behavior and its extreme consequences. Not to be overlooked is the film's use of nifty distorted POV shots during the stalking sequences, a tactic employed in Universal's earlier It Came from Outer Space and just as effective here.

A mainstay on TV and occasional revival screenings, Cult of the Cobra also hit VHS in the mid-'90s and ended up in a Universal DVD collection later in 2007, in this case The Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection Volume 2 (packaged with Dr. Cyclops, The Land Unknown, The Deadly Mantis, and The Leech Woman), plus the usual DVD-R solo reissue. It looks great here (apart from what appears to be some dodgy film stock in a few shots) and makes for fine, atmospheric viewing all the way. You get another new Weaver commentary track here, and it's packed with fun info about the film including notes about its cast (including more Twilight Zone connections) as well as a great early observation about some casting and editorial chicanery involving the cult's high priest. You also get some commentary cameos scattered through from Steve Kronenberg, David Schecter, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss. Also included are the theatrical trailer and a 1m24s reel of TV spots for its Creature double bill, plus a still gallery (2m40s) featuring some great staged shots of the cast being menaced by various fake snakes.

Cult of the CobraFor film three we turn to that singularly odd genre hybrid, the horror western, which became sort of a thing with titles like 1956's The Cult of the CobraBeast of Hollow Mountain, 1959's Curse of the Undead, and 1966's Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. Shot on an insanely low budget, The Thing That Couldn't Die featured a very catchy theatrical poster and managed to fill out multi-fllm programs well enough to leave a strong impression on monster kids who kept it close to their hearts even when it became very difficult to see for many years.

When her supernatural gifts with a divining rod point the way to a water source to dig for a well on the dude ranch run by her aunt (Converse), young Jessica (Kearney) is alarmed when they unearth a strange box long buried in the earth. Potential paramour Gordon (Reynolds) does some investigating as the box exerts a malefic influence on people in the vicinity including the hulking handyman (Horvath), with Jessica seemingly protected only by the cross around her neck. As it turns out, the discovery actually houses the centuries-old severed head of Gideon Drew, an executed sorcerer eager to reunite with his interred body.

Though the western element here is limited mainly to the setting, that's enough to make this one strange enough to stand out from the pack. It also features a suitably bizarre monster, with the sparing appearances of Gideon's head providing some nice little jolts. As usual the cast is mostly bland (with Reynolds in particular making virtually no impression as our hero), though the raven-haired Andra Martin is effective as neighbor Linda who falls under the evil head's spell. Once again the soundtrack is a pastiche of preexisting Universal genre tracks, and though the impoverished budget is never really concealed, the film moves along at a speedy clip at 69 minutes and wraps up with a sudden, nCult of the Cobrao-nonsense Cult of the Cobraclimax that slams the door right after its biggest shock.

Unlike the prior two films here, this one never got the Universal DVD collection treatment but did end up as a DVD-R in 2013. (It also got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in 1997, though that hasn't been officially released on home video.) The Blu-ray is a welcome upgrade and makes the most of the film's atmospheric lighting, which does its best to wring value out of the limited sets, and once again we have a Weaver commentary that spends time on everything from the history of water witching (including the key early 20th-century incident that led to this script) and the tattered state of the studio's finances at the time that would be reversed soon after by hits like Imitation of Life. You also get some voice recreations of key interviews with personnel, detailed comments on the ramshackle music assembly, and a bonus appearance by western expert C. Courtney Joyner. On the other hand Weaver notes the similarities to the later Paul Naschy film Horror Rises from the Tomb and disses that Spanish horror favorite in the process, which... nope! A theatrical trailer is also included.

Now on to the fourth and final film in the set, as well as the title that will likely spur the largest number of purchases: 1961's The Shadow of the Cat, most famous as the Hammer Cult of the Cobrahorror film that was never actually credited as such. Shot at Bray Studios with a cast of familiar faces including Hammer vets André Morell Cult of the Cobra(The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Barbara Shelley (Dracula, Prince of Darkness), it's a highly entertaining body count film as well as a key installment in the strain of genre films that try to paint cats as frightening even though they're actually being heroic. (See also, Eye of the Cat and The Uncanny.) This one's been on people's wish lists for a long time, steadfastly refusing to turn up on home video in any form until a mediocre 2014 British DVD from Final Cut Entertainment (cropped on the sides to 1.33:1) with word circulating that existing elements would make a Blu-ray release highly unlikely. (At least that release featured a nice stills gallery, a trailer, a worthwhile "Shadow Play: Inside The Shadow of the Cat" 25m37s featurette with Alan Barnes, Marcus Hearn, Denis Merle, Jason Morell, and Jonathan Rigby, and a "Catastrophy" 3m49s audio interview with special effects assistant Ian Scoones.) That means the Scream Factory release is a pretty big deal, finally showing the film off in pristine condition in its intended 1.66:1 aspect ratio and allowing us to really appreciate its beautiful Gothic visuals for the first time in decades.

On a dark and spooky night at the turn of the 20th century, wealthy Ella (The Sorcerers' Lacey) falls victim to a murder plot engineered by her husband, Walter (Morrell), and executed by her butler, Andrew (Crawford), and maid, Clara (The Brides of Dracula's Jackson). The foul deed is witnessed by Ella's loyal cat, Tabitha, who becomes a persistent foil to the villains' plans to cash in on an illegitimate will. Several new arrivals including Ella's noble niece, Beth (Shelley) as well as the press, police, and more unethical relatives complicate things further as Tabitha's Cult of the Cobrapersistent presence drives the criminals to increasingly desperate and ultimately fatal Cult of the Cobrabehavior.

A wonderful little thriller, The Shadow of the Cat is a great viewing choice for a dark and stormy night thanks to the sure direction of John Gilling, who would go on to helm Hammer's The Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, The Pirates of Blood River, and The Mummy's Shroud. Among the inventive visual flourishes is a distorted "cat's eye" trick (via an anamorphic lens) used to depict Tabitha's POV throughout the film, and it's a joy to see the cast of pros tackling the fun murder plot with Morrell in particular getting some fun moments skulking around the dark set saying "Here, kitty kitty."

As mentioned above, this presentation of The Shadow of the Cat is quite the eye opener and easily marks the best way to view this film in any format around right now. A big plus here is a very thorough, informative commentary by Bruce G. Hallenbeck, who address the whole Hammer controversy once and for all (spoiler: it's definitely a Hammer film), the impact of other films around the same time (particularly Curse of the Werewolf), the censor cuts demanded to the opening murder, and Shelley's thoughts on the original script, which was more ambiguous and potentially supernatural in nature. Speaking of the actress, "In the Shadow of Shelley" (24m29s) features the beloved Hammer star chatting warmly about her career all the way through covering a number of films and thoughts on her fellow actors, particularly Christopher Lee, and the disc rounds out with a TV spot and a thorough 3m41s image gallery including lots of great posed cast shots.

Reviewed on August 16, 2020.