A guide to the Universal Studios monster movies, 1923-1955

A guide to the Universal Studios monster movies, 1923-1955


Universal Monsters 101
In the 1920s, Universal Studios enjoyed some of its greatest successes with movies featuring monsters, murder, and the macabre; but it was nothing like what happened in the ’30s, when Universal produced a string of horror pictures that were international hits and helped codify how some perennially popular monsters should look, sound, and behave. Take Tod Browning’s 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel Dracula: There had been film and stage adaptations of Dracula before (including F.W. Murnau’s unauthorized 1922 classic Nosferatu). But just as Stoker’s book synthesized several existing stories and pieces of historical folklore, the Carl Laemmle Jr.-produced movie Dracula took from the best of the 1927 Broadway play and the earlier films, with cameraman Karl Freund (who according to some reports directed much of the movie when Browning grew bored) using expressionistic effects to highlight the monster’s powers. As the vampire Count Dracula, Bela Lugosi—brought over from the Broadway show—cuts an iconic figure, with his hypnotic stare and long cape. And though the production is at times a halting mix of stage play and silent movie, in some ways that adds to Dracula’s eerie effect. Plus, there’s just so much about Dracula that’s memorable: the oddly ominous strains of Swan Lake over the opening credits; the shots of real creepy-crawly creatures; the mid-film explanation of what vampires are and how to kill them; the scantily clad women under Dracula’s spell; and Lugosi’s immortal line, “I never drink… wine.” Just about every Dracula movie that followed—and there have been scores—have been in reaction to the Laemmle/Browning/Freund/Lugosi version, up to and including the Universal-produced 1979 remake, with Frank Langella reprising his own Broadway triumph as the rapaciously evil Count.

The success of Dracula ensured that Universal would stay in the monster business, and in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it found a logical follow-up project, released a mere nine months after Dracula. Originally slated to star Lugosi and to portray its monster as a remorseless killing machine—a notion that now survives only in an early poster seemingly inspired by King Kong—it became a markedly different film once James Whale came on board as director and cast a towering English actor with a gentle streak as its monster. Boris Karloff brings a childlike befuddlement to the role that makes his Frankenstein’s Monster more confused and misunderstood than, well, monstrous. In Whale’s hands, Shelley’s story becomes less about scientific hubris and the philosophical overreaching of the Romantic era than the tragedy of a misfit doomed never to understand the world that made him. Whale brought a creepy atmosphere to the movie, and the makeup by Jack Pierce—which introduced the flat-top, bolt-necked look that’s become shorthand for Frankenstein ever since—completed the picture. Controversial and often censored upon release, it remains an affecting film, and one of the best of its genre, topped only by its first sequel.

The rare sequel that surpasses the original, The Bride Of Frankenstein found a returning, confident Whale pushing his visual sensibility further while introducing a strain of humor largely absent from the first film. But it’s the way he emphasizes the pathos and humanity of the Monster (Karloff again) that makes the film so memorable. Having somehow survived the events of the first film, the Monster wanders, lonely and misunderstood, until hooking up with his creator’s old mentor, who enlists him in a scheme to force Frankenstein (Colin Clive, also returning from the first film) to create a mate for his creation. The scene in which the eponymous Bride (Elsa Lanchester) meets her would-be husband is one of the most famous in the monster-movie cycle, but also its saddest, a moment recognizable to anyone who’s ever experienced heartbreak.

Universal’s horror slate stalled out in the mid-’30s, but returned in force in the ’40s. In 1941, the studio introduced another of its most enduring characters: The Wolf Man. Lon Chaney had been one of Universal’s biggest horror stars in the ’20s, and The Wolf Man made the career of Chaney’s son Creighton, who started using the name “Lon Chaney Jr.” in the mid-’30s (and then just “Lon Chaney” around the time The Wolf Man came out). Because it’s based on folktales and legends rather than any established literary source, The Wolf Man is a little fleeter and more direct than the Universal classics that preceded it, with writer Curt Siodmak and producer-director George Waggner getting right to the point. Chaney’s character Larry Talbot learns in the opening minutes all about the curse of the werewolf, shortly before he’s infected with the curse himself. Siodmak and Waggner don’t skimp on the subtext, either. Talbot—heir to his stuffy, estranged father’s fortune—is bitten by a werewolf while on a date with a shopgirl who’s engaged to someone else, and Siodmak and Waggner aren’t shy about linking lycanthropy to the hero’s overall oafishness and lust. Chaney isn’t the most expressive actor in Hollywood history, but he makes a good lummox, and when he transforms into a beast, he’s believably threatening and more than a little tragic.

Universal adjusted to changing trends in horror again in the ’50s, introducing elements of science fiction and docu-realism. The 1954 monster movie Creature From The Black Lagoon frames its story as though it were torn from a textbook, beginning with authoritative narration about evolution before showing archaeologists unearthing the fossilized appendage of a half-man/half-fish. Soon, an Amazonian expedition is launched, as a team of scientists follows the evidence and the local rumors, until they encounter this deadly, super-strong “Gill-man.” 

But what made Creature such a sensation—enough to spawn sequels in ’55 and ’56—was its “beauty and the beast” plot. Universal’s most popular monsters always had sympathetic and/or charismatic elements, and the Gill-man has both, as he becomes enchanted with one scientist’s gorgeous girlfriend (played by Julia Adams) and tries to express his love while dodging scuba divers with spearguns. Creature From The Black Lagoon is corny, and part of the glut of cheap-looking ’50s rubber-monster movies, but director Jack Arnold creates a believable space for these wooden humans and this rubbery beast to co-exist, especially in the underwater scenes, where the Gill-man secretly swims below Adams, matching her stroke for stroke in shots that look beautiful and nightmarish. 

Intermediate work
Though it was more dark, romantic fantasia than horror film, The Mummy followed fast on the heels of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1932. While later Universal Mummy movies, starting with The Mummy’s Hand in 1940, featured a shambling, bandage-wrapped monster as their monster, The Mummy owed more to Dracula and featured Boris Karloff as a soft-voiced, accidentally resurrected pharaoh who becomes obsessed with a modern woman who resembles his deceased beloved. Director Karl Freund invests the film with a dreamy quality that’s unlike anything else in the Universal Monsters cycle, and Karloff keeps with the tradition of the best films of the cycle by turning his character into an unmistakably human sort of monster, a creature driven by loneliness and haunted by a cruel past. The Mummy’s Hand kicked off a successful second wave of Mummy films that were fun in their own right, but lacked the original’s haunting undertones.

The success of Universal’s 1923 version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame convinced studio head Carl Laemmle to cast Hunchback star Lon Chaney in an adaptation of another Gothic French novel, The Phantom Of The Opera. Though Hunchback is often cited as Universal’s first “monster movie,” the 1925 Phantom has more in common with the studio’s ’30s and ’40s classics, right down to a villain who has understandable desires, no matter how violently he expresses them. Chaney plays a masked, mysterious music lover who threatens violence against those who would keep the woman he adores from becoming a star. The biggest difference between the silent Phantom Of The Opera and the Universal monster movies that followed is that Chaney’s self-applied Phantom makeup is exceedingly grotesque, and even now is likely to terrify (or at least repulse) modern audiences. Universal returned to Gaston Leroux’s book in 1943, delivering another adaptation, while also making one of the first color monster movies. Although Claude Rains brings some class to the title role, the ’43 film comes off as a dry backstage drama, not a fright flick. (And compared to Chaney’s molten face, Rains’ looks more like a bad sunburn.)

Like The Mummy, James Whale’s 1933 version of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man is a movie that many may feel they’ve seen, just because the sight of a bandaged Claude Rains skulking around an English village is so familiar. But Rains is a different kind of monster here: erudite, witty, and kind of bitchy. Even with his face completely obscured, Rains is a delight as a chemist who makes himself invisible and then takes advantage of his condition to wreak havoc, just to be a jerk. Whale clearly enjoys interjecting Rains’ unapologetic amorality into polite British society. The result is a horror movie that’s more of a comedy of manners than many viewers may expect (or remember), even though its special effects are state-of-the-art and its story is littered with corpses. Perhaps because of its particular sensibility, it took a while for Universal to start producing Invisible Man sequels, but the series finally built up some momentum in the ’40s, starting with the dual 1940 releases The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman. In keeping with the tone of the original, the sequels are lighter than most Universal horror features.

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Because Universal monster movies spawned so many sequels and because even fans regard some of those sequels as interchangeable, 1939’s Son Of Frankenstein tends to get overlooked when compared to its two more famous predecessors. That’s a shame, as the third Frankenstein film, directed by Rowland V. Lee, is a visually ambitious story about how the sins of one generation get passed on to the next. Basil Rathbone plays the titular son of Dr. Frankenstein, Karloff returns—for the last time—as the Monster, and Bela Lugosi delivers a twisted performance as Ygor. (Even first-time viewers might feel like they’ve seen it before, since Mel Brooks borrowed heavily from it for Young Frankenstein.) A tremendous success, it revived the moribund horror genre, setting the stage for the many monster films of the ’40s.

By the end of that decade, Universal had just about exhausted all the sequel possibilities for its major monsters, but the studio found a new formula when it put its dimming comedy stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello alongside its dimming horror stars, finding enough brightness among the lot to attract some paying customers. The 1948 horror-comedy Bud Abbott And Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein is actually misnamed, not just because the comedians actually meet Frankenstein’s monster (to be pedantic about it), but because they also meet Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man. Universal was able to recruit two of its original monster actors to return: Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi. (Boris Karloff reportedly turned down the chance to play Frankenstein’s monster again because he resented the movie for making fun of his most famous character. 1940s Frankenstein franchise star Glenn Strange donned the neck-bolts instead.) The movie isn’t Abbott and Costello’s funniest comedy, but it’s amusing enough, and it’s a treat to see all these actors—and monsters—in the same place. More importantly, the Abbott and Costello spooktaculars kept the spirit of Universal horror alive until the more science-fiction-oriented monster movies of the mid-’50s arrived.

Where the Jack Arnold-directed Creature From The Black Lagoon found a middle ground between the science fiction embraced by the ’50s and the monster movies of decades past, Arnold’s 1953 film It Came From Outer Space, adapted from an idea by Ray Bradbury and originally shown in 3-D, barely counts as a monster movie at all, in spite of featuring some tentacled aliens. Instead, it’s a film about ’50s paranoia with aliens standing in for the anxieties of the age, particularly those of the Cold War variety. But its sympathetic, misunderstood monsters and the film’s depiction of the ways encountering those monsters brings out the worst in ordinary human beings aligns it with the Universal tradition—to say nothing of the scares.

Advanced studies
The earliest Universal monster movies arrived before the enforcement of the Hays code and, boy, do some of them show that. Loosely adapting the Edgar Allan Poe story, 1932’s Murders In The Rue Morgue features prostitute murder, a bound virgin, and suggestions of bestiality—and that’s in the version from which Universal trimmed 20 minutes. Director Robert Florey landed this film after losing Frankenstein and, working with cinematographer Karl Freund, he fills it with disturbing ideas inspired by German Expressionism. It remains a disturbing movie, aided in no small part by Lugosi’s creepy performance as a mad scientist. 

Cult-favorite director Edgar G. Ulmer delivered The Black Cat, another loose Poe adaptation, two years later, just before the Hays crackdown began in earnest. Otherwise, the film might never have featured such a lurid mix of torture, satanic ritual, and other unsavory elements. Ulmer creates an atmosphere of dread that never lets up, and the teaming of Karloff and Lugosi as antagonists (in the first of the eight films in which they co-star) brings out the most macabre impulses in both actors. 

Karloff’s mute, drunken butler character in director James Whale’s 1932 horror-comedy The Old Dark House may not be as famous—or monstrous—as the creep he played in Frankenstein a year earlier, but the movie is one of the best of Universal’s ’30s horror wave, and in its own weird way, Karloff’s performance is one of his scariest. Based on a J.B. Priestley novel, The Old Dark House stars Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, and Charles Laughton as road-trippers who get waylaid by a storm and end up taking refuge in a dark, drafty mansion, occupied by a snappish family and their hulking manservant, Morgan. The movie goes from zero to batty in under five minutes, as the rain drives the quippy heroes into the care of opinionated hosts who shout at each other and accuse the young people of “reveling in the joys of fleshly love.” An already tense evening takes a turn toward the chaotic once Karloff’s Morgan hits the bottle and starts unleashing his employers’ secrets. And throughout, Whale pushes everything further than necessary—from the sound effects to the expressionistic lighting and camera angles—turning the clichéd haunted-house movie into something more hysterical. The Old Dark House never caught on in the U.S. the way some of Universal’s contemporaneous horror films did, but its reputation grew over the years, especially because it went missing for a good long time. A print was found in 1968, setting the stage for rediscovery.

Predating The Wolf Man by six years, Werewolf Of London has the distinction of being Universal’s (and Hollywood’s) first significant werewolf film. It’s not as strong as that later effort, but it’s effective in its own right, and Jack Pierce’s makeup effects offer a more feral take on the werewolf. Besides, without it we might never have gotten one of Warren Zevon’s best songs. (Avoid the dull She-Wolf Of London, however.)

From there, it can be confusing to navigate the many sequels, spin-offs, and team-ups Universal produced. Few, it should be noted, are outright terrible, and some quite inspired. Most resemble 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, which never quite lives up to its title and gets bogged down in a lot of business that doesn’t involve Frankenstein’s monster meeting the Wolf Man. Still, it’s competently done and entertaining enough (and is notable for featuring Bela Lugosi’s sole performance as the Monster). A few sequels stand out, however. Dracula’s Daughter, a direct sequel to Dracula that was released in 1936, shifts the focus to the title character and fills the film with impossible-to-ignore lesbian undercurrents. It ended Universal’s first wave of horror films, but not before making another connection between vulnerable monsters and real-world outsiders.

Miscellany: Monster culture
In 1957, the television company Screen Gems acquired the license to package hundreds of Universal films for late-night and afternoon broadcasts, and Screen Gems’ “Shock Theater” helped revive interest in Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man and the like, not just as movies but also as prized artifacts of American popular culture, with fascinating histories all their own (and images ripe for exploitation). In short order, a cult of monster fandom was born, led by Forrest J Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters Of Filmland, which started publishing in 1958 and helped pass along the stories of how Karloff, Lugosi, the Chaneys, the Laemmles, and the rest of these talented filmmakers got their movies made. Throughout the ’60s and into the ’70s, the Universal monsters thrived as toys, Halloween costumes, Aurora model kits, “The Universal Horror Library” paperback novelizations, makeup how-to manuals, T-shirt iron-ons, posters, trading cards, and more.

The monsters appeared in a novelty song (“The Monster Mash”), a TV sitcom (The Munsters), and a Rankin/Bass claymation feature (Mad Monster Party). The characters also made their way to Marvel Comics, which published The Monster Of Frankenstein, The Tomb Of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, and the anthology book Supernatural Thrillers (which included an adaptation of The Invisible Man and the introduction of a new character, “The Living Mummy”); and into Saturday-morning cartoons, via the Filmation series Groovie Goolies and the Hanna-Barbera series Drak Pack. And if all of that isn’t enough to establish how the Universal monsters had become all-ages favorites, there’s always General Mills’ Count Chocula, Franken Berry, Fruit Brute, and Fruity Yummy Mummy, which allowed children everywhere to eat the beasts that had spent decades trying to eat them.

The Essentials
1. Bride Of Frankenstein
What could’ve been a cheesy cash-in sequel actually tops the original, as director James Whale and his creative team simultaneously embrace the camp appeal of a monster’s mate and seriously consider the tragic dimension of hulking humanoids who just want to be loved.

2. The Invisible Man
James Whale and Claude Rains bring humor to this H.G. Wells adaptation without sacrificing the most chilling aspect of Wells’ novel: The notion that once freed from the eyes of others, humans will feel unbound from the morals that keeps us civilized.

3. Dracula
So many years, parodies, remakes, and rip-offs later, Lugosi’s turn as the vampire to end all vampires has lost none of its ability to chill.

4. The Mummy
One of the classiest of the ’30s Universal horror films—or at least the most educational—The Mummy is also one of the best examples of the filmmakers giving their monsters relatable goals, desires, and personalities, however horrific their methods. The Mummy also features a terrific Boris Karloff performance, rivaling Claude Rains’ Invisible Man for best-acted monster.

5. Creature From The Black Lagoon
Universal’s last great monster was also one of its most sympathetic, a victim of circumstance who just wants love, even though biology has other plans.