The Universal Monsters Movies are the perfect microcosm for exploring the roots of cinema, and for tracing its evolution. Carl Laemmle co-founded Universal in 1908, and twenty years later his son, Carl, Jr., modernized the studio. Though the first of the Universal Monsters pictures originated in the silent film era (1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame), it was Carl, Jr. who made horror pictures an area of focus for the studio. “Junior” went all-out to support the production of the films, sometimes sinking more money into them than they would earn back at the box office. Universal shareholders showed him the way out in 1936, but viewers today can see and appreciate the results of the money he was willing to put on the screen.
In a natural stage of the progression of storytelling, several of the early Universal Monsters movies were based on theater plays. Why not? Playwrights had already done the heavy lifting of adapting works of literature for performance; bringing in cameras seemed the obvious next step. One of the key elements of both stage and film has always been makeup, and a tour through the Universal Monsters movies is a history lesson in the development of that craft. Jack Pierce and, later, Bud Westmore (progenitor of the famed Westmore family of makeup artists) established the foundations for movie and TV makeup. Most prolific in the minds of many, of course, is the work of Lon Chaney. “The Man of a Thousand Faces” was a pioneer, both showing what could be done and inspiring generations to explore beyond that. Nearly a century later, his work for Universal is essential viewing for aspiring makeup artists of any medium.
Though sequels had already been done by other studios, Universal became the first studio to combine and crossover characters with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Universal’s mashups featuring Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man were the Marvel Cinematic Universe of their day.
An almost entirely forgotten phase of film-making was a brief era in which studios would produce two versions of a film, shot concurrently, for release in different worldwide markets. A print was found in the 1970s of the Spanish language version of Drácula. Comparing and contrasting it with the more iconic English language version is a rare treat for students of film.
1946’s She-Wolf of London was a low point in the franchise, and seemingly represented the death of the Universal Monsters. Then came Universal’s other key franchise of the day: Abbott and Costello. The comedy duo made four horror crossover films from 1948-1955, and these films kept horror characters like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the public consciousness until Universal began its experimentation with 3D films with 1953’s It Came from Outer Space and 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. The evolution from straightforward Gothic horror to self-parody, to science-fiction novelty, is yet another narrative of the development of cinema at large.
If the Universal Monsters are a microcosm of the evolution of cinema, then Frankenstein and its sequel are a microcosm within the microcosm. A scant four years passed between the two films, but those were seminal years in film-making. Director James Whale understood the differences between film and stage theater, which is why Frankenstein is so much more dynamic than Tod Browning’s production of Dracula, released the same year. It’s also how it came to be that Whale gave us cinema’s first truly great sequel with Bride of Frankenstein four years later.
For more on these two pictures, see Movies to See Before You Die: Frankenstein & Bride of Frankenstein.
Despite the relative woodenness of the film, attributed to director Tod Browning being versed in theater but not film, Dracula remains the gold standard vampire movie (though, admittedly, Nosferatu is stronger). The lion’s share of the credit for why Dracula remains entertaining goes to its cast. There have been countless screen incarnations of Count Dracula, but it’s Bela Lugosi’s work in this film that continues to define the character. When kids dress as Dracula for Halloween, it’s invariably Lugosi that they pattern themselves after – even if they don’t realize it. (I’ve always had a fondness for Dwight Frye’s manic performance as the crazed Renfield, too.)
Here is an instance where a story can work perfectly in one medium, but be difficult to translate into another. H.G. Wells didn’t have to convince readers of his 1897 novel that Griffin really had become invisible, but James Whale had to make Claude Rains “disappear” on screen in front of audiences in 1933. We can scrutinize some of the more obvious wire work effects, but the reason the movie still works is that Whale and Rains made sure to create a sympathetic character out of Griffin. He’s brusque and abrasive, but we come to understand his impatience and his fixations. Extra credit goes to Rains for giving such an engaging performance despite the obvious handicap of not being able to show us any facial expressions for most of the film.
5. The Wolf Man
The Wolf Man was not the first picture made at Universal after the ousting of Carl Laemmle, Jr., or even the first post-Junior Universal Monsters flick, but after several meandering sequels in the Dracula and Invisible Man franchises, The Wolf Man resurrected the studio’s horror department. As with The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man appeals to us in large part because we sympathize with the protagonist. This film also established Lon Chaney, Jr. as an actor and makeup artist every bit as talented as his father.
The production and release history of The Phantom of the Opera is messy. Contemporary film reviewers were unimpressed by the story. Still, it was a box office hit and while those earlier reviewers were right about the story not being especially sharp, they were also right that it’s an amazing spectacle. The sets and scale of the production are jaw-dropping. Looming over the entire film was/is Lon Chaney as the titular antagonist. The Phantom of the Opera may be most closely associated today with Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical, but Chaney’s screen performance holds its own – and us.
Through the course of their crossover sequels, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man all lost their edge, devolving into some kind of goofy clique instead of their originally imposing selves. On paper, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein shouldn’t work. Lou Costello didn’t even want to make the movie, scoffing at its stupidity. It takes the “goofy clique” to its silliest extreme, and fans are divided about whether it ought to be considered part of the official Universal Monsters canon. Those quibbles aside, Meet Frankenstein is tremendously popular; in addition to being #7 on the Universal Monsters chart, it’s the highest ranked of all the Abbott and Costello films!
8. The Mummy
Carl Laemmle, Jr. saw the potential for a film based on a living mummy, and set into motion the writing and production of The Mummy. Made right after Frankenstein, Karloff was billed by his (stage) surname. There’s no mistaking it; The Mummy is “Junior”’s and Karloff’s movie. The production reflects the former’s enthusiasm and willingness to throw money into movies, and the film is built around showcasing the latter. It drags in some places, and its portrayal of women is regrettably awful, but like The Phantom of the Opera, it’s visually arresting to watch.
The second of Universal’s 3D movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon is the only film from the final wave of the franchise to spawn its own sequels (1955’s Revenge of the Creature and 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us). Its premise, of a Gill-Man living in a lagoon being discovered by scientists, harkens back to The Mummy but its forward-looking gender politics are refreshing. Creature from the Black Lagoon is the strongest from its vintage of Universal Monsters movies, aware that we want to have fun…but that making us squirm is part of the fun.
Drácula was produced to be released to Spanish-speaking countries. Shot concurrently as the iconic film starring Lugosi, its cast and crew made a concentrated effort to one-up at night everything that their English-language counterparts had done during the daytime. Carlos Villarías is serviceable as Count Dracula, but like all the others who have played the role, he pales next to Lugosi – and this is the fairest head-to-head comparison one can make of actors playing the same role. Otherwise, though, the cast and crew of Drácula succeeded in crafting a superior film. Drácula is more dynamic, more sensuous, and more thrilling.
A bonus recommendation:
My highest-ranked Universal Monsters movie not in the global Top 10 is The Old Dark House. It’s a suspenseful take on the classic stranded-with-scary-people premise: A nasty storm forces a group of travelers to seek sanctuary in the nearest house. There, they’re caught up in what can best be characterized as savage insanity. Though Karloff stars as the film’s most dangerous brute, The Old Dark House is more about psychological terror than the threat of violence. It’s the only film here that’s truly disturbing and is well worth a viewing.
From stage theater to 3D movies, from silent films to talkies, from Gothic horror to self-parodying comedies, and even the forgotten niche of foreign language versions of Hollywood releases, no other film franchise straddles so many different sub-topics of the medium.