The History of the Universal Monsters

A not-so-brief history of the Universal Monsters movies

Universal Studios’ “Universal Monsters” are the true classic icons of horror. Everyone knows these portrayals of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the like. The movies set the bar for horror during their golden years and continue to impact the way horror movies are viewed and thought of today (if you don’t believe, just look at all the merchandise they get during Halloween season).

I’ve loved these movies for as long as I can remember. There’s a charm to these movies that cannot be matched. The atmosphere, the production and the characters are classic in every sense of the word.

Join me as I take a look at this great collection of movies…

1920s

The Universal Studios’ “Monsters” group of films got its unofficial start during the silent movie era with 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which starred “The Man of 1,000 Faces” Lon Chaney, Sr. Of course, Chaney’s son, Lon Jr. is well-known for having played the Wolf Man throughout the 1940s and also taking turns as Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula.

Bolstered by the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera (again, with Chaney in the starring role), Universal released a handful of other horror & thriller films in the 1920s that would eventually fall under the Universal Monsters branding when it came to the opinions of fans and Universal Pictures. One of these movies is The Man Who Laughs (1928), which is listed as a great source of inspiration in the creation of the DC Comics villain The Joker.

1930s

The 1930s brought us the golden age of the macabre creatures that roamed the Universal lot when Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) broke ground and shocked & awed audiences and made quite a profit in the process. These movies made Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff two of the biggest names in Hollywood during that era and Claude Rains’ starring role in The Invisible Man propelled him to critical acclaim and respected roles outside of horror films. Unfortunately, for Lugosi and Karloff, their successes in the horror genre would forever typecast them, despite the fact that both of them held true acting talent and loads of charisma.

In fact, so popular were Lugosi and Karloff that only four Universal horror flicks were made in the 1930s that did not star one, the other or both: The Cat Creeps, Werewolf of London, The Invisible Man and Dracula’s Daughter.

During this time, legit horror was very much what many of these movies were (later films became kinda schlocky). Dracula and Frankenstein were especially fearsome for their time. These movies are creepy even to this day, imagine what they must’ve been like in the 1931!

1940s

The forties brought us sequels a plenty. By this point, though the movies were still very much enjoyable to watch, the quality started to decline and, whether on purpose or not, camp began to set in.

Continuity was no longer an issue (if it ever was) with these seemingly never ending sequels involving Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and the Mummy. Universal was flooding the market with their monster movies as quick and as cheaply as they could film them and the thought put into them, along with their impact on moviegoers, was lessened greatly.

Of note, Universal was able to introduce a new horror icon to their ranks: the Wolf Man, from 1941’s The Wolf Man. Granted, Universal had done a werewolf movie before  with The Werewolf of London, but it was this vehicle starring Lon Chaney Jr that really put werewolves on the map, effectively making The Big Three of Universal’s Monsters (The Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster). Oddly enough, despite being a successful film, there was never a direct sequel to The Wolf Man. There was no son, daughter or bride for the Wolf Man to speak of. Instead, the character was quickly absorbed into the studio’s monster mash-up films: House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

By the mid-forties, the public had cooled on all of these rapidly released and inferior sequels. After the really goofy but really fun House of Dracula in 1945, Universal released only two more monster movies that decade. She-Wolf of London (1946) was a loose sequel to 1935’s Werewolf of London and just when the well looked to have dried up, 1948 gave us the horror/comedy classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abbott & Costello were a red-hot comedy duo and somehow, their brand of comedy mixed in with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf Man worked amazingly well and was a huge success critically and financially for the studio.

1950s

Some people, or studios, just never learn though. From 1951-1955, three more Abbot & Costello monster movies would follow: Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1953) and finally Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955).

While all that was going on, Universal once again able to introduce another successful monster for the new decade with the Gill-Man, from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Two sequels would follow in short order, but by then the public’s interest in horror waned once again as westerns and sci-fi movies captured the attention of moviegoers everywhere. The original run of Universal Monsters ended quietly with the release of The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

Perhaps it was for the best. In 1957, the tired horror banner was picked up, given a vibrant new blood red color and waved high by England’s Hammer Studios starting with The Curse of Frankenstein. I wonder, if Universal had hung in there, where would they have taken the Monsters? Hammer brought loads of Goth, gore and sex that shocked and titillated audiences. Would Universal have cut out all the camp and gotten serious again and brought back the Goth and sex their own early films had?

1960s-1990s

The Monsters lay dormant for a few decades. Although Universal did release a remake of Dracula, starring Frank Langella, in 1979, things were pretty quiet on the theatrical front. By this time though, the earlier films, most notably the Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolf Man and Mummy movies, gained quite a following on television, where they could often be seen in syndication on Saturday afternoons or late at night on various “creature feature” programs. Dracula & Co. may not have been terrorizing new victims, but they sure were entertaining new generations with their past exploits.

With the home video market booming, these movies found even more success and love from horror fans on VHS, and later on DVD. That very first DVD collector’s set featuring the movies of Dracula, Frankenstein and the werewolf movies (and mini-busts of Drac, Frank and the Wolf Man) is one of the crown jewels of my video collection.

In 1999, Universal released an extremely loose remake of The Mummy (starring Brendan Fraser and written/directed by Stephen Stommers) on the big screen and it was a surprising success. It was an obvious B-movie, but it caught on and so far, has spawned two sequels (and a spinoff franchise called The Scorpion King).

2000s and Beyond

Channeling the spirit (or at least the idea) of the old monster mash-ups, 2004 brought us Van Helsing, starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale, with Stephen Sommers writing, directing AND producing. The movie came off as a B-movie, but this one I actually liked compared to 1999’s The Mummy, even if I thought the casting of Dracula was wrong.

The thinking was that it was going to be one of 2004’s big summer hits, but that didn’t happen. The movie did decent money, but given the talent involved (both Jackman and Beckinsale were both “hot” at the time), it didn’t meet expectations and the movie was bashed harshly by critics. Shame, I would’ve loved to have seen a sequel.

More remakes are on the way. February 2010 is scheduled to give us The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, the role Lon Chaney Jr. starred in. Stephen Sommers is not involved with this project, thus showing he thankfully does not have a lock on remaking/reimagining the Universal Monsters. This movie looks like it will stay pretty faithful to the original and be much more dramatic and serious than the recent Mummy movies or Van Helsing were.

Beyond that, at some point we will probably see a remake of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The movie has reportedly been on/off dating as far back to 1982 when John Landis was scheduled to direct (!), but now it seems we’re closer than ever to see it becoming a reality. Of course, if The Wolfman is a bomb, the whole idea could be scrapped.

So you’ve read a little bit about the Universal Monsters, now it’s time to watch them in action! So get out there and track down a DVD or two and spend your Halloween night enjoying a classic.

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