So I finally get to write this. Believe it or not, what became The History of the Universal Monsters was originally meant to be just a list of my favorite Universal Monster movies. Notice I said Universal Monster and not Universal Horror. Though I’ve liked the Lugosi/Karloff pairings I’ve seen in the past month and especially enjoyed The Raven, it is the monsters that keep me coming back for more.
Maybe by this time next year I’ll be knowledgeable enough to have a list of favorite Universal Horror films, but this is the year of the monsters. You’ll notice a lack of The Mummy/Invisible Man/Creature from the Black Lagoon movies. Well, that’s because I’m not all too familiar with those films and many of them I’ve never seen. Hey, I can always update this list next year too, right?
The Wolf Man also does not make my list. While I like the character, the movie doesn’t impress me when compared to Dracula and Frankenstein films. I like the Wolf Man in the monster mash ups, but I don’t think he carries a film well on his own.
It is obvious that the Frankenstein franchise was treated with the most care by Universal (again, the studio showing preference to KARLOFF) and the first two films from that line are two of the most respected movies in horror history. The only Frankenstein movie that does not make my list is 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein.
Not the first horror film from Universal, but this one kicked off the whole wave of Universal Monsters and it did it in a genuinely horrific fashion. When the film premiered, allegedly, people actually fainted during some of the scenes.
Sadly, the version were are all familiar with today is not the original theatrical version. When the film was re-released to theaters a few years later, it was first censored by the Motion Picture Production Code. They had Dracula’s off-camera “death groans” silenced and also cut out the entire epilogue featuring Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) talking to the audience. While Dracula’s screams are now back, it is believed that the epilogue is now lost.
Even today, this is a powerful film. Even though this is the role that typecast Bela Lugosi (and Dracula as well, really), it honestly is his best role. Also of note is the frighteningly manic performance of Dwight Frye as Renfield.
Great production values all around and the atmosphere is enhanced by the lack of a score. Eerie silence only adds to the movie’s chills, but in 1998, a score was composed and the latest DVD releases of this movie allow you to choose between the score and no score (I prefer no score).
The second of Universal’s one-two monster punch in 1931. At the time, this movie was even more successful and critically acclaimed than Dracula (thus forever earning Boris Karloff preferred treatment and top billing over Bela Lugosi by Universal and Hollywood in general), but I prefer Dracula.
You can’t argue the greatness of this movie though, as once again, the atmosphere and production values are just off the charts and Universal’s king of make-up Jack Pierce did a great job on designing the monster.
Lugosi was originally in line to star as the monster with the studio even going as far to produce an early draft of the poster art with him as the monster (with laser beams shooting out his eyes!).
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It is often said that sequels are never good as the originals, and just as often Bride of Frankenstein is pointed out as the exception to the rule. Director James Whale (who directed the original) obviously had a little more power within the studio and confidence this time around to do whatever he wanted as the film is a strange, campy and sometimes humorous ride.
A lot has been read into this movie by movie historians in regards to homosexuality (the relationship between Dr. Frankenstein and the effeminate Dr. Pretorius, the Monster himself) because of Whale’s own open homosexuality and while it is interesting to view the movie in that light, I just like to sit back and be entertained by what I know to be one of horror’s finest films.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Following up classics like Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein sounds like a no-win situation, but Son of Frankenstein actually does a decent job of continuing the story. This time, the focus is on Wolf Frankenstein (I bet you can guess the connection just by reading the movie’s title) and his own family as he comes to his father’s castle from America and gets swooped up in bringing the monster back to life.
Odd fashion choice for this movie as the monster inexplicably is dressed in a fur vest. This look would never been seen again in any of the character’s Universal appearances, but it is often used to this day as inspiration for various Frankenstein Monsters.
Bela Lugosi has one of his best roles as the deformed and demented Ygor.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
And here’s where it all begins! The very first meeting of two of Universal’s terrifying titans! It also often considered to be both a sequel to 1941’s The Wolf Man and 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein for this reason.
The movie is almost more of a Wolf Man movie more than anything else as Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) gets most of the face time while trying to end his life or find a cure for turning into the Wolf Man. 13 years after Lugosi was originally intended for the role, he finally gets to play the Frankenstein monster (at the age of 60!).
By this time, the Monster movies were becoming more campy (unintentionally) and lower-budget (intentionally) with each release, but this is still a notable monster mash romp. Dracula and Bride of Frankenstein may be great horror, but this movie is good fun and there’s nothing wrong with that!
House of Frankenstein (1944)
This is the best and first of the ensemble “monster rally” movies, but I have a gripe with the casting! We’ve got Chaney, we’ve got Karloff… Why no Lugosi? And why isn’t Karloff playing the monster ?! Actually, I know the answer to the last one: by this point, Boris wasn’t interested in reprising the character, but it is still a shame to see him in a movie that features the monster when he’s not playing him. Of course, he still does a great job in the “mad doctor” role as Dr. Gustav Nieman.
Glenn Strange plays the monster and he received coaching by Karloff, so he ends up doing a decent job but I’m not a big fan of John Carradine’s Dracula, even if he looks is closer to Bram Stoker’s story. Casting aside, this is a REALLY fun movie with monsters running amok. If you see only one monster mash movie, this must be it!
Early drafts of this movie had EVEN MORE monsters as The Mummy, Mad Ghoul and Invisible Man were initially penciled in. Also, the movie had two working titles Chamber of Horrors and The Devil’s Brood. I really like The Devil’s Brood name and prefer it over House of Frankenstein (which is a really a meaningless title for this movie).
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
After sagging public and studio interest, it was none other than comedic duo Abbott and Costello that gave the monsters the electric jolt they needed to rise once more with this much loved and respected horror comedy.
The great thing about this movie is that Abbott and Costello do their comedy thing while the monsters play the ultimate straight men going only for thrills (with Lugosi FINALLY playing Dracula for the second time). The modern day equivalent would be something like Dane Cook Meets Jason Voorhees. God forbid that ever actually happens, of course.
This isn’t just a great Universal Monster movie, it’s a great comedy. It sounds strange, but if you’ve never seen this before — trust me, it works.