Universal Monsters or Universal Horror is the name given to a series of distinctive horror, suspense and science fiction films made by Universal Studios from 1923 to 1960. The series began with the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and continued with such movies as The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London, Son of Frankenstein,The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Universal started out by the name Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP). IMP had only one horror film, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1913).
Universal’s earliest success in the horror genre was the historical drama The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923. It starred Lon Chaney in the title role. The lavish production sets rebuilt 15th-century Paris on an epic scale, even re-creating the famed Notre Dame de Paris cathedral.
A runaway success at the box office, Hunchback of Notre Dame inspired Universal to produce their first true horror film, The Phantom of the Opera, based on the mystery novel byGaston Leroux. The film was released in 1925. Chaney designed and endured torturous make-up that even exceeded the demands of his previous role as the Hunchback. And as with the film Hunchback, the sets played an important part in the film. The interior of the Opéra Garnier was recreated to scale, and remains one of the longest-standing film sets to this day. It was used for the 1943 remake with Claude Rains, as well as numerous other pictures.
Chaney, who was a freelance player at the time of Phantom of the Opera’s production, signed a contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and could no longer produce character roles for Universal. His death in 1930 ended any possibility of his leaving MGM for another studio, and Universal turned their attentions to other actors such as German character actor Conrad Veidt, who had been a star in the 1920 German expressionist horror masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and in 1928’sThe Man Who Laughs.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
- The Cat and the Canary (1927)
- The Man Who Laughs (1928)
- The Last Warning (1929)
- The Last Performance (1929)
The success of these two movies launched the careers of Béla Lugosi and Boris Karloff, and ushered in a whole new genre of American cinema. With Universal at the forefront, filmmakers would continue to build on their success with an entire series of monster movies. These films also provided steady work for a number of genre actors including Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, and John Carradine. Other regular talents involved were make-up artists Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, and composers Hans J. Salter andFrank Skinner. Many of the horror genre’s most well-known conventions—the creaking staircase, the cobwebs, the swirling mist and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches—originated from these films and those that followed.
The Mummy was produced in 1932, followed by a trilogy of films based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven(1935), the latter two of which teamed up Lugosi with Karloff. The Invisible Man, released in 1933, was a phenomenal hit and would spawn several sequels. Of all the Universal monsters, the most successful and sequelized was undoubtedly the Frankenstein series, which continued with Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Dracula too had its share of sequels, beginning with Dracula’s Daughter in 1936, although only Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the 1948 comedy that was the beginning of the end for the Universal monster cycle, would feature Dracula as played by original leading man Bela Lugosi.
1936 also marked the end of Universal’s first run of horror films as the Laemmles were forced out of the studio after financial difficulties and a series of box office flops. The monster movies were dropped from the production schedule altogether and wouldn’t re-emerge for another three years. In the meantime the original movies were re-released to surprising success, forcing the new executives to give the go-ahead to Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone.
- The Cat Creeps (1930)
- Dracula (1931)
- Dracula (Spanish version) (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- The Mummy (1932)
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- The Old Dark House (1932)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Raven (1935)
- Werewolf of London (1935)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
- The Invisible Ray (1936)
- The Phantom Creeps (1939)
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
- Tower of London (1939)
During the 1940s, the most successful of the new series of Universal Horror movies was The Wolf Man (1941), which also established Lon Chaney, Jr., as the new leading horror actor for the studio, following in his father’s foot steps.
The Frankenstein and Wolf Man series continued with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) while Son of Dracula (1943) featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Count. The Mummy, too, continued to rise from the grave in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). Eventually, all of Universal’s monsters, except the Mummy and Invisible Man, would be brought together in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which Dracula was played by John Carradine. As the decade drew to a close the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) proved an instant hit for the studio, with Bela Lugosi starring alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster.
- Black Friday (1940)
- The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
- The Invisible Woman (1940)
- The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
- Man Made Monster (1941)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Black Cat (1941)
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
- Invisible Agent (1942)
- The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
- Phantom of the Opera (1943)
- Son of Dracula (1943)
- Captive Wild Woman (1943)
- The Mad Ghoul (1943)
- Calling Dr. Death (1943)
- Weird Woman (1944)
- Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)
- The Climax (1944)
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
- The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
- The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
- The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
- House of Dracula (1945)
- The Frozen Ghost (1945)
- Strange Confession (1945)
- Pillow of Death (1945)
- House of Horrors (1946)
- The Brute Man (1946)
- She-Wolf of London (1946)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
By the 1950s, Universal had retired most of its original line of horror characters, with Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man having been retired with the Abbott & Costello film in 1948. (A competing line of horror films made by Hammer Film Productions of England would revive the Monster and Dracula in the late 1950s.) It was left to Abbott & Costello to keep alive public interest in characters such as the Mummy and the Invisible Man. But in 1954 Universal’s horror films returned to popularity.
With the success of Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold in 1954) the revived “Universal Horror” franchise would gain a whole new generation of fans. The original movies such as Dracula and Frankenstein were re-released as double features in many theatres, before eventually premiering on syndicated American television in 1957 (as part of the famous Shock Theater package of Universal Monster Movies); the Hammer versions were also popular and, in turn, sparked renewed interest in the “originals”. Soon dedicated magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland would help propel these movies into lasting infamy. Universal spent the last half of the decade issuing a number of one-shot monster films. By the early 1960s the original monsters were merchandised in the form of toys and model kits, the most famous of which were from the now-defunct Aurora Company.
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
- Revenge of the Creature (1955)
- Cult of the Cobra (1955)
- This Island Earth (1955)
- Tarantula (1955)
- The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
- The Mole People (1956)
- The Deadly Mantis (1957)
- The Monolith Monsters (1957)
- Monster on the Campus (1958)
Later influences & homages
In 1957, Hammer Film Productions began producing their own series of monster movies in Eastmancolor, starting with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Universal was also the distributor for several of the films, enabling Hammer to replicate several features of the original Universal horrors in The Evil of Frankenstein (1963).
In 1962 the television show Route 66 had an episode, “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing”, written by Stirling Silliphant, which was a homage to the Universal monsters, starring Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Peter Lorre (playing themselves, and with Karloff and Chaney donning, for the last time, their original Frankenstein’s monster and Wolf-Man make-ups).
Mel Brooks‘s 1974 parody Young Frankenstein paid brilliant homage to the films’ style. Gerald Hirschfield’s black-and-white photography particularly evoked the expressionisticstyle of the Universal Horrors.
Richard O’Brien‘s The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) featured the character Magenta (played by Patricia Quinn), whose shock hair was modelled on that of the Bride of Frankenstein. The film is a parody of B-movies; the title song “Science Fiction/Double Feature” references Universal’s film The Invisible Man.
The release of movies featuring the Universal Monsters in the Shock Theater television packages of the late 1950s and early 1960s made them available to a new audience developing a keen interest in these films and is largely responsible for the Monster Boom of the early 1960s.
This new interest would have far reaching reverberations from the kids that grew up during this time, when they began coming of age. The sustained interest from those that had developed an interest in the horror genre when they were young was greatly responsible for the creation of the horror punk genre of music in the mid-to-late 1970s with bands like The Damned, The Cramps, Sid Terror’s Undead and The Misfits.
In 1986, the first entry in the Castlevania series was released in Japan. It featured several homages to the Universal and Hammer horror films, notably the inclusion of a Universal-style Frankenstein’s monster as a boss. Later Castlevania games would continue to pay tribute to the classic horror films, while at the same time forging their own identity as a more dramatic and story-driven series.
The Monster Squad, a 1987 film released by Tri-Star Pictures and directed by Fred Dekker, featured Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In 1998, filmmaker Kevin Brownlow made the documentary Universal Horror. It was narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and featured interviews with many of the original stars.
In 2004, Stephen Sommers directed Van Helsing featuring the characters of Dracula, his Brides, a Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster. The film was a homage to the classic Universal monster mash up movies of the 1940s, such as the Frankenstein Meets and The House of series proved popular at the box office despite mixed reviews. Stephen Sommers had also directed both the remake of The Mummy and its sequel, The Mummy Returns. The release of Van Helsing sparked the release of several deluxe DVD box sets featuring restored versions of many Universal Horror films, in particular those of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Castlevania, based on the video game franchise of the same name, was slated for a 2009 release as a movie until its reported cancellation and would have utilized motifs of the Universal Monsters.
The 2009 film House of the Wolf Man is an homage to the 1940s monster films House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. Unlike Dekker’s Monster Squad or Sommers’ Van Helsing, Eben McGarr’s film is intended to look and feel like a Universal film of the 1940s. Ron Chaney, grandson of Lon Chaney, Jr. stars in the film.