Musing on Universal Monsters


Universal monstersI can’t recall exactly when I watched each of the great original monster films (the classic “Universal Monster” films) — Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, The Mummy, and the rest — some I saw before my teens, others in my very early teens and others throughout the ’60s. And I’ve seen them, their sequels, and many of their knockoffs since, often several times.

I have numerous of the films on DVD and Blu-Ray; I sometimes watch them in the late afternoons, while Susan watches BBC and other British shows on our TV. We have a comfortable difference of opinion about what we enjoy watching.

One checklist on the IMDB (Internet Movie Data-Base) lists 73 films as “Universal Studios Monsters” films dating from 1923 to 1960. I have at least 35 of them on disc and have seen perhaps 45-50 of them. These include several early (silent) films now in the public domain. Wikipedia only lists the films from 1931-56 as part of the classic Universal franchise, which were also those included in the box sets; other lists include more films in the list of Universal monster/horror/fright movies.*

Although the company had been making films since 1914, Universal’s monster/horror/thriller canon really begins in 1923 with their 206th film:

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 (1928)
The Last Performance (1929)

Other silent films from the pre-talkie era include Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913), Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Golem: Or How He Came into the World, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (all released in 1920), and the superb Nosferatu (1922).

1929 saw the first of what would become another series of popular, and also at times controversial films: Paramount’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, which starred Warner Oland, who would later star in films as the Chinese detective, Charlie Chan.** Charlie Chan would spawn 49 films from 1929 to ’81, 16 of them with Oland starring in them until 1937. In 1931, he starred as Chan in The Black Camel with Bela Lugosi. Today those films draw cries of “cultural appropriation” from the politically correct set. One day I’ll write a post about my thoughts on that.

Universal re-released The Phantom of the Opera in 1930 with sound added. It proved such a success that the company eagerly used the new sound-film technology to produce more horror/monster films. These great films began to arrive early in decade rich in superb productions, and are now core parts of the Universal canon, beloved of fans almost a century later. It all begins with:

Dracula (1931 – Bela Lugosi)

A moody, dark, film that still can raise goosebumps. At the same time, a Spanish language version of Dracula was filmed starring Carlos Villarías; it is different from and sometimes better than the Lugosi version in many ways. It’s worth watching for its own merits:

Drácula (1931)

Then came one of the most memorable films, one which retains its power and presence even today:

Frankenstein (1931 – Boris Karloff)

1931 was also the year that saw the release of Fritz Lang’s chilling film starring Peter Lorre, M, but that was in Germany. Lorre would go on to star and co-star in many other Universal and other films (often typecast with Vincent Price and Boris Karloff) but also starred in eight films for Twentieth Century Fox as the fictional Japanese detective Mr. Moto. Universal then released:

The Mummy (1932 – Boris Karloff)
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
The Old Dark House (1932)

1932 saw another in what was to become a series of popular films for competitor MGM: The Mask of Fu Manchu. Meanwhile Universal released:

The Invisible Man (1933)
The Black Cat (1934)
The Raven (1935)
Werewolf of London (1935)
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The Invisible Man starred Claude Rains who would go on to play an iconic role in 1942’s unforgettable Casablanca. Many consider Bride of Frankenstein the last of the “great” monster films of the early years, before the B-film sequels, homages, and knock-offs, started to appear, including:

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
The Invisible Ray (1936)
Night Key (1937)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Tower of London (1939)

The 1940s, before the US joined the allies in WWII, brought a mix of good and less-than-great films, including a few of the horror-comedy genre and a lot of sequels:

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 Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
The Black Cat (1941)
Horror Island (1941)

The outstanding title in that lineup was, of course, Lon Chaney’s magnificent portrayal in The Wolf Man (1941). That was to be the first of another series of monster films. No new monster would join the core group until 1954’s post-war Creature From the Black Lagoon; but in between there were sequels, satires, and spin-offs. Despite the restrictions of the war on resources and personnel, Hollywood continued to produce films, many of them in the B-film category, including Universal’s releases:

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Night Monster (1942)
The Invisible Spy (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)
The Climax (1944)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
Jungle Woman (1944)
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
The Jungle Captive (1945)
House of Dracula (1945)

I thought it unusual that both The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse would both be released in 1944, but both were much lower budget than the original 1932 film and cranked out to feed a public demand. I suppose people wanted escapism during the war and Hollywood provided plenty of it, including a fair selection of monster and thriller films.

Post-war, there weren’t a lot of Universal releases in the genre until the 1950s:

House of Horrors (1946)
The Brute Man (1946)
She-Wolf of London (1946)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

Of these, the Abbott and Costello Frankenstein film is by far the best of the lot, and easily their best movie ever. Abbott and Costello had been working together as a comedy team since 1935, and had been making films since 1940. They had some personal issues, and infighting, and played in some mediocre films, but Frankenstein was a great hit, in no small part because it co-starred  Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr, and Glen Strange who had played the role of the monster in 1944’s House of Frankenstein. But their comedy routine was beginning to stale and wasn’t as sharp in their next two films:

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Meanwhile, Hollywood began to branch out from the traditional monsters and started looking to space. Scifi films began to appear in the lineup, with aliens invading Earth, and humans travelling to other planets.

The Strange Door (1951)
The Black Castle (1952)
It Came from Outer Space (1953)

But then, a new monster was created for Universal, rising from the mysterious Amazonian jungle. It captured the audience’s imagination:

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

This is the same year Toho released the original Gojira (aka Godzilla) in Japan, but it wouldn’t see North American theatres until the edited and altered version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, with Raymon Burr was released in 1956. Abbott and Costello would do a live-TV spoof about the Creature in ’54, released later on DVD. Meanwhile, a sequel to the first Creature film was quickly released:

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

This led to subsequent Creature films, none as good as the first.

Since the time talkies came in, Hollywood companies including Universal have pumped out many monster, horror, comedy-horror, and sci-fi films, a lot of them firmly in the B-film category, but also some classics:

The Cat Creeps (1930)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Island of Lost Souls (1932)
King Kong (1933)
The Phantom Creeps (1939)
Man-Made Monster (1941)
King of the Zombies (1941)
Cat People (1942)
Calling Dr. Death (1943)
I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
Weird Woman (1944)
Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)
The Frozen Ghost (1945)
Strange Confession (1945)
Pillow of Death (1945)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
The War of the Worlds (1953)
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
Them! (1954)
Cult of the Cobra (1955)
This Island Earth (1955)
Tarantula (1955)
Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Tarantula (1955)
The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955)
Tarantula (1955)
The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Rodan (1956)
The Werewolf (1956)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Rodan (1956)
The Werewolf (1956)
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
The Mole People (1956)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
The Deadly Mantis (1957)
The Land Unknown (1957)
The Monolith Monsters (1957)
The Fly (1958)
The Blob (1958)
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
The Fly (1958)
The Blob (1958)
The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)
Monster on the Campus (1958)
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The Bat (1959)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
The Bat (1959)
The Mummy (1959)
Curse of the Undead (1959)
The Leech Woman (1960)

The Fly, starring Vincent Price, was a great hit for 20th Century Fox in 1958. A sequel, Return of The Fly was released in 1959, and a further sequel, Curse of The Fly in 1965. A remake directed and co-written by David Cronenberg, and starring Jeff Goldblum, was released in 1986 with a sequel The Fly II released in 1989.

1956 saw the release of Universal’s final release in its Classic Monsters series: The Creature Walks Among Us, another sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon. In 1957, many of the  Universal monster films were distributed under the label Shock Theatre for TV viewing (and in some cases appearing on drive-in movie screens) by Screen Gems. They continued to be seen on TV for the next decade, during which I saw many for the first time.

The Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, a must-have for any aficionado, covers the output from 1931 to 1956, “beginning with the original Dracula in 1931 and ending with The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956.” It contains all of the Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman, Mummy, Invisible Man, Phantom of the Opera, and Creature From the Black Lagoon films and their sequels until ’56. It also includes Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). See note, below, for the complete list.

Take-offs and shows inspired by the Universal films (and others) also appeared on the silver screen and TV at that time: The Twilight Zone ran from 1959 to 1964; The Munsters and The Addams Family both were released in 1964 and ran through 1966. There was also  Star Trek (1966–1969), Bewitched (1964–1972), The Outer Limits (1963–1965), Doctor Who (1963–1989), It’s About Time (1966–1967), The Time Tunnel (1966–1967), The Invaders (1967–1968) and others.

The Universal monsters and their films also met increased competition in films from companies like Hammer (often featuring familiar characters like Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy), new Godzilla (and other Japanese kaiju)  films, and many more through the 1950s to ’60s and the ’70s.

Monsters have had too great a hold on the public imagination to disappear from popular culture; their stories keep getting retold and re-imagined. A stage play about Dracula ran from 1977 to ’80. A new Dracula film came out in 1979, another in 1992, and a new Wolfman in 2010. All were well-received. A new Mummy film with Tom Cruise was released in 2017 with, understandably, less-than-positive reviews (what a terrible miscasting!). And a re-imaged version of The Invisible Man was released in 2020.

Just as examples, IMDB has a list of more than 400 films in which Dracula is featured or mentioned (a list of 30 for Count Dracula); a list of 114 films featuring or involving Frankenstein.

More than a century has passed since the first of these “monster” films, yet their popularity remains strong. I, too,  still watch and delight in them; sometimes for their production, sometimes for their acting, sometimes for their camp-ishness, and more often these days for that sense of nostalgia I feel when recalling the first time I watched them, so many decades ago.


* The box set of Universal films on DVD or Blu-Ray has 30 films in it:

  1. Dracula (1931)
  2. Frankenstein (1931)
  3. The Mummy (1932)
  4. The Invisible Man (1933)
  5. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
  6. Werewolf of London (1935)
  7. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
  8. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  9. The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
  10. The Invisible Woman (1940)
  11. The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
  12. The Wolf Man (1941)
  13. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
  14. The Mummy’s Ghost (1942)
  15. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
  16. Invisible Agent (1942)
  17. The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
  18. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
  19. Son of Dracula (1943)
  20. House of Frankenstein (1944)
  21. The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
  22. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
  23. House of Dracula (1945)
  24. She-Wolf of London (1946)
  25. Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948)
  26. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
  27. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
  28. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
  29. Revenge of the Creature (1955)
  30. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

** Wikipedia mentions that “Oland repeated the role in The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930) and Daughter of the Dragon (1931).”  That was followed by The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) starring Boris Karloff as the evil Fu Manchu. The last of the classic-era Fu Mancho films was Drums of Fu Manchu (1940), actually first released as a 15-episode serial and later as a feature film in 1943. Five Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee were released in the 1960s: The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1967), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), and The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969). See IMDB for more on Fu Manchu.

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  1. Michael Beaupre

    Thanks again for the remembrance Ian. Watched all or just about all on tv in the 50’s & early 60s when older movies were featured on every network. They were cheap to buy.
    They hit a primal chord with me then and I still consider the best of them as tunes that have a lifetime appeal.

    Here’s a take on the 1943 Universal film, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, the first of their crossover films to include two monsters from different franchises. It again starred Lon Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man but placed Bela Lugosi in the role of Frankenstein’s monster. Because of the mash-up of monsters, the plot follow is a semi-sequel to both The Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man.

    The site linked above has some good reviews and comments on other Universal monster films, by the way. Worth a look.

    Like later Godzilla films, the idea of putting two or more monsters from different franchises into the same film became popular not only at Universal, but in other film studios. These crossovers became known as the “monster rally films,” Read more on Wikipedia:

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