The widow’s peak and opera cloak. The flat-topped head and neck bolts. The angry mob of pitchfork-wielding peasants. The hunchbacked assistant. These things are iconic to the point of cliche when it comes to monster movies but they all originated in the horror output of Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s; an era that left a defining legacy on cinema and pop culture in general.
Right from the early days, Universal Studios was known for dabbling in the horrific and the macabre. Lon Chaney starred in two silent horror pictures for Universal; The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His grotesque (and self designed) makeup appalled and thrilled audiences and earned him the title ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. Further silent chillers from the studio included The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928) which was based on Hunchback writer Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. 1928 was also the year that Universal Studios’ founder Carl Laemmle Sr. made his son, Carl Jr. head of production as his 21st birthday present.
Carl Jr. was more of a risk taker than his father and as well as building a chain of theaters he pushed Universal’s move into sound production. He also recognized the lucrative potential of horror movies and, much against the advice of his father, pursued the rights to Dracula for the studio’s first horror ‘talkie’. Based on the stage play rather than Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula (1931) starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in a career (not to mention character) defining performance as the count. Due to its massive success, Universal quickly went into production on a second horror picture. Frankenstein (1931) was originally conceived as a vehicle for Bela Lugosi, but it was to be Boris Karloff who would eventually play the monster in a remarkably sympathetic portrayal. It wasn’t just the flat-topped head and neck bolts that Frankenstein left as its legacy. The sparking electrical effects and fizzing Tesla Coil became the standard for Frankenstein movies as did the hunchbacked assistant (who does not appear in Mary Shelly’s novel). The film was another hit for Universal and Karloff quickly overtook Lugosi as the studio’s leading horror icon, appearing in the following year’s The Mummy. Universal went down a more comedic route with The Invisible Man (1933) which blended slapstick and groundbreaking special effects. Then they created the first real werewolf movie in Werewolf of London (1935). The same year, Karloff and director James Whale returned for a sequel to Frankenstein. Bride of Frankenstein is widely regarded as a masterpiece both in terms of style and characterization and is often quoted as a rare example of a sequel superior to its source.
Despite the popularity of its horror niche, Universal Studios floundered in the late 1930s. Carl Laemmle Jr., known for his wild spending, went against his father’s rule of never borrowing money and took out a loan of $750,000 to finance a lavish remake of 1929’s Show Boat with the Laemmle family’s controlling interest in the studio as collateral. Show Boat (1936) was vastly over budget and, although a commercial success, it was too little too late. Out went Carl Jr. and his big budget monster movies with him. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was the first Universal monster movie to be made as a b-movie. While successful, it wasn’t enough to revive Universal’s monster trademark and the genre remained untouched until the end of the decade. The re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein as a double-bill in 1938 was immensely popular and encouraged production on a new movie. Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone as the titular son and Bela Lugosi as the hunchbacked assistant Ygor, did very well and revived Universal’s monster formula for a new decade.
1940 saw the release of three low-budget horror movies keen to carry on Universal’s horror brand. Rather than being a direct sequel to the original, The Mummy’s Hand swapped Karloff’s intelligent if decrepit villain for a shambling bandage-wrapped corpse murdering at its master’s whim which became the blueprint for most future mummy flicks. The Invisible Man got two sequels that year – The Invisible Man Returns and The Invisible Woman – the latter of which was a definite comedy rather than a horror film. 1941 gave the world one of Universal’s most influential monsters. Lon Chaney Jr. (son of the Man of a Thousand Faces) followed in his father’s footsteps and became a horror icon in The Wolfman; an atmospheric second take on the werewolf movie which Universal had previously attempted in 1935’s Werewolf of London.
The rest of the decade was dominated by low-budget sequels to Universal’s earlier hits. Kharis the mummy lurched across screens three more times in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and the The Mummy’s Curse (1944) while H. G. Wells’s concept was continued in Invisible Agent (1942) and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). Lon Chaney Jr. tried his hand at other roles and starred as the monster in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein and as the count himself in 1943’s Son of Dracula. But the Universal monster formula was about to change. Allegedly inspired by a cynical joke, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) finally featured Bela Lugosi as the monster and Lon Chaney Jr. back in his most famous role. This ‘monster mash-up’ idea was continued with House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), both featuring Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman and Dracula in convoluted plots involving cures and revivals.
By the late ’40s, Universal’s monster appeal was, once again, starting to wear thin. Their once terrifying creatures were now foils for the slapstick antics of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello who starred in three comedic riffs on the studio’s monster hits. The world had changed too. With the developing Cold War the horror film had begun to incorporate the space race and the atom bomb. UFOs and radiation were considered far more terrifying than vampires and werewolves and in 1954, Universal gave us their last great classic monster. The ‘Gill Man’ in Creature from the Black Lagoon presented a more science based monster to keep with the times and appeared in two sequels; Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). While some consider the likes of the big-brained alien mutant from This Island Earth (1955) to be a continuation of the Universal monster, there can be no denying that by this point the classic age of Universal’s movie monsters was over.
Universal’s monster movies have had a huge influence on pop culture. In 1957, a package of 52 Universal horror movies were released for television syndication. Hosted on various stations by horror hosts like Zacherley, as ‘Shock Theatre’, the package introduced Universal’s monsters to a new generation who took them to heart. From the Munsters TV series in the ’60s to the Aurora model kits, Sesame Street, Ben Cooper Halloween costumes and Count Chocula breakfast cereal, the Universal monster legacy has never died.
Universal Studios have ever been reluctant to let their monster franchise die. Imhotep was revived for a new version of The Mummy in 1999 (spawning two sequels). Its director, Stephen Sommers, took another crack at the monster menagerie in 2005 with Van Helsing; an action adventure that pitted Hugh Jackman against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolfman. The Wolfman itself was remade in 2010 and Dracula got an origin story in Dracula Untold (2014). Currently there is talk of a shared Universal Monster Movie Universe after the fashion of Marvel’s superheroes, the first installment of which is The Mummy starring Tom Cruise due for a 2017 release.
My most recent novel – Curse of the Blood Fiends – is an homage to the monster movies of the 1940s as well as Film Noir. It’s an action-packed mystery-horror novel set in 1942 and deals with a virus spawned by a military research project in the Amazon that threatens to turn all of Los Angeles into blood-hungry monsters. I included many nods to Universal’s legacy including vampires, werewolves, reconstituted corpses, a hunchbacked scientist and even a mummy.