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A brief history of Universal Monsters

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

A brief history of Universal Monsters

As Tom Cruise tries to unravel The Mummy, James Oliver looks back at the classic monster movies to which it tips its hat, the Universal Horror films. Don’t have nightmares...

These days, every Hollywood studio is looking for a franchise, some property or properties that can be spun off into multiple, preferably interlocking films. For their latest franchise, Universal Studios have looked to their own past.

The studio have chosen to revive characters from the horror movies they made back in the day and it’s a smart move: their versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and all are instantly recognisable, even to those who haven’t seen the films in which they appear.

This new sequence kicks off with The Mummy (Tom Cruise, peril amidst the pyramids etc). It remains to be seen whether it finds favour with audiences but it does, at least, allow for a retrospective glance over the classic Universal Horrors of the past.

So that is what we here present, for your delectation and delight. Those who prefer monsters made of latex rather than computer pixels (not to mention a sound mix that doesn’t induce tinnitus) will find much to enjoy in them: these movies may be over three quarters of a century old but they’re a long way from showing their age...



The film that launched Universal in the horror business—derived from Bram Stoker’s novel by way of a Broadway adaption—was a huge hit in 1931 and has been enduringly influential: very nearly every vampire, from Christopher Lee to The Count on Sesame Street owes at least something—and usually quite a lot—to Bela Lugosi’s turn here.

Because it’s been so influential, so imitated and so parodied, it can be hard for us to appreciate just how shocking it was to original audiences. But they’d never seen anything like it—a living corpse that drank the blood of the living? No wonder folks were fainting in cinemas.

Unlike the later Hammer films, Universal took ages bringing the Count back from the grave, although they managed a couple about his progeny—Dracula’s Daughter (unsurprisingly she has serious daddy issues) and Son of Dracula (he’s a chip off the old block).

Dracula's Daughter (1936) 

And when they finally did manage to exhume him for House of Frankenstein, they didn’t bother asking Lugosi to come back. He got to play Dracula only one more time on screen, for Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, in which he and a whole gang of horrors had the misfortune to face the unfunny double act.

This, though, was the role that defined him: when he died, he was buried in the cloak he wore here.




It’s fair to say Dracula was an unexpected hit: released at the height of the depression, it was some way from the musicals and cheerful escapism popular elsewhere. But hey—if audiences wanted ghoulish horror, who were Universal to deny them?

Thus Frankenstein lurched into cinemas only a few months later. Boris Karloff played the monster, with a flat top and bolts through his neck that make him one of the most instantly recognisable—and endlessly imitated—figures in movies.


An even bigger hit than Dracula, Universal wasted no time bringing the monster back from the dead: The Bride of Frankenstein is probably the best regarded of the Universal Horror films, a beguiling mix of gothic fairytale and camp horror, in which the once-feared Monster becomes the most likeable character.

Karloff would don his bolts for one last hurrah, Son of Frankenstein in 1939 (the film most extensively parodied in Young Frankenstein, fact fans) before handing over to an assortment of other actors, including Bela Lugosi and the splendidly named Glenn Strange.

Ignoring Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein—and, oh, how I want to ignore Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein—the monster lumbered his last in House of Dracula, the final Universal Horror proper, made just before the end of the Second World War.

It’s interesting that Frankenstein and his chums should have flourished during dark times (the depression, the war). Makes you think that Universal have done the right thing bringing them back today...



The Mummy

Egyptology had been all the rage since Howard Carter had dug up the tomb of Tutankhamen so it was probably only a matter of time before Universal decided to make a movie about a mobile mummy.

It would have nothing to do with actual Egyptology of course but who cares about that? The ancient theology dreamed up by the studio’s screenwriters is much better than the real thing: this mummy was sealed in his sarcophagus before he was actually dead and cursed to live forever—a promising start to any horror film.

But The Mummy (as their movie was imaginatively called) is an unsatisfying film, quite probably because the bandaged baddie is only glimpsed in his wrappings for about two minutes at the start before vanishing; he regenerates offscreen and returns later as a wrinkly oldster convinced leading lady Zita Johann is his long lost love. It’s all a bit boring.


The cheap-jack sequels—The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s—remedy this. They’re filled with red-hot mummy action, and are all the better for it: there’s always some nefarious high priest looking to use the embalmed evil-doer for his own ends, with ‘orrible consequences for all involved.

As became sadly customary, Abbot and Costello also got in on the act: they ventured to Egypt for Abbot and Costello Meet the Mummy, a film very nearly as painful as being mummified alive.



The Invisible Man

Although they’re not the best-known films in the Universal Horror cycle, the Invisible Man films are hands-down the best. They’re still known mainly for the quality of their special effects work—genius craftsman John Fulton pushed the available technology to the limit on all of them—but there’s more to them than trickery.

The first set the tone: directed by James Whale (Universal’s premier director of horror), it emphasises the paranoia of H.G. Wells’ source novel as the unseen anti-hero undertakes his wave of terror; given the current state of the world, it’s a film that resonates strongly today.


The sequels are very nearly as good: The Invisible Man Returns expands upon the premise of the original rather than simply repeat it while Invisible Agent, a ra-ra wartime adventure in which our transparent pal parachutes into Nazi Germany to give Adolf and co. what-for, is far better than almost every other ra-ra wartime adventure. Hell, even the regrettably inevitable Abbot and Costello meet The Invisible Man is the least unbearable film the dismal duo ever made.

One final point: it’s worth noting the way these movies flagrantly defied the strict censorship of the studio era. None of the moral guardians usually so shocked by intimations of nudity seemed to notice that, when they do their disappearing acts, the various invisible men are as naked as they day they were born.



The Wolf Man

The first wave of Universal Horrors were generously funded but budgets were cut for the later films (roughly those made after 1939). What they lacked in money, though, they made up for with creative invention.

This was very largely down to one man, a writer rather than director or producer: Curt Siodmak. He was a refugee from Hitler (and brother to the similarly gift noir maestro Robert) and while others might have turned their noses up at low-budget horrors, Siodmak never regarded these assignments of unworthy of his considerable talents, routinely spinning straw into gold.

Curt Siodmak 

His most significant contribution was the creation of the Wolf Man. This character first appeared in (guess what?) The Wolf Man, in which American Larry Talbot gets bitten by a werewolf and becomes (guess what?) the Wolf Man.

Although Larry Talbot is killed at the end of The Wolf Man, Universal asked Siodmak to bring him back; suitably resurrected, he became the hero of the horror films that the studio made during the war years, linked films that saw him pursue his dearest—to be free of the curse of lycanthropy and return to the peace of death.

To this end, he sought out those who he thought could help him die, including Frankenstein (Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man) and Dracula (House of Dracula). In other words, it was a "shared universe" long before Marvel’s superheroes got in on the act.



Creature from the Black Lagoon

It may be one of the most famous monsters of film-land but Creature From The Black Lagoon sits uneasily alongside the other Universal Horrors. For one thing, there’s absolutely no gothic elements here, no olde-worlde shadows or castles—this Creature is a South American, cheerfully swimming around his lagoon without a care in the world until a bunch of Americans turn up and decide to try and catch him.

It’s really part of the science-fiction/creature features of the 1950s rather than the proper Universal Horror films but don’t let that deter you, for there is much to enjoy in the original films and in the two sequels that followed—there is the underwater photography that Steven Spielberg used as inspiration for Jaws (also a Universal film, as it happens) and in Revenge of the Creature you get the brief yet amusing site of a young Clint Eastwood as a scientist. All this and a splendidly rubbery monster too.


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