As October begins, we delve into the world of the Universal monster: from Dracula and Frankenstein to The Invisible Man and The Wolfman.
An organ plays dramatically.
A black screen turns to grey and shows us a castle high upon a hill. Spindly trees dot the land surrounding the looming building as our hero journeys up the winding path. A pale moon wanes in a dark sky. It looks as though it is almost sat upon the castle, clutched in the turrets and towers.
Suddenly, there’s a sharp clap of thunder and a flash of lightning atop. A villain laughs maniacally, it is time for the horror to begin. We’re entering the world of the Monsters.
Of course, not all of the films start this way, but doesn’t that image just feel very….Universal? Back in the 1930s, the popular studio decided to venture into the dark heart of storytelling, bringing to life popular literary figures. These monsters have been immortalised in films and adaptations for over 90 years, stalking the big screen, and subsequently, our nightmares.
I may have touched upon some of these horrors before on this site, but as it’s now officially spooky season, you many want to venture into the Universal catalogue.
So, lets sink our fangs into our classic horror monsters, starting with Tod Browning’ Dracula (1931.) Based on a novel by Bram Stoker, this vampiric tale sees Bela Lugosi as the titular count who preys on the blood of the innocent. It’s a Gothic romp that’s slow but creeps over your skin, especially with Dwight Frye’s enigmatic and crazed Renfield performance. Funnily enough, using the same sets as Browning’s feature, a Spanish version of Dracula was released the same year. Dracula would spin-off into many different films including Son Of Dracula (1943) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936,) the latter being a must-watch as it features some heavily hinted at lesbianism and thought—provoking theology. Plus, since Bela Lugosi took on the cape, there have been countless (sorry…) adaptations of Stoker’s work such as Francis Ford Coppola’s celebrated version in 1992. Universal, trying to reboot its series for the modern era, came up in 2014 with the absolutely dreadful Dracula Untold.
Perhaps just as famous as Lugosi’s Dracula in the Universal universe is Boris Karloff’s Monster in James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931). Based on a story by Mary Shelley, it revolves around the titular doctor who has an idea of creating a man out of old, disused body parts. Questioning his own existence, the Monster goes on a misunderstood rampage and is soon pursued by angry villagers with pitchforks. The story directly continues in Bride Of Frankenstein (1936) where another doctor comes up with the crazed idea of creating a mate for the Monster, played exceptionally by Elsa Lanchester, and, as it always does with crazed monsters, it all goes terribly wrong.
There have been other sequels including Son Of Frankenstein (1939,) The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942,) Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943,) and House Of Frankenstein (1944). Of course, there are a multitude of different adaptations including Kenneth Branagh’s erratic 1990sversion (where Robert De Niro plays the Monster,) and a modernised version with Aaron Eckhart. Any future works, including the failed Universal Monsters reboot seem to be dead on arrival.
Not content with being one monster, Boris Karloff also portrays the titular ghoul in The Mummy (1932.) The film sees bandaged dead guy Imhotep bought back to life through a magic scroll and he shuffles through the modern world trying to find his reincarnated love. The movie has spawned several sequels: The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942,) The Mummy’s Ghost (1944,) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944.)
The series perhaps has had the most famous and the most successful reboot with the Stephen Sommers’ 1999 favourite starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. That had its own series of sequels and spin-offs, ranging from The Mummy Returns (2001)) to The Scorpion King (2002) . However, in 2017, a Tom Cruise-led adaptation was the final hammer in the coffin of the rebooted Universal Monster series.
Claude Reins similarly plays two different Universal Monsters. His most iconic is perhaps The Invisible Man (1933.) The big screen retelling of H G Wells’ 1897 story follows the highly regarded Dr Jack Griffin who discovers how to make his whole body disappear, but slowly he starts to lose himself too. At this point in the article, you’re probably guessing that there were a multitude of sequels (see, studios have been doing this since they discovered how to profit from art.) However, this series of films has no particular story connection other than the fact that they involve characters related to Griffin. Featuring the likes of the master of horror himself Vincent Price, the follow-ups include The Invisible Man Returns (1940,) The Invisible Woman (1940), Invisible Agent (1942), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), some of which lean into the comedy aspect that made the original so interesting.
Of course, most recently in 2020, Leigh Whannell adapted the story so effective that it is one of the best modern horrors in recent times. Starring Elizabeth Moss, it sees a woman fleeing a domestic abuse situation only to be haunted by a strange apparition – could it be her ex-partner trying to find her? A perfect modern re-telling, The Invisible Man (2020) deserved its own little shout out here.
Lon Chaney famously portrayed The Phantom Of The Opera in 1924. Though the film, based on a novel by Victor Hugo, was produced by Universal, and Chaney’s famed unmasked image is consistently used in fan materials, the Phantom would not officially be a Universal Monster until Reins’ portrayal in 1943. Instead of playing Erik, a tortured musical genius hidden away beneath the Paris Opera House, Reins took on the role of a violinist named Erique Claudin who is dismissed after losing his use of his fingers. In a tragic turn of events he is disfigured and lives with his green mask in the Opera House, supporting the career of protégé Christine.
This version of the tale is the only Universal Horror film to win an Oscar, for Art Direction and Cinematography. Viewers perhaps know the story best as the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber musical of the same name, which was made into a live-action film in 2004.
Funnily enough, Lon Chaney’s son (Lon Chaney Jr) would appear alongside Claude Reins in The Wolfman (1941.) This one revolves around a man who is bitten by a beast and transforms to a werewolf when there’s a full moon. Boasting some incredible make-up work and legendary transformation scenes, the movie series made iconic some of the werewolf lore into what we know and love. Chaney Jr would appear as Talbert in several different sequels including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House Of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945), In 2010, Joe Johnston directed a remake with Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt. It had mixed reviews, but I still say it’s an outstanding Gothic romp that definitely needs a revisit. Despite the Dark Universe failing, as of 2020, Jason Blum and Leigh Whannell were slated to produce and direct, respectively, a new version with rumours of Ryan Gosling cast in the titular role.
The last monster to feature officially was part of the Universal Monster icons is the Creature From The Black Lagoon, making its first appearance in 1954. Doing exactly what it says it will, the story revolves around an amphibian type monster who emerges from a dark swamp to cause havoc on the community and the scientists who want to study it. There would be two sequels in the Creature’s series: Revenge Of The Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
On a small note, each of the famous Universal Monsters would be satirised in Universal’s popular comedy series Abbott And Costello Meets (insert character name here.) They would also go on to meet other famous horror icons such as Jekyll & Hyde.
Though there aren’t technically part of the Universal Monster canon, it is worth venturing into other Universal horrors, especially in the pre-code era. See Bela Lugosi control an ape to commit heinous crimes in Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932) and watch the immense Charles Loughton turn people into animals in the Island Of The Lost Souls (1932) Plus, Karloff and Lugosi spar off in the brilliant Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, The Black Cat (1934.)
So that’s a small introduction to the Universal Monster series. Soon, I’ll be looking into the four iconic characters in more detail, and examining just what makes them so great…
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