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 Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both silent films starring Lon Chaney. Universal continued with talkies including monster franchises Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The studio's leading horror actors during this post-Chaney period were Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr..
1920s – Lon Chaney
Universal's earliest success in the horror genre was the 1923 historical drama The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which starred Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. 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 by Gaston Leroux. The film was released in 1925. Chaney designed and endured torturous make-up that exceeded the demands of his previous role as the Hunchback. As with the film Hunchback, the sets played an important part in the film. The interior of the Opéra Garnier was recreated to scale. It was used for the 1943 remake with Claude Rains, as well as numerous other pictures.
With Chaney's death in 1930 Universal turned their attentions to other actors. These included German character actor Conrad Veidt, who had appeared in the 1920 German expressionist horror masterpiece, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and starred in 1928's Universal horror film The Man Who Laughs.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with Lon Chaney
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney and Mary Philbin
- The Cat and the Canary (1927) with Laura LaPlante
- The Man Who Laughs (1928) with Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt
- The Last Warning (1929) with Laura LaPlante
- The Last Performance (1929) with Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin
1930s – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
In spite of the Great Depression, executive Carl Laemmle, Jr. produced massive successes for the studio with Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (directed by James Whale), both in 1931.
The success of these two movies launched the careers of Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein), 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 and Frank 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, starring Karloff, was produced in 1932. This was followed by a trilogy of films based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) starring Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934), and The Raven (1935), the latter two of which teamed 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 the critically acclaimed 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 Lugosi himself recreating his signature role; the studio replaced him with Lon Chaney, Jr. or John Carradine in the earlier 1940s sequels.
The end of Universal’s first run of horror films came in 1936 as the Laemmles were forced out of the studio after financial difficulties and a series of box office flops, partly due to a temporary ban on American horror films in Britain in the wake of MGM's Mad Love and The Raven (both 1935). The monster movies were dropped from the production schedule altogether and would not re-emerge for another three years. In the meantime, a theatre owner revived Dracula and Frankenstein as a double feature, resulting in an immediate smash hit and leading to the original movies being re-released by the studio to surprising success. This forced the new executives to give the go-ahead to Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Thirteen of the seventeen 1930s Universal horror films listed below star either Lugosi or Karloff or both:
- Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi
- Dracula (Spanish version) (1931) with Carlos Villarías
- Frankenstein (1931) with Boris Karloff
- The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) with Bela Lugosi
- The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff
- The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains
- The Black Cat (1934) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
- The Raven (1935) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
- Werewolf of London (1935) with Henry Hull
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935) with Boris Karloff
- Dracula's Daughter (1936) with Gloria Holden
- The Invisible Ray (1936) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
- Night Key (1937) with Boris Karloff
- Son of Frankenstein (1939) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
- Tower of London (1939) with Boris Karloff
1940s – Lon Chaney, Jr.
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 Lon Chaney's footsteps.
The Frankenstein and Wolf Man series, abruptly descending in quality to the realm of B movies, continued with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), in which Lon Chaney, Jr. played Frankenstein's monster, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) with Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. Son of Dracula (1943) featured Chaney, Jr. in Lugosi's original role as the Count. The Mummy series was also continued with The Mummy's Hand (1940) and The Mummy's Tomb (1942). Eventually, all of Universal's monsters, except the Mummy and Invisible Man, were 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 Lugosi in his second movie as Dracula, starring alongside Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein's monster. Lon Chaney, Jr. played the lead in seventeen of the thirty-five 1940s Universal horror films listed below:
- Black Friday (1940) with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi
- The Invisible Man Returns (1940) with Vincent Price
- The Invisible Woman (1940) with Virginia Bruce and John Barrymore
- The Mummy's Hand (1940) with Tom Tyler
- Man Made Monster (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi
- The Black Cat (1941) with Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi
- Horror Island (1941) with Dick Foran and Peggy Moran
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi
- Night Monster (1942) with Bela Lugosi
- Invisible Agent (1942) with Peter Lorre
- The Mummy's Tomb (1942) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi
- Phantom of the Opera (1943) with Claude Rains
- Son of Dracula (1943) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers
- Captive Wild Woman (1943) with Evelyn Ankers
- The Mad Ghoul (1943) with Evelyn Ankers and David Bruce
- Calling Dr. Death (1943) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Weird Woman (1944) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers
- Dead Man's Eyes (1944) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Climax (1944) with Boris Karloff
- House of Frankenstein (1944) with Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944) with Evelyn Ankers
- Jungle Woman (1944) with Evelyn Ankers
- The Mummy's Ghost (1944) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Mummy's Curse (1944) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Jungle Captive (1945) with Rondo Hatton
- House of Dracula (1945) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- The Frozen Ghost (1945) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Evelyn Ankers
- Strange Confession (1945) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Pillow of Death (1945) with Lon Chaney, Jr.
- House of Horrors (1946) with Rondo Hatton
- The Brute Man (1946) with Rondo Hatton
- She-Wolf of London (1946) with June Lockhart
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) with Lon Chaney, Jr. and Bela Lugosi
By the 1950s, Universal had stopped filming 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. 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 gained a 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.
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
- The Strange Door (1951) with Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff
- The Black Castle (1952) with Boris Karloff
- Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) with Boris Karloff
- It Came From Outer Space (1953)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
- Revenge of the Creature (1955)
- Cult of the Cobra (1955) with Faith Domergue
- This Island Earth (1955) with Faith Domergue
- Tarantula (1955)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
- The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
- The Mole People (1956)
- The Deadly Mantis (1957)
- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
- The Land Unknown (1957)
- The Monolith Monsters (1957)
- Monster on the Campus (1958)
- The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
- Curse of the Undead (1959)
- The Leech Woman (1960)
Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe
- This table only includes characters which have appeared in multiple films within the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe.
- A dark grey cell indicates the character was not in the film.
In 1999 and 2001 respectively, the films The Mummy and The Mummy Returns were both box office successes directed by Stephen Sommers. In 2008 Universal released the third film in the series The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The Scorpion King, was a spin-off prequel to the second movie.
In 2004, Stephen Sommers directed Van Helsing starring Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale. The film featured 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 and proved popular at the box office despite mixed reviews.
Rebooted Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe
In 2012, Universal announced plans to reboot two of their franchises: The Mummy and Van Helsing. Jon Spaihts would write The Mummy reboot, and Sean Daniel, who produced the previous three Mummy films, would return as producer. In December, it was stated that The Mummy would be a new take on the mythology, returning to its roots as a horror film, and set in the present day.
On May 1, 2012, Universal signed on with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman a two-year deal, producing Spaihts' reboot of The Mummy and a reboot of Van Helsing, which would star Tom Cruise, through their K/O Paper Products banner. Len Wiseman was announced as The Mummy's director on September 24, 2012.
Wiseman left the project in July 2013 due to schedule conflicts. In September, it was reported that Mama's director Andres Muschietti was in talks to direct the film. However, he dropped out in May 2014, due to creative differences.
On November 27, 2013, Universal set the film for an April 22, 2016 release.
New developments were made in July 2014, when Universal announced that they had tapped Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan to develop all classic movie monsters which include Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy, with The Mummy as the first developed. Kurtzman was set to direct the film by the end of the month. The next day, the film's release date was pushed back to June 24, 2016, when Universal announced the April 22 for its new film The Huntsman.
In October 2014, the film Dracula Untold, which had begun development in 2007 as Dracula: Year Zero, was released; producer Alissa Phillips confirmed at the film's UK premiere that the film was a part of the new monsters cinematic universe. She hoped that Luke Evans' character might have a cameo in a future The Mummy film and also spoke of a potential sequel. In an interview with IGN, director Gary Shore stated "It's optional for them if they want to use it as that launching pad." On October 15, THR reported that the ending scenes of the film hinted that the film Dracula Untold could be included into the monsters universe.
That same month, The Mummy reboot's plot was announced, with the film following a Navy SEAL and his team hunting terrorists in the Iraqi desert, and inadvertently setting events in motion that would tie him to the mummy of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
In November 2014, Universal hired Aaron Guzikowski to write the shared universe's reboot of The Wolf Man. In December 2014, Universal hired Jay Basu to write an undisclosed film for the shared universe.
Universal's chairman, in a November interview, stated that the new films would be more action-adventure based rather than horror, and would be set in a present-day setting in order to “reimagine and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.”
Later influences and 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 series 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, Mummy, and Wolf-Man make-ups (as well as Lon Chaney Jr. dressing as a famous role of his father's: The Hunchback of Notre Dame).
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 films The Invisible Man, It Came from Outer Space, and Tarantula.
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives opening scene was a homage to the opening scene of Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. Two men open up Lawrence Talbot's coffin and resurrect him by mistake. Jason Voorhees is resurrected in a similar fashion to Frankenstein's monster with lightning.
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 2005 feature film Frankenstein vs. the Creature from Blood Cove directed by William Winckler is an homage to the classic Universal Monsters, shot in black and white, featuring a Frankenstein Monster, the monster's Bride, a werewolf, and a half-man, half-fish creature. Swan Lake, composed by Tchaikovsky, was used as the film's title theme, just as it was used in Universal's Dracula and Mummy films.
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.
In 2012 films Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie contains many references to the Universal Monsters, such as Frankenstein's Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man and Dracula.
Merchandising of the Universal Monsters films has been collected by fans around the world for decades. However, when the films were originally released there was little in the way of merchandising other than lobby cards and posters.
Many years later, when the films regained popularity after being regularly shown on American TV, toys and model kits began to be sold. Universal particularly held to the copyrighting of their depiction of Frankenstein's monster.
Out of the first wave of collectables, the most notable was the 1961 plastic model kit of Frankenstein's monster by the now-defunct Aurora Plastics. In the next few years there followed models of Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon before the series switched to generic or characters from other firms, though there was a Bride of Frankenstein model in 1965. These hollow statues were quite popular among American boys.
After the popularity of the Aurora series, other companies eventually began using licensed caricatures of the Universal Monsters. Over the decades many collectables have appeared in one form or another; from Halloween masks and action figures to coffee mugs, miniature die-cast cars, jigsaw puzzles, Pez dispensers, lunch boxes, postal stamps, and so on.
Other memorabilia include the products from Sideshow Collectibles with very accurate 12 inch (1/6 scale) "action figures" of many of the Universal Monsters, as well as museum quality 1/4 scale "Premium Format" figures usually cast from polystone with accurate cloth costumes and decoration.
NECA Toys released a series of bobble head caricatures of all the main Universal Monsters in 2006, including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Bride of Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera and the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Diamond Select Toys is the current license holder for action figures, including 7-inch figures, 8-inch retro-styled figures and 2-inch Minimates. Diamond Select also makes vinyl banks based on the films, and their products are often issued in both color and black-and-white. Diamond Select is also a licensee for The Munsters, and has made figures of all of the show's Universal-inspired family members.
In addition to toys, multiple books based on the monsters have been produced, including novelizations of the films and original novels based on the characters, including Return of the Wolfman, a 1998 novel by Jeff Rovin which continued the adventures of Larry Talbot and was followed in 2000 and 2001 by The Devil's Brood and The Devil's Night, both by David Jacobs. In 2001 and 2002, Scholastic published a six-part series of children's books by Larry Mike Garmon, in which six monsters from the films (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, the Gill Man and the Bride of Frankenstein) escaped into the real world and had to be hunted down by a trio of 21st century teenagers. In 2006 and 2007, Dark Horse Comics, under its DH Press branch, published six books, each by a different author, based on the same six monsters as Garmon's series: Dracula: Asylum, Frankenstein: The Shadow of Frankenstein and Creature From The Black Lagoon: Time's Black Lagoon in 2006, and The Mummy: Dark Resurrection, The Wolf Man: Hunter's Moon and The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora's Bride in 2007.
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