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Four Decades of Fearsome Fun: A Brief History of Universal Monsters

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History Universal Monsters

For four decades, no movie studio was more synonymous with horror than Universal. Its string of successful “creature features” – especially such heavyweights as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon – established Universal as “the house of horror,” a dependable source of ghoulish and ghostly fun.

1920s: The Universal “Proto-Monsters”

Image: Universal Pictures

In the 1920s, Universal released several silent films anticipating the studio’s specialization in all things monstrous. In two of them, expert actor and makeup artist Lon Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” played some of Universal’s earliest “monsters.”

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney played the title character, the malformed and mistreated bell-ringer of the grand Paris cathedral. Physically grotesque, Chaney’s Quasimodo actually dies a hero. He gives his life defending Esmeralda the gypsy from his wicked master Jehan, whose lust and violence make him the movie’s real monster.

Two years later, Chaney created an equally unforgettable face and played The Phantom of the Opera. The scene in which operatic ingénue Christine unmasks the Phantom ranks among American cinema’s most striking.

Unlike Quasimodo, the Phantom was a bona fide bad guy. But moviegoers empathized with his unrequited love for Christine. As horror film historian Mark Clark explains, “Chaney proved audiences would embrace a hideously ugly and thoroughly ruthless villain, as long as the character’s motivation remained romantic.”

Fans of superhero comics and movies will note another of Universal’s “proto-monster” movies, The Man Who Laughs (1928). It stars Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine, a man whose mutilated face wears a hideous perpetual smile. Although Gwynplaine is a victim and not a villain, his monstrous grin helped inspire the look of Batman’s nemesis, The Joker!

1930s: Universal’s First Monster Hits

Image: Universal Pictures

The Great Depression proved to be a monster that threatened the still-young American movie industry. From 1930-33, audiences shrunk from 90 million weekly admissions to 60 million, and ticket prices dropped by a dime (from around 30 to 20 cents).

But Universal avoided bankruptcy, which claimed several other studios, thanks in no small part to its phenomenally popular monster movies. A nation haunted by the real-life terrors of widespread poverty and unemployment, let alone gathering war clouds in Europe, found silver screen spooks a welcome diversion.

Dracula took a big bite of 1931’s box office, grossing about half a million dollars. It also made Bela Lugosi a movie star. He blended menace and magnetism, charisma and creepiness, in an unforgettable way. Not even Lugosi could avoid the shadow he cast in the undead count’s swirling black cape; he remained typecast in what he called “boogie man” roles for the rest of his life. But he created a cinematic icon whose immortality and popularity not even one of vampire hunter Van Helsing’s wooden stakes could end.

Thrilled with Dracula‘s success, Universal moved forward with Frankenstein. The tale of the prideful scientist who brings a cadaverous creature to unnatural life electrified audiences when it premiered in November 1931. It went on to do even better business than Dracula. By June 1932, rentals to theaters had earned over a million dollars.

The studio had wanted Lugosi to play Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. But Hollywood legend has it that director James Whale saw six-foot-three Boris Karloff in the studio cafeteria and knew he’d found his monster. Karloff later said Whale told him, “Your face has startling possibilities.”

Karloff’s mesmerizing portrayal of the monster became definitive. He not only brought makeup wizard Jack Pierce’s handiwork to life but also imbued the creature with emotional complexity.

For proof, look no further than the monster’s quest for companionship in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), first of the film’s many sequels. Initially enchanted by the mate manufactured for him – played by Elsa Lanchester, whose influence far outlasts her four minutes or so of screen time – his ecstasy quickly changes to confusion and grief when she rejects him.

“My dear old monster,” Karloff would say later in life. “He’s my best friend.” The monster became thousands of moviegoers’ friend, too.

The 1930s saw two more major Universal Monsters take their first bow.

In 1932, Karloff traded the Frankenstein monster’s ill-fitting black suit for the burial bandages of the accidentally revived ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep in The Mummy. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, The Mummy wasn’t based on a classic novel. It was an original story, inspired by archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb a decade earlier, as well as the legends of a curse that accompanied it. Jack Pierce again worked his makeup magic on Karloff’s possibility-filled face; giving the actor the full mummy treatment took eight hours.

In 1933, Universal went back to the books to adapt H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Successful British stage actor Claude Rains made his U.S. film debut as power-hungry chemist Dr. Jack Griffin – although, as the movie’s title would lead you to expect, his face isn’t on screen much. It’s his compelling vocal performance that sells the film, along with innovative effects by John P. Fulton that earned him an Academy Award nomination.

1940s: Return of the Son of the House of the Monsters… Meets The Wolf Man!

Image: Universal Pictures

Universal perfected the art of giving audiences what they wanted during the 1940s. The studio produced a steady stream of films extending and expanding their monsters’ myths, sometimes in surprising ways.

For example, in 1942’s Invisible Agent, Dr. Griffin’s grandson uses his grandfather’s invisibility serum to perform covert operations for the Allies behind German lines during World War II. You can tell patriotic sentiment is running high when even monsters are being pressed into service!

A new monster joined the pack in 1941. In The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr. (son of Universal’s first monster maestro) plays ill-fated Larry Talbot. Bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi), Talbot becomes one himself, assuming his more hirsute form “when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Talbot’s death by his own silver-topped walking stick didn’t stop him from rising again to tangle with Frankenstein’s creature in the first of Universal’s monster mashup movies, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Multiple monsters also appeared in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945).

Ironically, while these “monster rally” movies brought fans of different creatures together to the same theaters, the movies didn’t show the monsters themselves together on screen! It would take another onscreen pairing to make more true Universal monster meetups happen.

1950s: A Few More Monsters, a Lot of Funny Business

Image: Universal Pictures

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were vaudeville comedy stars. Their side-splitting “Who’s on First?” routine catapulted them to national fame and a Universal contract.

In 1948, the studio decided to see if their comedians and creatures could scare up a hit with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The title’s a little misleading; over the course of the movie’s 83 minutes, the pair run up against not only Frankenstein’s monster (played for the third and last time by Glenn Strange) but also Dracula (Lugosi, in his last outing as the Count or any other vampire), The Wolf Man (Chaney, Jr.)—and even, in a quick gag at the end, the Invisible Man (uncredited voice work by the undisputed voice of horror, Vincent Price)!

The concept paid off in critical praise and box office success. Variety said, “The comedy team battles it out with the studio’s roster of bogeymen in a rambunctious farce that is funny and, at the same time, spine-tingling.” The movie was Universal’s second-highest grossing movie that year.

Inevitably, then, the comedy duo met more monsters: the Invisible Man in 1951, the Mummy in 1955 – and, in between, yet another new addition to the Universal Monster family, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in 1953. Boris Karloff played the respectable Jekyll, and uncredited stuntman Eddie Parker played his depraved and dangerous alter ego.

In 1954, one last major monster joined Universal’s team of terrors. Creature from the Black Lagoon brought a half-human, half-fish “Gillman” to the surface. Emerging from dark and deep waters, the Creature embodies all the fears that haunt our subconscious. Despite scientists’ best efforts to capture and study him, he refuses to stay caged. Like all the past wrongs we have endured or committed, the Creature never stays submerged for long but surfaces time after time to terrorize us.

The Legacy of Universal Monsters

Image: Jason Edmiston/Mondo

When the moviegoing public’s taste for horror turned toward more gory and shocking fare, such as the Technicolor terror of England’s Hammer films, Universal’s near-monopoly on monsters came to an end. But people’s memories of and affection for Universal’s monsters themselves never faded. Like their supernatural protagonists, the films returned from the dead for late-night screenings and TV broadcasts, winning large new legions of fans.

The Universal Monsters are familiar, even beloved faces of Halloween. But at any time of year, they are welcome reminders that life is full of mystery – and that something a little monstrous lurks inside us all.

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