The 10 Best Universal Monster Movies
Everybody no matter what age or gender or race they are knows Dracula has a widows peak, a cool cape, and speaks in a deep Hungarian accent; these same people know for a fact that Frankenstein’s monster was created by lightning and has a flat top, speaking mostly in grunts. While the population in general seems to think these trademarks of their favorite monsters have been there since the beginning, we film geeks can rest comforted in the fact that we know their true beginnings in the beloved Universal Monsters franchise. For the uninitiated, these are a series of horror films that Universal Studios built their company on from the 1920’s through the 1950’s all the while turning actors like; Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Claude Raines, Lon Chaney Sr. and Lon Chaney Jr. into legendary superstars forever associated with the horror genre. Since Halloween is quickly approaching we are all filled with a burning desire to watch a few horror films, and since the theaters are releasing nothing but another Paranormal Activity movie to quench this desire, it is about time to pay a visit to some of our favorite monsters who built the horror genre with their own hands…their own hands.
1. The Bride of Frankenstein
The masterpiece film from legendary director James Whale exhibits all the trademark staples of Universal horror; a tragic and sympathetic monster, campy humor, and gothic settings and all of these elements are put together to perfection in the movie that most every film critic and historian agrees is one of the best horror films of all time. Boris Karloff and Colin Clive return to this sequel as the monster and his maker giving performances that are nothing short of stellar. This time they are joined by Ernest Thesiger as the villainous Dr. Pretorious and Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s custom made mate. Despite being close to 80 years old this movie still holds up to modern viewing and should be mandatory for all horror fans to watch.
2. The Phantom of the Opera
Universal made two adaptations of the classic Gaston Leroux novel and while the later technicolor version is impressive, it is the the original silent classic that is the superior movie, thanks in no small part to the great actor and make-up artist Lon Chaney Sr. giving the performance his career as the tragic and disfigured Phantom. Chaney was arguably the most popular actor of his era without whom there would be no American horror films, and while volumes could be written about his career the most important talent he held was his ability to use a make-up kit to create memorable monsters to give nightmares to his fans. It was this talent along with his powerful skills as an actor that led to the Phantom’s unmasking becoming one of the most memorable scenes in film history. The film was also revolutionary in it’s use of technicolor which gave the masquerade scene a sense of life and festivity that wowed audiences. Sadly when Chaney passed he took many of his secrets with him, leaving no instructions for future make-up artists to use to duplicate his creations; and maybe that’s for the best, in a way those monsters died with him making them his exclusively.
While on the subject of films driven by their lead actor it would be a crime to forget Bela Lugosi’s defining performance in Dracula. The first horror movie in American cinema with a supernatural element could have been a horrible flop if not for Lugosi’s magnetic performance as the vampire, while many actors in the following year played Dracula, Lugosi WAS Dracula, his co-stars even said that while not filming he would drape himself in the iconic cape and practice poses in front of the mirror. His foreign mystique, charisma, thick accent, and hypnotic glare made him the perfect monster. Unlike many of his predecessors who tend to cry and whine about being cursed with immortality and being romantic, Lugosi’s vampire only used his charming and romantic aspects as a ruse to gain the trust of his victims so he could feed on them without mercy. Sadly while he was the most popular and versatile actor in his native Hungary, he would become stereotyped in America as a horror actor who never showed audiences in Hollywood what he was truly capable of. But his was not the only great performance in the film, one of the trademark actors of the Universal horror films; Dwight Frye, also mesmerized audiences as the psychotic Renfield who comes close to stealing the show.
While Dracula was a hit, Frankenstein solidified the horror film as the cornerstone of Universal Studios. The film stars Colin Clive as the wonderfully melodramatic Doctor Frankenstein, but it was the silent and heartfelt performance from Boris Karloff as his creation which won audiences over. Audiences then and now find it easy to sympathize with a creature who does not want to cause trouble but just wants to fit in and hopefully gain some form of affection from others in the process. The centerpiece for this film, the electrifying creation scene, still intrigues and fascinates audiences to this day. Much like it’s sequel, Frankenstein has aged very well for a film that is several decades old, as even modern audiences will enjoy it’s gothic atmosphere and strong story.
5. The Wolf Man
The movie that created the werewolf mythology for pop culture. After the studio changed hands in ownership the new heads of Universal still recognized that monsters were what the audiences wanted. Showcasing the best work of make-up artist Jack Pierce (second in talent only to Chaney), The Wolf Man, was a brilliant and suspenseful horror film with a tragic and almost Shakespearean story at it’s heart. The movie was the break out role for Lon Chaney Jr. who despite his father’s discouragement went into acting and gave an emotional performance as Laurence Talbot the man cursed to be a monster all the while trying to make peace with his emotionally distant father. One of the elements that helped sell this movie was the presence of a great supporting cast which included; Claude Raines, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya.
6. The Invisible Man
For years James Whale was hesitant to make the inevitable sequel to Frankenstein, it was during those years he made the science fiction/horror masterpiece, The Invisible Man. The special effects from John P. Fulton in the film were decades ahead of their time, as he used clever and inventive ways to make Dr. Griffin unseen until the end of the movie. This makes the film a must see for those who enjoy the triumph of creative practical effects over CGI. It was not just great special effects which made this movie a hit, it was anchored by the legendary Claude Raines as the lead actor, whose iconic raspy voice gave heart and soul to the character; as well future Oscar winner Gloria Stuart as his love interest.
7. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
During the 1940’s Universal Studios had two successful movies; monster movies and Abbott and Costello comedies, so it was a no-brainer that they would want to combine the two. Many fans consider the collaboration with the comic duo to be the downfall of the Universal monsters, by making them the subjects of campy humor. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, while Bud and Lou performed the hilarious antics they were known for, the monsters were at their terrifying best. It featured Chaney as the Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, and Bela Lugosi reprising the role of Dracula for the second and final time on screen. The perfect combination of gut busting humor and suspenseful terror, paved the way for others in that same mold like; The Lost Boys, Scary Movie, and Shaun of the Dead.
8. Creature From the Black Lagoon
While many of the 1950’s thought the era of the monsters was long gone, a brilliant Creature came from the depth of the Amazon to prove them wrong. The Creature From the Black Lagoon, took the familiar tale of a monster falling for a beautiful woman and added a horror twist set it in the mysterious Amazon River. The iconic monster was designed by the often uncredited Milicent Patrick and brought to life on land by Ben Chapman and under the water by Ricou Browning. The film revived interest in monsters for a whole new generation.
Often criticized as a Dracula rip-off, this Karloff vehicle is a fan favorite for many horror fans. While Lugosi played Dracula with a great amount of intensity, Karloff portrayed the titular mummy Imhotep in a quiet and almost sad fashion, yet it was no less powerful. Directed by legendary German cinematographer, Karl Freund, The Mummy expertly mixes the gothic horror of traditional Universal horror films with an Egyptian setting.
10. House of Frankenstein
What it lacks in quality, House of Frankenstein more than makes up for in pure entertainment. Audiences finally got to see all of their favorites; Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man, a hunchback, a mad scientist, and an angry torch wielding mob all in a single monster filled romp. Picking up after the events of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, Boris Karloff plays a Frankenstein obsessed scientist who uses the pantheon of monsters at his disposal to terrorize those oppose him.