Universal Studios and the Universal monsters of the 1930’s and 1940’s are the template for our Halloween. Mad scientists and hunchback assistants. Angry villagers with pitchforks and torches. Shuffling monsters with electrodes their neck. Full moons and werewolves. Aristocratic vampire in capes. During their nearly two decade reign over horror, Universal created much of the iconography we associate with movie monsters. After Dracula Untold and The Mummy failed to resurrect a ‘Dark Universe’, genre-specialist Blumhouse Productions and Leigh Whannell stepped in. The result – a critically-praised re-imagining of The Invisible Man. Apparently, several additional Universal Monsters titles are now in some stage of development. So what better time to re-visit the best of the original Universal Monsters?
Though Universal released The Creature From The Black Lagoon several years after their ‘Monster’ wave, it’s still an achievement. Like its predecessors, Creature featured impressive monster make-up effects and state-of-the-art underwater photography. Yet another runner-up is Son of Frankenstein, the third film in the Frankenstein series. Clearly a step backwards from the first two entries, Son of Frankenstein is still a fun, well-made sequel. Boris Karloff turns in his final performance as the Monster. In addition, we get Basil Rathbone as the ‘son of Frankenstein’ and Béla Lugosi as ‘Ygor.’
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Universal Pictures had its first monster ‘mash up’ with their 1943 release, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. While it’s a largely satisfying effort, Universal’s next attempts to bring its most popular monsters together were \underwhelming. Sadly, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula are strictly B-movie entries. By the mid-40’s, The Universal Monsters cycle was show its age, feeling more like self-parody than horror. So what better way to reinvigorate the Gothic monsters than an intentional blend of comedy and chills. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the definitive monster mash-up. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were legendary comedians. And their rapport and timing are on display here with quick, sharp dialogue. As for the monsterS themselves, they play it straight and look better than they had for several years.
The Wolf Man
The Wolf Man did for Lon Chaney, Jr., what Dracula and Frankenstein did for Lugosi and Karloff, respectively. Missing the directorial skills of a James Whale or Tod Browning, The Wolf Man still exemplifies the best of vintage horror. It’s a simple story that understands what made the best of the Universal Monster movies work. Chaney’s ‘Larry Talbot’ is a tragic monster doomed by fate, not malice. Even in 2020, the misty moors still look haunting in the movie’s vivid black and white cinematography. Furthermore, Jack Pierce’s revolutionary make-up effects influenced werewolf design for decades. In fact, Pierce’s work wouldn’t be outdone until the release of An American Werewolf in London.
The Invisible Man
Another early Universal Monsters effort from director James Whale, The Invisible Man stands out from its peers. There’s quite a bit of dark humour running beneath the surface in The Invisible Man. In terms of story structure, The Invisible Man also has a unique first act that feels remarkably different to the other Universal Monster movies. Claude Rains is brilliant as a good man driven slowly mad. Even by today’s standards, the ‘invisibility effects’ feel remarkably clever.
The black and white cinematography and lighting turned graveyards, castle halls, and laboratories into iconic horror imagery.
It’s remarkable watching Frankenstein today knowing it’s over 80 years old. Simply put, James Whale made a beautiful Gothic horror film. The black and white cinematography and lighting turned graveyards, castle halls, and laboratories into iconic horror imagery. With his performance, Boris Karloff gave us one of horror’s most memorable tragic monsters. In addition, the riverside scene with Frankenstein and the little girl is heartbreaking. And Jack Pierce’s monster make-up has stood the test of time.
Bride of Frankenstein
Bride of Frankenstein the rare case of the sequel that surpasses the original. Director James Whale returned behind the camera. On the other side of the camera, Colin Clive and Boris Karloff reprised their roles as creator and monster, respectively. No longer encumbered by the need to set up its story, Bride of Frankenstein feels like a tighter movie. To some extent, it’s a little bogged down by silly supporting characters. In addition, Bride’s antagonist is arguably too much of a traditional villain. But Karloff’s arc as The Monster is more complete this time around. Undoubtedly, the sequel is a testament to Karloff’s legacy.