The Universal Monsters Legacy


They’re often the first monsters we become acquainted with, and they’re probably the most enduring. So how did the collecting of characters known as the Universal Monsters come about. Let’s start off by examining exactly was qualifies as a Universal Monster. A Universal Monster is officially classified as a creature, supernatural being, or any character with ‘monstrous’ traits which features in a Universal Pictures horror film made between 1923 and 1960. The tradition of iconic monster designs began almost with the birth of cinema, with early pioneer Georges Méliès creating the first films to depict the supernatural. The Edison Company followed with their silent adaption of Frankenstein in 1910, followed by the international success of films such as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The influence of these early horror films promoted Universal’s foray into the genre, beginning with their silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The first horror film to be produced by the newly formed Universal Studios founded Carl Lamellae, Hunchback also introduced horror fans to Lon Chaney. Chaney became renowned for his incredible, self applied makeup effects, and was known as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’. The film was hugely successful, earning over $3 million – an impressive gross for a film made in the 1920s.

Chaney returned for what is considered the first ‘true’ Universal horror film in The Phantom of the Opera. Even if you haven’t seen this version, the image of Chaney with pinned back nostrils and wide sunken eyes has placed it among the most memorable reveal scenes in horror history.

Phantom was reported to have caused fainting and vomiting in audience members when it was released in 1925. It was a hit at the box office, one of the first films to cause widespread controversy, and inspired Universal to create more iconic monster designs for their horror films. Sadly, aside from the lost film London After Midnight, Chaney passed away before he could make the jump to the early talkies – though he was sought after for the portrayal of Dracula. Several silent horror films, including The Cat and the Cannery were produced by Universal between 1925 and 1931, but none featured the studio’s distinctive monster design.

In 1931, Dracula was released as the first horror film with sounds. Though not the first adaption of Bram Stoker’s novel, the Universal version solidified the perception of the Count that we have all come to recognise with. Bela Lugosi’s Hungarian accent gave Dracula his iconic drawn out delivery. The film, despite not being made on the scale that Universal envisioned – a result of the Great Depression-, it sold 50,000 tickets in it’s first forty eight hours of release, solidifying the Count as a monster icon.

The unexpected success of Dracula resulted in the release of Frankenstein less than a year later. The film was promoted as having Lugosi back in the starring role, but ultimately he rejected the part. According to legend, Boris Karloff, after a long career as an extra, was discovered in the Universal canteen by director James Whale and cast as the monster. The design of the monster remains the image most people associate with the Frankenstein story – flattened and scarred head, bolts used to shock the monster back to life. Interestingly, the common image of the monster walking with his arms outstretched and stumbling, was not seen until the later Son of Frankenstein. The film was a massive hit, and would be re-released many times, often as a double bill with Dracula, throughout Universal’s golden age.

Karloff starred in another iconic monster movie the following year – The Mummy. Heavily influenced by the discovery of Tutankamun’s tomb a decade previously, the monster design was also drew influence from the mummy of Rameses III. Again created by Jack Pierce, the image of Karloff, arms crossed in his coffin, has become synonymous with the horror genre.

Lugosi and Karloff starred in Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Old Dark House receptively, which despite having elements of the Universal Monster movie, did not introduce any iconic monsters. The next character to join the ranks was The Invisible Man, portrayed by Claude Rains in 1933. Feature some astounding special effects for the time, the effect of invisibility was achieved by a combination of puppetry, and shooting Claude Rains in a completely black velvet suit against a black velvet background and then combining this shot with another shot of the location the scene took place in using a matte process.

Many more horror pictures followed for Universal, including Lugosi and Karloff’s first appearance on screen together in The Black Cat, and the first mainstream werewolf film Werewolf of London. The characters from these films never quite reached the elite title of Universal Monster, with the next to make the list being the first female entrant – The Bride of Frankenstein. The 1935 film is often cited as director James Whale’s masterpiece, with the iconic look of the Bride again created by Jack Pierce. As well as solidifying the Bride’s place as a Universal Monster, the film also introduced the now iconic broken speech of the monster.

Sequels to the Frankenstein and Invisible Man series followed, with the next new entry to the monster line up being Lon Chaney Jr.’s portrayal of The Wolf Man in 1941. Following the legacy left by his father, Chaney Jr. would go on to become synonymous with horror. The Wolf Man was far more successful than Universal’s previous attempts to bring the werewolf monster to screen, and despite not featuring an on screen, full body transformation, did create one of the most iconic werewolf designs in cinema. The film would later inspire werewolf movies such as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.

Universal did continue to produce horror films in the following years, including sequels to many of their most successful franchises and crossover monster rallies such as House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. By the 1950s, the monsters had become such a huge part of popular culture that they began to appear in comedies alongside Abbot and Costello. A somewhat late entry to classic line did occur in 1954 with The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Gill-man has very little in common with the gothic-influenced monsters of the Universal line, yet has very much been accepted as part of the lineup. A monster born from the 1950s technological boom, the character and film are one of the earliest examples of sci-fi horror.

The advent of the atomic age ultimately ended the line of Universal Monsters, with the gothic and mystery overtones no longer feeling relevant or frightening when compared with the emerging sci-fi genre. Yet the overall atmosphere and design of the classic monsters have earned them a place in film history. The publication of horror magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland helped to keep the Universal Monsters in the consciousness of younger horror fans well into the 80s, by which time they were being revived in films such as The Monster Squad. Today, the influence of the monsters can be seen in countless horror films, television shows and comic books, proving the lasting legacy of these classic characters.




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