HomeEntertainment100 Years Of Universal Monsters. The First Cinematic Universe.

100 Years Of Universal Monsters. The First Cinematic Universe.

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For 100 years the Universal Monsters franchise has horrified and entertained multiple generations of viewers, both on the silver screen and on home video. They have become cultural icons and have set the standard for many a horror cliché and the image in which these classic characters are presented. Not only that, but they also gave birth to the very first cinematic universe nearly a century before Marvel did theirs. Join us in a history of horror as we explore the world of Universal Monsters.

While it can be debated that the first “Universal Monster” originated in 1913 with the short film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring King Baggot, the franchise got its official start in 1923 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney. Chaney was known as “the Man of a Thousand Faces” and was able to bring the grotesque appearance of Quasimodo to life. The film became a success and started off a chain reaction unlike anyone had ever seen.

Shortly after Hunchback in 1925, Lon Chaney brought to life another classic horror icon with The Phantom of the Opera. His iconic portrayal of the Phantom Erik was unlike anything seen before, with people still recognizing his face all these years later. In 1928, German-born actor Conrad Veidt gave us another iconic portrayal in The Man Who Laughs. His appearance as the tragic character of Gwynplaine gave us one of cinema’s most terrifying smiles.

In 1931, with the revolution of sound in film, Universal acquired the rights to adapt the classic horror novel Dracula. With Lon Chaney sadly passing away in 1930, a new face was needed. Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi, who has played Dracula on stage, was chosen for the role. His portrayal of the character defined how the lord of the vampires is seen today with his hypnotic voice and terrifying demeanor. 

Shortly afterward, Universal decided to adapt Frankenstein. Lugosi reportedly turned down the role, so newcomer Boris Karloff put on the neck bolts instead. His rather frightening appearance as a mindless hulking menace struck fear in audiences of the time, becoming an instant classic.

Wanting to strike while the iron was hot, Universal cast Karloff in another monster role as  Imhotep in The Mummy, the first Universal monster that was not based on a literary source but rather on the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the supposed “curse” associated with it. While not as remembered as the previous two films from a year prior it still shows Karloff as an intimidating force.

In 1933 Universal would dazzle audiences with visual effects never seen before with The Invisible Man. British actor Claude Rains gives an intense performance of a scientist gone mad with power over his invention as he begins a reign of terror. We sympathize with him as we know of his struggle to be visible once more, but he is unable to find a cure.

In 1935 we would see the return of the Frankenstein Monster, with Karloff once again terrorizing the screen in The Bride of Frankenstein. A direct sequel that picks off after the previous film, we see the more human side of the monster as the evil Dr. Pretorius seeks to use the monster for his own ambitions and convinces Frankenstein to create a mate for the monster, played by actress Elsa Lanchester—a fantastic sequel on par with the original.

In 1935, Dracula would get a sequel in the form of Dracula’s Daughter, which also picked up after the first film. The film starred Gloria Holden as Marya Zeleska aka the daughter of Dracula. While a decent suspense film with exploring the human side of vampires, it doesn’t measure up to its predecessor. 

In the latter half of the 1930s, after a successful re-release of both Dracula and Frankenstein in theaters, Universal revived their monster business with 1939’s The Son of Frankenstein. In 1940, there was an explosion of films with The Invisible Man Returns, The Mummy’s Hand and The Invisible Woman. But perhaps the best-known film from this new era was 1941’s The Wolf Man.

Following in his father’s footsteps, actor Lon Chaney Jr. became a horror icon as he became the reluctant and yet ferocious creature of the night known as the werewolf. Chaney gives us a sympathetic story about a man afflicted with a curse that puts his loved ones in harm’s way. Only his death can bring him peace.

1942 gave us The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Tomb, and Invisible Agent. But in 1943, Universal gave us what is arguably one of the greatest crossovers in cinema history. The iconic film Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man sees the two iconic characters clash, giving us the birth of the cinematic universe.

Up until the point, there had only been one Wolf Man film but four Frankenstein films. If you wanted to understand certain elements of the story, you would have needed to have seen the previous films (though some details aren’t as accurate due to inconsistencies with continuity). Little did we know that this was only the beginning.

After 1943’s Son of Dracula and 1944’s The Invisible Man’s Revenge and The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse, an even bigger crossover came to be with House of Frankenstein that brought together not just the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monster, but also Dracula (Now played by: John Carradine). The three titans of terror are now united under one roof. There was a sequel one year later, in 1945, called House of Dracula, that continued the story.

In 1948, the event that could be called the Avengers: Endgame of the classic series came when the comedic duo of Bud Abbot and Lou Costello met Dracula, The Wolf Man, the Frankenstein Monster, and the Invisible Man in the all-time classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. While the film does give us a decent amount of comedy, it is also a treat for fans will multiple classic horror actors like Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. reprising their iconic roles.

The success of the climactic crossover gave us a few follow-ups, such as Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man in 1951, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953 and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy in 1955. But before the franchise concluded, Universal gave us one last iconic monster.

In 1954, we bore witness to the discovery of the missing link between mammals and fish, the demon from beneath the water, the terrifying Gill-Man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The film gave us revolutionary underwater filming and showed us what terrors may lay beneath the murky water. The film received two sequels: Revenge of the Creature in 1955 and The Creature Walks Among Us in 1956.

Decades later, we still talk about these classic characters and the actors who portrayed them. Every Halloween, names like Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney are brought up in conversation. The influence these characters and films have on popular culture cannot be understated. Even Universal seems to understand their importance with a new Monster-Themed Land coming to Epic Universe in Orlando.

So when you are thinking about what kind of movies you want to watch after a night of trick-or-treating, perhaps instead of the latest demon possession film, you might want to turn off the lights, snuggle under a blanket with your friends, and enjoy the atmosphere of the classic Universal Monsters.

Pirates & Princesses (PNP) is an independent, opinionated fan-powered news blog that covers Disney and Universal Theme Parks, Themed Entertainment and related Pop Culture from a consumer's point of view. Opinions expressed by our contributors do not necessarily reflect the views of PNP, its editors, affiliates, sponsors or advertisers. PNP is an unofficial news source and has no connection to The Walt Disney Company, NBCUniversal or any other company that we may cover.

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