The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters

Larry Holzwarth - October 18, 2019

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Though the monsters were popular, Universal suspended production of the films due to censorship issues in the late 1930s. Wikimedia

10. Universal suspended the monster films for three years in the 1930s

In 1936 Universal responded to the Hays Code and increased censorship of films by suspending the production of films featuring the classic monsters and the stars who portrayed them on film. Enterprising theater owners, with no new product with which to entice horror film fans, repackaged some of the original releases as double features. A double bill which combined Dracula and Frankenstein, in their original formats and length, was highly successful and drew the attention of Universal executives in 1939. The result was Son of Frankenstein.

Son of Frankenstein was the last time Boris Karloff portrayed the monster, the first time Bela Lugosi appeared as Ygor, the doctor’s assistant, and featured Basil Rathbone as Wolf von Frankenstein, son of Henry Frankenstein, creator of the monster. Both the monster and Ygor were apparently (to the audience) killed in the film, though later revivals would prove them more durable than thought. Lugosi and Karloff received positive reviews for their performances, though The New York Times speculated that the film was “the silliest picture ever made”. The film revived Universal studio’s fortunes and the classic monster genre.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
By the end of the 1930s Karloff and Lugosi found their popularity with audiences ebbing. Wikimedia

11. Karloff and Lugosi faded in popularity with audiences in the 1940s

Though the Frankenstein and Dracula franchises, as they would be called today, continued during the 1940s the two stars most closely linked to them – Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi respectively – saw their careers begin to ebb. Lon Chaney’s Wolf Man became Universal’s most popular monster with the release of The Wolf Man in 1941. Chaney took on the role of the monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), and Lugosi played the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) with Chaney as the werewolf. Several Mummy films appeared, with the hard-working Chaney playing the Egyptian title character in three.

In 1943 Universal released The Phantom of the Opera, a remake of the 1925 silent film which had starred Lon Chaney. Claude Rains assumed the title role. The film drifted from the story depicted in the original film and the novel on which it was based, and where Chaney’s Phantom terrified audiences, according to critics Rains’ version did not. The film was nonetheless successful at the box office, the only true measure of Hollywood success, and by the end of the year Universal announced a remake, obviously in the belief another potential franchise was in their hands.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Bela Lugosi played the role of Dracula only twice, one of which was a spoof. Wikimedia

12. Bela Lugosi created the stereotype vampire, though he only portrayed him twice on film

Bela Lugosi and the character of Dracula are inextricably linked, and have been since the iconic film was released in 1931. Throughout the rest of his career he tried to break out of the horror genre with little success. He appeared in small roles in mainstream films, such as in the Greta Garbo vehicle Ninotchka (1939) but his medical issues led producers and directors to be wary of casting him in larger roles. He was paired with Boris Karloff in five Universal films, always yielding the top billing to the latter, and two additional films at RKO Studios. Their relationship was often strained.

Lugosi’s career declined steadily through the 1940s during which he portrayed the Frankenstein monster in a role which afforded him no dialogue, and a voiceover role in another Frankenstein film when the monster was portrayed by Chaney. In 1948 Lugosi appeared in what was the final major motion picture of his career, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In the film the comic pair encounter Frankenstein’s monster (played by Glenn Strange), Chaney’s Wolf Man, and several other brief meetings with others of the Universal monsters’ stable. They also deal with Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi for only the second time in his career. It was the last time he played Dracula on film.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The Creeper series was to be built around character actor Rondo Hatton. Wikimedia

13. The Creeper series lasted a mere two films

In the mid-1940s, Universal planned a series of films based on new monster characters, recognizing that stories featuring the Big Four (The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula) were beginning to be played out. One such series was to be based on a character known as The Creeper, a madman easily manipulated into creating brutal murders. The first was filmed in 1945 and starred Rondo Hatton as The Creeper, though the film was titled House of Horrors. A second film, The Brute Man, was filmed in early 1946, also starring Hatton as The Creeper. Neither film was well-received.

Universal planned further films based on The Creeper, which were to run for about an hour in length and shown as a second feature B picture. But Hatton died in February 1946 following a series of heart attacks and plans for the series were shelved. Both films were shown repeatedly though they never rose in the regard of critics. The Creeper was one of several series of B pictures planned by Universal to show in conjunction with other B pictures or as a second feature when viewing one of their A pictures, especially those which were re-released in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
When the classic monsters could no longer scare audiences they were used to make them laugh. Wikimedia

14. By the end of the 1940s the Classic Monsters were played for laughs

In 1948 Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein was released, and the classic monsters appeared with the comedians as straight men and comic foils. In the film, crates containing Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster are due to be delivered to a wax museum, and baggage handlers Abbott and Costello are warned of the shipment by Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. It was the first appearance of Dracula, the monster, and the Wolf Man in a Universal film since 1945, and it was widely regarded as an indication that none of the three classic monsters retained any ability to frighten an audience.

Glenn Strange played the monster, one of three times he held the role, the same number as Boris Karloff. Strange was best known for his role of the bartender, Sam, in the television western Gunsmoke. Toward the end of the film, after defeating and escaping the monsters, Abbott and Costello had a brief encounter with the Invisible Man, voiced by Vincent Price. Using the former symbols of horror as a comic device was so successful that Universal, as it had done when they were frightening, went back to them after they had become merely entertaining.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
A series of comedies brought the classic monsters back to the screen as comic foils. Wikimedia

15. In order to lure the public, Universal used Karloff’s name in the title of the next Abbott and Costello film

Universal was so pleased with the results of the first pairing of the monsters with the comedians that it made another film in similar style the following year. Rather than relying on the drawing power of the name Frankenstein in the title, the film was called Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. Karloff did not play one of the classic monsters, but appears as a mysterious visitor from the east, Swami Talpur. The Swami possesses powers of hypnotism strong enough to induce victims under his spell to commit suicide. When he tried to have Costello’s character kill himself he finds him too stupid to hypnotize.

The success of the film with the public, as well as that of its predecessor, was due more to the comic mugging of Lou Costello with the monsters and the evil Swami than the monsters themselves. Several more Abbott and Costello adventure films appeared during the 1950s, and led to reissues of the films which had created the monsters, as well as their appearance on television towards the end of the decade. Meanwhile low-budget films from other studios took over the idea of presenting Dracula as a fearsome figure, rather than a comic foil.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Creature from the Black Lagoon introduced a new monster and a new set of sequels for Universal. Wikimedia

16. A new classic monster appeared in 1954

With Frankenstein and the Wolf Man becoming comedy stars, Universal looked for a new monster which could be used to return the idea of horror to their horror genre. They found one in 1954 when they released Creature from the Black Lagoon. Movies shown in 3D had been popular in the early 1950s, and Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in that format, but it was only distributed to large theaters and cities in 3D. The rest of the country saw it in standard 2D format. The film also drew on recent discoveries by marine biologists of up to then unknown species of undersea life, many of them extinct.

The creature was known to its discoverers as the Gill Man, a humanoid which could breathe both in and out of water. Two actors portrayed the creature in a costume which gave it a fearsome appearance and completely masked the man wearing the costume. The film featured several underwater scenes, beautiful endangered women in swimming attire, and heroic rescues. Several people were killed by the creature before it was shot multiple times and sank into the Black Lagoon, leaving the audience the impression it was dead. It would return, and quickly joined its predecessors as a classic monster.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The Black Lagoon series was short, but the Creature joined the pantheon of classic monsters. Wikimedia

17. The second Creature film featured the film debut of a well-known actor, director, and producer

The year following the release of Creature of the Black Lagoon the Gill Man returned in Revenge of the Creature, the first of eventually three films which mined the new character. The film was shot for the most part at Marineland of Florida near Jacksonville. The film presents Gill Man as having survived being shot at the end of the first film, captured, and sent to the fictional Ocean Harbor Oceanarium. There it becomes attracted to one of the female students and attempts to kidnap her. The film ends as had its predecessor, with Gill Man being shot as tries to escape from pursuit.

The film, unlike the original, was widely panned by critics, though it made enough money for Universal to give the green light for a second sequel. Early in the film a young laboratory technician identified as Jennings holds a brief discussion with a main character, Professor Ferguson. Jennings accuses a cat of destroying one of the lab rats, only to subsequently find the missing rodent in his coat pocket. The young actor portraying Jennings was Clint Eastwood in his first film role. The role was uncredited when the film was released in 1955.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Shock Theater brought the classic monsters to television and a whole new audience in the 1950s and 1960s. Wikimedia

18. The monsters moved to television in 1957 as Shock Theater

In October 1957 Universal released 52 of the horror films made prior to 1948, through the television arm of Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems. The classic Universal films, some of which had not been seen in years, included Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, Son of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, and many more. Distributed by Screen Gems to local markets, most chose to air them as late-night television or Saturday afternoon programs. Nearly all markets adopted a “horror host” to supplement the broadcast, costumed as a ghoul or other monster, on a set which added to the atmosphere.

Some of the broadcasts were done as camp, while some presented a more somber mood. Camp came to dominate. The local host was necessary because of the widely varying length of the films, with some lasting less than an hour and some nearly two hours. The name of the broadcast varied by market, but the films were distributed by Screen Gems as Shock Theater. It was the birth of the many camp oriented airings known today as Creature Feature, Svengoolie, and others. It also generated a renewed interest in the classic monsters which soon became prevalent in other media.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The classic monsters on television spawned a new industry in fan magazines and comic books. Wikimedia

19. The classic monsters became brands before the term was used

Shock Theater was an immediate success, and stations airing the films saw an immediate, and in most cases large increase in advertising revenues. The new success of the classic monsters led to them appearing in another form of media entirely. Print magazines dedicated to the Universal Monsters and characters began to appear in 1958. One of the first was Famous Monsters of Filmland. It was originally intended to be a single-issue publication to take advantage of the surge in the popularity of the films. Instead it continued to publish until 1983. It became known among fans as FM. It was revived and survives today online.

FM promoted the films with original articles aimed at teenagers and what in a later day would be known as tweens. It used stills from the films, promotional artwork, and new original artwork to illustrate its pages lavishly, and added to the legends and works from which the monsters had sprung. The magazine’s circulation grew until the late 1960s, when the older films began to appear with decreasing frequency on television and fan interest declined with them. Nonetheless, throughout the 1960s, newsstands were crowded with competing magazines dedicated to the classic monsters and the films in which they appeared.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The Aurora plastic model kits were popular through the sixties, reissued with glow in the dark parts near the end of the decade. imdb

20. Plastic model kits for the Classic Monsters appeared in 1960

With Shock Theater and Famous Monsters of Filmland driving up interest in the Universal Monsters, the Aurora Plastics Company approached Universal with the idea of producing styrene plastic models of the most venerable of the monsters. Post-World War II the plastic model industry in American had focused on weapons of the war, as well as cars and trucks. Aurora believed that there was an untapped interest in the models, one in which the company could compete with companies such as Monogram and Revell. In 1961 they introduced Frankenstein, modeled after the image of Boris Karloff, which was a success.

The following year Lugosi as Dracula and Chaney as the Wolf Man appeared. Since the original films had been made in black and white, the first time the monsters appeared in color to many fans were on the boxes containing the kits. In 1970 the kits were released a second time, enhanced by the addition of glow in the dark details such as hands, bases, and accessories. Aurora eventually became part of Nabisco, and the molds and rights for the kits were sold to rival companies, including Revell and Monogram. They continue to appear from time to time, usually marketed by smaller boutique companies, but in 1965 they were easily found in the models’ section of any drugstore.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
The Munsters’ homage to Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster is impossible to miss in this cast photograph. Wikimedia

21. The Munsters spoofed the Universal Monsters in 1964

The American sitcom The Munsters debuted in September, 1964, unabashedly spoofing the Universal Monsters and other American television shows such as Leave it to Beaver, and other shows featuring wholesome families. The family head, Herman, was a Frankenstein’s monster in the Boris Karloff vein. His son Eddie was a young half-vampire and half-werewolf, his father-in-law a Dracula style vampire and mad scientist. His wife was a vampire, and they all worried about the future of their unfortunate niece, who was a normal American stereotypical girl next door. The show’s concept was based entirely on the normalcy of the monsters.

As with the majority of the Universal movies it spoofed, the show was broadcast in black and white, with most of the action set in the dingy, dusty, and gloomy classic “haunted house”. The Munsters, as with the Abbott and Costello movies, eliminate any sense of fear or horror from the characters, and presented them as comic foils. The Shock Theater presentations were in their heyday at the same time. The contrast between the by then considered classic horror movies and the comic display of the Munsters was stark, and the Universal monsters fell deeper into the morass of being quaint stereotypes of a bygone age.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
General Mills used the monsters to sell breakfast cereal to children by the 1970s. YouTube

22. The Universal monsters become cereal salesman during Saturday morning cartoons and other childrens’ programming

In 1971, cereal giant General Mills introduced two new cereal lines aimed at children, marketing them heavily towards the audience of the Saturday morning cartoons which were prevalent at the time. The first was a chocolate flavored breakfast cereal named Count Chocula. It was followed by a strawberry flavored concoction called Franken Berry. Advertising included animated characters Count Alfred Chocula, based on Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (complete with accent and cape) and Franken Berry, who spoke in tones reminiscent of Boris Karloff. The two characters argued over whose cereal tasted better until something frightened them to the point that the argument was discontinued.

They were not the first cartoon caricatures of the iconic monsters. In 1964 a Frankenstein monster appeared with Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil in the cartoon, The Devil and Mr. Hare. The Beatles sampled a Frankenstein monster in the film Yellow Submarine (though The Beatles had nothing to do with the production of the film’s animation or story) which morphed into an animated John Lennon after drinking an unknown beverage. Congenial versions of the Frankenstein monster, far removed from its initial Universal appearance in 1931, appeared throughout the 1970s, and continued to appear today.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Cartoon image of Boris Karloff (with Arthur Treacher and Buster Keaton) who later voiced one of the most beloved animated productions of all time. Wikimedia

23. Boris Karloff became a beloved children’s star for the Christmas season, creating another American icon

On December 18, 1966 an animated Christmas special based on a book by Dr. Seuss was aired for the first time. It featured Boris Karloff, who first portrayed the Frankenstein monster on film, as the narrator of the story and as the voice of its main character, the Grinch. How the Grinch Stole Christmas became a major part of the Christmas season ever since its first airing, and finally freed Karloff from his typecasting as a star of horror films and television programs. Karloff’s was the only voice to appear on the special, other than the Whos’ singing and the song “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch’, which was performed by Thurl Ravenscroft (they’rrrrrrrre great!).

Another performer who managed to escape the stereotype of being able to only perform in horror movies was Claude Rains, who by 1942 created the role of Inspector Renault in Casablanca, as well as many other notable roles. Rains eventually was nominated for Best Supporting Actor four times. He contributed his considerable skills to motion pictures including Lawrence of Arabia, Caesar and Cleopatra, Mrs. Skeffington, and Angel on My Shoulder. Most of the actors who performed as the Universal monsters, including Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, fought with little success against the typecasting for the rest of their careers.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Bela Lugosi’s costume for Dracula was adapted in a 1979 remake, though his heavy accent was not. Wikimedia

24. In 1979 Dracula returned to the big screen

Dracula, and scores of other low budget vampire movies which loosely covered the character created by Bram Stoker continued to appear in film every couple of years or so throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Other versions of the vampire tale appeared, and actors such as Christopher Lee and Vincent Price made horror movies which mimicked the interpretation of Bela Lugosi in the classic Universal film. In 1979, Dracula returned in a version which faithfully followed the Bram Stoker novel and the successful stage adaptation. It was performed over 900 times on Broadway between 1977 and 1980, with the film shot concurrently.

Frank Langella portrayed the title role to critical acclaim and public approbation, but in reviews the performance was compared – perhaps inevitably – to Lugosi’s decades earlier. Unsurprisingly at the same time a gothic Dracula returned to first run theaters, a comic version also appeared, a camp film called Love at First Bite, starring George Hamilton. Langella’s performance drew approving reviews, as did the sets and mood of the film, but it was evident that Dracula’s power to make members of the audience faint from fear was a thing of the past.

The Story of the Universal Classic Monsters
Bela Lugosi in costume as Frankenstein’s monster, still copied widely every Halloween by celebrants. Wikimedia

25. The Universal Monsters became and remain American icons, seen every Halloween

The Universal Classic Monsters were born in the early days of talking movies, out of black and white films set in gloomy tones, sprinkled with the myths of Eastern Europe. Their initial impact was one of awe at the filmmaker’s ability to frighten the audience. More jaded later audiences learned to regard them with a snicker. Their images are recalled throughout the year, but never more so than in the days and nights as Halloween approaches. At every Halloween party, someone is likely to appear as one of them, in serious homage or in campy spoof. Sexy vampires have become as common as scary.

But the monsters worked their way into American culture and American history and they retain their place, though their ability to shock and frighten has faded into the mists which were so much a part of their image. Today they are regarded with fond amusement, an annual entity like the Easter Bunny or green beer for Saint Patrick’s Day. Every decade or so they seem to reappear, resurging like a delayed tide. Perhaps its just a quirk of the common memory reminding us all, deep down in some primitive instinct, “Even a man who is pure in heart and who says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Legendary Comics Reunites Horror Icons Bela Lugosi and Dracula for New Graphic Novel”. Graeme McMillan, The Hollywood Reporter. October 10, 2019

“Frankenstein”. Alfred Rushford Greason, Variety. December 8, 1931

“Boris Karloff: More than a Monster”. Stephen Jacobs. 2011

“Claude Rains Makes His Film Debut in a Version of H. G. Wells’s Novel ‘The Invisible Man'”. Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times. November 18, 1933

“Lon Chaney Jr: Horror Film Star”. Don G. Smith. 1996

“The Monster Movies of Universal Studios”. James L. Neibaur. 2017

“The Films of Lon Chaney”. Michael F. Blake. 1998

“Inner Sanctum Mysteries: Behind the Creaking Door”. Martin Grams. 2003

“Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931 – 46”. M. Brunas, J Brunas, and Tom Weaver. 1990

“Review: Son of Frankenstein”. Variety. December 31, 1938

“Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: the expanded story of a haunting collaboration”. Gregory William Mank. 2009

“Bela Lugosi: Dreams and Nightmares”. Gary Rhodes. 2007

“Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic”. Mark A. Vieira. 2003

“Abbott and Costello in Hollywood”. Bob Furmanek; Ron Palumbo. 1991

“An in-depth look at ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’. Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, 3d film archive. Online

“The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy”. Tom Weaver, David Schecter, and Steve Kronenberg. 2014

“Chicago TV Horror Movie Shows from Shock Theater to Svengoolie”. Ted Okuda and Mark Yurkiw. 2007

“About Us. Famous Monsters of Filmland”. American Gothic Press. Online

“Aurora Monster Models – turning every boy’s dream into a nightmare”. Nige Burton, Classic Online

“The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane”. Stephen Cox. 2006

“Monsters: They started out just a little bit nervous”. Article under brands, General Mills. Online

“Hollywood Flashback: Boris Karloff Played His Final Creature in 1966’s ‘Grinch'”. Bill Higgins, The Hollywood Reporter. November 8, 2018

“Screen: Langella’s Seductive Dracula Adapted From Stage”. Janet Maslin, The New York Times. July 13, 1979

“‘When the wolfbane blooms’ – birth of the werewolf”. Article, Universal Monsters Universe. Online