6. The Classic Universal Monsters were portrayed in a manner to gain sympathy from the audience
One of the secrets of the success of the initial monsters in Universal’s horror films was the depiction of the monsters in a sympathetic manner, as vicitms of tragedy themselves. Frankenstein’s monster was made evil by the insertion of a faulty brain by its creator, making the monster as much of a victim as the child he threw into a well. Dracula was stricken by the curse of the undead, forced to roam eternally in search of victims through no fault of his own. The same was true of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, who became the victim of a werewolf, and constantly sought ways of overcoming the curse.
Universal played on the audience sympathy in a sequel to Frankenstein, 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. Critics and fans considered it one of the most successful sequels ever made, and despite encountering censorship issues due to the enactment of the Hays Code, it was well-received at the box office. Elsa Lanchester portrayed a female version of the creature, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be a mate for his original reanimated man, somehow resurrected for the film. Karloff’s monster cries when he realizes the mate intended for him had rejected him and caused both of their “deaths”, neither of which was permanent.
7. Universal Studios exploited Lon Chaney’s name by dropping the Jr.
Lon Chaney Sr. was a silent film star known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces”. He was an innovator in the use of makeup and costume which set him apart from other actors of his day, beginning his career onstage in Vaudeville. When his young wife attempted suicide in Los Angeles (she survived) the ensuing scandals resulted in Chaney leaving the stage for film, and sparked his interest in changing his character to the point that he as the actor was unrecognizable by the audience. It was Chaney who created Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (silent) and the title character in The Phantom of the Opera.
Chaney’s son Creighton changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr. when his film career began, aware of the box office drawing power of his father’s name. Universal Studios took it a step further and for a time dropped the Jr. in the hope of convincing potential audiences that it was the same actor. The second Lon Chaney found his initial success as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, and was soon typecast in that role, offered other horror picture roles on the Universal lot but never getting the serious dramatic parts he craved. Later in his career he gained some parts in films of the Western genre.
8. The Inner Sanctum Mysteries of radio were adapted to film in the 1940s
The Inner Sanctum was a popular radio program which portrayed mysteries, often in a camp production, and was often hosted by a horror movie star. Many of the actors famous for portraying Universal’s Classic Monsters appeared on the program, as hosts and as stars in the production. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Vincent Price, Lon Chaney and others joined stars like Frank Sinatra, Richard Widmark, Orson Welles, and Burgess Meredith. Over 500 episodes were broadcast, each announced by the signature sound of a creaking door slowly opening before the voiceover began.
In the 1940s six films were produced by Universal Studios under the Inner Sanctum series, all of which featured Lon Chaney. The first of the series, Calling Doctor Death, was filmed in just three weeks on the Universal lot, and all six of the series were low-budget attempts to cash in on Chaney’s popularity as the Wolf Man, as well as the popularity of the radio series and the books on which the former was based. Marketed as “An Inner Sanctum Mystery” the six films were made in just under two years, with the result of further damaging Lon Chaney’s career as suited for only the types of horror films being made on the Universal lot.
9. Literary sources added to the horror movies genre by having their titles usurped but their stories rewritten
In the 1930s Universal tapped the literary and poetic works of Edgar Allen Poe, producing Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). All three were marketed using Edgar Allen Poe as the creator, all three were Poe titles, but none of the three bore a resemblance to the original story. The Black Cat starred both Lugosi and Karloff and became the biggest moneymaker of the year for Universal. It was widely credited with introducing the psychological horror genre, relying on human emotions to create fear in its audience.
Murders in the Rue Morgue likewise had little to do with Poe’s story, other than naming a detective character Dupin. The film was marketed by identifying its star – Bela Lugosi – as “Dracula himself” though the vampire character did not appear. Instead Lugosi played a mad doctor – named Dr. Mirakle – who kidnaps young women and injects them with the blood of apes, in an attempt to create a mate for sideshow ape he exhibited in Paris. Lugosi and Karloff also appeared together in The Raven, which was determined to be too violent by critics, and led to a slowdown in the horror movie genre by Universal and other studios.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: