Before Universal Studios began producing monster movies, we didn’t have those iconic images of creaking staircases, decrepid cobweb-filled mansions, spooky mists, or even mobs of angry villagers with torches and pitchforks.
But most importantly, we didn’t have the monsters.
Well, we did……in our imaginations. But It was Universal Studios who put them on the big screen.
Universal lead the pack in producing scary movies from 1923 to about 1960; with the success of films like The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. For about 40 years, movie-goers lined up to see how their favorite horror actors; Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., would scare them next.
A tremendous success at the box office, Hunchback of Notre Dame inspired Universal to produce the studio’s first true horror film in 1925, The Phantom of the Opera, based on the mystery novel by Gaston Leroux. Lon Chaney designed and endured a torturous make-up regime that exceeded the demands of his previous role as the Hunchback. The highlight of the movie is when the timid Christine removes the phantom’s mask revealing the sunken-eyed monster underneath. Chaney left Universal and signed a contract with MGM, unfortunately dying before he could make any more monsters.
Frankenstein, (loosely based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelly), was released on December 4, 1931 and grossed a whooping $53,000 in just one week. The most well-known image of Frankenstein’s monster in popular culture is derived from Boris Karloff’s portrayal in this movie. There are stories of audience members passing out in terror the minute he appears on screen. His makeup was created by movie-makeup legend Jack Pierce. It was Pierce who designed the iconic “flat head” for Karloff’s monster, although director James Wales tells a different story. There’s no musical soundtrack in the film, except for the opening and closing credits; adding to the “creepy” factor.
Frankenstein was a huge hit with both audiences and critics, the film was followed by multiple sequels and is still considered to be one of the best horror films in movie history.
Bela Lugosi was performing as Dracula in the stage play of Bram Stoker’s gothic novel when Universal bought the rights for the film. Having been born in Transylvania, he was a natural choice for this 1931 talkie, although not the first. Director Tod Browning wanted his dear friend Lon Chaney for the part, despite the fact that Chaney had just signed with MGM at the time. Chaney’s death sealed Lugosi’s fate with his “signature” role….and the character he could never shake. There is no denying that Bela Lugosi will always be the true Dracula; handsome, mysterious and alluring,
……but he was forever typecast as the Count.
Originally titled The New Adventures of Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein proved that resurrecting dead monsters would earn massive profits for Universal. Elsa Lanchester was a small actress at the time, and didn’t even get billing for the title role. The opening credits simply list The Monster’s Bride as played by “?”. But we all know it was Elsa; she also played Mary Shelly in the opening scene of the film. With a gravity-defying hair-do inspired by Nefertiti and a hiss she learned from swans, Elsa steals her scenes from the magnetic Karloff. Who, by the way, was forced to talk in this picture by the Universal studio heads…..so he only used 40 words.
The Bride of Frankenstein cost an astounding $8.5 million to produce (in modern figures, of course) and is considered by some to be one of those rare movie sequels that is actually better than the original.
Billed only as “Karloff” for The Mummy, Boris Karloff’s make-up took make-up artist Jack Pierce, who else?, 8 hours to apply. Maybe that’s why the bandaged Karloff only has a few moments of memorable screen time. The rest of the film he appears in less elaborate make-up….and wearing a fez. There were no sequels for this thriller, but Universal did make several more “Mummy-themed” movies.
None were as chilling as Karloff’s portrayal.
In 1933 The Invisible Man, also directed by James Whale, was Claude Raines first American screen performance. Well, sort of. He’s invisible, or covered in bandages and goggles through most of the movie. Audiences were wowed with the groundbreaking visual effects. Several tricks, like Raines undressing to reveal emptiness under his clothes, were shot with The actor covered in black velvet and filmed against a black velvet background, then overlapped with existing background footage. The results are still remarkable and have inspired generations of special effects artists. Writer H.G. Wells was never fond of this telling of his novel, but movie patrons were.
The Invisible Man was Universal Studio’s biggest hit since Frankenstein.
Lon Chaney Jr. has the honor of being the only Universal actor to reprise his character of The Wolfman in all of the 1940’s sequels. 4 in total………and a few “werewolf” themed ones as well. Unlike our modern myth, the wolfman in this movie doesn’t uncontrollably change in the light of a full moon, not until the sequel at least. Once again, make-up artist Jack Pierce hit one out of the park with latex and yak hair. The make-up sessions were grueling on Chaney Jr. but well worth it.
His wolfman is just as iconic of a monster as his father’s Phantom.
Universal’s last great horror film was 1953’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon. Even though the 3-D fad was quickly fading by then, the movie was released in 3-D in major cities, and a “flat” version simultaneously released in more rural areas. Usually, the monster in this flick is refered to as “the creature from the black lagoon”, but his real name is the gill-man. You may remember that in The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe says that she feels sorry for the creature because, “He just wanted to be loved.”
And who couldn’t love all that latex? The Gill-Man is still inspiring monsters over 60 years later.
Y’all can thank Universal Studios for these monsters,
…….and the countless nightmares they’ve inspired.