The Mondo Esoterica Guide to:

The Universal Horror films

    About Universal Horror:

Although Universal Studios has existed since the 1920s, and is still actively producing films today - including horror films, the term Universal Horror generally refers to the cycle of horror films shot by the company between 1931 and 1946. The period is defined by the iconic Dracula and Frankenstein films; the performances of great horror actors Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr. as well the frequently re-appearing supporting cast and sets.

The Universal Horror cycle began in 1931 with an adaptation of the stage play of Dracula, rapidly followed up with the iconic Frankenstein (1931) - introducing Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, respectively, as the studio's biggest horror stars. Despite the depression, the movie industry was doing well - the cinemas offering escapism and entertainment to all, however, Universal studios was in trouble. Carl Laemmle, the company's German born founder, was operating the firm at a loss, importing dozens of family members from Germany to work in his studio. With the horror films proving good money spinners, the studio was quickly focused on their production, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Old Dark House and The Mummy followed in 1932 all starring the studio's top billed stars. Some new faces emerged in 1933 with Claude Rains debuting in The Invisible Man and the perpetually overlooked Lionel Atwil appearing in The Secret of the Blue Room. The big stars returned in 1934, Lugosi and Karloff bringing horrific life to Edgar Allan Poe's The Black Cat. With the studio's financial crisis worsening, the quality of the pictures started to take a downward turn with several lesser, now forgotten entries including The Secret of the Chateau (1934) and Life Returns (1935); yet there were some gems - Karloff and director James Whale, as well as Colin Clive were reunited in the impressive Bride of Frankenstein (1935) that started a long chain of sequels and one of the first horror film franchises. The same year saw Werewolf of London, the first mainstream werewolf picture, and The Raven, another Karloff and Lugosi pairing, while their next co-starring role The Invisible Ray (1936) took horror away from its normal gothic trappings and demonstrated the powerful potential of special effects. Dracula's Daughter (1936) was a smart sequel, brimming with suggestive themes, but it went over the heads of most of the audiences and marked the end of Universal horror for several years.

1936 saw the Laemmle regieme collapse and New Universal Pictures take over production, but the team in charge eschewed horror pictures, and focused on comedies and musicals. Within two years they were again on the verge of bankrupcy and another change of management ensued, re-issuing their original horror sucesses, Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) to cinemas provided a boost in income and the horror films came back with Son of Frankenstein (1939). Massively budgeted (for the time), it re-united the horror stalwarts Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, along with the last great performance from Lionel Atwil, and a strong Universal debut from the rising star Basil Rathbone. Director Rowland V. Lee, along with Rathbone and Karloff and a young Vincent Price went on to shoot Shakespeare-inspired Tower of London (1939). Although both films turned profit, the shaky new incarnation of Universal pictures could not afford the big money risks that these films posed, and the 1940s would see the horror films relegated to B-picture budgets and efforts.

The 1940s provided a mixed bag of films, exemplified by the main releases of 1940: The Invisible Man Returns and The Mummy's Hand were no match for the 1930s originals, but made for entertaining viewing - but Black Friday was a real missed opportunity and The Invisible Woman was a poor humourous effort. The next big name in horror, Lon Chaney Jr. was introduced to Universal audiences in 1941 in a modern day Frankenstein take: Man Made Monster and then in the iconic horror film The Wolf Man (1941). The insistence of mixing horror with comedy continued with the sucessful Abbot and Costello film Hold that Ghost (1941) and nadired in Universal's second attempt at the Poe story The Black Cat (1941). Frankenstein was back again in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) but although still entertaining to watch, the trademark Universal franchise had become little more than sequel fodder, and its pedestrian direction and plot contrast poorly with the highly original and distinctive previous entries to the series, it was clear by this point that the hey-day of Universal horror had ended - the very banal The Mummy's Tomb (1942) seemed to underline this point. The same year's The Invisible Agent provided some entertainment, and brought the Universal horror pictures right up to date with World War II themes, something tried less sucessfully with their Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes series (1942-46). Wisely, the Frankenstein films were kept in their trademark generic 19th Century period, although there were changes for Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and the studio presented the first of their monster-mash films bringing Lon Chaney's Wolf Man into the Frankenstein franchise with surprising sucess.

Phantom of the Opera
(1943) was a hark back to the literary/theatrical adaptations that originated the Universal horror cycle a decade earlier; shot in full technicolour it provided the only two Oscar wins for Universal horror. Originality was not on the menu the year after with two Mummy sequels - The Mummy's Ghost, and the final entry, The Mummy's Curse - along wtih an even bigger monster mash as Dracula joined the Creation and Wolf Man in House of Frankenstein, boasting Karloff, Atwill, Zucco, Carradine and Chaney - although a million miles from the creepy Val Lewton pictures of the same year, these were relatively entertaining entries. The fused Frankenstein/Wolf Man/Dracula franchise ended with House of Dracula (1945) that offered little new over its previous entry. 1946 saw a few more horror pictures from the studio, but nothing of note, and the Universal horror era had ended - audiences no longer wanted horror films, the horror of war had sunk in and gentle romantic/comedy films were most popular. Over the next five years the monsters and many of the original Universal horror cast would be pulled out of retirement for such comedy entries as Abott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948) a move that sealed the death knoll of these once terrifying creations.

Although the original films are little known by many modern horror fans - their existence as a staple of late night horror programming that continued their attraction during the 1960s, waning in recent decades in favour of more modern pictures - the Universal Horror cycle left a legacy that inspired generations of movie makers. Most notable was the British Hammer Films company; starting with their essential Curse of Frankenstein (1957) they went on to shoot remakes of the classic Universal pictures Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) and Phantom of Opera (1961) before developing a more diverse mix of literary and modern pictures during the 1960s and 70s. Frankenstein (1931) was  the focal point of curious Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) in which two young girls become obsessed with the creature after watching the film, while Mel Brooks payed loving tribute to the series in Young Frankenstein (1974). Universal's Wolf Man (1941) has proved to be a key inspiration for many film-makers - both pictures in the special effects driven werewolf revival of the 1980s, The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) give onscreen nods to the earlier film, while cult Spanish actor/writer Paul Naschy was inspired to create his eccentric Hombre-lobo werewolf series after watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943).

For better or for worse, Universal's Horror cycle lodged Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Jon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine firmly in the horror genre as well as kick starting the film careers of Claude Rains, Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone, and providing space for the otherwise Poverty Row bound figures of George Zucco, Lionel Atwill and Dwight Frye.

Dismissed as camp and overacted films with poor special effects by the modern generation of cult film fans, and probably overrated by its own fans - the Universal legacy did play an important part in horror history, and the body of films exist as testament to a more innocent period when it did not take much to shock or scare an audience.

   Universal Horror DVD Reviews

The Black Cat (1934)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
Lugosi and Karloff together for the first time, and both play off each other superbly. The film is strong, but with a poor ending.
Recommended to Karloff/Lugosi and Universal Horror fans.
Black Friday (1940)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
A poor attempt by Universal to mix horror and gangster genres. Karloff and Lugosi co-star but never meet onscreen.
Of interest to Universal Horror completists only.
The Invisible Ray (1936)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
One of the best Universal Horror pictures, with some great performances from Lugosi and Karloff and a good storyline.
Highly recommended to Universal Horror fans.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
Even Bela can't save this ponderously written and over-directed snooze-fest.
Only for Universal and Lugosi completists.
The Raven (1935)
Universal Region 1 DVD (Bela Lugosi Collection Boxset)
Based on the famous Poe poem, Lugosi gives a strong performance but Karloff gets a limited role in this poor film.
Only recommended to Lugosi fans.

- books used in compiling this article.

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All text on this page written by Timothy Young - June 2006.
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