Looking into the Classic Universal Monsters [A Beginner’s Guide]

Looking into the Classic Universal MonstersIn previous articles, we started the conversation about classics and we realized it is impossible not to talk about the Universal Monsters when we are talking about Sci-Fi classics.

Sure there are a few exceptions like “Dracula” that is considered more of the fantasy genre but they surely deserve a standalone shout out.

It is very curious to see franchises within a franchise, so to speak. Yes, you read it right; some of these beloved monsters have more than one installment in the Universal Monster Universe. There have been remakes, some are good, and others are not bad but not good enough to take the throne of the originals.

There are a few Universal Monsters are very important for the Sci-Fi genre because those stories set the trend in the Sci-Fi Gothic and Sci-Fi Horror genres, especially the Frankenstein story, which was one of the main pillars of the origins of science fiction. For those who are not familiar with these stories, we will look a little into the history of the Universal Monsters Universe:

1. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Let’s start with the first story, the story of Quasimodo. Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel of the same name, this is the story of Quasimodo, the deaf, half blind, hunchbacked bell-ringer of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. His story tells his struggles through life. But you should be prepared, this, not the Disney version, it is the first attempt to tell the story on screen. Unfortunately, not many people know about this version.

The original prints were either worn out, decomposed or possibly destroyed by the studio. The latest version of the film of the film was distributed in DVD format in 2007 and in Blu-Ray in 2014. The story is probably one of the less popular properties among the Universal Monsters.  It is very easy to see “Frankenstein”, “The Wolf Man”, “The Mummy” and “The Invisible Man” as the monsters of the story. But with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo is not the monster in the story.

The film entered the public domain in the United States in 1951 due to the claimant’s failure to renew to copyright registration, so you will probably find it free to download. Universal Pictures announced that they were planning for a reboot of this property as part of the reboot of the Universal Monsters Universe named “Dark Universe”.

2. Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This is the story of a deformed phantom that haunts the Paris Opera House doing everything in his power to obtain the love of Christine. The film is an adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel “Le Fantôme de L’Opéra”.

This was initially a silent film. In 1930 the sound version of the film was released and was very successful but this version of the film has been lost. The success of the film created the path for a long list of horror films including “Dracula”, “Frankenstein”, “The Wolf Man”, “The Invisible Man” and “The Mummy”.

The 1925 version only survived in 16mm prints created for home movie use in the 1930s. In 2012, a two-disc DVD set is released with a newly recorded dialogue track with sound effects and the original score. In the United States, the film is in the public domain since Universal didn’t renew the copyright in 1953 and may be freely downloaded from the internet archive, a San Francisco based nonprofit digital library.

The film is considered culturally significant by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the U.S. National Registry. In June 2017, Universal Pictures announced that they were planning for a reboot of this property as part of the reboot of the Universal Monsters Universe named “Dark Universe”.

3. Dracula (1931)

This is the story of the father of all vampires we know loosely based on the novel of the same name by Bram Broker.  The story tells how the ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and soon begins sucking the blood of young women and turning them into vampires. After turning young Lucy Weston into a vampire, he went after her friend Mina, daughter of Dr. Seward who then calls Dr. Van Helsing, a vampire hunter, to stop Dracula.

Bram Stoker’s novel had already been filmed without permission as a silent film titled “Nosferatu” in 1922. Bram Stoker’s widow sued for plagiarism and copyright infringement and the courts decided in her favor, ordering to destroy all prints of the film. But one can see its influence in the 1931 version of Dracula, as there are scenes very similar of the earlier film that does not appear in the novel, and it is no secret that the screenwriters studied the unauthorized version for inspiration.

It is difficult to imagine it happening today but back then members of the audience fainted in shock at the horror on screen. As usual studios interference managed to change the original version. The film was originally released for 85 minutes but because of the production code that was strictly enforced at the time, the film was reissued in 1936, at least two scenes were censored.

Dracula became an icon of the horror genre. Due to its great success, it manages to establish his own franchise with Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943). The Dracula character also participated in other franchises that were part of the Monster’s Universe.

On a curious note, did you know that there are 3 versions of this film? In the early days of sound films, it was normal for studios to create foreign language versions of their films using the same sets, costumes, etc. So when the English version was filmed during the day, at night the Spanish version was filmed. Unfortunately, it was thought that this Spanish version was lost, until it was found in 1970 and restored. A third silent version of the film was also released in 1931 because at that time not all theaters have been wired for sound.

Dracula paved the way for vampires on screen. Vampires were already a well established known property thanks to his character. People desperately wanted to like them instead of fearing them. Through the years there have been many vampire properties. On the small screen, we saw “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, “Vampire Diaries” and “The Originals.” On the big screen, vampires stories continued with movies like “Cronos” (1993), “Interview with the Vampire” (1994) and many others.  Based on this, it is not strange that Dracula (1931) was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2000 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

4. Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein is probably the most famous of all the monsters. The story is based on the famous 1818 novel of the same name by Mary Shelley. Especially in the science fiction community this novel and film have a significant value. The novel is considered one of the origins of the science fiction genre as it introduces the use of technology for the creation of unimaginable things, a concept that was never really taught during at that time.

The story is about a scientist and his assistant and their quest to build a man animated by electricity. In order to build a man, they use parts of corpses that they exhume. Everything was being assembled well until the assistant noticed that he made a mistake and gives the creature a murderer’s brain. Same as Dracula (1931) Frankenstein was also censored. Just so you know how it goes, scenes are cut from the film literally, and you know when you cut something it is very difficult to find continuity if you are not doing reshoots like they do today.

Many films that were reissued after the strict enforcement of the Production Code in 1934 underwent cuts from the original camera negative. So basically those censored scenes are nowhere to be found but you never know these days. Frankenstein became a success and established its franchise with the “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), “The Son of Frankenstein” (1934), “The Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942), “House of Frankenstein” (1944) and appearing in other franchises like “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943), “House of Dracula” (1945) and “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meet Frankenstein” (1948).

The film was selected for preservation in the United Stated Registry in 1991 as being deemed, “culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.” The Frankenstein legacy was continued on TV with the popular sitcom “The Munsters” where the head of the family is a Frankenstein monster who is married to Count Dracula’s daughter. On film, we saw a comedy version that was widely appreciated by many. Universal Studios planned to reboot the Universal Monsters Universe titled Dark Universe, and the Bride of Frankenstein would have been the second project that would have been released in 2019. The first reboot of “The Mummy” didn’t do well enough to secure future reboots.

5. The Mummy (1932)

The film tells the story of how a team of archeologists who discover an ancient mummy named Imhotep, who is brought back to life through a magic scroll. Imhotep rises and escapes with the scroll. Ten years later, we see Imhotep in disguise are a modern Egyptian named, Ardeth Bey, stalking the woman he believes is the reincarnation of his lover.

The film was very successful but didn’t establish a franchise based on the continuation of the story. They choose to tell a new story with the Mummy’s Hand which was equally successful and was followed by three sequels, “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942), “The Mummy’s Ghost” (1944) and “The Mummy’s Curse” (1944). And The Mummy appeared in “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Mummy” in 1955.

Even though, the film was successful there was strong criticism for the portrayal of the eastern culture and the manipulation of historical accuracy. More specifically, Imhotep was a high priest of the sun god Ka at Heliopolis. He is referred to as a polymath, poet, judge, engineer, magician, scribe, astronomer, and physician. Imhotep apparently designed the step pyramid at Saqqara near Memphis. Following his dead 3000 years later, he was gradually glorified and deified. Imhotep also means “he comes in peace” in Egyptian which seems a strange choice for the villain of the story.

There have been a few movies inspired by the Mummy in the 1960s and 1970s produced by the British Hammer Film Productions. A remake was created in the 90s, this time with a lighter tone and a strong adventure vibe.  This version of the Mummy (1999) was very successful which helped established its own franchise with the sequel “The Mummy Returns” 2001.

A prequel spinoff of “The Mummy Returns”, “The Scorpion King” (2002), which became successful and establish its own franchise within the Mummy franchise with the prequel “The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior” (2008), and two sequels, “The Scorpion King 3: Battle for Redemption” (2012) and “The Scorpion King 4: Quest for Power” (2015).Coming back to the Mummy franchise, another sequel to “The Mummy Returns” was released in 2008 titled “The Mummy Tomb of The Dragon Emperor.”

On TV, a short animated series titled “The Mummy” was aired from 2001 to 2003. In 2012 Universal announced a reboot of the film which will have the horror vibe of the classic. Later it was known that this will be the first film of the Dark Universe, a reboot of the Universal Monsters Universe. The new version was released in 2017 titled “The Mummy.” Unfortunately, this was a success for the studios, so a sequel is not expected in the near future and the continuation of the Dark Universe is unsure.

6. The Invisible Man (1933)

Based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 novel of the same name, the film tells the story of a scientist who discovers the formula to become invisible, but in doing so, he is seduced by the power he gains. The formula that he used seems to have some side effects, making him aggressive and dangerous. For those who have read the novel, you immediately recognize a difference in the plot. In the novel, the scientist is already insane before he manages to make himself invisible and is motivated to gain more power. In the film, the scientist is driven mad by the drug that makes him invisible.

The film became the most successful film in the Universal Monsters Universe since Frankenstein. The film is known for its clever and groundbreaking visual effects.  Because of the success of the film the sequel “The Invisible Man Returns” was released in 1940, followed by another sequel in that same year titled “ The Invisible Woman” and two standalone movies, “Invisible Agent” (1942) and “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944) as part of the Invisible Man Franchise, collection, universe, whatever you want to call it.

An adaptation of the novel titled “Hollow Man” was made in 2000 which was very successful at the box office but failed to gain the love of critics. In 2016, a reboot was announced of the film as part of the modern-day reboot of Universal Monsters, The Dark Universe. This idea appeared to have died after the unsuccessful reboot of the Mummy. In any case, the original classic was selected for preservation in the United States National Film, as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

7. The Wolf Man (1941)

This is the story of Larry who returns to his homeland after learning of the death of his brother. One night, he tries to rescue a woman from a wolf attack. He kills the beast but gets bitten on the chest by the beast. He is told that the beast was a werewolf and since he was bitten by a werewolf he will also turn into one himself.  Curiously this is the second werewolf film of Universal, the first being “Werewolf in London”, in 1935 and is one of the three Universal monsters which stories aren’t’ based on a novel. Another curious note is that The Wolf Man is the only Universal monster character played by the same actor in all his appearances on screen in the 1940s.

The Wolf Man’s popularity paved the way for the sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). After that, the Wolf Man appeared in other franchises within the Universal Monster Universe including “House of Frankenstein” (1944), “House of Dracula” (1945) and “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello meet Frankenstein” (1948). Years later we saw a remake of the Wolf Man in 2010 starring Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving and Geraldine Chaplin.

The film got mixed reviews but didn’t do well at the box office blocked the start of a sequel. Recently it was announced that Universal is planning a reboot of the Universal Monsters properties that will be part of the Dark Universe. That dream died with the failure of the first reboot “The Mummy (2017). Even though we may not see a reboot or remake soon, one cannot deny the impact the Werewolf had in pop culture, and its popularity is still at the top.

In movies we have seen different adaptations of the Wolf Man or Werewolf transformation such as in  “The Howling (1981), “Teen Wolf” (1985), “Van Helsing” (2004), and “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans” (2009) and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” (2009). On TV, werewolves are well known through the series like “Bitten” (2014-2016) and “Teen Wolf” (2011-2017).  And if we are talking about seeing the Wolf Man or Werewolf in other characters, the first one that comes to mind is Wolverine. He doesn’t transform but has all the animalistic treats of a wolf.

8. The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

A geology expedition to the Amazonian Jungle will uncover the existence of a piscine amphibious humanoid or “Gill-Man.” Groups of scientist try to capture the creature and bring it back to civilization for study. The film got great reviews was financially successful and was novelized that same year. Over the years, there have been many unsuccessful attempts to remake or recreate the magic.

But the film inspired filmmakers to create wonderful stories such as Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (2017). In his version, the Gill-man is not the villain of the story and gets love and companionship at the end. The success of the film paved the way for two more sequels, “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956).

Unlike the other monsters “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” made an appearance in “Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon” before the film released in 1954 probably because at that time it was one of the less-known properties.



Final thoughts

There are many stories in this monsters universe. The titled we discussed above were the most prominent stories that helped build the interest for horror. I was surprised to find that the 1931 film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a property of Paramount Pictures and not Universal Studios. Reading about the Pre-Code films was also interesting.

There was a reason for the success of these stories during the depression. Trying to recreate this magic successfully requires commitment and hard work from all parties involved. These classic monster stories are a source of inspiration for even better stories. Sometimes it is better to re-imagine something than trying to recreate it like Guillermo Del Toro did with the “The Shape of Water”.

Sources: Wikipedia and YouTube

12 thoughts on “Looking into the Classic Universal Monsters [A Beginner’s Guide]

  1. I just love old science fiction films like these so this post was a delight to read. Thank you for providing the YouTube videos of these films as well. I will have to sit down sometime and watch them.

    I don’t know what it is about these films from yesteryear. They were just simple, easy to watch. No swearing or sex in them. Just a great story line 🙂

  2. The Mummy, Dracula and Frankenstein are classics for me personally!! I think the the old cinematography just adds to that horror nostalgia that you just don’t see in today’s movies.

    Great article and website i’ll be back here for sure!

  3. Wow! I didn’t know they’re so many remakes of these movies. I knew about the characters, but never knew these movies were made so long ago. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

  4. It would also be fun to go on an old monster movie bender, especially in the thoughtful way you suggest – connecting these monsters to their modern progeny.

    Regarding your last comment about The Shape of Water, I felt that story was more remarkable for the female lead than the merman/”monster” – but I’m SHOCKED it’s up for so many Oscars. Not because it was bad, but because it was, in my view, too weird to attract that level of acclaim.

    1. Hi Penelope,

      Thanks for sharing your views! I see your point and I believe both are valid but in this case, I will side a little with you. In this story, it’s basically the female that saves the male, which is not a typical scenario. I am very glad it received all the accolades, Guillermo deserves all the acclaim.

  5. For me it was what I called the Powerful 4: Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolfman and The Mummy. Those were the monsters that interested me. The rest I heard about but wasn’t as invested as in the Powerful 4. I really wanted to see how a fresh look on these stories would look like on screen but sometimes things happen for a reason and we will always have the classics.

    1. Hi Ossy,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and don’t lose hope. Sometimes we have to be patient to receive something good. I rather they wait and build a good monster universe than continue making money grabbers trying to bank on star power rather than talent.

  6. I have watched all of them so many times I lost count. I was so excited when it was announced that they were going to revamp it but I want it to be done well and not in a mediocre way. Thanks a lot for reminding us of these classics!

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