Before Shared Universes Were Cool
I’ve been watching a lot of classic Universal Monsters films in recent weeks. I own all of the Legacy Collections that have been released so far except for The Invisible Man set. The recently released (August, 2018) Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30 Film Collection features all of the films and special features that I already own but also comes with a collector’s book and The Phantom of the Opera from 1943 starring Claude Rains. I can live without the book, but I really do need to pick up a copy of Phantom.
The earliest Universal Monsters films have been around for nearly a century. The silent version of The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney was released in 1925. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which also starred Chaney, was released in 1923. Hunchback is generally considered the first true Universal Monsters film, although an argument could be made for 1913’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which was distributed by Universal. In any case, fans almost universally agree that the most memorable monsters didn’t start arriving until the 1930’s.
Beginning with Bela Lugosi’s performance as the title character in February 1931’s Dracula, Universal started cranking out a ton of popular monster-based films. Frankenstein (November, 1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939) are just a few of the many films released during this time that drew crowds to the theater.
The 1940’s saw an even larger number of films released, albeit with fewer quality stories. Some of the films were sequels or what we now call “soft reboots” of films from the 1930’s. One such soft reboot was 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand, which was essentially the same tale as it’s 1932 predecessor but with western and serial actor Tom Tyler as the Mummy and a lot more humor injected into the script. Some of the sequels included Son of Dracula (1943) and The Invisible Woman (1940). The Phantom of the Opera was remade as a talkie featuring Claude Rains in the lead role.
The shining star of the 1940’s was Lon Chaney, Jr.’s turn as The Wolf Man in 1941. In a sea of mostly forgettable films and ensemble movies such as House of Frankenstein (1944) and numerous Abbott and Costello Meet…. flicks that closed out the decade and opened up the 1950’s, The Wolf Man instantly became one of the most recognized and beloved films of all time. Chaney gave a commanding performance and the story still holds up well to this day. The movie has been so well received that 1935’s Werewolf of London, which was a fine film in its own right, has been forgotten by many self-proclaimed Universal Monster fans.
The 1950’s saw fewer films released and the quality continued to degrade. The only real shining moment in the decade was 1954’s The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Released in 3D in order to cash in on that new-at-the-time technology, Creature is considered by many to be the last of the classic Universal Monsters movies. The film was such a success that two forgettable sequels were released back to back in 1955 and 1956.
The 1950’s marked the end of the Universal Monsters era. Universal has tried on a few occasions to revive the properties and have done so to varying degrees of success. A string of popular The Mummy films starring Brendan Fraser began in 1999 that would eventually spawn a spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson as The Scorpion King in 2002. That film would have multiple direct-to-DVD sequels. In 2010, The Wolfman attempted to update the classic tale of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s werewolf with modern special effects and changes to the original story that expanded the role of Larry Talbot’s father. I enjoyed the film, but it was ill-received by most audiences. Van Helsing (2004) was a visual feast and a love letter to the most popular classic monsters, but it was ultimately a stinker that never found the traction that Universal was hoping for in order to revive a dead tent pole franchise.
Universal’s boldest move to cash in on the success of their classic monsters came in 2017 whenever their Dark Universe was announced with the release of The Mummy. Starring Tom Cruise and a female version of the classic monster (portrayed by Sofia Boutella), the film was met with poor reviews from critics and, more importantly, little reaction from audiences. I liked the film as an action yarn, but found it weak as a true horror film. It did do a fine job of setting the stage for future films, but it doesn’t look like the Dark Universe will continue any time soon. As of this writing, the Dark Universe is in limbo and possibly dead.
So what keeps me coming back to the classic films? I don’t really know. Sure, I own the Brendan Fraser films and the Benicio del Toro starring The Wolfman remake, but I don’t watch them nearly as much as I do the original films. I will often have mini marathons of specific classic monsters throughout the year. At the moment I am watching all of the Gillman films and The Mummy films and I plan on revisiting Dracula once I’ve completed my current classic viewings.
Despite better special effects and makeup and, to a certain degree, better stories, I still think back on Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr., and Boris Karloff whenever someone mentions Dracula, werewolves, or Frankenstein’s Monster. The characters that these actors portrayed are imprinted in my brain in a way that not even Jason Voorhies or Freddy Krueger, characters that I grew up with, can compare. I appreciate contemporary horror icons, but I love the classics.
I do hope that Universal attempts to revive their Dark Universe. If done right, their classic monsters will live again and terrorize new audiences. While Marvel has definitely cornered the market on shared universes at the moment, I’m starting to suffer from superhero fatigue. The monsters need to make a return to the big screen in a big way, and I believe that Universal can make that happen.
Thanks for reading. I hope that you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane. Who is your favorite Universal Monster? Did you like the latest Mummy flick? Let me know in the comments.