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Universal Studios’ Monster Movies

Universal Studios

The Ultimate Guide to Monster Movies

What most people picture Dracula and Frankenstein to look like is based directly from the monsters’ portrayal in the various Universal Studios films they released from the 1920s all the way up until the mid-1950s. They produced so many impactful and important films that they pioneered the horror genre within the United States long before anyone else dreamed of these beasts and horrifying images and remains the oldest film production company in America. However, Universal Studios was not one of the major production companies during Hollywood’s Golden Age and only until the filmmakers at Universal realized the audience’s strong taste for the macabre and horrific did they become a top player in the industry. While other production companies had jumped on the horror train, like Hammer Films, Universal was unique in their portrayal of the classic gothic monsters with their outsider appearances that evoked fear and sympathy in audiences.

While Universal Studios released several influential films throughout their monster movie phase, the first few films that branched them into the horror genre were not amazing, but still significant in their horror journey. Universal Studios was introduced into the horror genre when they did a collaboration with Lon Chaney on the film Hunchback (1923). With Chaney’s progressive and mysterious make-up techniques and Universal Studios’ money, the film would pave the way for Universal’s influence on the horror film genre within the United States and around the world. With the release of the film, Universal Studios raked in almost four million dollars, elevated the career of Chaney beyond prediction, becoming the most popular silent film from the production company. Desperate to recreate the massive success Universal Studios plunged into the horror genre, releasing several influential films years after. This list will include arguably the most important and influential monster films from Universal Studios over the years.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Starring Lon Chaney once again, Universal Studios released their adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s gothic novel The Phantom of the Opera shortly after their release of Hunchback. While the film is a vital part of the production studios’ horror journey, it lacks many aspects that would make the film influential. Chaney utilized his make-up techniques once again to bring the Phantom character to life in the silent film. However, he was forced to carry the majority of the film as his peers were not great in their roles. The costumes and set design were gorgeous and elegant but the lack of direction throughout the film undermined those aspects. Sadly, the original version of the film was re-released in 1929 with more desirable angles and scenes making the original version extremely difficult to find. However, there are few major differences between the two films making it acceptable to watch either. The film closely followed the themes and plot seen in the novel by Leroux, with a disfigured man living in a Paris opera who falls in love with a music teacher, Christine. While this film is not the best film on screen out of the Universal monster movies, it is one of the most influential with several adaptations of the film in musical theater and other, more recent films.

Dracula (1931)

While Universal Studios released a few important films during the 1920s, it was not until the 1930’s that they perfected their horror films and began releasing films that would later have cult followings and would be known by a large portion of American society. The first one of these films was Universal’s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, which they released in 1931. Continuing the gothic horror theme, Universal Studios was more influenced by the film Nosferatu (1922) rather than the classic gothic story by Stoker. This can be seen in the dark and distorted background sets that highlight more of the German expressionist influences on the film rather than gothic imagery. Universal also depicts Dracula as an extremely sexual monster that derives pleasure from pain of his victims and their blood which is the basis of almost every vampire story after. The film also stars the famous horror actor Bela Lugosi, who would play in a variety of monster movies for Universal.

Universal Studio

Frankenstein (1931)

Released the same year as Dracula, Universal Studios released their adaptation of the novel by Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. While the film was overshadowed by the overwhelming influence of the Dracula film, Frankenstein was still extremely important in the development of later monster films by Universal Studios. The make-up of the monster in this film was carefully thought about to create a maximum horror impact on the audience with the incorporation of electrodes on the neck to revive the body of the monster. This aspect was not seen in the book and was coined by Universal Studios. Interestingly, most representations of Frankenstein’s monster, also referred to as just Frankenstein in some cases, include these electrodes, showing the influence of the film on later adaptations such as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). This film also established the “Igor” disfigured character stereotype that was used in later horror monster movies. This monster appealed to audiences due to the outsider appearance and personality the monster showed through the film, creating sympathy from the audience while they still were revolted by his appearance. This pays homage to the original novel as that is the reaction of everyone upon seeing the beast.

The Invisible Man (1933)

While the 1930’s was arguably the best time for Universal Studios’ monster films, there is no debate that The Invisible Man set the stage for more gruesome and horrific violence on screen. During this time in American society violence portrayed in the media in any way was looked down upon and censored whenever possible. The Invisible Man brought a new character to screen like never seen before but was based directly on the gothic horror book by H.G Wells who created the most human-like monster that audiences had ever experienced. The special effects throughout this film were considered ground-breaking at the time of its release, however surprisingly simple. To make the character invisible, filmmakers would cover the monster’s hands or skin in black velvet and then shoot the scene against black velvet to make it seem invisible. However, despite the popularity of the film with audiences across the United States, Wells himself did not approve of the shift from scientist to “lunatic.”

The Wolfman (1941)

While The Wolfman was not the first werewolf film released in the horror genre during this time, it was arguably the most influential werewolf film with later adaptations of the story. While the story itself was the foundation for later lycanthropy films, the film techniques were influential as well such as the dialogue of the characters, which many film historians often repeat. However, arguably the most influential aspect of this film was the lead actor, Larry Talbot also known as Chaney Jr. Talbot was about to bring a unique identity to the character that made audiences relate more to him as a human rather than a monster. Despite this humanity throughout the movie, the makeup technique yet again provided a disdain towards the physical appearance of the creature and people’s reactions towards it.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Lastly in the list is the film Creature from the Black Lagoon released towards the end of Universal Studios’ monster movie phase. By the mid 1950’s, society’s fears were focused on the ever progressing technological advances and scientific discoveries. Many horror films during this time were based on aliens coming to Earth and destroying life as humanity knew it to be. However, Universal Studios, instead of following the alien theme, focused its efforts on a different aspect of sci-fi horror with more modern monsters, such as the Swamp Creature known as Gillman from this film. While the story was an original story following a group of researchers to their trip to the Amazon to find the missing link to prove a distant relation between land and sea animals, analysts have found links between this story and the novel The Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. Similarly to other monster movies by Universal, Gillman is extremely misunderstood and is presented to the audience as an outsider and an underdog who is ultimately killed for his loneliness. This film revived audience’s appetites from Universal’s monster movies, which were satiated by Hammer Films. 

Universal Studios

Frankenstein (1931) Official Trailer

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