The Original “Dark Universe” of Universal Monsters


As Universal Studios is set to release the beginning of its shared “Dark Universe” with the reboot of The Mummy, now is the perfect time to revisit the first and original shared cinematic universe with the classic thirties horror icons. While often referred to as the Legacy Films of Horror, the original films released by Universal in the early thirties lasting until the sci-fi horror films of the mid-fifties are considered by many to be the base foundation of the modern “talkie” horror film.

To audiences at the time there was nothing scarier on film, but by today’s standards, these classics hardly register a fright – maybe that’s one of the reasons it appears that the Dark Universe will be more action-oriented, as opposed to pure horror. But before we experience this new franchise, let’s take a look at some of the essentials from the original era.

Dracula (1931)

While there were many great silent horror films at the turn of the century, this was considered the first horror talkie released by a major studio – and simply put, this one started it all. Bela Lugosi’s seminal role as Bram Stoker’s Dracula might be one of the most recognizable horror icons in the world. While often understated, director Tod Browning’s moody and eerie atmosphere was almost equally as influential from a stylistic point of view. Since it was one of the first with sound, the minimal use of dialogue combined with the bizarre imagery makes for a haunting gothic masterpiece that few films have ever been able to capture. It remains to be seen if Dracula Untold‘s Luke Evans will play the Transylvanian terror once again, but there is little doubt that the Count will be a part of the Dark Universe.

Frankenstein (1931)

If Dracula isn’t the most recognizable horror icon, it’s because Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster is. Often praised and imitated, but never duplicated, Karloff’s look and performance as the monster set a standard few even today have reached. Behind the brilliant direction of James Whale, the monster conveys sorrow, confusion, and anger to a world that the newly created doesn’t understand. It’s not just one of the greatest horror films, but one of the greatest films of all-time.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

With both Karloff back as the monster and Whale in the director’s chair, this monster film has a completely different tone and is great for a whole different set of reasons than the original. Elsa Lanchester’s Bride is also incredibly iconic while only being on screen for five minutes or less. The story is essentially one of desire-Doctor Pretorius’s desire for Henry Frankenstein’s attention (affection?) and the monster’s desire for companionship.  There’s also a lot of British theatrical humor woven into the story making it feel less like a horror film and more a film about the human condition.

The Invisible Man (1933)

On the heels of the success Whale found with Frankenstein, the studio was anxious to get another literary horror property in his capable hands – this time in the form of the classic story by H.G. Wells. Claude Rains’ voice became the iconic piece to this film, with his actual face shown on screen for less than 60 seconds. The camera tricks used in this film were state of the art and pushed filmmaking to a whole new level at the time. Even today the themes of this film evoke a sense of terror thinking about everything that someone with these abilities could do.

The Wolf Man (1941)

One of the few early classics not based on literature, instead folklore and myth were used to create the story of the wolf man played by Lon Chaney Jr. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Claude Rains and Evelyn Ankers, Chaney brought depth and pathos to the character that would become his most defining role.  Also aiding to create this classic monster was the make-up of Jack Pierce – the man responsible for nearly all the great make-up effects in the Universal repertoire – who created a very life-like and convincing look to the wolf man. In addition to the look, the way the transformation scenes were shot are also a piece of cinematic history, albeit painstakingly so for Chaney. While not officially confirmed, it would be hard to imagine Dark Universe not including a wolf man.

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Amid sequels and the success of The Wolf Man, someone had a great idea. What if, instead of one monster, we have two? Just like that, you have the very first shared cinematic universe as Chaney’s Larry Talbot seeks out the diaries of Henry Frankenstein to find a cure for his werewolf problem. Instead, he finds Frankenstein’s monster, this time played by Bela Lugosi. While the story is a bit of a train wreck, the fact that there were connected pieces to previous films gave a much larger feel to the story, which laid the foundation for more monster crossovers. Soon followed House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, both of which included a cavalcade of monsters and mad scientists.

The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Perhaps the last great horror icon created by the studio, this film spoke on so many levels.  Science versus religion, man versus the environment, man versus woman, and of course man versus monster. With places still yet to be fully explored, could a gill man, or, something similar exist? This terrified and shocked audiences still recovering from wartime. Lavish scenery along with some revolutionary underwater sequences made the story of the creature a can’t miss experience. Another yet to be confirmed monster for the Dark Universe, the inclusion of the gill man could add an aquatic element to this new world.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

As filmmaking improved and the monster stories became watered down by sequel after sequel, taking a comedic look at the monsters seemed like the right thing to do. Pairing the monsters up with the kings of comedy at the time, Lou Costello and Bud Abbott, worked incredibly well. Lugosi once again donned his Dracula cape, Chaney reprised his role as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange played Frankenstein’s monster. All the characters played their roles straight except Costello, playing the goofy over the top scared-y cat. For anyone who was a fan of the originals, this is just a fun film to watch.

While it remains to be seen if Universal can successfully resurrect these franchises and make them palatable for modern audiences, the potential and pedigree is certainly there. With great actors like Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, and Russell Crowe leading the way, I’m certainly looking forward to a new world of Gods and Monsters.

But if you need something to tide you over in the meantime, then go check out Monster Squad, where you’ll find the answer to one of the greatest monster questions ever: Does the Wolf Man have nards?

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