From the early 1920s to the mid 1950s, Universal Studios was the gold standard for monster movies. They put out a series of movies centered on classic monsters such as Frankenstein’s, Dracula, mummies, Edgar Allan Poe, werewolves, and the invisible man. Not only are these movies excellent, but they hold-up surprisingly well. Their wonderful set pieces and consistently exceptional casts have given these movies staying power. However, many people haven’t seen them. Unless you watch late night horror shows such as Svengoolie or actively seek out these classic horror films you’ve likely never viewed them. Despite this, the influence of Universal Studio’s work is immense even to this day. So, this blog post will focus on what I consider to be a few of the most significant impacts of the Universal Studio’s monster films on the American cultural imagination so that even those who’ve never seen them can appreciate them.
1. The Werewolf Transformation
Sigmund Freud argued that the source of horror is that which is familiar and routine encountering the unfamiliar. Consider The Thing. In it, a group of researchers in Antarctica encounter an alien that occupies the dead bodies of its victims. Isolated from the entire world, the researchers are also isolated from each other constantly afraid that anyone could be the monster. The familiar figures of their colleagues become an uncanny fright as they are occupied by a monster. Other films take a more introspective approach to the horror of encountering the unfamiliar. In the Universal Studio’s classic The Wolf Man, the horror stems from the encounter with the beastly Other hidden inside. In it, Lon Chaney Jr. plays a man, who bitten by a wolf, begins to worry that he is connected to a series of violent attacks. Much like in the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the horror comes from the fear of that which is inside us. The unique contribution of The Wolf Man is the addition of the body horror to this conceit. The Wolf Man used clever camera work and fantastic make-up to make Lon Chaney Jr.’s transformations not only one of the first on film, but still one of the best (seen in the video below). The change inside becomes represented in the mutation of the body. If horror involves the familiar becoming unfamiliar, then there is nothing more familiar to pervert than one’s own body.
2. Iconic Monster Imagery
The Universal Studio films practically defined the popular imagery for many famous monsters. I’ll focus mostly on count Dracula (see video for context). In the 1931 Dracula, Bela Lugosi gives a classic performance. The character Dracula doesn’t do very much in the movie. The whole film relies on Lugosi being able to creep-out the audience with a few well delivered lines and a spine-chilling stare. And, my god, does he deliver. He delivers so well, that his image (and accent) has been done in homage over-and-over again in advertising, television, puppetry, and film. His performance was so iconic that Lugosi may have been a victim of his own success. He performed so well that audiences had trouble accepting him in other roles. He spent much of the rest of his career playing bit roles such as “Bela” the gypsy in the The Wolf Man. Despite his personal misfortune, his image as Dracula persists today in popular culture.
Dracula is not the only monster whose imagery was defined by the filmmakers at Universal. In the movie Frankenstein, the monster as well as Dr. Frankenstein’s lab and his assistant Igor have all become iconic imagery. The werewolf in The Wolf Man, the monster in Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the mummies from the mummy series are also so well known that even people that have not seen the films recognize them. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then parody too must rank high. The Universal Monsters have been parodied immensely in television shows like Scooby-Doo and movies such as Monster Squad or Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein/the Mummy/the Invisible Man/the Wolf Man. It is a great credit to the filmmakers that the horrors which they imagined live on today in the collective unconscious.
3. Monster Mash
That the Universal Monster movies were campy was not lost on the studio. After a brief period of largely sincere monster horror movies (through the 1920s and most of the 1930s), the studio began to have fun with their monsters. This trend began with a series of sequels to the Frankenstein series. After the success of Frankenstein in 1931, the studio released the wildly popular Bride of Frankenstein. The tone of the movie swings wildly from serious horror to odd-ball comedy (such as the bizarre slapstick comedy of miniature lecherous king seen in the clip below). The follow-up films Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein leaned more heavily on their camp appeal.
As I discussed earlier, horror at its heart results from encounters with the unfamiliar. By the late 1930s, the Universal monsters were not just familiar to audiences, but they were beloved. As a result, the shift from serious horror to light camp was almost a necessity. Universal not only realized this, but invented a new genre to satisfy audiences: the monster mash. The 1941 film Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man began a series of movies that would unite the main Universal Studio’s monsters on film. House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula would bring together Frankenstein’s monster, the wolf man, and Dracula. The significance of the idea of monster mash has had a surprisingly large impact on the culture. For example, it was the formula for most of the Toho Kaiju output and created the idea of a shared horror-verse that has been the backbone for popular horror television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Supernatural. Even modern horror fans find monster mash movies appealing. Films such as Freddy vs Jason and Alien vs Predator have experienced mainstream success.
The ultimate lesson from the Universal monster mash movies is that that answer to the question: “wouldn’t it be cool if ________?” is usually a resounding yes.
Finally, a note from the blogger: if you are one of the few people following this blog, you’ll notice I’m not really sticking to my original schedule. I’ll try to be a little better about updates, but for now expect somewhat infrequent updates.