In the era of streaming, the childhood coming-of-age moments of staying up late or sneaking out of bed to watch a movie in the wee hours of the morning have been lost. It was in one of those moments that I first experienced James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931). My seven-year-old self, just days after watching the Amblin inspired gem The Monster Squad (1987), snuck out of bed in the early hours to record Boris Karloff as The Monster. Although I was enthralled by the kids vs. monsters story of The Monster Squad, I yearned for Universal’s Classic Monsters. Sitting in front of my parent’s tube TV, I became hooked.
Borrowing heavily from early German Expression of the early 1900s, the Universal films of the 1920s to 1950s were very much a cathartic and critical response to Post-World War anxieties and the fears of a Great-Depression laden America. For example, the universe began in 1923 with the legendary Lon Chaney starring in the silent film, Hunchback of Notre Dame. In this film, Quasimodo became an American cautionary tale about the return of war-stricken and bodily disfigured soldiers who face an abundance of challenges upon their return home. However, beyond the cinephile rhetoric, the movies are just good old fashion fun. As Halloween fast approaches, this is the best time of year to revisit the original black and white classics.
8. The Gill-Man – Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
The last character introduced into the shared universe, The Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Gill-Man is grounded more in the science fiction lure of the 1950s rather than the anxiety-ridden horror films of the 1930s and 40s. With this, the Gill-Man was never quite as scary as other monsters in the shared universe of b-level thrills. Regardless, the Gill-Man has remained a popular (if under utilized) entry in the shared universe.
7. The Phantom – Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Starring the master of makeup, Lon Chaney, his still jarring portrayal of the masked Phantom of the Opera is the stuff of movie legends. The most famous of Chaney’s self-devised make-up creations, his Phantom look was kept a studio secret and drove audiences to the theatres upon the film’s release in the Spring of 1925. Whereas the Gill-Man provided the shared Monster Universe with a dose of sci-fi spectacle and great costume design, the fierce performance of Lon Chaney and his self-made make up, makes his Phantom so much more frightening that his water living monster colleague.
6. The Mummy – The Mummy (1932)
Starring Boris Karloff in his second Universal film after the release of the box-office hit Frankenstein, The Mummy provided the English actor with an opportunity to showcase his knack for delivering dialogue with frightening intensity. Now better known as the film that inspired the Brendan Fraser 1999 re-make, Karloff’s The Mummy (in all of its low-key lighting glory) is still a great late night chiller that ups the pulp of the shared Monster Universe. Whereas, Chaney’s Phantom was dramatic and blistering through makeup design, Karloff’s intensity (and knack for the the power of the close up) makes The Mummy one of the best films of the monster lot.
5. The Wolfman – The Wolfman (1941)
Starring Lon Chaney Jr (the son of groundbreaking actor Lon Chaney), the film was show stopping in regards to its use of prosthetic and visual effects during the human -to- werewolf transformations. Not as dark as The Mummy or early films such as Frankenstein, The Wolfman remains an eerie (if corny) tale of love and lust with memorable performance by Chaney Jr. in his groundbreaking role.
4. The Invisible Man – The Invisible Man (1932)
Directed by James Whale who was fresh off of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man combined revolutionary visual effects with a dynamic full body performance by British actor Claude Raines in the starring role. It’s his performance in this James Whales film that makes the Invisible Man such a compelling character. Unlike other monsters who slowly lurk in the shadows or growl at the moon, Raine’s Invisible Man is fully alive with angst and emotion. Based on the sci-fi story by H.G. Wells, the film was a testament to the technological wonder of cinematic arts and the technological dominance of early Hollywood studio production.
3. Count Dracula –Dracula (1931)
Starring Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, this film cemented the popularity of the gothic monsters at the time of the Great Depression. Released on Valentine’s Day, the still haunting picture provided the visual blueprint for the monsters’ shared universe. This was due to famed cinematographer Karl Freund, who was the director of photography of Metropolis (1927). Regardless, it’s Lugosi’s legendary turn as the mesmerizing Count Dracula that still makes this film a must-see and one of the greatest monster characters. Methodical and haunting, his humanized yet terrifying presence if the stuff of legends and rightfully deserves a place in the Top 3 of this list.
2. The Monster – (Frankenstein, 1931)
From its opening frames, James Whales cements his telling of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein within the atheistic of German Expressionism. From the accentuated matte paintings of a darken clouds to the titled camera angles of a cemetery at night, Frankenstein is a true cinematic classic. This is echoed by the haunting and yet emotionally grounded work of Boris Karloff as the doctor’s Monster. Whereas Lugosi was able to fully create a daunting male presence, |Boris Karloff subtlety creates a character that yearns for sympathy and love.
1. The Bride – The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Before The Monster met Abbott and Costello in 1948, he fell in love, in Jame Whales’ masterful sequel The Bride of Frankenstein, considered one of the greatest sequels in cinematic history. Enhanced by a nuanced performance by Karloff as The Monster, it’s ultimately Elsa Sullivan Lanchester as The Monster’s Bride that gives this film the heart, soul and torment that has made it a classic. Whereas as many shared universe fans may proclaim Dracula or The Monster as the best of the Universal monster lot, it’s the look and zeal of The Bride that steals the prize.