What is one aspect of horror that the majority of humans are aware of? Universal’s Classic Monsters.
The faces of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, the Creature, the Phantom, and many more are instantly recognizable, and have been for almost 100 years. They are the OG’s of mainstream horror. Although the history of horror cinema began to find its root prior, the premieres of the Classic Monsters catapulted the scares onto the big screen.
To say we owe a lot to Universal and their creatures would be an understatement. Their impact on the genre has been evident, and continues to be evident.
I’m here to share 10 of the genres modern films that were given an injection of the Classic Monsters, and rebirthed their aura in crazy and inventive ways.
10. The Phantom of the Opera (1989) – The Phantom of the Opera
With a tagline like “Robert Englund was Freddy Krueger, now he’s the Phantom …”, one goes in expecting a total slasherama. While this reincarnation of the Phantom doesn’t necessarily follow the slasher formula, we are privy to one aspect of it in the form of sweet gore and interesting kill scenes. The original formula of music and obsession is there, but it is tinged with notes of impalings, dismemberments, and heart extractions.
While Englund makes the role of the Phantom his own, it does play out like a toned down Krueger. It’s basically Krueger with a passion for music, and a passion for the young diva that he wants to create his music. If you think about it, though, Krueger is his own updated version of the Phantom, as obsession and revenge also drives Krueger to play out his symphony.
9. Mary Reilly (1996) – Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Jekyll and Hyde are rebirthed through this 1996 film in the form of John Malkovich. Malkovich’s Hyde and Jekyll begin to court a young woman, Mary (Julia Roberts), who is a part of his house’s staff. As Mary develops feelings (lust and love) for both counterparts, the mystery behind the man begins to unravel. In this telling, we see the events of Jekyll / Hyde not from his POV, but from the POV of the unfortunate Mary Reilly.
And there’s gore! Impalings! Viscera! Beheadings! Glenn Close (Mrs. Farraday) is beheaded! Sure, we don’t see it happen, but we do get the gory aftermath. There’s also a quick shot of screaming eel, and the transformation scene from Hyde to Jekyll showed promise, but ended with a whimper. But, fiends, that one second shot of the screaming eel. Completely random, and for some reason, ended up being completely terrifying while being completely out of context.
8. Hollow Man (2000) – The Invisible Man
This rebirth of the Invisible Man comes in the shape of Kevin Bacon. Gone is the use of a simple drug to cause invisibility. The ante is upped with science, animal testing, many gadgets, and much pain to become invisible. But Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Caine is just power-hungry enough to go through it all to become invisible. Sure, he’s working with a team of scientists to create the invisibility for the American government to use, but just like the original Invisible Man, he becomes power-hungry, and uses the trait for his own sinister pleasure.
What is it about being invisible that leads a man to murder? Taking a note from the OG Invisible, Sebastian begins to wreak havoc. It starts small, but goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of one scene. If there’s anything to love about Hollow Man, it’s Kevin Bacon’s descent into evil insanity. And you don’t even see him! You just hear him.
7. Dracula 2000 (2000) – Dracula
Dracula. He always has to be the sex. Suavenacity. Dressed to the nines. A lust for blood. 2000’s Dracula is the same as 1931’s Dracula in that sense. The story for 2000 goes modern with Dracula being released from his tomb thanks to a group of thieves getting a whole lot more than they bargained for. What follows is a film full of early 2000’s rock playing over scenes where the head bloodsucker tears through the group of thieves, and gaining some brides, in order to get to the daughter of Van Helsing, Dracula’s eternal nemesis.
As a part of this rebirth of Dracula, we get a rather nifty backstory as to who this vampire was as a human, and it’s a heck of a backstory. I’ve always loved what writers Joel Soisson and Patrick Lussier did with the origins. No spoilers for the people who haven’t seen this 19-year-old film. Just know that it’s pretty inventive, and definitely gives the rebirth of the classic a nice spin.
6. Wolf (1994) – The Wolf Man
Man gets bitten by wolf. Man starts to become wolf. Man tries to understand becoming a wolf. Man begins to be overcome by the wolf, and gets power-hungry. Surprise, surprise. What is surprising is how almost faithful this modern retelling is to The Wolf Man. The talk of magics involved with the curse, the protective amulet to wear to keep the wolf at bay, the strong-willed friend / possible lover (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is willing to help, and the struggle of the man trying to keep the wolf inside.
Throw in a bit of a publishing house power play, another man who gives into the wolf, and a game of who can piss on who (literally), and you get this updated version of The Wolf Man with Jack Nicholson being every so Nicholsony.
5. The Shape of Water (2017) – Creature from the Black Lagoon
Guillermo del Toro wanted to remake Creature, and was never given the chance. So instead, he rebirthed the idea of the Creature with his own story, and gave us one of the most heartbreaking love stories that modern cinema has to offer. He took the creature, and molded his own. He took the love angle, and evolved it into a legit love story. He took the greed of man, and exposed it. While the OG Creature feature had beautiful underwater shots, the ending underwater shot of del Toro’s Shape is infinitely embedded in my mind.
4. May (2002) – Frankenstein
May isn’t a direct correlation to the monster, but instead – Victor Frankenstein. May is the 2000’s version of Dr. Frankenstein. Frankenstein’s monster was made out of many parts from many people, yeah? While Dr. Frankenstein pieced together his creation in hopes to become like God, May pieced together her creation because she realizes that people – as a whole – suck, and that only certain parts of them are good. Why not take the good parts, and make the perfect friend? That she does. You have nice legs? A nifty tat on your arm? Then you may become a part of May’s perfect friend, Amy.
And might I just add that May is Angela Bettis’ opus. The feels she makes me feel a range from sad and empathetic to downright eeky.
3. Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) – The Mummy
The mummy in Bubba Ho-Tep is no dummy. (Sorry, had to) This mummy arrives at the setting of the film, a nursing home, via some thieves who stole it from a museum. Sidenote: What’s with the thieves in some of these UCM rebirths? End sidenote.
This nursing home is home to a man who claims he’s Elvis (Bruce Campbell) who is friends with a man who claims he is John F. Kennedy (Ossie Davis) who survived the assassination attempt only to be died black. The setup in Bubba Ho-Tep is delightfully odd. Speaking of odd, the mummy has taken on the garbs of a cowboy because … well, it’s set in Texas.
The combination of these three characters make for an incredible update on the Mummy’s lore. And no worries, Bubba Ho-Tep is just as slow as the old ones that he hunts and sucks the life from, making him the perfect the foe for the aging Elvis and JFK.
2. Waxwork (1988) – Monster Mash
Wax museums hold a host of different portrayals of people and characters. Mark (Zach Galligan) and his friends happen to come across a hidden wax museum in their town, and are invited to a private viewing. Unbeknownst to the group, the owner of the museum uses his figures to capture the souls of the unexpecting, and turns them into a part of the displays.
The displays of wax statues throughout the museum include many incarnations of the Universal Classics: Dracula and his brides, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s monster, and a werewolf. We get to see the majority of these classic monsters at play with the biggest standout being the Dracula set piece. Blood all over the place, fiends.
1. The Monster Squad (1987) – The Ultimate Monster Mash
Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s The Monster Squad is the ultimate love letter to the Universal Classic Monsters. He complies five of the most popular monsters into this film, and gives each ample screen time with enough horror antics to satisfy any horror craving. Want to see tragic man fighting the wolf curse? Check. Want to see him in full Wolf Man form howling away? Check. Want to see the innocence of Frankenstein’s monster cause tension in a scene mirroring the original film? Check. Want to see the Mummy become unraveled in an epic car scene? Check. Want to see the Creature from the Black Lagoon be as menacing as ever? Check. Did you think that Dracula was a hoity toity asshole with nothing but world domination on the brain? Ya didn’t? Well, check. The brides of Drac are even thrown in on the fun as a group of kids, The Monster Squad, fight the evils brought about by Dracula, and discover that Wolf Man has gnards.
These ten films are but a handful of the plethora of films that have been inspired by the Universal Classic Monsters that we hold near and dear to our bleeding hearts. It’s possible that one could do three or four – or more – of this sort of list, and still have many films leftover. That’s the mark that the UCMs have left on the horror genre. It won’t stop because … these creatures? They’re forever.