This November on Nightmare on Film Street is all about monsters, from iconic creatures of horror yore to massive, building-sized kaiju to modern monster marvels. No conversation on monsters would be complete, however, without discussing the set of classic creatures that breathed life into the fledgling Hollywood horror industry, inspiring many of the monsters that have scared in their wake–the classic and iconic Universal Monsters.
I absolutely adore these beasties of yore which, in times like these, is both blessing and curse–how does one attempt objectivity to a subject they’re so close to?
Like Dr. Henry Frankenstein, I turned to the refined and yet potentially terrifying human practice: “science.” For each monster (in their first, typically most successful appearance), I ranked them from 1st to 8th on their initial story quality, overall design, and general scariness. I affixed point values to each of these rankings (8 points for 1st, 7 for 2nd, etc), tallied them, and averaged them to give a general value, ultimately determining the winner “objectively”.
(Parenthetical numbers are where I ranked them for Story, Design, and Scariness, respectively)
8th: Phantom of the Opera, Phantom of the Opera (1943, dir: Arthur Lubin) – (7, 8, 8)
Violinist Erique Claudin, obsessed with young soprano Christine DuBois, will do anything to ensure her success. Nothing will stop him or his brilliant, obsessed mind from getting what he wants, not even his horrifically scarred face (often hidden behind his classic mask). Now, Universal’s first monster outing was technically the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, re-made in 1943 as the above title. While the 1925 Phantom design is the scarier and more memorable one, both films share the same premise and ‘monster’ and it’s the latter that’s been cemented as part of Universal’s slew of successful horror films with sound. It’s certainly a good film (having won Oscars for Art Direction and Cinematography), but here’s the thing–the Phantom may be a monstrous man, but he isn’t a monster. He may be a dangerous man, but compared to creatures like Frankenstein’s Monster or Dracula, the Phantom isn’t particularly menacing and the film lacks the magical, larger-than-life quality of many of Universal’s finer outings.
7th: The Mummy, The Mummy (1932, dir: Karl Freund) – (8, 7, 7)
Our reincarnated mummy Imhotep (often in disguise as Ardath Bey) is conceptually intimidating in many ways. As a long-dead Egyptian high priest, it’s surely frightening he can come back from the dead and that he can utilize ancient Egyptian magics. It’s even more frightening that he can ‘fit in’ to our world enough to create an entire modern, fake, successful persona to accomplish his goals. That said, his goals make him a fairly low level threat–he mainly wants to reconnect with the reincarnated love of his early life, and his main use of magic is to achieve that goal. For an immortal, magically sustained Egyptian high priest, Imhotep spends much of the film in human cosplay (really taking down the design and scare factors), and when he is in ‘mummy’ form he doesn’t make significant use of his magical knowledge other than a mind-control stare. These sorts of factors really taper down the Mummy‘s potential as a monster, especially as compared to Universal’s other offerings.
5th (tie): The Wolf Man,The Wolf Man (1941, dir: George Waggner) – (4, 5, 5)
Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Wales, finds a love interest, and rescues her friend from a wolf attack… suffering a bite in the process. For those of you knowledgeable about werewolf lore, that’s bad, bad news–he finds himself transforming into a werewolf and attacking the villagers, a fact that shocks and horrifies him as he starts to put the evidence together in his mind. The Wolf Man is a great film; it sits tied at 5th place because of the strength of the competition and that alone. While it isn’t the first Universal Monster werewolf film (that honor goes to 1935’s Werewolf of London), it stands apart from the former title by a great and emotionally nuanced performance from Lon Chaney Jr., and a far better, less human werewolf design. The story is straightforwardly tragic as Talbot contends with his lack of control over his transformations and the violence they portend, adding layers to a creature that’s both absolutely heartbreaking yet incredibly and uncontrollably dangerous.
5th (tie): The Invisible Man, The Invisible Man (1933, dir: James Whale) – (6, 6, 3)
Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin, a chemist who discovers a concoction that allows him permanent invisibility, with the unknown side effect of gradual, oncoming insanity. Now, of course, Griffin is still a human, albeit an invisible one, but the changed composition of his visage combined with his monomaniacal plan–he wants to use his invisibility to dominate the world in a reign of terror (including a gleeful murder habit)–make him a great monster. Griffin is easily the most straightforwardly bloodthirsty one of the classic Universal creatures. Frankenstein kills from fear, self-defense, or accident; the Mummy to advance his goals; the Wolf Man from an animalistic bloodlust. The Invisible Man, by contrast, kills because it amuses him, and because he wants the whole world under his thumb. Universal’s most traditionally evil villain and some great early special effects certainly make him stand out, but he’s still not as much of a monster as, say, Dracula or Frankenstein, and the film is a well made film by the excellent Whale but it lacks some of the Gothic flair that connects Universal’s most iconic films.
4th: The Bride of Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, dir: James Whale) – (2, 4, 6)
Here’s where the list gets hardest. In a number of ways, The Bride of Frankenstein is perhaps the best of the Universal Classic Monster films. The frame story with Mary Shelley adds a lot of charm, and Bride adds significant emotional complexity to the Frankenstein world through its interrogation of the Monster’s isolation, Dr. Frankenstein‘s bizarre mentor Doctor Pretorius, and the titular and iconic Bride. The reason for the film’s placement at 4, however, is that the Bride, iconic though she is in visual design, is underused–she’s only on screen for the last few minutes of the film, and in that time she mainly screams. That’s it. In combination with one facet of her design–she’s clearly made to be more lovely and less shockingly monstrous than Frankenstein–the Bride is ultimately less scary than many of the Universal creature creations.
3rd: Dracula, Dracula (1931, dir: Tod Browning) – (3, 3, 4)
Tod Browning’s Dracula literally set the standard for cinematic vampires, from his insane servant Renfield to his battle with Van Helsing, in a Gothic tour de force that bleeds monstrous magic. While the Count‘s design is sparse–it’s a gent in a cape–Bela Lugosi’s performance as the titular Count Dracula loads the character with so much personality, menace, and charisma that it’s affected nearly every major vampire interpretation since. Moreover, Dracula has an impressive slew of powers including bat transformation, mind control, immortality, and more that render him one of the more dangerous of Universal’s monsters. The film has a slower pace than some of the other Universal outings, but its influence and legacy (combined with Lugosi’s top-tier interpretation of the character) along with the entity’s other attributes make Dracula one of the top Universal creations.
2nd: Gill-Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, dir: Jack Arnold) – (5, 1, 1)
1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon may not have the most original plot–in fact, it borrows plot elements fairly liberally from King Kong which itself borrowed from The Lost World. At the same time, the Gill-Man, created for the film by Milicent Patrick, is easily one of the most recognizable, frightening, and unique entries in the Universal canon. The monster itself is the only Universal creature that does not originate as a human being; it isn’t a person transformed by science, curse, or other magics, but is its own evolutionary pathway with many of the strengths of humanity and many more strengths unique to its species. It looks inhuman, and the sheer detail and inhumanness of the design–it’s scary, and easily one of the best creature designs of any era. Honestly, Creature is my favorite of these films, and the exceptional and frightening design of the Creature overcomes the ‘borrowed’ aspects of the story (and the Gill-Man‘s origin) to cement it as the second best Universal Classic Monster.
1st: Frankenstein’s Monster, Frankenstein (1931, dir: James Whale) – (1, 2, 2)
Easily one of Universal’s most iconic designs, Frankenstein’s Monster is shockingly inhuman in appearance, upsetting in origin (to paraphrase Charlton Heston in Soylent Green, Frankenstein is made out of people!), and devastatingly dangerous–it’s so massive and strong! This reanimated monstrosity sets it further apart from even the best of Universal’s other monster offerings because the character’s journey is uniquely and tragically emotional. It so clearly feels isolated, unique, abandoned on the Earth, that endangers others most commonly from either fearful self defense or abject confusion. It’s a stunningly nuanced performance, tragic in every detail, combined with an absolutely otherworldly design that give Frankenstein’s Monster the top spot among giants of monster cinema.
How would you rank Universal’s Classic Movie Monsters? Let us know on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club. And for more Monster Mash Madness all November-Long, stay tuned to Nightmare on Film Street.