Revisiting the Classic Universal Monster Cycle

There was a time when Universal Monster double bills ruled the late nights on weekend television. Seasons of classic features featuring Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, The Mummy and The Wolfman thrilled a generation of young horror fans. Now these movies are criminally forgotten, especially in the United Kingdom. It is surely time to revisit the Universal Monster cycle in its heyday during their glory years of the 1930s.

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A memorable scene from James Whale’s classic Frankenstein (1931)

The Universal Monster Cycle is the name given to the horror and fantasy films made by Universal Pictures during the 1920s to the 1950s. The studio focus on horror films began in 1923 with the release of The Hunchbank of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney who would also star in Universal’s acclaimed 1925 horror classic The Phantom of the Opera.

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Bela Lugosi produces a brilliant performance in Dracula (1931)

Most film fans accept that the classic Universal Monster cycle really began in 1931 with the hugely successful release of Dracula. Despite a stagey second half, Dracula contains plenty of eerie atmospherics and a magnificent performance from Bela Lugosi as the count. A lauded virtual Spanish remake was made by the same studio at the same time, but the lead star Carlos Villarías is clearly miscast.

Universal would release Frankenstein later in 1931 to even greater acclaim. Loosely based on the Mary Shelley novel, Frankenstein was imaginatively directed by James Whale and contains powerful performances from Colin Clive, Dwight Frye and especially Boris Karloff as the monster.

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The original theatrical poster for The Mummy (1932)

Released in 1932, The Mummy is full of eerie atmospherics, courtesy of German director Karl Freund’s expressionist visuals. Freund was the cinematographer in Dracula, but he was able to create more fluid visuals as the director of The Mummy, all helped by Boris Karloff’s impressive performance in the evil Ardath Bay/Imhotep/The Mummy.

Karloff’s unique facial appearance was created by the influential make-up artist Jack Pierce, who was credited for designing and creating the make-up for the Frankenstein monster, The Mummy and The Wolf Man in all the Universal Monster movies at the time.

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Celebrated makeup artist Jack Pierce working on Boris Karloff

Universal produced some other interesting gems during the thirties, including as The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1934) and Dracula’s Daughter (1936). Frankenstein director James Whale made acclaimed adaptations of J.B. Priestley’s The Old Dark House in 1932 and H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man in 1933, but his next movie, the 1935 sequel to Frankenstein, would prove to be his masterpiece.

Bride of Frankenstein is often regarded as the finest gothic horror film ever made. Boris Karloff and Colin Clive successfully return to their roles, but they are brilliantly supported by Ernest Thesiger as Doctor Pretorius and Elsa Lancaster as Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and the Bride.

With an inventive screenplay by William Hurlbut, striking cinematography by John C. Mescall and a superb seminal score by Franz Waxman, Bride of Frankenstein is James Whale’s finest film and one of the greatest movies ever made.

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Boris Karloff in another memorable scene from James Whale’s timely masterpiece Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Following a ban on American horror films in the UK, Universal Pictures decided not to make any horror films for two years. When a double bill was successfully re-released nationally in 1938, Universal decided to produce a big budget Frankenstein sequel, Son of Frankenstein.

Released in 1939, Son of Frankenstein works wonderfully well. The film revived the genre, revitalised the careers of its horror leads (Karloff and Lugosi) and returned Universal Pictures to profitability. Rowland V. Lee took over from Whale as director and Basil Rathbone stars as Doctor Frankenstein’s son Wolf, who returns to his ancestral home to dabble.

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Lon Chaney Jr in The Wolf Man (1941)

Universal was still churning out good movies during the 1940s, such as Christy Cabanne’s entertaining The Mummy’s Hand (1940) starring western actor Tom Tyler as the monster and the rather brilliant The Wolf Man (1941), which was memorably played by Lon Chaney Jr, (Lon Chaney’s son).

There were enjoyable Mummy sequels and monster ensemble movies (especially Frankenstein Meets the Wolf man in 1943). By the time Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein was released in 1948 and The Creature of the Black Lagoon in 1954, both very good movies, the cycle was as good as over.

The Universal Monster Cycle defined the genre and influenced so many others. These films have so much to offer and for those new to the Universal Monster Cycle, the 1930s is a very good place to start.