A Bloody Good Time 08.09.12: The 10 Greatest Universal Horror Films
Opening Logo courtesy of Benjamin J. Colón (Soul Exodus)
Welcome to A Bloody Good Time.
Last week I ranked in order the Alien and Predator films from worst to best (Alien is best, in case you’re wondering).
This week is another request, some sort of look at the Universal monsters. So I’ve decided to list my top ten Universal horror films. In a way, this feels repetitive for me because I’ve talked about these years quite a bit. But this was requested, so let’s get to it.
Oh, because I know there will be someone who tries to ask about where current films are…this doesn’t mean any old horror film made by Universal. This is specifically referring to the Universal Monsters period between 1923-1960, which was pretty much ended by the arrival of films like Psycho and the more risque (for the time) Hammer line of movies. Of course at that point they were mostly churning out B-grade monster movies anyway.
Let’s take a look at the best of the golden age of horror.
#10: The Mummy (1932)
After Boris Karloff’s success in Frankenstein, Universal desperately wanted to capitalize by having him play another monster. In between these, he starred in James Whale’s The Old Dark House but it was this that really kicked things into gear and made Karloff a name. Frankenstein did a lot of the work and The Mummy sealed the deal. Karloff was the guy for horror in this time period.
While the Frankenstein Monster is very much a tragic figure, Imhotep is a little less so. There are still hints that he was unfairly killed when he was alive, but now that he’s the mummy he’s dangerous and evil. You’re not supposed to be on his side and that makes this a different performance than his last one. Karloff did more than just lumber around as a monster, he was able to act, which is why after all these years he’s still set apart from the rest of the guys playing various boogeymen.
#9 The Invisible Man (1933)
One year later, Claude Rains got to try his hand at playing a monster, although this was a completely different type. The Invisible Man is, more or less, human. He just happens to be invisible and going insane because of that fact. He becomes a mad scientist of sorts and wants to rule the world with his new-found disguise. It’s hard for the police to stop him, because he regularly removes his bandages to kill those in his way.
Claude Rains had to mostly act with his mannerisms and his voice and the result is a terrific display of ability. The man rarely even gets to use his face, which is the most expressive way an actor can convey emotion to get his point across. Does this mean his body language is a little exaggerated? Yes, but that’s fully explained by the fact he has to get people to understand him and he’s already crazy from the drug he used. One of my favorite bits about this movie is when he begins disrobing himself and laughing maniacally. Check it out.
#8: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Okay so this is a comedy, but even today it’s both a hilarious send-up of the Universal monsters that came before it and a loving homage. At this point, most of the monsters had been a decade old at this point and were losing their luster with multiple team-up movies and various B-movie monster battles. So it was time to stop pretending they were still scary and use them to scare a couple of dimwitted guys like Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.
However, the best part about this movie is that even while the comedy is going on, the monsters themselves are never treated like jokes. You know they’re not actually going to pose any threat because this is a comedy, but at the same time, the laughter comes from the antics of Bud and Lou trying to avoid and escape the monsters. We also get Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for only the second time in his career, showing everything that came after him how its done. They weren’t able to get Karloff on board but he would work with the two later in his own movie.
#7: The Black Cat (1934)
Karloff and Lugosi had already worked together in several films, the best of which, in my opinion, is The Black Cat. First of all, you should ignore the fact that it’s named after a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It really has nothing to do with that story and stands on its own. This movie features the two in a game of one-upsmanship. Karloff’s character wants to sacrifice a woman to the devil and Lugosi wants to get revenge on him for causing the deaths of thousands of Hungarians.
This movie is great just to see two legends give great performances as well as play off each other very well. While they would star together in films after this, I think none of them tops this movie. Which says a lot because most of them are quite enjoyable. But as I’ve pointed out before, it’s this scene that seals the deal for me, both because of the delivery by Lugosi and the look of terror on the face of Karloff.
#6: The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)
This was the last of Universal’s great monsters as the film period would shortly end just after this. Even then this was more of a monster movie like the movies of the 50s than the gothic horror we had in the 30s and 40s. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the Creature itself is a well-designed monster and very effective for its time. Even know it’s an impressive costume with the man in the suit (Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning) doing a good job of playing the creature as merely an animal, not just a monster.
The Gill-man was milked for all he was worth in the short amount of time the series was around, getting two, regrettably worse sequels. Revenge of the Creature is just bad while The Creature Walks Among Us offered a new spin on the story and a tragic end to the Gill-man. Since then, the creature hasn’t been seen outside of an appearance in The Monster Squad. Of all the films getting remade, I’m kind of shocked that this hasn’t been touched yet. A lot could be done today, although I’d be afraid of a purely CG creature terrorizing some unknown MTV actress.
#5: The Wolf Man (1941)
If you ever want a great example of the amazing special effects work for this time period, look no furthur than the transformation scene in The Wolf Man. It’s both incredibly simple and painstakingly hard work at the same time. Basically in order to show Lon Chaney Jr become the titular monster, every frame was shot one at a time, adding in a few more hairs here and there. It’s something like stop-motion animation, and it required the man to sit there for hours just to accomplish the shot.
But as the 2010 remake will show you, special effects mean nothing if you don’t have a great performer in the lead role. Chaney was able to play up the drama of the situation. He’s a man who knows he’s a monster and desperately wants to die in order to stop it from killing anyone, especially those he cares about. That’s what a werewolf movie should be: something that’s just as horrifying for the man transforming as it is those who could be victims.
#4: Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Chaney’s father, also named Lon Chaney, was in a Universal horror film of his own almost twenty years prior. Here’s what I said previously, because my thoughts haven’t changed a bit since then One of the best horror films ever made because of what it accomplished as a film. It was about a man, played by Chaney, who was hideously deformed and so he wore a mask. He later falls in love with an actress/singer in the Paris Opera House, and begins murdering and causing mayhem to force the people in charge to make her a star.
For the role, Chaney was given free reign to do whatever he wanted in regards of makeup. This was due to the success of his last role to use extensive work. Chaney attempted to make himself look more skeletal in nature, which is closer to the book than any other portrayal has been. He painted his nostrils black to make them appear wider, and his eye sockets black to appear hollow. Then came the painful part. He placed huge prosthetic teeth in his mouth and held the tip of his nose up against his face with wire. It was all worth it, because of the reaction it achieved from crowds. This moment, when the Phantom is revealed, is the pivotal climax of the movie and terrified audiences during the film’s initial release.
#3: Dracula (1931)
What else can really be said about any of the three films that close out this list? They’re absolute masterpieces and are more than likely the reason I’m a horror fan today. Hell, they’re probably the reason many of you are horror fans today, whether you want to admit it or even realize just how influential they are. Lugosi defined exactly what the vampire is and should be. He’s a terrifying monster that only uses whatever sexual/romantic appeal he has as a means to an end, that end being to feast on the blood of the living.
Lugosi’s Dracula, unlike the various incarnations since (excluding Christopher Lee’s portrayal) will stand the test of time while the glut of vampire movies coming out today, including the ones that sparkle, will eventually be forgotten. There’s a reason people still know who Lugosi is even this far into the future. He was great what he did and Dracula showcased his talents in a way that made him a name for the rest of his career. Even if the career itself ended badly (fighting a rubber octopus for a small paycheck is as bad as it gets, I imagine), people still knew who the man was. Today he’s respected as one of the greats and its this film that we have to thank for it.
Oh and not to discount anyone else in the movie, because that would be wrong. Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing is great and Dwight Frye as Renfield almost upstages Lugosi at some points. So it’s a well-acted piece all around.
#2: Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
It’s rare when a sequel is not only just as good as the original, but in some circles surpasses it. Bride of Frankenstein takes everything established in the first film and builds upon it (well, except for Frankenstein dying, we’ll just ignore that). Frankenstein’s monster is still a misunderstood, tragic creature and Karloff didn’t stop portraying that motion even if he could have phoned it in. It wasn’t until later that the monster would be nothing more than a grunting, bumbling oaf. Karloff made him a three-dimensional character.
This time around all the creature wants is a mate. It doesn’t want to harm anyone or conquer the world or anything, it just wants some sort of companion to live with it. Everyone knows how it ends: the mate created specifically for the monster also rejects him. That’s when he realizes that he was not meant for this world and decides to destroy Frankenstein’s work and castle once and for all…with tears in his eyes. I’m sorry, I’ve got something caught in my throat. Be back in a few.
#1: Frankenstein (1931)
“How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a word of friendly warning. We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation — life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even — horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to — uh, well, we warned you.“
I’m looking forward to this year’s Universal Monsters release, as expensive as it will be, almost solely so I can see Frankenstein restored and looking as excellent as it did. Sure, there will be some film grain and damage (it IS eighty years old) but to see these sets looking great in high definition will be worth every penny. The sets, with their old machinery and wacky mad scientist light show were impressive then, and part of the reason I love this movie. Every little detail was carefully constructed and put together to immerse the audience in this world.
And really, what else needs to be said about Karloff in this role. This is the role that defined him, and it’s an incredibly well-done performance that really can’t be topped within the genre. He manages to make a monster that’s as sympathetic as it is horrifying. Part of you wants to run from this obviously dangerous creature and part of you feels bad for it. It’s a monster completely capable of murdering a child but doesn’t know why that’s a bad thing. There’s so much to love about this movie, including the fact that it influenced so many other horror titles that came after it. That’s what I mean by it made everyone horror fans. Even if it wasn’t these movies specifically, you’ve probably seen something influenced by them that did get you into horror. It’s the butterfly effect.
That’s it for me. Which of these films is your favorite? How would you rank them? Leave some comments here on or my Twitter. Next week, I point out just why I hate the idea of an Evil Dead remake and why I don’t think it will work.
Closing Logo courtesy of Kyle Morton (get your own custom artwork and commissions at his Etsy account)
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