Film History: The Forgotten Universal Monsters
On Lunatics Radio Hour we’ve covered the history and cultural implications of most of the major classic Universal Monsters. This grouping of films largely applies to horror films released by Universal Pictures from the 1930s, through the mid 1950s.
The heavy hitters include Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, The Creature from The Black Lagoon and Frankenstien’s Monster.
The success of these films is vast. For the most part, Universal took legends and mythology and turned these series into horror franchises that went on to shape the genre forever. Not to mention the novels, sequels, comic books, and merchandise that went on to not only make Universal a lot of money, but also to perpetuate the cultural impact of these characters.
Even though these films are in some cases 90 years old, there is no denying their importance. Even if you haven’t seen the original films, chances are you can imagine the original Frankenstien’s Monster or Dracula.
But there are many other films that are grouped under the Universal Monster heading that either came from one-off films that society hasn’t clung to over the years, or were not popular enough at the time to warrant a sequel or franchise. For example, several film adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe works are included in the Universal Monsters umbrella. Murders in the Rue Morge was released in 1932, The Black Cat in 1934, and The Raven in 1935.
There is a historical fiction film called Tower of London (1939) which tells the story of King Richard the 3rd. It stars Boris Karloff, a Universal staple at this time, as the executioner.
There is a wild film called The Monster and The Girl (1941). The film is essentially a gangster movie until a scientist takes the brain of one of the killed gangsters and transplants it into a gorilla. And then a film called Captive Wild Woman (1943) with the inverse plot. A scientist tries to turn a female gorilla into a woman by a series of brain transplants and injecting a cocktail of sex hormones into the animal.
Of course, Phantom of The Opera (1943) is a very well known classic. Though, it’s not to be confused with the 1925 version of the film starring Lon Chaney. The 40s remake stars Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy. It was the first version of the story filmed in color. Also from 1943 is a film called The Mad Ghoul, which stars Turhan Bey and without giving away too much, is a zombie film.
House of Horrors (1946) features a monster that didn’t have the staying power of Dracula or The Wolfman. The Creeper is a “disfigured” man who is saved by an artist. The artist then uses The Creeper to kill critics of his work. Leaving us all to wonder…who is actually the monster here?
The point of this article isn’t to minimize or mock the plots of these lesser known Universal horror films. Only to recognize that they exist. I am personally excited to watch several of these, which are new to me. And to then dive into their histories and cultural impact. It is also interesting to rewatch films from past generations with a modern lens. Some incredibly successful films during their time do not last, while lesser known gems become cult classics.