Why this might not seem so easy
The cycle of films that dominated Universal Pictures’ output from the 1920s to the 1950s was instrumental in the shaping of horror cinema. With their often B-grade production values and hammy shocks, it’s tempting to view the studio’s horror films as unsophisticated relics. Yet at their best they brim with wit, invention and atmosphere, including depictions of gothic icons such as Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster that are definitively ingrained in the cultural psyche. Understanding the history of American horror cinema really begins here.
Get the latest from the BFI
Sign up for BFI news, features, videos and podcasts.
One of Hollywood’s oldest studios, Universal’s early horror output can be roughly grouped into four phases, beginning in the 1920s with two classic silent films starring actor and grotesque makeup master Lon Chaney, known as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ – The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
With the industry’s transition to sound, Universal began a new phase with two wildly popular 1931 literary adaptations, the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula and the Boris Karloff Frankenstein, commencing a golden run of monster movies and gothic frighteners.
By the 1940s, enthusiasm for drafty castles and ghoulish thrills was waning, but Universal continued to exploit interest in their most famous creatures by pooling them into a series of ‘monster mash’ pictures – co-starring them in shared universes much as Marvel does with its characters today.
In the Cold War era, the studio’s gothic persuasions gave way to sci-fi creature features such as Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and This Island Earth (1955), which gave the studio’s costume and makeup departments licence to imagine a succession of terrifying alien lifeforms.
The best place to start – Frankenstein
The indispensable Frankenstein was directed with considerable style and invention by the British-born filmmaker James Whale. It was devised as a companion piece to Dracula, which was a huge hit for the studio, but where Tod Browning’s vampire adaptation is often stagey and rather wooden, Whale’s film is truly cinematic. A pared-down version of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein favours expressionist histrionics over metaphysical rumination. In Jack Pierce’s famous makeup, Boris Karloff takes centre stage as the lumbering monster, but Colin Clive also owns his role as the eponymous scientist – particularly in that provocative moment when he famously declares: “It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to be God!”
1935’s stunning sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, is even better, pushing the envelope further with the hyper-camp Dr Pretorius, played with delicious theatrical irony by Ernest Thesiger, and Elsa Lanchester as the monster’s mate. The director subsequently claimed that Bride of Frankenstein was never intended as a gay film, but, with Whale and Thesiger’s own homosexuality, Pretorius’s double-entendre-laden dialogue and the image of two men creating life together, queer readings continue to prove tantalising.
What to watch next
Though Frankenstein is the superior film, Bela Lugosi in Tod Browning’s Dracula is equally important as an icon of horror. The Hungarian actor’s phonetic line readings have become synonymous with the exotic slow drawl of the eponymous count, which drips with menace and melancholy in equal measure. A particular highlight comes when Renfield (Dwight Frye) follows Dracula up his castle staircase and is caught in a giant spiderweb. The unspoken implication that the count has passed without disturbing the web is wonderfully elegant as a signal of the vampire’s supernatural power.
In the days before reliable dubbing, films were commonly reshot for international audiences, and it’s fascinating to compare the Spanish version of Dracula. This was directed by George Melford on the same sets, after Browning’s crew had left for the evening, and using the American rushes as a guide. In this case, the result is actually a racier, more cinematic production, with George Robinson’s cinematography more fluid and dynamic than in the English language version.
Released the following year, the original The Mummy (1932) also trades on exotic fear. Inspired by the curse of Tutankhamun, Karl Freund’s film is a scarier, more emotionally resonant picture than Dracula, with an ancient Egyptian monster (Karloff again) that’s almost as iconic as the vampire count. The Mummy might even be considered Universal’s most enduring creation, being rebooted by the studio in a new series from 1999 onwards and now again in the new 2017 version.
This early 1930s wave sees Universal horrors at their peak – though some of the finest didn’t include monsters at all. As well as his two Frankenstein films, James Whale directed The Old Dark House (1932), which remains the archetypal haunted house chiller, as well as a darkly comic adaptation of H.G. Wells’ novella The Invisible Man (1933). The latter boasts truly spectacular invisibility effects and a deliciously maniacal turn from Claude Rains in the title role. It’s difficult not to root for his mischievous brand of tyranny.
Coming later that decade, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is also something of an overlooked gem. A thinly veiled lesbian allegory, with a sympathetic lead in Gloria Holden’s Countess Marya Zaleska, its sense of melancholy is surprisingly affecting as a meditation on the inescapability of one’s own nature.
The first of the ‘monster mash’ pictures, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) is silly but fun, as is its follow-up, House of Frankenstein (1944), but there’s little in Universal’s 1940s output that could be considered essential viewing. The 1950s brought riches aplenty, however, with their move into sci-fi. Though they are perhaps not properly horror, you should make a beeline for titles like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – basically anything with Jack Arnold’s name on it as director. These offer a heady mixture of Cold War anxiety, repressed sexuality and family values in crisis as a backdrop for their delightful effects.
Where not to start
The third entry in the Frankenstein series, Son of Frankenstein (1939), directed by Rowland V. Lee, is entertaining but not up to the high standards of Whale’s precursors. It’s still worth watching, however, for a scenery-chewing Basil Rathbone, gorgeous set design and Karloff’s final appearance as the monster.
Another famous but lesser Universal original is The Wolf Man (1941), which is notable mainly for Jack Pierce’s impressive makeup and Lon Chaney Jr’s appealing everyman performance. Sadly, the film’s clunky werewolf attacks and the rather hokey transformation scenes have not aged well – they pale next to similar scenes in Universal’s earlier (underrated) Werewolf of London (1935) or 20th Century Fox’s outstanding 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The post-Karloff The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) sadly reduces the monster to a dumb brute, shorn of pathos, while, despite its moments and famed noir director Robert Siodmak behind the camera, Son of Dracula (1943) misses Lugosi as the count. Lon Chaney Jr just isn’t up to snuff in the role.
Limping to the end of the monster mash phase, the Abbott and Costello Meet… pictures, beginning with 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, dwindle into self-parody as the comic duo go up against each of the studio’s most famous creations. These comedies have their fans, but in mining laughs from their classic monster stable they robbed them of their scary potency. It would take the British Hammer reboots of the late 1950s to restore the chill to gothic horror.
See something different
Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.Get 14 days free