Top 13 Universal Studios Classic Horror Films
First off, let me preface this month’s Top 13 with the caveat that, if you are a true-blue, dyed in the wool, horror fan, there won’t be any surprises on this list. If you are even half the horror buff I am, then you’ve undoubtedly seen these Universal gems time and again, and so you’re undoubtedly already well aware of their importance and impact, not only to horror filmmaking, but to cinema, in general.
Does that sound like a bunch of pretentious hogwash?
Well, if you consider that Universal was one of the first studios to put real money and time into making horror movies something more than mere entertainment, then the above claim won’t sound quite so elitist. They were, after all, the people who brought the world “Frankenstein” and “Dracula”. And not for the first time for either of these beloved horror characters, but they most certainly made them international, historical iconic monsters. No one can think of Frankenstein’s Monster without seeing Boris Karloff, nor consider Count Dracula without thinking of him as Bela Lugosi in cape and fangs.
From the first moment director Georges Méliès screened his 1896 “Le Manoir du diable” (aka "The House of the Devil"), it was already easy to see that thrills and chills were what the people wanted to see on the big screen. And although it might have been a Frenchman who first brought us the moving pictures, it was the Germans who refined the techniques and styles that would come to be known as “Expressionism”, a movement in all art forms, whose typical trait is to present the world under an utterly subjective perspective, violently distorting it to obtain an emotional effect and vividly transmit personal moods and ideas. Through the use of “German Expressionism” these creators rought the world such classics as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920), “The Golem” (1920), “Nosferatu” (1922), “Phantom” (1922), “Schatten” (1923), and “The Last Laugh” (1924).
Universal Studios picked up on this exciting new movement in the arts, saw its potential to create something extraordinary, and set about scouring the German studios and theaters for producers and directors who could work with low budgets, but still produce films that both frightened and titillated their American audiences.
Universal Studios, without a doubt, started the horror revolution with such films as “Phantom of the Opera” and “Dracula”, and continued to produce some of the most memorable horror films and archetypal characters for the next three decades in all of horror entertainment. Film historians have delineated these decades into the 1920s Silent Era, the 1930s Golden Era, the 1940s Silver Era, and the 1950s as the Bronze or Revivalist Era.
Below, you will find our picks (in Era sequential order) for the Top 13 Universal Studios Horror Films of all time.
13. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Produced by the legendary Carl Laemmle and starring the greatest horror actor of all time, Lon Chaney, as the sympathetic, deformed Quasimodo, this is the definitive version of Victor Hugo’s classic tale of love and betrayal. No one has ever topped Chaney’s use of body appliances and makeup effects to create the childlike gargoyle of fiction, Quasimodo. Even today, this film still has the ability to make you laugh and cry.
(Note: below is the full movie for your viewing pleasure)
12. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
With the success of 1923’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, producer Carl Laemmle teamed again with the hottest name in Hollywood, Lon Chaney, to bring us Gaston Leroux’s timeless tale of murder and love in an opera house. This time, Chaney played “The Phantom”, a man disfigured and living in the sewers beneath the French streets, who manipulates and murders to make the women he loves the paramour of France’s great opera houses. His makeup effects for this film broke new ground, making him the all time undisputed champ, and creating legions of diehard fans, some of which became special effects technicians after seeing this movie. Chaney’s Phantom may be one of the most iconic images in cinema history, let alone horror cinema.
(Note: below is the full movie for your viewing pleasure)
11. Dracula (1931)
Directed by Tod Browning, a man who was not German, but sure knew how to make his films look like they’d come straight from a German theater, and starring the great Bela Lugosi, in his most famous role, 1931’s “Dracula” is still considered the cornerstone of Universal’s horror reign. It was perhaps the most well known horror film of all time, followed closely by the next selection. With his trademark accent and flowing black cape, Lugosi’s Dracula has become the ubiquitous icon of the fictional bloodsucker. Browning creates a perfect atmosphere of Gothic dread.
10. Frankenstein (1931)
With this single film, both director James Whale and actor Boris Karloff became international legends. “Frankenstein” is another iconic film that still carries itself with a sense of Gothic doom and melancholy. Makeup artist Jack Pierce created the square headed, bolt necked monster that we all know and love, and in the process made special effect history. Without Pierce’s work, Karloff’s interpretation of a manmade creature cobbled together from body parts riffled from graves and gallows would never have had such power to frighten and sadden. We feel the creature’s pain with each lumbering stomp.
9. The Mummy (1932)
Boris Karloff and Jack Pierce were teamed together once more, under the direction of longtime German cinematographer turned director, Karl Freund, to bring us a story reminiscent of “Dracula”, but set against the arid backdrop of the Egyptian desert. Karloff plays Imhotep, an ancient high priest who comes back to life to find his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon, who has been reincarnated as a young woman in British society. Primarily a love story, “The Mummy” still manages to convey a sense of doom and timeless desire. Karloff spends only a few moments on screen in full mummy bandages, but it’s a memorable few moments, as he drives a young Egyptologist insane when he rises from his tomb to retrieve the Scroll of Thoth from his very hands.
8. The Invisible Man (1933)
Once again, producer Carl Laemmle and director James Whale came together to bring one of literature’s greatest mad men to the big screen with “The Invisible Man”. Using groundbreaking visual effects, technicians John P. Fulton, John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams are mostly responsible for the film’s success, and we don’t see great theater actor Claude Raines’ face until the last few seconds of the movie. But it’s his enthralling voice and swathed face which keep us riveted to this madman as he exposits on his reasons for wanting to control the world. At its heart, the film is a dark satire, with Whale’s trademark subversive humor.
7. The Black Cat (1934)
The first of six pairings of the best horror duo to ever hit the big screen. I mean, EVER! Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff knew how best to play to one another’s facial tics and body language. Universal saw gold with putting them in the same film, and they were right on target. This became Universal’s biggest hit of the year. For a director, they chose an uneasy alliance with the maverick and troubled Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer used the sets and camera to create an almost other worldly Gothic horror where two madmen come together to kill one another, with an innocent married couple caught in the middle. It is darkly sexual, highly subversive, and despite its success, Universal quietly slapped Ulmer’s wrist for slipping censorable material past them. All of these things were what makes the movie most memorable.
Word of warning: this has nothing to do with Poe’s classic short story, although Universal tried to convince its audience of such.
6. The Raven (1935)
And with the success of “The Black Cat”, Universal again paired Lugosi and Karloff in another tangential-in-title-only Poe great, “The Raven”. This time, Bela is a mad doctor obsessed with Poe’s works who falls in love with a young woman. Her father doesn’t like the idea of Bela as his son-in-law and tries to break it up (despite the fact the young woman seems to actually like the spurned Bela), which throws the insane doc over the edge. He kidnaps the girl’s father and new lover and tortures them before trying to kill them. Karloff appears as an escaped convict, who is turned into a warped and tongue-less servant. Again, it’s the duo of Bela and Boris who make this movie one of Universal’s greatest horror thrillers.
5. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
“THE MONSTER DEMANDS A MATE!” read the advertisements. And Universal demanded another hit from the green skinned giant. Once more producer Carl Laemmle and director James Whale brought Boris to the big screen and gave him a voice. Hearing the monster defend his need for love created the stir the studio was looking for. Whale’s subversive humor and eye for Gothic detail makes this a beautiful and entertaining viewing experience, and in doing so, he also helped create a new creature archetype with The Bride (played by Elsa Lanchester). And it was, in fact, the cast which is a large part responsible for the success of, and enduring love for, this movie. Look at this cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Ernest Thesiger, Elsa Lanchester and Una O'Connor. All classic Universal horror film actors and actresses.
4. The Wolf Man (1941)
With Universal’s shitty remake hitting the theaters recently (see last month’s editorial for all my childish and now dashed hopes for a long awaited and needed resurgence the classic sensibilities of their horror back catalogue), it is something wonderful to be able to throw in a DVD of the original. Lon Chaney Jr.’s melancholic and sympathetic hirsute creature is still one of the best monsters to ever come out of the mind of scripter Kurt Siodmak. Silver bullets, Wolfsbane, pentagrams in the palm of their victims…all created by Hollywood. Director George Waggner created a strangely ambiguous countryside of fog, graveyards, cars and horse and buggies, of scientists/noblemen and gypsies. A wonderful experience.
3. House of Frankenstein (1944)
As the interest in the classic monsters flagged, and a new generation of moviegoers expected a whole new aesthetic to their horror films, Universal made a desperate grab at bucks by throwing all their old monsters into the same film. This, the first and best of those movies, starred Boris Karloff, J. Carrol Naish, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine and Anne Gwynne, and tells the story of mad scientist Karloff and hunchbacked assistant Naish escaping prison and searching down Frankenstein’s crumbling old castle and eventually unfreezing the monster and Chaney’s revived werewolf. What more could you ask for in a movie?
2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
And once Universal saw the success they had with all those monsters in one film, they decided to add their most successful comedy team in the mix, as well. Abbott and Costello made for laughs and Glenn Strange as the monster and Chaney as the werewolf made for chills and thrills. There were still some fairly frightening scenes- one in particular is Abbott unknowingly being stalked by Chaney’s werewolf in a hotel room without his knowledge. It’s a fun film and well worth rediscovery by a new generation.
1. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
If there was any other director who changed the course of Universal’s monster movies it was undoubtedly Jack Arnold, the man responsible for such 50s sci-fi giant monster classics as and “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), “Tarantula” (1955) and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957). With “Creature From the Black Lagoon” Arnold created the last of the great Universal archetype monsters- a half man/half fish monstrosity that went on to make two sequels in later years, and became almost as sympathetic as monster as Chaney’s werewolf before him. The Creature falls in love with a young beautiful scientist who, along with several intrepid explorers in the Amazon, are searching for the remains of the missing link between man and fish. They find him and he’s not very happy about it. The Creature traps them in the Black Lagoon and attempts to destroy them. But spear guns, drugs and fire win the day.
The careful attention to detail and design for The Creature’s suit is nothing short of special effects revelation. It really makes the monster feel and seem like a living breathing entity.