If anyone gets to know me for any length of time, they will know that the original Universal Monster movies are near and dear to my heart. It is hard to describe exactly what draws me to them.
(Again, we’re talking the unveiling of the Silver Screen monsters, not the haphazard Dark Universe.)
Is it the settings? Is it the horror? Is it the Gothic production design? Or, perhaps, it is the characters themselves? Universal defined these characters for all movie goers — present and future. And while many other great versions of these monsters have come to the big screen (i.e., Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I Frankenstein, The Mummy), the original monsters are still the definitive versions.
Although Halloween has come and gone, I still think there is always a good time to talk about these all-time classic horror movies. Let’s dive into the Top 10 appearances that established the standards in this genre for generations:
10. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)
I went back and forth on this first entry.
Initially, The Creature From The Black Lagoon was on here, and while I do like that film (and believe it to be better constructed than this one), Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man marked a crucial turning point in the franchise.
This was a shift away from “origin movies” and one of the first to introduce the idea of “team-up movies.”
As far as Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man goes, the potential to fall flat was evident. Yet, it actually manages to hold up to the potential of its premise: holding off on the big creature action for the grand finale.
The wait is worth it and the film still manages to tell a sequel story for both name characters. It’s not the best of Frankenstein or The Wolf Man but it is one of the most entertaining throughout the original Monster movies.
9. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
The first of the “Abbott and Costello Meets” era of the monsters franchise helped create a spark and renewed interest in a series that had begun to run its course.
After a series of big team-up movies (that resemble modern cinematic universes), Universal sought out the talents of the popular comedy team to keep the franchise fresh. This first entry is undeniably fun.
This is a classic buddy comedy with all the screwball humor and physical gags you could want. Plus, it doesn’t come at the expense of the monsters themselves.
Much to the film’s strength, it manages to get Bela Lugosi back into the role that made him famous (his first return to Dracula since the original movie) and Lon Chaney, Jr. reprises his role as the Wolf Man.
Their performances are every bit as serious as they are in other entries in the series. The only thing this movie lacks is Boris Karloff (Glenn Strange is a pale shadow replacement of Frankenstein’s Monster). It a nice mix of horror and comedy, one they would try to replicate but never quite achieve again.
8. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Son of Frankenstein is the third and final film in the Boris Karloff trilogy of Frankenstein movies (although the character of the Monster would live on beyond him).
This is also the first in the series not to be directed by James Whales. Living up to the first two films would be no small task but director Rowland V. Lee proved he was up for it.
While this doesn’t have the same depth as the previous two films (and taking away the creature’s ability to talk does feel like a misstep), Son of Frankenstein makes up for it with strong characterization, thrilling action sequences, and wonderful set design.
Normally having a “Son of” or “Daughter of” was a cheap ploy by the studio to keep the franchise going when they didn’t want to pay for returning actors. Yet, this story makes great use of the Son of Frankenstein title as the sins of the father visit upon the son.
There is a wonderful sense of mob rule, fear of the unknown, and suspicion that follows Frankenstein in this movie. Again, while it isn’t quite as good as the first two, this final part of the trilogy has a lot going for it as well (not to mention Bela Lugosi makes his first appearance in this series as Igor and he is wonderful).
7. The Mummy (1932)
Although greatly overshadowed by the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake (of which I also love), the 1932 Boris Karloff-led mood piece is a wonderful film in its own right.
This is a slow-moving tale that builds its horror theme immediately through its striking imagery and haunting atmosphere.
The Jake P. Pierce makeup design showcased early in the film’s runtime is one of the most memorable in Pierce’s long and storied career spanning from 1925 to 1964.
The Mummy also has one of my personal picks for scariest scenes ever filmed and… it’s in the first five minutes of the movie. Moreover, adding to its legend, there isn’t a drop of blood or gore.
This scene introduces the audience to the pure power of suggestion and the weight of performance, which is something that inferior filmmakers allow CGI, VFX, or other tricks of the camera to do for them.
The Mummy might be slow but the atmosphere more than makes up for it.
6. The Wolf Man (1941)
One of the most iconic monsters in Universal’s lineup is The Wolf Man.
Perhaps that is due to the endearing popularity of the Werewolf legend. In fact, much of the popular endearing myths of the Werewolf was actually invented for this movie.
Another powerful tool used to shape this movie in the annals of horror history is the idea of tragedy.
I’ve already written about Universal’s 2010 remake and why that film is so successful and the original 1941 classic largely succeeds for the same reason.
The lead performance from Lon Chaney, Jr. is one that elicits great empathy from the audience, which places every horror enthusiast that has seen The Wolf Man squarely in the shoes of a lead character.
The plot and characterization forces the viewer to see The Wolf Man “succeed.” However, that same viewer is also given over to the violent nature of something that isn’t quite human.
Much of the reason these monsters have endured is that we see so much of ourselves in them and the Wolf Man is a prime example of that. The film works both as a piece of horror entertainment but also a deeply sad tale. Not to mention The Wolf Man has another iconic makeup design from the master Jack Pierce.
5. Dracula (1931)
Some could argue this was the true beginning of the Universal Monster series.
Dracula, directed by Tod Browning, is a feature that makes great uses of its Gothic setting, the German expressionistic look, and the out-of-time setting gives this feature an “otherworldly” and eerie feeling.
(If you have never seen this classic, the movie never gives you an exact date of history, which greatly adds to the mystery of this masterpiece.)
It lacks a little bit of the subtextual depth of Bram Stoker’s novel, but makes up for that with electric performances and the powerful use of silence.
As noted in the documentary Universal Horror, audiences in 1931 were so accustomed to the use of music coming out of the silent era that Dracula’s lack of music made the film feel especially unsettling. Bela Lugosi’s performance is iconic and even after being parodied to death (no pun intended) he still carries all the gravitas that he did in 1931.
Not to be outdone is the performances of Dwight Frye as Renfield, who is arguably more unsettling than Lugosi, and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. This was one of the first I saw as a kid and I find it just as engrossing now as I did back then.
4. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Although not always included in Universal’s lineup of classic monster movies, The Phantom of the Opera is one of the earliest monster movies in the studio’s history and one of the finest from the silent era.
(Not for nothing, but I have a suspicion the reason why Phantom is not always considered one of the originals has more to do with the film being in the public domain than actual studio branding.)
The wide expressionistic set designs of the opera house, combined with the revolting and still terrifying makeup design from makeup artist/lead actor Lon Chaney, makes for an absolute enthralling watch.
It’s not the tragic love story from Andrew Lloyd Webber you may recall. (Yes, that means there are no renditions of “Music of the Night,” unfortunately.).
However, this is a fully committed Gothic horror story that boasts a lot of personalities and wonderful small moments that all lead to a massive finale. Universal likes to push the 1943 remake in their horror legacy, but this was the first and still stands high and mighty as one of the best from the studio in this era.
3. The Invisible Man (1933)
The Invisible Man is a tale of horror, comedy, tragedy, and almost exclusively of power.
A scientific experiment goes wrong leaving the scientist finding himself with the ultimate power of invisibility.
This power corrupts his mind and drives him mad, seeking to sell off this power to the world.
Dr. Jack Griffin (aka. ‘The Invisible Man’) claims to be trying to find a way back from his invisibility but there is no way back from the type of power he wields — power that has clearly eaten away his soul and body.
James Whale crafted another monster movie (in between the direction of his Frankenstein films) in Universal’s lineup with depth and spectacle.
Marked by an unforgettable Claude Rains performance, the visual effects of this film hold up remarkably well. The Invisible Man is a classic of Universal Monster Movies and easily one of the best.
2. Frankenstein (1931)
I have written extensively about these last two titles so I won’t go into my full details here.
Suffice it to say, I’ve had my work cut out for me, choosing between both of James Whale’s Frankenstein films for the top spot is tough. I love both films so much and, on any given day, I might give you a different answer for which I prefer.
The first outing of Frankenstein is a deeply rich film from a visual aesthetic and storytelling depth.
This is a horror film that is wonderfully expressionistic from the set design to the performances. Yet, everything throughout this film is rooted in the simplicity of empathy as the driving force for its narrative.
The scene between Boris Karloff’s Monster (I don’t need to say anything about how good that performance is) and the little girl named Marie is my favorite scene in any horror movie.
This might be number two on my list but it is unquestionably a masterpiece.
1. Bride of Frankenstein (1931)
The Bride of Frankenstein is also a masterpiece, and arguably one of the best sequels of all time.
This is another movie in this lineup that I’ve written extensively about but Bride of Frankenstein has everything I love from the first movie and then some.
The comedy and horror mix bleeds so well into its tragic underpinnings and musings on creation,
Whale’s second outing is a massive step forward visually, utilizing the camera for a more dynamic image that conveys the unforgiving nature of violence in the world that the Monster inhabits.
The Bride of Frankenstein could have been a cheap sequel, of which Universal was guilty of producing many times over, but Bride is one of the great ones where no expense was spared and every fan was pleased.
If you are a fan of the classics in horror and monster movies, what would your ranking be? Tell us in the comments below or with a thread in Twitter.