The Icons of Fright and the House That Spawned Them

What are the true icons of horror? Not the currently saleable Halloween costumes out there, but the truly recognizable, universally recognized horror icons that are immediately recognizable true icons of horror? Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein and maybe that walking fish man? Although many of these characters have been around for so long they defy both convention and copyright law, the most recognizable among them are the versions created by Universal Studios for their amazing line of classic monster movies.

Frankenstein’s monster didn’t always have a flat head or electric bolts sticking out of his neck, nor did Dracula always dress like a tuxedoed and caped aristocrat. What about the Wolf Man’s status as a tall, bipedal, clothed monster with wolf-like characteristics? Very few werewolf stories featured such a monster except in mid-transformation. And the most famous Bride of horror with the zapped out hair forming a strange, streaked “do” that makes her look she just climbed out of a speeding convertible? Her visage is shorthand for a horror maven. That’s just one more oft-imitated Universal Studios Classic Horror creation.

Where did these beasts come from and why have they become so distinctive over the years? Not only does everyone recognize these monster configurations, but each of them have become something of a shorthand for monsters in general. Sesame Street features its own Universal-inspired vampire called “The Count”, and has featured cartoons with a green-skinned flat-topped creature with bolts in his neck named “Frank”, who by the way, has been standing on his creator’s foot since the previous Friday. The Universal version of The Wolf Man has become the norm in Horror, almost completely supplanting the previous version of the werewolf, a human who shape-shifts into a full wolf by the light of the moon.

Walk down the breakfast cereal aisle of your favorite supermarket and you’ll find the ghostly Boo Berry, the Wolf-like Fruit Brute, the Egyptian-themed Fruity Yummy Mummy and, of course, General Mills’ own versions of Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula in the form of Franken Berry and Count Chocula. The cartoon commercial version of these mascots even feature voices impersonating Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, Béla Lugosi’s Count Dracula and Peter Lorre, one of the icons of classic horror, emanating from the oft-invisible Boo Berry.

The Universal Studios Horror Classics didn’t start with these iconic monsters, nor was Universal created to be “The House that Horror Built”, although ultimately that’s exactly what happened. Universal Studios was founded by one Carl Laemmle as “The Yankee Film Company”, which soon changed its name to IMP (The Independent Moving Pictures Company) and finally the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, all within the year of 1912. The fledgling studio’s first horror film came the following year in the 26 minute film, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, but it would take another decade before Universal would really succeed with a horror film.

That first success was a lavish production with a set that replicated Paris on an unprecedented scale for a new epic called The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). This amazing classic was Universal’s biggest gamble of 1923, and that gamble paid off to the tune of a full $3 million (in 1923, that was monumental). This success was due in no small part to the man who starred as Quasimodo, the man of a thousand faces himself, Lon Chaney. Chaney’s performance in this silent film is rife with pathos and entrancing humanity even (and especially) when Quasimodo’s own humanity is called into question.

Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera.

The incredible success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (the film almost tripled its budget in its original release alone) pushed Universal to seek out more money-hungry horror films and two years later the Carl Laemmle produced The Phantom of the Opera, starring none other than Lon Chaney himself as the title character. As wonderful as the makeup in The Hunchback of Notre Dame was (and, as created by Chaney himself, it was), the expansive production of Phantom of the Opera demanded an even deeper commitment from the man of a thousand faces.

This time, Chaney underwent a remarkably intense and even painful makeover into the skull-like face that author Gaston Laroux described in his original novel. To his end, Chaney painted his eye sockets black, did the same paint-work on his nostrils and pulled the tip of his nose up and pinned it back with a wire to give the impression of the empty socket of a skull’s nostrils and reportedly used fishhooks in his mouth to give the gaunt, sunken-cheek look of Erik the Phantom. So convincing was Chaney’s performance that its initial audience had patrons screaming and fainting as his now-iconic (and oft-copied) mask is torn from his face to reveal the horror beneath. Soundstage 28, where the opera house was built, is still mostly intact and is rumored to be haunted. To this day it exists as the oldest surviving movie set in history.

Through multiple re-issues with added color, re-editing and imbedded sound, The Phantom of the Opera continued to make Universal Studios millions and ultimately resulted in the funding of a series of classic horror movies that proved to be incredibly lucrative.

A smattering of horror-themed films followed The Phantom of the Opera but the little scary flicks that Universal both survived and thrived upon kicked into high gear with a lavish 1931 talkie called Dracula. These days there’s as much of a shortage of filmic adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Magnum Opus as there is a shortage of cell phones in an AMC Theatre. Hell, Universal themselves released not one, but two versions of Dracula within the year 1931, less than two months apart (more on that second film in a moment).

The February 1931 release featured the man who is still most associated with the character of The Count, Béla Lugosi. This was neither the first, nor most accurate adaptation of Stoker’s novel on film. The 1922 adaptation, entitled Nosferatu, closely followed the Stoker novel (to the point that his survivors sued and forced the renaming of the main character to “Count Orlok”). Like the Dracula of the novel, Max Schreck’s Orlock was a truly terrifying creature to behold. While eschewing the long hair and mustache of the title, Schreck’s performance was grotesque and gasp-worthy. A far-cry from the tuxedoed aristocrat we now associate with fiction’s bloodsucker-in-chief.

In contrast, Lugosi’s Dracula isn’t Stoker’s. In fact, this Dracula owes much more of a debt to the stage play by Hamilton Deane, John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort than the legend of old Vlad the Impaler. That said, no one so easily comes to our thoughts as the shining Iconic Vampire than Lugosi’s tuxedoed and suave creature of the night. Directed by Tod Browning, this dark delicacy takes a good number of liberties with Stoker’s original Epistolary Novel, combines a few characters, and eliminates a great deal of his work for a more direct and immediate scare-fest. The heavily accented Lugosi and the debonair, even sexy Count supplanted the monstrous bloodsucker from the novel and impacted vampire popular culture in general to the point that sexy and stylish vampires are now the rule and no longer the exception. Without Universal and Lugosi’s classic creature, the idea of a union between a human and a vampire would have been similar to the idea of zombie or werewolf sex. In current vernacular, “Totally not hot.”

Lugosi as Dracula.

As mentioned above, Browning’s Dracula wasn’t the only adaptation from 1931, or even the only Universal Studios adaptation from that year. In 1931, the movie industry was barely into sound pictures thus, no studio truly knew what to do with its films in the international market. With silent films, this was as easy as replacing the title cards with Spanish, German, Portuguese and Klingon words. But what was one to do with a “talkie”? Universal’s answer was to hire an entirely separate cast and crew to film a second version of the Stoker Classic in Spanish on the same sets and with the same script as the better known English language film. That’s right… the English-speaking cast and crew would start at 8AM and finish after dark, the Spanish-speaking crew would start after dark and end its day at 8AM. With all these similarities there’s no question that, regardless of shooting times, the two versions wouldn’t be as different as night and day. The result was Drácula, starring Carlos Villar as the Count himself and directed by George Melford (who, interestingly enough, spoke no Spanish). Regardless of languages spoken, many fans consider this Spanish-Language version of Drácula superior to its daytime counterpart.

Also in 1931 came the James Whale-directed terror tale known as Frankenstein which, under makeup genius Jack Pierce, introduced the most immediately recognizable version of the character since its inception. In Mary Shelley’s book, the monster was much less a deformed freak than a romantic, tragic figure. In the 1931 film, Boris Karloff brings forth an enormity of a full-grown child whose growing pains result in pain, death and rejection. Karloff’s genius, almost completely silent performance is rife with pathos and remains the most definitive and influential portrayal of the monster to this very day. Ironically, the part was originally offered to Lugosi who refused the chance to play the part for fear of not being recognized under all of that makeup. Thus, Lugosi was ultimately typecast as the Count while Karloff went on to diversify his resume with a series of frightening, yet varied characterizations.

These characters began the very next year in the 1932 picture The Mummy with Karloff starring as the title character. While Frankenstein’s monster was mute, saving for a few poignant words here and there, audiences got their first real glimpse of the thinking, verbal Karloff in the form of Imhotep himself. Although the story and screenplay by Nina Wilcox Putnam, Richard Schayer and John L. Balderston was billed as being completely original, The Mummy has been criticized as a virtual remake of 1931’s Dracula. There is a good case to be made for that, too.

James Dietrich’s score is supplemented by Heinz Roemheld’s main theme from Dracula. Both stories revolve around an undead prince returning to modern day society and finding his undoing when becoming entranced by a hot woman. Edward Van Sloan is featured here as Dr. Muller, the man who discovers the Mummy’s true identity. He appeared in Dracula as Dr. Van Helsing, the man who discovers the vampire’s true nature. David Manners’ Frank Whemple is the rival love interest to the object of Im-ho-tep’s affections, practically reprising his role as Mina’s husband in Dracula. Norton’s Fletcher character, with his Joker-esque laughing fits, even fills the Renfield void pretty damned well.

That said, The Mummy comes into its own because Karloff steals his own show and becomes both the Prince of antiquity and the terrifying, bandaged-wrapped monster as created by none other than Jack P. Pierce.

The year 1932 also featured two more starring roles for Lugosi and Karloff in Murders in the Rue Morgue and This Old Dark House, respectively, but it wasn’t until the following year that the next major horror Icon would be seen… or, unseen as the case may be. That unseen icon was, of course, The Invisible Man who hit horror screens in the guise of, and horror speakers in the voice of, Claude Rains.

This “must see” is a masterpiece of trick photography, two generations before CGI made its bow. The truth is that Trick Photography is still amazing. Today there are tools that exist that make the special effects from the early years of talkies look remarkably outdated and with the internet and the ready availability of just about any special effects data, the tricks of old and the tricks of today leave little to disbelief. If we take a step back and put ourselves in the era of the blissful unknown, “trick photography” can be a thrill again, and Star Wars continues to be amazing, The Lost World is still a wonder, 2001 A Space Odyssey can take your breath away anew.

“Believable” this might never be, but it’s much more than simply “cool”. The great director James Whale and his screenwriters Preston Sturges and R.C. Sherriff brought forth from the novel by H.G. Wells (and Philip Gordon Wylie’s 1931 novel The Murderer Invisible) a frightening, yet somehow still campy and humorous thriller that fits perfectly into the collection of Universal Studios’ Classic Horror films. Departing from both Wells and Wylie, Whale’s Invisible Man is a mad scientist who combines the homicidal bends of The Murder Invisible with the social commentary of Wells’ The Invisible Man.

Elsa Lanchester, The Bride of Frankenstein

The Universal Classics continued without a new icon for a few years before the studio caught the incredible sequel bug in the form of 1935’s mind-blowing epic Bride of Frankenstein, which changed all the rules for horror canon, inventive filmmaking and sequels in general. Bride of Frankenstein is among the rare sequels that actually exceeds the original in almost every way. Karloff brings us a more articulate, romantic, gothic and even hopeful monster while Whale outdoes himself in the sequel category, but the show stealer here is, of course, the Bride herself, Elsa Lanchester (credited as “The Monster’s Mate”).

Lanchester’s face is as beautiful as the bride as it is in the prologue (where she plays Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley), but she moves with a stiff, confused, almost robotic menace. It’s hard not to be both enchanted and disturbed by the Bride whose corpse-like movements, frightening look and mesmerizing eyes evoke a whirlwind of emotions in the audience, especially when Karloff is in the room. Lanchester’s aforementioned hair alone has become as recognizable as Karloff’s “old flattop” as he comes groovin’ up slowly and the Universal Pantheon received their first real goddess.

The sequel angle continued with Daughter of Dracula (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939) and while both were successful, neither proved to be as well-received as Bride of Frankenstein (in spite of the latter film’s featuring of both Lugosi and Karloff). Later sequels followed in the form of 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns (starring Vincent Price) and The Mummy’s Hand (starring Tom Tyler). Universal also experimented with new horror properties like Tower of London and The Phantom Creeps (both 1939) as well as Black Friday (1940) all of which did well, but failed to produce new icons for the screen.

From Scary to Parody to Truly Terrifying

It was ten years after Dracula and Frankenstein that the next big Universal Studios Monster stepped into the light of the full moon and howled. The actor behind the face fuzz was Creighton Tull Chaney, whose famous lineage soon led to his better known stage name of “Lon Chaney, Jr.” The monster he morphed into (again under the skilled artistry of Jack Pierce) was the title character of the 1941 film, The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man was not Universal’s first attempt at a werewolf saga. That distinction goes to 1935’s Werewolf of London; however, with the more complex makeup effects, the sincere acting of Chaney (as Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man) and the supporting role of Lugosi (not to mention the writing of veteran horror maestro Curt Siodmak and the production and direction of George Waggner), The Wolf Man changed everything audiences knew about werewolves, horror films, and special effects makeup. Chaney’s morphing was accomplished with the filming of short clips taken during the makeup application process (during which time Chaney had to remain motionless for hours) and then overlapped into one amazing bit of trick photography that showed the face of Larry Talbot slowly become the title werewolf. Almost immediately Chaney the younger supplanted his father’s Phantom as one of the big-three most recognizable movie monsters of all time.

This led Chaney to become Universal’s frequent go-to guy for wearing various monster faces (much as his father had done). Chaney replaced Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster in 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein (also co-starring Lugosi) as well as in the role of The Mummy in 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb. With a new featured player in the ranks and Horror proving to be the proverbial bread and butter for the studio, Universal rode the sequel wave to greater dollars, even pairing their famous monsters in various crossover sequels such as 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Frankenstein (Bela Lugosi) meets the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.)

Chaney was the first choice to play both the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster (whom Chaney had made his own) in this first matchup, but logistical reasons kept this from being possible. Thus Chaney stuck with his Wolf Man role and the lords of irony decreed that the monster would be played by none other than the man who turned the role down in the first place: Béla Lugosi. The film was hardly a critical darling, but it led to many more matches between famous monsters which continue today in films like Alien vs. Predator.

Chaney continued to be Universal’s go-to monster man, even donning the fangs to become Count Dracula in 1943’s Son of Dracula. A cycle of one-off horror films permeated the ’40s with appearances by Chaney, Lugosi, Rains and Karloff often ornamenting the marquees. Chaney relinquished the vampire cape to John Carradine (Dracula) and the flat-top makeup to Glenn Strange (the Monster) when he starred as the Wolf Man in House of Frankenstein with the top-billed Boris Karloff appearing not as his most famous character, but as a completely unrelated mad scientist. Chaney did return to the bandages in The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944) and to the role of the Wolf Man in House of Dracula (1945) which saw Carradine’s return to the role of the Count.

These horror match-ups came to a head in 1948 when the entire genre got so top-heavy that it virtually became a parody of itself. In a crossover film for the ages that year, Chaney returned as the Wolf Man, Lugosi returned to play Count Dracula, Strange returned to play Frankenstein’s Monster and even Vincent Price returned for a voice cameo as the Invisible Man. The film was so over-the-top that it had to be a comedy, right? Indeed. It starred Bud Abbott and Lou Costello and was released as Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. This film was a success and was influential on the previously rare “horror comedy” subgenre, but was seen by just about everyone involved as the final bow for the icons of horror. While this was considered a snicker-enducing end to the Universal Monster Cycle, which started with so much visceral terror, the film has been regarded as a classic to the point that in 2001 the United States Library of Congress preserved Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in the National Film Registry for its “cultural historical and aesthetic significance”.

Karloff’s mesmerizing Mummy.

As the ’50s dawned the Universal Studios Horror Classics had become passé and relics of the past, considering the fact that these were considered “new” ten, 20 or almost 30 years before. The parody fodder continued in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), further leaving the once terrifying genre in the comedy category.

Universal continued to create new horror films throughout the ’50s, but the lavish days of the past were gone and more sensationalistic B-Movie style horror took center stage, like It Came From Outer Space (1953) and The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958) but no new icons emerged as they had the previous two decades. No new icons, that is, except one.

In 1954 a very new and different kind of monster emerged from the South American swamps and picked off the invading crew of humans one by one, like the Alien of its day. The title monster’s debut was in the instant classic of 3D horror known as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Rolling our internal zeitgeist back to the year 1954, it’s easy to see how scary this film really was. Not only was this the first underwater Horror flick, it was also the first underwater 3D picture. The creature himself was a model of great creature effects from the time. Creature from the Black Lagoon was a major influence on Alien (1979) and its influence has been felt all over some of the all-time greats like Jaws (1975) as well as some of the lesser grindhouse features like Zombi 2 (1979).

Gill-Man, aka the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Much like many of the films that took their inspiration from Creature from the Black Lagoon, this original succeeds in scaring the viewer more with what is unseen than what is seen. Just imagine being a viewer in the ’50’s, 3D glasses perched on your nose like a pop-culture professor, watching a black and white three-dimensional fish tank open up before you and witnessing this monstrosity come into view only a piece at a time, before the inevitable reveal. While perhaps not quite as disturbing as the similarly revealed Alien (this film still carries its G-rating), Gill-Man is still one of the quintessential movie monsters, brilliantly designed by Rosemary Odell and brought to life by the Bud Westmore makeup and design crew.

Although one film was enough to make Gill-Man an icon (and arguably Universal’s last), he did return in two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), both of which succeeded because they were less startling fright-flicks than actual character-driven dramas. Yes, the trilogy starring a fish dude named “Gill-Man”, each entry of which has the word “Creature” in the title proves to be a pathos-driven story and much more than simply a “Creature Feature”.

The classic wave of Universal Studios Monsters ended with The Creature Walks Among Us and the dawn of the new decade gave us a very different and much more realistic kind of Universal Horror in the form of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). These classic icons were kept alive in print with the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland (1958 – 1983) and continued to have box office successes when their films were re-released on the big screen (albeit far less than their heyday). While still shorthand for the monsters we love, they were relegated to memory.

Or they were until another studio just across the pond resurrected them from the dead (again). Hammer Film Productions had achieved some success with Film Noir and Science Fiction, but when a script based on Mary Shelley’s most famous book was offered, it began work on its now-famous full-color gothic horror productions. The problem was that Curse of Frankenstein bore a striking resemblance to Son of Frankenstein (1939) in its plot twists, much more than it resembled the original novel. Universal cried foul and threatened to sue, thus Hammer hired makeup artist Phil Leakey to recreate the monster in an image that didn’t resemble that of the lumbering Karloff/ Chaney/ Lugosi/ Strange beast.

The new “Creature” (as he was called) was played by Christopher Lee with the mad Doctor Frankenstein brought to life by Peter Cushing. The film was released in 1957 and proved to be a remarkable success internationally, though many critics were disgusted and outraged. Universal was none the happier either, considering the fact that Hammer had (legally) stolen Universal’s thunder. The international box-office receipts were the sticking point that really enticed Universal, and while it tried to make sure that the Curse of Frankenstein did duplicate Universal’s formula, Universal soon struck a deal with Hammer to allow the British studio to produce authorized remakes (and subsequent sequels) of its intellectual properties in exchange for the lucrative international distribution rights.

The first of these successes was 1958’s Dracula (renamed Horror of Dracula in its US release, as the Lugosi film was still being re-released onto screens). The deal with Universal was still being worked out as Horror of Dracula reached completion and the Hammer Dracula (played by Lee) was an undeniable derivation of Lugosi’s own bloodsucker, right down to the stylish clothes and sexy seduction of his vampire brides. When Universal saw the money rolling in from Dracula it expanded its deal to offer near carte blanche to Hammer and Hammer gratefully accepted.

Like Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein, 1959’s The Mummy also starred both Lee and Cushing. Unlike the two previous Hammer Films, The Mummy was a fully authorized remake of Universal’s properties. Interestingly enough, this remake was not of the 1932 film The Mummy but an amalgamation of 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand and 1942’s The Mummy’s Tomb. The 1959 film was a critical and commercial success and continued to elevate Hammer in the eyes of audiences and reviewers.

The Mummy spawned three sequels between 1964 and 1971, while Hammer’s Frankenstein series included six sequels between 1959 and 1974 and its Dracula franchise was followed by five sequels between 1960 and 1970.

While the Universal Studios Classic Horrors were relegated to the past (or spoofs like the excellent 1974 Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein) and continued on another continent, Universal’s take on these (largely) public-domain creatures continued to permeate pop culture to the point that most people believed that the original Dracula featured a Count like Lugosi and the original Frankenstein was all about a flat-topped, staggering green guy. Between 1964 and 1966, Universal themselves created a comedy sitcom entitled The Munsters which featured parodies of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster and other Universal classic monsters. Still, Universal was not done with horror completely, and continued to create some truly excellent fright films that are not quite the ubiquitous examples that their classic pantheon were.

Norman Bates’ bow in Psycho was followed by Hitchcock’s zombie-like avian epic The Birds (1963) and the studio broke box office records with Jaws (1975), re-recreated the werewolf saga in An American Werewolf in London (1981) and presented one of the most terrifying and brilliant monster movies of all time in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). After Columbia and Tri-Star had twin successes with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), Universal went back to its own well and greenlit Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), which was followed by The Mummy Returns (2001), The Scorpion King (2002) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008).

In 2004 Sommers revisited the classic Universal Studios pantheon in Van Helsing, which featured Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster, all in new forms. The film was not a critical success and reminded many of the 1987 box office failure The Monster Squad, which featured pastiches of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Gill-Man.

In 2010 arguably the most faithful remake of a Universal property was seen in Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins and featuring the special effects wizardry of Rick Baker.

The Universal Classic Monsters remain ubiquitous in pop culture as what a movie monster truly is and can be. They have passed through the realm of parody and back into the territory of the serious and terrifying. The original films are still regarded as undeniably influential horror classics.

What of the future of Universal Studios Classic Horror? Remakes or reboots of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy and even Van Helsing with attached names including Breck Eisner, Alfonso Cuaron, Alex Proyas, Sam Worthington, Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are being floated already. All of the above are sure to be special effects extravaganzas and may even share a universe, much as the original monster match-ups did from the ’30s through the ’50s. However, these are all mere imitations, much as we have seen in spoofs, cartoons, comics and even on packaging on our supermarket shelves. The reimagining and creation of these Classic Monsters was never so successful before Universal did it, nor has such a recreation ever proven to be so successful as to completely revise public consciousness of such characters.

There is only one Universal Studios Classic Horror Monster Pantheon and long may it reign. Until such success can even be hinted at replication, I’ll see you monster mashers in The Next Reel.