Universal Classic Monsters  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Universal Horror is the name given to the distinctive series of horror films made by Universal Studios in California from the 1920s through to the 1950s. With their iconic gallery of monsters, Universal would create a lasting impression on generations of avid moviegoers around the world.

Universal's earliest success in the horror genre was Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, for which the actor famously designed and endured a torturous make-up. The interior of the Paris Opera House was recreated on an epic scale for the film, and remains the longest-standing film-set to this day, being used for the 1943 remake with Claude Rains, as well as numerous non-horror pictures.

In the 1930s, the studio scored massive success with Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (directed by James Whale), both in 1931 and launching the careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively. Many of the horror genre's most well-known conventions -- the creaking staircase, the cobwebs, the swirling mist and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches -- were first seen in these films and those that followed, including The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Wolf Man (1940), which also established Lon Chaney, Jr., as a leading horror actor.

Aside from Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney, the Universal horrors provided steady work for a number of genre actors including Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan and John Carradine. Other regular talents involved were make-up artists Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, and composers Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner.

The series lost impetus towards the end of the 1940s, but The Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold, 1951) is still generally regarded as a legitimate "Universal horror".

Mel Brooks's 1974 parody Young Frankenstein paid brilliant homage to the films' style, and in 1998, filmmaker Kevin Brownlow made the documentary Universal Horror, narrated by Kenneth Branagh and featuring interviews with many of the original stars.

Contents

Overview

1920s (Silent Era)

Universal's earliest success in the horror genre was Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera in 1925, for which the actor famously designed and endured a torturous make-up. The interior of the Paris Opera House was recreated on an epic scale for the film, and remains the longest-standing film-set to this day. It was used for the 1943 remake with Claude Rains, as well as numerous non-horror pictures. The set is contained on Stage 28 at Universal, which was constructed specifically for the film and dubbed "The Phantom Stage."

Having already starred in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923, Chaney continued to be the studio's most bankable horror star until his premature death from cancer in 1930.

1930s (Golden Age)

In spite of the depression, executive Carl Laemmle Jr produced massive successes for the studio with Dracula (directed by Tod Browning) and Frankenstein (directed by James Whale), both in 1931.

The success of these two movies not only launched the careers of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but also ushered in a whole new genre of American cinema. With Universal at the forefront, they would continue to build on their box office returns with an entire series of monster movies. These films would also provide steady work for a number of other genre actors including Lionel Atwill, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, and John Carradine. Other regular talents involved were make-up artists Jack Pierce and Bud Westmore, and composers Hans J. Salter and Frank Skinner. Many of the horror genre's most well-known conventions -- the creaking staircase, the cobwebs, the swirling mist and the mobs of peasants pursuing monsters with torches -- originated from these films and those that followed.

Next up was The Mummy (1932), followed by a trilogy of films based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935), the latter two of which teamed up Lugosi with Karloff. Also released was The Invisible Man (1933) which proved to be another phenomenal hit and would spawn several sequels. However, of all the Universal monsters, the most successful and sequelized was undoubtedly the Frankenstein series, which continued with Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Dracula too had its share of sequels, beginning with Dracula's Daughter in 1936, although none would feature its original leading man, Bela Lugosi.

1936 also marked the end of Universal’s first run of horror films as the Laemmle’s were forced out of the studio after financial difficulties and a series of box office flops. The monsters were dropped from the production schedule altogether and wouldn’t re-emerge for another three years. In the meantime the original movies were re-released to surprising success, forcing the new executives to green light Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone as heir to the Frankenstein legacy.

1940s

During the forties, the most successful of the new series of Universal Horror movies was The Wolf Man (1940), which also established Lon Chaney, Jr., as the new leading horror actor for the studio.

In 1943, the "Phantom stage" was employed again for a remake of Phantom of the Opera, this time starring Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster in a film that was as much musical as horror. Claude Rains played the Phantom.

The Frankenstein and Dracula series continued with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) while Son of Dracula (1943) featured Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Count. The Mummy too continued to rise from the grave in The Mummy's Hand (1940) and The Mummy's Tomb (1942). Eventually all of Universal's monsters would be brought together in: House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), where Dracula was played by John Carradine. As the decade drew to a close the knockabout comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) proved an instant hit for the studio, with the original Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi starring alongside Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (AKA The Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange, as Frankenstein's monster.

1950s (Monster Revival)

For many, the series had lost much of its impetus towards the end of the 1940s, but with the success of Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold in 1954) the revived "Universal Horror" franchise would gain a whole new generation of fans. The original movies such as Dracula and Frankenstein were again re-released as double features in many theatres, before eventually premiering on syndicated American television in 1957 (as part of the famous "Shock" run of Univeral Monster Movies). Soon dedicated magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland would help propel these movies into lasting infamy. By the early 60s the monsters were merchandised in the form of toys and model kits, the most famous of which were from the now-defunct Aurora company.

Later influences & homages

From 1964 to 1966, the CBS sitcom The Munsters featured a ghoulish family based on several of the Universal characters, including Karloff's Frankenstein and Lugosi's Dracula.

In the late 1950s, the legendary Hammer Studios began updating the Universal catalogue in glorious Eastmancolor; Starting with The Curse of Frankenstein and the Horror of Dracula. Latterly, Universal was also the distributor for several of the films, enabling Hammer to replicate many features of the original Universal horrors for the first time. Most notable was The Evil of Frankenstein (1963), in which sets, effects, plot and make-up all borrowed heavily from the Universal Frankenstein series.

Mel Brooks's 1974 parody Young Frankenstein paid brilliant homage to the films' style. Gerald Hirschfield's black-and-white photography particularly evoked the expressionistic style of the Universal horrors.

Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) featured the character Magenta (played by Patricia Quinn whose shock hair was modelled on that of the Bride of Frankenstein. The film (and stage play) is a parody of B-movies and the title song "Science Fiction/Double Feature" itself references Universal's own The invisible Man.

The long running Children's TV favourite Sesame Street became an unlikely platform for one of Universal's key figures; Bela Lugosi's Dracula (unofficially) became a Muppet in the guise of Count von Count.

The Monster Squad, a 1987 film released by Tri-Star Pictures and directed by Fred Dekker, featured Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Ironically, while the character designs were changed slightly so as not to infringe on Universal's copyright, the movie itself was filmed on the Universal backlot.

In 1998, filmmaker Kevin Brownlow made the documentary Universal Horror. It was narrated by Kenneth Branagh, and featured interviews with many of the original stars.

Director Stephen Sommers has made two action/adventure-horror films which use characters, plot elements, and themes from classic Universal Horror: The Mummy (1999) and Van Helsing (2004). The former was better received by both critics and audiences (and spawned two sequels, The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King with a third currently in the works), while the latter was harshly criticized (though still a box office success).

Castlevania based on the video game franchise of the same name, will be the next film to utilize motifs of the Universal Monsters.

In Mahou Sentai Magiranger, the main villains in the series each parodied and paid homage to many of the Universal Monsters.

Land of the Dead, a George Romero zombie film, used the original black and white Universal logo as a tip of the hat to the classic Universal Monsters, as did the movie Dead Silence.

Some of the characters in the video game Darkstalkers are inspired in the Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon)

See also





Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Universal Classic Monsters" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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