The 15 Best Classic Horror Films From Universal Studio
The uncanny and the macabre were themes that cinema embraced from the outset. The cinematograph, after all was invented during the time of the Victorian Gothic renaissance, the popular bloody excesses of The Grand Guignol Theatre Company and Jack The Ripper. Germany was home to the first masters of horror cinema.
Robert Weine’s 1919 Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (recently remastered and rereleased) is regularly credited as the first ‘Horror Movie’ proper and titles like Der Golem (1920) and Murnau’s Nosferatu Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (1922) featured characters that would be reinterpreted for the next one hundred years.
In Hollywood, Universal seemed to get the jump on its competitors from the get-go. Their contract player Lon Chaney was a huge star of the 1920s silent movies and he excelled in horrific fantasy pictures in which he was transformed by elaborate and extraordinarily painful make-up effects. During the 1930s and 40s, Universal Horror became a brand. Monsters, characters, make-up and titles were created that have become so iconic that even children today can identify them from a single image.
They are like an album collection from a single band. Many of the members left and were replaced during the band’s tenure, but the look and the sound are unmistakably from the same source. One of the most reassuringly comfortable sounds in all of cinema, personally, is the artificial ‘Thunder’ effect that Universal used; clearly a metal sheet being waved in front of a microphone, but instantly, pleasingly evocative nonetheless.
There were several peaks in the saga of the classic Universal Horrors. After the success of Dracula and Frankenstein in the early 1930s, the popularity began to wane. Another tidal wave of interest occurred in the 1940s, ebbing away by the end of the decade. The films were subsequently rediscovered in the 1950s and 1960s on television by a generation of children that included little Stevie Spielberg, Marty Scorsese, Johnny Landis and Joey Dante. The influence of these soon-to-become-directors was immense. Joe Dante said ‘These pictures really became my generation’s folklore; our fairytales.”
Universal managed to resurrect their monster collection and destroy it in one fell swoop when they made the über-awful Van Helsing in 2004. Now, writers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci (Star Trek, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) have been hired to create a Marvel-style Universal ‘Universe’ which will bring their library of copyrighted Monsters back to life once more. While they’re working feverishly to introduce cinema’s most famous creatures to a new generation, why don’t you take time to reacquaint yourselves with some old friends…
1. The Phantom of The Opera (1925)
Lon Chaney, the legendary “Man of A Thousand Faces,” had already enjoyed several fantasy hits for Universal Studios, including his seminal Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923. Two years later, he created one of the most famous images in horror history by brutalising his own face into the skull-like visage of Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of The Opera.
A silent film – though overdubbed and re-edited in later versions – Phantom was a box office sensation and its success was something producer Carl Laemmle Jr was keen to repeat. The moment when Mary Philbin’s Christine rips away the Phantom’s mask to reveal his grotesque face for the first time, was a seminal moment of brain-bruising terror for me as a young child – coaxed from underneath my bed only by the promise of a new Star Wars figure.
The harmony of screams and thuds from fainting cinema patrons was sweet music to Laemmle, whose 1927 vampire movie production London After Midnight had reminded him of an 1897 Bram Stoker novel…
2. Dracula (1931)
Based more accurately on the stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L Balderstone than Stoker’s novel, Dracula was a box office phenomenon and was the starting pistol that got Universal’s horror cycle off and running. Laemmle had set up the production as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, but the star died of throat cancer in 1928. London After Midnight director Tod Browning was hired and despite Laemmle’s reservations, the star of the touring production, Hungarian Béla Lugosi was cast as the title character.
The first, Transylvanian-set half of the film is pure gold: practically every line and every shot is iconic. Once the action moves to England – more accurately a series of film sets in Los Angeles full of ex-pat Brit actors still used to the mannered genuflection of silent movies – it all slows down maddeningly into a talky melodrama. Dracula’s death – staked off-screen with a resultant groan – is unforgivably feeble.
Far more impressive is the Spanish version, shot after hours by George Melford using all the same sets, starring Carlos Villarias as Conde Drácula. Melford’s whizzing camera and experimental compositions expose Browning’s blocky, silent movie background. Villarias’s campery however, reminds you that Dracula’s greatest asset was always Lugosi’s extraordinarily creepy interpretation.
3. Frankenstein (1931)
Dracula’s Van Helsing actor Edward Van Sloan appears from behind the curtain to announce Frankenstein and to offer the audience one last chance to head for the exits. “Well, we warned you,” Sloan concludes, with a cheeky grin that suggests he knew just how much the following seventy minutes of celluloid would change Hollywood. As Barry Norman said, “Frankenstein is the most influential horror film ever made.”
Frankenstein overflowed with artists who were in the right place at the right time. Kenneth Strickfaden, for example essentially invented the architecture of the ‘Mad Scientist’s Laboratory,’ imitated for decades up to and including Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (2013). Then there was Jack Pierce, who assembled the most iconic make-up design of the 20th century. There were two particular aces up Frankenstein’s sleeve. First, struggling British actor Boris Karloff – credited as ‘?’ in the opening titles – who replaced Béla Lugosi in the role of The Monster and made himself immortal in the process.
Then there was James Whale, a creative visionary who had been greatly influenced by the German Expressionism of the 1920s. Whale’s use of lighting informed the entire Universal horror cycle, as did his use of close-ups and zooms – most effectively here in the moment when the Monster first appears, backing through a door and turning slowly to face the audience. Unlike, Dracula’s shoulder-shrug of a climax, Frankenstein concludes with the pyrotechnic spectacle of flaming windmill that is still thrilling to watch today.
4. The Mummy (1932)
Something of a let down monster-wise, since the reanimated, bandage-wrapped Mummy from all the posters appears in only one scene. What a scene though. Awoken from two thousand years of slumber by the unwise incantation of The Scroll of Thoth, mummified Egyptian priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff) slowly – so..sooo..slowly – opens his eyes.
The unfortunate orator (Bramwell Fletcher) is reduced to a gibbering wreck, outdoing Dwight Frye’s trademark hysterical laughter as we glimpse the mummy’s bandages disappearing out through the tomb-door. From then on, the movie is a twisted romance, as Imhotep (in the guise of contemporary Egyptian “Ardath Bey”) seeks out the reincarnation of his true love.
Karl Freund, one of the greatest pre-war cinematographers (responsible for Der Golem, Metropolis and Universal’s Dracula) was given his first turn in the director’s chair by Carl Laemmle, and the film benefits from Freund’s atmospheric illuminations. The single, back-lit close-up shot of Karloff as Ardath Bey; his face as wizened as a fingerprint, his spot-lit eyes staring out of deep, black eye sockets, is perhaps the most haunting image in the entire Universal Horror canon.
5. The Old Dark House (1932)
The joker in the Universal Horror pack, this comic thriller was James Whale at his wittiest. It slipped out largely unnoticed in America and was presumed lost through studio negligence, until a print was restored by experimental director (and Whale’s friend) Curtis Harrington in 1968. The Human Centipede, Dracula: Prince of Darkness, House of Wax, in fact any horror movie in fact where unlucky travelers find themselves taking refuge in a sinister house and wish they hadn’t, can all trace their bloodlines back to The Old Dark House.
A completely studio-based film, its staginess can be attributed its genesis, the novel Benighted by playwright J.B. Priestley. Whale’s camera rarely stays still for long though – the shot of Boris Karloff staring through a keyhole is especially unsettling.
The characters are broadly brushed and larger than life, particularly Charles Laughton as a proud, posturing self-made industrialist with a tragic background, and the patriarch of the eerie Femm family, played by Ernest Thesiger who spins comic gold from every line, even one as benign as “Have a potato.” Ironically, amidst this strange comedy of manners, Karloff puts in the most frightening performance of his career as the brutish, mute butler, Morgan, whose fondness for the bottle has terrifying consequences for everyone.
6. The Invisible Man (1933)
While Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy were hardly short of atmospherics and striking visuals, there was a conspicuous absence of special effects on display – Dracula’s transformations always occurred off-screen, for example. James Whale set about rectifying this with his adaptation of H.G. Welles’s classic science-fiction.
A typically Whaleian mix of fantasy horror and subversive comedy, the scenes featuring a dancing shirt and a bicycle that seemingly pedals itself were Avatar-level special effects in 1933 and much of the trickery still astounds today. Frankenstein’s Una O’ Connor is also on hand, dependably cocking her head and shrieking at almost dog-whistle frequency.
A rather fine sequel, The Return of The Invisible Man was released in 1940, starring a caddish Vincent Price. Fans of both films should hunt down the 1986 sketch-movie Amazon Women On The Moon purely for the scene where The Invisible Man removes his bandages to reveal a completely visible, nude and deluded Ed Begley Jr, unaware of his lack of transparency.
7. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
If The Godfather Part II is generally agreed to be the greatest sequel ever made, Bride of Frankenstein is a worthy silver medal winner. Buoyed by the huge success of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, James Whale was not a director to brook studio interference when he finally caved in to demands to make a Frankenstein sequel. Though it derived much of its plot from Mary Shelley’s novel, Bride was the epitome of ‘A James Whale Film.’
It is beyond a doubt, the strangest film in Universal’s catalogue of horrors, and in truth barely qualifies as a horror movie at all. It is a film obsessed with ideas, and it has at its centre a character completely free from imagination-strangling social mores. Dr Pretorius (an astonishing Ernest Thesiger essentially playing his director) has created a collection of miniature humans, including a mermaid and a randy king who escapes his glass jar to get at his similarly tiny queen.
The creature he creates in collaboration with Dr Frankenstein (Colin Clive, this time looking rather lost among the madness) is Elsa Lanchester’s title character, announced wittily by Franz Waxman’s nuptial score. It is testament to Lanchester that her Bride, lightening bolt hair et al, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century despite being on screen for less than five minutes.
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