The 15 Best Classic Horror Films From Universal Studio

8. The Raven (1935)

The Raven (1935)

There are echoes of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter in Béla Lugosi’s performance as Dr Richard Vollin, the most eminent and respected surgeon in America and the only man capable of saving the life of car-crash victim Jean Thatcher. He subsequently develops an obsession with Jean but her father is having none of it. Vollin’s other obsession, Edgar Allen Poe, informs a revenge plan that involves blackmailing an escaped murderer (Boris Karloff) into helping him.

This is Lugosi’s show. Cultured, erudite, chilling and imposing, Dr Vollin boasts one of cinema’s great maniacal cackles. As was traditional with films based on Poe’s work, The Raven has practically nothing to do with his titular poem, but concentrates instead on the author’s fondness for ingenious torture devices.

A rather fascinating addition to the Universal Horror line: a rare contemporary horror, it touches on intriguing, fashionably Freudian notions of personality and behaviour. That Karloff received top-billing over Lugosi reflected the latter’s diminished Hollywood standing. The public’s dwindling taste for horror movies in general led to a brief respite in the series.


9. Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Universal’s Horror cycle was not an unbroken wheel. By the mid-thirties, they had already become rather passé, and horror actors like Béla Lugosi found themselves struggling to get hired. However, in 1938 a touring triple bill of Dracula, Frankenstein and King Kong became a box office sensation, and the public appetite for monsters was whetted once again. Karloff and Lugosi were reunited and Basil Rathbone, hot property after his villainous turn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, played Colin Clive’s son, Baron Wolf von Frankenstein.

The amount of money lavished upon this production is evident from the huge, cavernous sets and the impressive make-up effects. Lugosi steals the show as Ygor, a grubby-bearded grave-robber with a broken neck out for revenge (check out the delight he takes in coughing into the face of a juror). Karloff’s presence as the Monster makes this, unofficially, the third and final part of a trilogy. After this, the Monster would be played by Glenn Strange, Lon Chaney Jr and Béla Lugosi. With that in mind, Son of Frankenstein is perhaps the most underrated film in the Universal Horror series and is ripe for rediscovery.


10. The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941)

This wasn’t the first Werewolf movie; Universal’s own Werewolf of London preceded it by six years. In that rather limp Jekyll & Hyde clone, Henry Hull is transformed by the moonlight into…Henry Hull wearing rather unsightly sideburns, albeit via ingenious in-camera trickery involving cloister pillars. By contrast, Jack Pierce’s stunning make-up for Lon Chaney Jr in George Waggner’s The Wolf Man is rivalled only by his own Frankenstein design. Every werewolf movie from the past seventy years owes its existence to this film, and to Curt Siodmak’s script in particular which invented many of the standard tropes of werewolf lore.

This was the last prestige picture in the Universal Horror series, with a healthy budget judiciously spent on sumptuous sets and an unusually fine cast. Claude Rains is especially good as Lon Chaney Jr’s father, struggling with the idea that his son is most likely mad but protecting him zealously nonetheless from his increasingly suspicious peers.

It is hard to imagine a more genetically unlikely father and son combo than Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr (except maybe Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro). Chaney Jr’s acting inexperience is made abundantly evident in his scenes with Rains, but his shortfall in emotive dexterity is more than made up for by his wild, physical performance whenever the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.


11. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

Before Freddy vs Jason, before Alien vs Predator and before Batman vs Superman, the idea of giving the audience value for money by combining franchises first hatched back in 1943 with this, the first of the ‘Monster Rallies.’ It was a direct sequel both to The Wolf Man and to Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), in which Ygor’s brain was transplanted into the Monster’s body.

Lon Chaney Jr returned to play the suicidal Larry Talbot, who is brought back to life by bungling grave-robbers who foolishly let the full moon shine onto his corpse. Talbot seeks out the famous Dr Frankenstein, the only man who knows the means to allow him to escape his curse and die. Curiously, at no point does Talbot consider putting a pistol loaded with a silver bullet under his chin and pulling the trigger.

Béla Lugosi finally got his chance to play the Frankenstein monster…and blew it completely. In truth, his disastrous performance can be attributed to the fact that he played the Monster as blind, as per the conclusion of Ghost of Frankenstein. This rather important plot point, along with all of his dialogue, was cut out leaving Lugosi looking like a drunk dad at a Halloween party.


12. The Scarlet Claw (1944)

The Scarlet Claw (1944)

Despite inconsistencies in the script that rendered the mid-section of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man utterly nonsensical, it was a passable entertainment that at least began and ended well. It was directed by Roy William Neill, one of the most cruelly unsung directors of the 1940s. By no means a towering artistic figure like James Whale or even Tod Browning, Neill still deserves credit for his stewardship of one of the greatest movie series in Hollywood history: the Sherlock Holmes movies starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, of which eleven were directed by Neill.

The supernatural – or the criminal use of supernatural fakery – was often to be found in the margins of Holmes’s adventures. As in the case of The Hound of The Baskervilles, a tin of phosphorous paint is put to good ghostly use here. The emphasis on the occult, the legendary ‘Monster of La Mort Rouge’ and the gory means of dispatch (a sharpened garden fork used to rip out various throats) take this entry out of the thriller genre and lands it squarely among Universal’s horror film collection. It is still a whodunnit, of course and the final unravelling is one of the biggest surprises of the Rathbone era.


13. The House of Frankenstein (1944)

The House of Frankenstein (1944)

Two monsters not enough for you? Try FIVE. The 1940s equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers, House of Frankenstein was the ultimate Monster Rally, packing its 71 minutes full of as many monsters as it could hold, at the expense of budget, script quality or logic. “The screen’s mightiest monsters,” as advertised in the posters, meant the first collaboration between Dracula, The Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster.

This is a rather fraudulent claim, since Dracula (John Carradine) has already been fried by the sun before the other two monsters arrive. Boris Karloff is the film’s coup, playing not the Creature for once but The Mad Doctor. Monster number five, anticlimactically is a hunchback; the ‘Horror Top Trumps’ card no one ever wanted to be dealt.

By this point, there was a Saturday morning serial feel to the Universal horror movies. House of Frankenstein is strictly B-Movie fare, its budget restrictions clearly visible in the shakiness of the sets and the crudeness of the make-up and special effects. However, it was a big hit at the time and retains a great deal of charm. Universal repeated the entire process the following year with House of Dracula, which completely ignored the events of House of Frankenstein, and in which the ‘Hunchback’ was a nurse with a slightly sore neck.


14. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello finally managed to do what nearly twenty years of silver bullets, torch-carrying Bavarian villagers, burning windmills and exploding castles failed to achieve – they killed off the Universal monsters. The fatal blow came not from a stake through the heart but from the death-ray of parody. With Universal’s monsters now officially a laughing stock, the final flames of threat were forever sponged dry. Dracula, Frankenstein and his pals would remain the stuff of children’s costume parties until Hammer stirred blood, sex and colour back into the mix in 1957.

However, as well as being a highly enjoyable caper, this remains an important footnote in the cycle – it was the first time that Béla Lugosi had played Count Dracula since 1931. It didn’t yield completely to the slapstick shenanigans of Bud & Lou: there were young kids in the audience for the first time, and our old friends still had a few scares in them yet. One such kid was Quentin Tarantino, who cites this film as a major influence.

“The Abbott and Costello stuff was funny, but when they were out of the room and the monsters would come on, they’d kill people! And the big brain operation when they take out Costello’s brain and put in Frankenstein’s monster’s brain was scary. Then this nurse gets thrown through a window! She’s dead! When’s the last time you saw anybody in a comedy-horror film actually kill somebody?”


15. Bonus Track: Young Frankenstein (1974)


Having ploughed through all the films listed above, there can be no better way to congratulate yourself then by revisiting Mel Brooks’s tip of the hat to Universal’s horror movies of the 30s and 40s. Young Frankenstein is Brooks’s masterpiece; one of the greatest comedies of the 20th century. However, its myriad pleasures are made even more delightful by acquainting oneself with the original movies that it references so affectionately.

Riffing directly on Son of Frankenstein – the plot is virtually identical – Kenneth Mars’s Inspector Kemp with his ingenious false arm (ideal for cheating at darts) is borrowed from Lionel Atwill’s similarly bionic Inspector Krogh. The laboratory equipment props used by Dr Frederick Frankenstein – ‘That’s Fronkensteen!” – were the Strickfaden-designed originals. Gerald Hirschfeld’s cinematography meticulously recreated the Universal horror ‘look,’ even down to the 1930s-style scene transitions.

Elsa Lanchester’s trademark electric hair-do from Bride of Frankenstein makes an appearance at the end. Funniest of all is the recreation of Bride’s ‘blind hermit scene,’ with Gene Hackman replacing O.P. Heggie. Thirsty and starving, Peter Boyle’s Monster is cruelly denied food and wine by the kind hermit’s accidental clumsiness. Having dumped hot soup into the Monster’s lap, the hermit finally lights the Monster’s thumb instead of his cigar. “Wait, don’t go! I was gonna make espresso!”

Author Bio: Cai is a food and film writer, with articles published in The Chap, Fire & Knives, Gin & It and Cinema Retro. He is a features writer for and has yet to get over the Jaws obsession which consumed him as a callow youth.