The Universal Monsters

Lon Chaney played the first of Universal's monsters in the 1925 Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The year was 1923 and the film was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The movie, based on the classic book by Victor Hugo, was made by a studio named Universal and would be the first of a series of films that for more than the next three decades would, in equal measure, horrify and delight filmgoers.

Universal Studios was founded in 1912 with Carl Laemmle as its president. Laemmle had entered the film business as the owner of a Nickelodeon movie theater (the term Nickelodeon came from the entry fee of 5 cents) but became tired of having to pay for expensive films licensed through Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Trust. Instead, in 1909, Laemmle and several other investors started the Yankee Film Company. Yankee was one of the first studios to give billing and screen credits to film actors and this idea of highlighting the stars of the pictures soon became a standard way to attract audiences into the cinema.

Though Universal was founded on the east coast in New York a few years later, it soon followed other motion picture companies to sunny southern California and built a studio in 1915. Universal's production facility soon became the largest in the world, though the pictures it produced were generally considered to be not very prestigious. Laemmle was a cautious studio chief and didn't like to take on debt, which forced the studio to film on a shoestring budget.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Chaney as the Phantom.

Universal's first brush with monsters came in 1922. By then Lon Chaney was a well-known actor having had starring roles in The Miracle Man in 1919 and The Penalty in 1920. Known as the "Man of a Thousand Faces" for his ability to change his appearance with makeup, he obtained the film rights to the Hunchback story with the intention of playing the sympathetic monster, Quasimodo, himself. After negotiating with several studios to produce the picture, Chaney came to an agreement with Universal Studios after studio manager Irving Thalberg assured Chaney that he could convince Laemmle that Hunchback required a much significantly bigger budget than the standard Universal film.

Thalberg kept his promise and Hunchback had the largest budget of any Universal picture to that date. It required extensive sets to reproduce the Notre Dame cathedral and the surrounding streets of 15th century Paris. In addition, some scenes required hundreds of costumed extras. The production was so large that at times director Wallace Worsley was forced to trade in his megaphone for a radio and loudspeaker to direct the large crowd.

The film was an unqualified success, grossing over $3 million. It set the standard for future horror films and set a course forward for Universal into the monster movie business.

Phantom of the Opera

Bela Lugosi starred as the Count on the stage before doing it on the screen.

The next major monster production for Universal also starred Lon Chaney, this time as the disfigured, murderous, musical genius of Gaston Leroux's 1910 novel, The Phantom of the Opera. Laemmle had met Leroux on a trip to Paris and bought the rights to the film as a vehicle for Chaney. The production, which included reproduction of the interior of the Paris Opera house on Universal's sound stage 28, went through several directors and aborted releases until it premiered on October 17, 1925. Despite it being reviewed as "only pretty good" by Time Magazine, the picture was a success, bringing in $2 million. It was re-released in 1930 as a "talkie" after sound was added to a number of scenes, though Chaney was unable to reprise his role to do his own voice as he was under contract to another studio by then.


The next horror film released by Universal was Dracula, based on the 1897 book by Bram Stoker and a 1924 stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Ironically, Carl Laemmle was not really a fan of horror films, but after the triumph of Hunchback and Phantom, it was difficult for him to argue with success, His son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., was able to convince him to move forward with the vampire picture. The elder Laemmle was also not a fan of Bela Lugosi who had played the Count in the stage play. Despite this Lugosi mangaged to get the part by ardently campaigning for it, and lowering his pay to just $500 a week which finally convinced the studio executives to hire him.

Frankenstein: When Lugosi turned down the part, Karloff took it.

Despite the earlier accomplishments of Hunchback and Phantom, Universal was nervous about the success of Dracula. Neither of the earlier features had supernatural components to the story. How would American audiences react to an undead villain? The executives need not have worried, however. When the film opened at the Roxy in New York City on February 12, 1931, it sold 50,000 tickets within 48 hours and soon gave the studio a profit of $700,000.


Perhaps the most famous and recognizable of all the Universal monsters was a result of the 1931 film, Frankenstein, based on the the 1818 Mary Shelly novel. While earlier makeup jobs for Hunchback and Phantom had been done by the actor, Lon Chaney, himself, Jack Pierce, with considerable input from the film's director, James Whale, produced the horrifying and memorable face of the mad scientist's creation. There are few people in the world that do not immediately recognize the image of the monster even if they have never seen the original film.

Coming off his success as Count Dracula, Lugosi wanted the part of the mad scientist. Laemmle, however, wanted him to play the monster, a part, which as written at the time, was a boring one-dimensional figure. Lugois, quoted as saying, "I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!," left the project and later Boris Karloff took the part. By then, however, the script had been re-written to make the monster a much more sympathetic and interesting character.

Boris Karloff also played The Mummy in 1932.

Frankenstein was a controversial picture running afoul of state censorship boards in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and New York (particularly problematic was the declaration by the doctor after his creature comes to life of "It's alive! It's alive! In the name of God! Now I know what it feels like to be God!" which was thought to be blasphemous). Despite this (or perhaps because of it), the film was enormously successful, earning a profit for the studio of over $700,000.

The Mummy

Unlike some of the other Universal monsters whose stories evolved out of folklore and legend, 1932's The Mummy was inspired by the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb a decade before. Laemmle, Jr., commissioned John L. Balderston to write a script inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's short story entitled The Ring of Thoth. Balderston set his tale in modern Egypt where a cursed, mummified and undead, Egyptian priest (Boris Karloff) attempts to bring his love back to life by sacrificing the film's heroine. The production was popular and proved to be another financial success for Universal.

The Invisible Man

Whale, the successful director of Frankenstein, went on to direct 1933's, The Invisible Man, based on H. G. Wells' science fiction novel. Boris Karloff was supposed to do the part of the scientist whose experiments with his own body make him disappear, but contractual arguments made him leave the production, allowing Whale to replace him with first choice, Claude Rains. It turned out to be the studio's most successful picture since Frankenstein.

Bride of Frankenstein

The bride seems less than thrilled with her new boyfreind in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

While many of the profitable Universal monster movies were given sequels, Frankenstein's first one is of particular interest. With the success of the original picture, Universal realized it needed the director Whale to come back and do the follow up, too. Whale, however, thought he'd done as much with the story as he could and was uninterested in working on a sequel. He finally consented after being given full control of the picture including the script (along with a promise he could direct another film in which he was interested: One More River). The result was one of those rare things, a motion picture sequel which is considered better than the original.

Karloff repeated his role as the monster, while actress Elsa Lanchester took the part of the creature's mate created by Frankenstein in order to fulfill a promise to the monster. Lanchester also played the writer, Mary Shelly, in a flashback at the beginning of the picture.

Despite the bride only appearing for a few minutes at the end of the production, the makeup work of Jack Peirce again provided the world with an indelible image of a literary character.

Lon Chaney, Jr., starred as a werewolf in 1941's,The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man

Nineteen-forty-one saw Universal release the motion picture The Wolf Man. It wasn't the first time Universal had attempted a movie based on a werewolf legend. Nineteen-Thirty-Five's Werewolf of London had not been a commercial success, however, and took six years before the studio was willling go the lycanthropy route again.

The picture starred Lon Chaney, Jr., son of the actor in the Hunchback and Phantom monster movies. Chaney played Larry Talbot. Talbot, who returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales, is bitten by a werewolf and then struggles with his own transformation into a version of the bloodthirsty creature.

Peirce's make-up for Chaney was extensive and required five or six hours to apply. Chaney said that during the filming of the transformation segments (which was done by stop motion techniques), he was forced to sit still for hours, even having to wait in the makeup chair while the crew left for lunch.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

The creature from the black lagoon had a new girlfriend.

Nineteen-fifty-four's, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, was a late entry in Universal's horror catalogue and one of the few released in 3D. Producer William Alland heard the legend of Amazon half-fish, half-human creatures from Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Ten years later he hired Maurice Zimm to write a script based on the idea of an expedition to the Amazon to find one of these creatures that ends in a monster kidnapping the film's heroine. The creature, credited to a design by Millicent Patrick, a sculpture by Chris Mueller, Jr., and make up by Bud Westmore, remains a classic vision of an aquatic monster.

In addition to these nine films, Universal produced a large number of sequels and lessor-known creature features that were additions their monster universe. Frankenstein alone resulted in The Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and House of Frankenstein.

The traditional Universal monsters got a new lease on life in the late 40's when the comic duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello did a comedy entitled Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Abbott and Costello had been stars for Universal in the 30's and early 40's, but by the end of that decade their popularly was waning. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which also starred Glenn Strange as the monster, Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Lon Chaney, Jr as the wolf man, was a huge success. The film revitalized the pair's screen careers and led to other "monster" pictures including Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff; Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man; Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and finally Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy in 1955.

Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein (Glenn Strange), Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney, Jr.).

Since then the studio has only occasionally dipped back into the monster pool. In 2004 it brought Frankenstein and Dracula together again in Van Helsing, a film that envisioned Dracula's old nemesis as an action hero battling supernatural fiends.

Recently, Universal decided to revive its monster series under the title Dark Universe. The initial release of the series, The Mummy, appeared in the summer of 2017 to less than stellar reviews. Universal will try again in 2019 with a new Bride of Frankenstein, which is scheduled to be released in February of 2019.

Perhaps with this reboot, Universal will be able to recapture some of its monster magic from the early film era.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2017. All Rights Reserved.