It’s getting to be that special time of year again: summer is turning to fall (in theory if not in weather), and preparations for the festivities we associate with that season are underway. And by that, I mean it’s time to get spooky up in here.
There is a certain subsection of the Internet in which Halloween begins on the first day of September, and I’m going to follow that lead this year by launching my spooky content early. That’s because this new series won’t just be for October: it’s going to be a long, detailed journey that will take us through nearly a century of film history and beyond.
Starting now, we’re talking about Universal Horror — that is, horror films produced and released by Universal Pictures.
Quick! When I say the name “Frankenstein,” what image comes to mind? Probably that of a big, greenish-grayish fellow with a bad haircut and screws in his neck, walking around while a mad scientist shrieks “It’s alive!” and an Igor pulls a switch. You’ve got Universal to thank for all that. How about if I say “Dracula”? Now you’re probably thinking of a dark-haired, clean-shaven older gentleman in a big collared cape who’s got a thick accent and says things like “I never drink…wine.” Is that what Bram Stoker came up with? Nope! Universal again. The depictions of these two characters in particular are a world away from their 19th century source material. But even if you haven’t seen these films or barely know about them, you recognize these images as what Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula are “supposed to be.” That’s how powerful these films are, even after so many decades.
Of course I want to talk about all these movies because they’re great flicks that shaped pop culture and the evolution of the horror genre. But I also want to discuss them because they’re an important piece of film history beyond that. You see, long before our modern world of endless sequels and spin-offs, the Universal horror/monster movies pioneered not only the concept of a multi-film franchise but the concept of a shared cinematic universe. Before we had the MCU and DCEU, we had Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and many others. The original monster mash.
Like I said, we’ve got a long trip ahead of us. Universal has made and released so many horror movies that talking about every single one would take too much time, so I’m laying out some basic ground rules.
- RULE #1: To qualify for my list, the film has to have been made and released by Universal, thus ruling out anything that was merely distributed by them in the States or elsewhere. Basically, it has to be a film that Universal claims as their own. So for example, we won’t be discussing any Hammer films in this series (mainly because they deserve their own series and will probably get one). There are one or two films that I might make an exception to this for, because they were made as homages to the Universal films, but we’ll have to wait and see.
- RULE #2: Now this is the most important rule here. With few exceptions, a qualifying film has to A) directly include or B) be narratively or thematically connected to a member of the group I am dubbing The Canonical Six. That’s the term I’ll be using in reference to Universal’s core lineup of horror characters — Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Movies about these six take up most of the series and form the bedrock of Universal’s horror reputation. There will be an occasional detour from this track, but this is where we’re going to spend the majority of our time. I included the “narratively or thematically connected” rule to expand our viewing options, because sometimes you’ll get a sequel where one of the Canonical Six doesn’t actually appear but makes their presence felt. Or you’ll have several standalone films that go on to influence the tone and/or mythology of an official entry. The latter is often the case with Universal’s werewolf movies, which don’t really have an ongoing narrative. So while you won’t find An American Werewolf in London on an official list of Universal Horror, it merits a spot in this timeline because of what it borrows from The Wolf Man, how it influenced the remake of that film and its importance as a major milestone of horror makeup effects. Because you can’t talk about monster movies without talking about the makeup.
My plan is to split this series into two parts. Part One will cover the Classic Era, as I’m calling it, which lasted from around 1930 to 1960 and was when most of the great Universal Horror was made. Then we’re going to jump ahead and cover the Remake Era, which starts around 1980 and goes up to the present day. All in all, we’ll be discussing over forty different films.
So with that in mind, let’s start our journey off simple with a brief prologue. How did Universal Pictures get started, anyway?
Before the Horror
The story of Universal begins, as many stories have, with Thomas Edison being a jerk.
Okay, maybe it doesn’t begin there, but it gets there. It really begins with Carl Laemmle (pronounced “lem-lee” according to him, for those curious), a Jewish German immigrant who came to America in 1884, settled in Chicago and eventually became the owner of several movie theaters. From there he branched out into the business of film exchanges, i.e. renting out films to theaters rather than purchasing directly from the manufacturers. Now this did not sit well with Thomas Edison, who didn’t want anyone else butting in on his film manufacturing business. He was busy setting up a monopoly on all film equipment and trying to impose a monthly tax on all film producers, exhibitors and exchange owners. Laemmle decided that he would just produce his own films rather than play Edison’s game, and so did several other theater owners. To make a long and rather incredible story short, Laemmle and the other independent filmmakers waged war on Edison, got his trust dismantled by the Supreme Court and pooled their resources to found the Universal Film Manufacturing Company in 1912.
Laemmle would then set up shop in California and build a massive film studio called the Universal City. He would produce hundreds of films there, but those most relevant to our discussion are his “Jewel” pictures, which were the studio’s prestige projects. Out of these, the most successful was 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which brought in $3.5 million against a budget of about $1.25 million. Character actor and makeup artist Lon Chaney played the title role, which elevated him to proper stardom. Laemmle was on to something, and he knew it. That was why he began working on another prestige drama starring Chaney, based on another popular French novel. And it would be this film, even more than Hunchback, that would change everything for the studio…
UP NEXT: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Most of the information on Laemmle and the founding of Universal is taken from his entry on the Immigrant Entrepeneurship website, written by Cristina Stanca Musea.