The 10 Best Universal Monster Movies (1931-1954)

With the Halloween season coming to an end, now seems like the ideal time to present a list of ten movies that, in my humble opinion, helped to establish Universal Studios’ original monster series as the most influential of all time. If you enjoy the following selections, please be sure to check out my standalone reviews and subscribe for future updates.

 

10) The Mummy

An Egyptian named Imhotep (Boris Karloff) is discovered and inadvertently resurrected via the Scroll of Thoth, after which he assumes the identity of Ardath Bey and requests that the tomb of Princess Ankh-es-en-amon be excavated. Believing that he may have found the reincarnated princess, Imhotep attempts to kill and mummify Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann)—a young woman who, according to the ancient priest, carries the soul of Ankh-es-en-amon.

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As opposed to the 1999 remake directed by Stephen Sommers, the original version of The Mummy relies upon the power of suggestion while building and maintaining suspense. Especially effective is the decrepit visage of Boris Karloff, which embodies the creeping, crumbling essence of a 3700-year-old mummy in a manner that will surely resonate with viewers of a sensitive inclination.

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9) Dracula

While visiting Transylvania for the purpose of finalizing a real estate transaction, Renfield (Dwight Frye) is entranced by a vampire named Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi). Upon arriving at his London home of Carfax Abbey, Dracula becomes enamored of Lucy (Frances Dade) and her friend Mina (Helen Chandler)—the fiancée of John Harker (David Manners) and daughter of Doctor Seward (Herbert Bunston), Renfield’s new caretaker. Baffled by Renfield’s bizarre and inexplicable craving for insects, Seward seeks advice from Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan)—a man whose combined knowledge and fortitude threatens to end Dracula’s reign of terror once and for all.

Dracula

By accentuating castle dwellings with a gothic atmosphere, Dracula earns its reputation as one of the greatest classic horror films ever made. Bela Lugosi’s subtle but terrifying portrayal of Count Dracula should likewise be praised for eternally solidifying the Hollywood vampire as a charming, elegant, but predatory creature of the night—much in contrast to Carlos Villar’s performance in the visually superior but painfully corny Spanish-language adaptation of Dracula, also released in 1931.

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8) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Two grave robbers unintentionally expose the remains of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) to the full moon, thereby resurrecting the beast within him. Upon reuniting with Maleva the Gypsy (Maria Ouspenskaya), Larry learns of a scientist whose knowledge concerning life and death may grant him a permanent release from the werewolf curse; however, Larry travels to Visaria only to discover that Ludwig Frankenstein, as well as his father before him, had been murdered by the Monster (Bela Lugosi) many years prior. Desperate for answers, Larry contacts Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Ilona Massey) in order to retrieve the diary of her progenitor. Dr. Mannering (Patric Knowles)—a skilled surgeon at a Wales hospital—agrees to utilize the information contained in Ludwig’s diary to destroy the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster, thus encouraging Elsa to grant Larry’s request. Unfortunately, the good doctor has a last-minute change of heart that leads to a frightening outcome for all involved.

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Though somewhat underwhelming as a Frankenstein feature, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man offers a penetrating study on the conflict inherent to Larry Talbot’s character. The inner struggle of Larry is made additionally powerful by Lon Chaney’s acting, which highlights the perpetual torment of a man at war with his own primal instinct to maim and kill when prompted by a malevolent supernatural force. Also commendable is Lugosi’s performance, which introduced the “Frankenstein walk” typically associated with pop culture representations of the eponymous Monster.

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7) Son of Frankenstein

Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) returns to his father’s estate for the first time in decades, whereupon he is given a most unwelcome greeting by local villagers. At the suggestion of a hunchbacked grave robber known as Ygor (Bela Lugosi), Wolf attempts to vindicate his father by rejuvenating the Frankenstein monster—a scientific achievement that the baron intends to share with the world. Wolf’s plan takes an unexpected turn, however, when a vengeful Ygor directs the Monster (Boris Karloff) to kill each individual responsible for his disfigurement.

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Following a remarkable character transition spanning the events of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein strips the Monster of his newfound humanity and may therefore fail to evoke sympathy from the audience. Fans of the Universal Monster franchise are nevertheless advised to view this film, which couples a haunting musical arrangement with Willis Cooper’s tragic tale of a man desperate to restore his father’s good reputation; but whose unbridled ambition prevents him from avoiding the same pitfalls that led to Henry Frankenstein’s tarnished legacy in the first place.

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6) Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein

Moronic baggage handlers Chick (Bud Abbott) and Wilbur (Lou Costello) are tasked with delivering the bodies of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and Count Dracula to McDougal’s House of Horrors. Upon arrival, Dracula escapes from his coffin and—with the assistance of Sandra Mornay (Lenore Aubert)—crafts a diabolical scheme to replace the Monster’s brain with that of Wilbur. Informed of Dracula’s whereabouts, Larry Talbot warns Chick and Wilbur of the count’s fiendish plan; but finds himself in a “hairy” predicament of his own.

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The quintessential monster mash, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein joins Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man in a clever, complementary, and relatively coherent fashion—an improvement over more “serious” efforts (e.g. House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula) that tried but ultimately failed to accomplish the same goal. It should also be noted that despite the humorous tone employed by this film, none of the above monsters are disrespected or demeaned in a direct manner; rather, the antics of Abbott and Costello remain the central focus from start to finish, with Chaney, Lugosi, and Strange acting as straight men to the comedic duo after whom this production is entitled.

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5) Creature from the Black Lagoon

While traversing the Amazon River, scientific researchers David Reed (Richard Carlson), Kay (Julia Adams), Mark Williams (Richard Denning), and Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) encounter the Gill-man—a humanoid with both amphibious and piscine features. Though Mark believes the creature should be killed preemptively, David prefers that the Gill-man be allowed to live peacefully in its natural habitat.

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Creature from the Black Lagoon should be applauded for offering a thoughtful commentary on man’s proclivity to destroy that which cannot be immediately understood. Also worth mentioning is the Gill-man himself, who, despite lacking the intelligence and moral agency possessed by more “human” monsters (e.g. Dracula, the Mummy, and the Phantom of the Opera), embodies a formidable yet sympathetic presence to make credible the concept of a lonely, confused animal forced to defend its territory from perceived invaders.

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4) The Invisible Man

After experimenting with an obscure, highly unstable drug known as monocane, a chemist named Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) turns into an invisible, homicidal maniac. With an unwilling accomplice at his side, Griffin embarks on a quest for power that only the love of his fiancée Flora Cranley (Gloria Stuart)—or an untimely death—can avert.

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A semi-faithful adaptation of H. G. Wells’ novel of the same title, The Invisible Man puts a science fiction themed twist on Plato’s “Ring of Gyges” tale—an examination of whether man would continue to behave in a civilized, moral fashion upon freeing himself from the constraints of a lawful society. Wells’ fantastic premise is made easy to digest by the delightfully campy, albeit never intrusive, humor of director James Whale; likewise, a menacing performance from Claude Rains—an otherwise unimposing figure—captures the perfect combination of irrationality, desperation, and megalomania that one would expect the archetypal mad scientist to exemplify.

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3) The Wolf Man

Hoping to reconcile with an estranged father, Larry Talbot travels from America to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales. Before long, Larry acquaints himself with the local townsfolk and offers to take Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers)—the attractive manager of a small antique shop—and her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to a nearby gypsy camp. While having her fortune told, Jenny is killed by Bela (Bela Lugosi)—a gypsy suffering from the werewolf curse and one who, while under the spell of a full moon, viciously attacks and mauls the young Talbot heir. Larry survives the encounter with only minor injuries, but later realizes that a fate far worse than death awaits him.

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The concept of a conflicted monster is taken to its logical conclusion in this vivid, chilling, and brilliantly acted installment in Universal Studios’ classic monster saga. Chaney’s performance in particular should be commended for conveying Larry’s pivotal transformation in a realistic and harrowing manner, while Rains’ character likewise provides his son with a compelling voice of logic and reason in the form of Sir John Talbot. When considering the gravitas of Rains and Chaney in conjunction with the surreal atmosphere used to accentuate Jack Pierce’s iconic creature make-up, one can surely understand why The Wolf Man is often regarded as a genre masterpiece.

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2) Frankenstein

After assembling a body from stolen corpses, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) bring to life a physically gruesome and imposing Monster. Though initially satisfied with his accomplishment, Henry struggles to maintain his sense of professional pride upon being informed by his old mentor, Doctor Waldman (Edward Van Sloan), that the Monster’s brain—once property of his own laboratory—originally belonged to a dangerous, intellectually retarded criminal. Intent on leaving behind his unholy work, Henry returns home to marry his fiancée Elizabeth (Mae Clarke). Unfortunately, the young scientist soon discovers that refusing to accept responsibility for his actions will not be as painless a task as he had previously assumed.

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A loose interpretation of Mary Shelley’s most famous novel, Frankenstein contains a raw atmosphere—perhaps an unintended but greatly effective consequence of having been filmed at the tail end of Hollywood’s silent era—with which to complement the macabre premise that inspired it. Arguably the film’s most praiseworthy aspect, however, is Karloff’s universally (no pun intended) acclaimed portrayal of the Monster, who, in contrast to his literary counterpart, demonstrates a childlike simplicity while navigating his surroundings and thereby establishes himself as a sympathetic, if occasionally murderous when provoked, figure.

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1) Bride of Frankenstein

Following his ostensible demise at the windmill, the Monster is continuously hunted for past crimes. Fortunately, a kindly hermit (O.P. Heggie) provides the Monster with shelter, companionship, and the power of speech. Meanwhile, Henry Frankenstein and his former instructor Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger)—an eccentric man with a fascination for all things morbid—construct a mate (Elsa Lanchester) for the Monster.

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By combining a poignant subplot (i.e. the Monster’s friendship with a lonely blind man) with haunting images, Bride of Frankenstein expands upon the material suggested by Whale’s 1931 classic. Though a tad campy at times, this phenomenal sequel should be requisite viewing for the Universal Monster enthusiast and the casual horror fan alike.

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