Back in the day, Universal Pictures was a minor film studio of modest means, looking to stand out from its competition. Their solution? Create some of the most classic and enduring horror movie icons in history.
Universal first dabbled in the horror genre with two very little known films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (starring King Baggot) and The Werewolf, both made in 1913, the latter of which is a lost film. The next year it made The White Wolf (both another lost film and another werewolf film). But its first two hit horror films were the 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and its 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, both starring Lon Chaney. It then had a string of successful silent films with German expressionist director Paul Leni and actor Conrad Veidt before it came roaring into the "talkie" era in 1931 with two movies: Frankenstein and Dracula. These two films were smash hits that laid the foundation for the modern horror genre, helped to establish Universal as a studio to be respected, and made leading men out of their respective stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Universal followed this up with The Mummy in 1932, The Invisible Man in 1933, and a trilogy of movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe (Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat and The Raven), as well as sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein.
Although Universal took time off from making horror movies in the late 1930s due to financial difficulties, it returned in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein before introducing in 1941 one of its most enduring films: The Wolf Man, starring their new leading man, Lon Chaney Jr.. He also starred in a series of "Inner Sanctum Mysteries" films, named after the popular radio anthology, never as the same character but typically with an introduction by a disembodied head (played by David Hoffman) in a fish bowl. They remade Phantom of the Opera in 1943 and continued making sequels to their now-classic properties. Eventually, these sequels would start giving way to crossovers featuring all of Universal's monsters, culminating in the 1948 hit Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an Affectionate Parody of the early horror genre and the first of a series of which Abbott and Costello faced all sorts of fantasy adventures often involving the Universal monsters.
From here, Universal horror entered a period of dormancy, as the trend in horror movies began to shift toward science gone wrong and alien invaders in the Atomic Age the only original horror films (not based on existing properties) that Universal made after this point that are still unanimously considered to be "Universal horror" were Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and The Mole People in 1956. One film from this later era which was successful enough to spawn sequels was Captive Wild Woman featuring "Paula, the Ape Woman" aka "Gorilla Girl", and itself structured around existing footage repurposed from The Big Cage.
However, while production of new horror movies out of Universal came to an end, the monsters were by no means forgotten. Starting in the late 1950s, a British film studio called Hammer Film Productions began making their own movies based on the same material, in color (often very lurid color). These portrayals of the classic monsters would be distributed by Universal within America, and left their own mark on the popular image of the characters. Decades later, The Monster Squad introduced Universal horror to a new generation of young people, becoming a cult classic in its own right. While it wasn't actually made by Universal (the monster designs were all changed slightly so as not to infringe upon trademarks), it was filmed on their backlots.
Universal itself has also mined its past for ideas. They did a remake of Dracula in 1979 starring Frank Langella and Sir Laurence Olivier, and at the Turn of the Millennium, they remade The Mummy (1932) as a series of pulpy, two-fisted Action-Adventure movies, known as The Mummy Trilogy. They reunited the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster for the cheesily good Summer Blockbuster Van Helsing in 2004, and did a remake of The Wolf Man in 2010 starring Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Finally, it's perhaps not a coincidence that Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood are known across America for having some of the biggest Halloween celebrations around, collectively known as Halloween Horror Nights.
An interesting aspect of Universal Horror for film geeks is that it represents one of the earliest attempts at a shared movie universe. Through sequels, its Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man movies were established as sharing a (somewhat loose) continuity, effectively creating the Überwald trope. Via movies by Abbott and Costello, the Invisible Mannote and the Mummynote were also added to this shared universe. In later uses for homage and satire, these five "classic" Universal Monsters became somewhat inseparable, and were also frequently featured with the Creature from the Black Lagoon; while "Gill Man" was never established as having any canonical ties to the othersnote , his popularity appears to have gotten him into the club. Eventually, as a way of promoting Van Helsing, Universal gave its official stamp of approval to these six "classic" monsters — Count Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, and Gill Man — by releasing six "Legacy" collections, one for each, officially setting them apart from the remainder of Universal Horror (although the Wolf Man collection featured two unrelated films, one of which did not even feature an actual werewolf, to fill space).
More recently, there were plans to create a new, rebooted Universal Horror universe, known as the Dark Universe. Dracula Untold was intended to be the first film in this shared setting, but its underperformance caused it to be scrapped from continuity and The Mummy (2017) used as the new first film, similar to what happened with Green Lantern in the DC Extended Universe. The new Mummy also features Dr. Jekyll in a supporting role, and movies featuring other characters were in development, with Johnny Depp signed up for the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem to play Frankenstein's Monster. Revamps for Van Helsing and Gill Man were also planned. However, after The Mummy bombed even more spectacularly than Dracula Untold, the plans for the Dark Universe were shelved. A rejected pitch by Guillermo del Toro for a rather unconventional take on Creature from the Black Lagoon did eventually get made (though not by Universal) as The Shape of Water, and a few years after that, there was The Invisible Man (2020), made by Blumhouse and distributed by Universal. Although The Invisible Man was a sleeper hit - making back its budget many times over - it was very much a standalone film, and the idea of a new shared universe is no closer to materializing.
It goes without saying that any horror fan is expected to have at least a passing familiarity with Universal's classic horror films. Until The '70s, the Universal monster movie was what most people thought of when they heard the phrase "horror movie". A large number of Horror Tropes were made, codified, and employed by these movies, particularly those pertaining to the so-called "classic movie monsters" — vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc. The modern images of said monsters were more or less created by Universal, to the point where deviations from their classic blueprints are still regarded as subversions of the "traditional" rules surrounding them. Also, since the limitations of The Hays Code meant that Universal couldn't rely on graphic violence and sex to frighten and titillate viewers, they remain a great way to introduce younger or more squeamish viewers to horror — which is exactly what they did once TV stations started using them as late-night movies.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913)
- The Werewolf (1913) (a lost film)
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
- The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
- The Cat and the Canary (1927)
- The Man Who Laughs (1928)
- The Last Warning (1929)
- The Last Performance (1929)
- The Cat Creeps (1930) — Sound remake of The Cat and the Canary.
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
- The Old Dark House (1932)
- The Mummy (1932)
- Secret of the Blue Room (1933)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
- The Black Cat (1934)
- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- Werewolf of London (1935)
- The Raven (1935)
- The Invisible Ray (1936)
- Dracula's Daughter (1936)
- Night Key (1937)
- The Phantom Creeps (1939)
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
- Tower of London (1939)
- The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
- Black Friday (1940)
- The Mummy's Hand (1940)
- The Invisible Woman (1940)
- Man Made Monster (1941)
- Horror Island (1941)
- The Black Cat (1941) (no relation to the movie made 7 years earlier with the same title)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
- The Strange Case of Doctor RX (1942)
- The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)
- Invisible Agent (1942) (the result of Universal horror meeting wartime propaganda)
- Night Monster (1942)
- The Mummy's Tomb (1942)
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) (the first film to explicitly combine the sub-series into a shared universe)
- Captive Wild Woman (1943)
- Phantom of the Opera (1943) (a sound-enabled remake of the 1925 original that incorporated many musical elements)
- Son of Dracula (1943)
- The Mad Ghoul (1943)
- Calling Dr. Death (1943)
- Weird Woman (1944)
- Jungle Woman (1944)
- The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944)
- The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
- The Climax (1944)
- Dead Man's Eyes (1944)
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
- The Mummy's Curse (1944)
- The Frozen Ghost (1945)
- The Jungle Captive (1945)
- Strange Confession (1945)
- House of Dracula (1945)
- Pillow of Death (1945)
- The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)
- House of Horrors (1946)
- She-Wolf of London (1946)
- The Cat Creeps (1946) (no relation to the 1930 film of the same name)
- The Brute Man (1946)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
- Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
- The Strange Door (1951)
- The Black Castle (1952)
- It Came from Outer Space (1953)
- Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
- Revenge of the Creature (1955)
- This Island Earth (1955)
- Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
- Tarantula! (1955)
- Cult of the Cobra (1955)
- The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
- Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1955)
- The Mole People (1956)
- The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
- The Deadly Mantis (1957)
- The Land Unknown (1957)
- The Monolith Monsters (1957)
- The Thing That Couldn't Die (1958)
- Monster on the Campus (1958)
- Curse of the Undead (1959)
- The Leech Woman (1960)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932) is sometimes listed as a Universal horror film, despite being made by Paramount. This is because Universal released it on VHS in the nineties, and included it under the "Universal Monsters" label in the process.
- Original novels expanding on the stories of the film series occasionally pop up, including:
- Jeff Rovin's 1998 book Return Of The Wolfman, which continued the adventures of Larry Talbot, and itself received two sequels (The Devil's Brood and The Devil's Night) by David Jacobs.
- Universal Monsters - a six-part seriesnote by Larry Mike Garmon, released by Scholastic for younger readers in 2001-2002. The series begins when an accident with a prototype of an experimental holographic movie projector (borrowed from the Universal Studios theme park) and a lightning storm releases the monsters and other antagonistic characters from the films Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) into the real world. Consequently, the escapees have to be hunted down and returned to the films by a trio of 21st century teenagers.
- DH Press's 2006-2007 series, each by a different author and set in independent continuities:
- Dracula: Asylum (2006) - direct sequel to Dracula (1931). Ignores the events of Dracula's Daughter.
- Frankenstein: The Shadow of Frankenstein (2006) - interquel taking place between Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein.
- Creature From The Black Lagoon: Time's Black Lagoon (2006) - distant sequel to the original Creature From the Black Lagoon trilogy, set decades later and exploring the origins of the Gill-Man.
- The Mummy: Dark Resurrection (2007) - essentially a remake of The Mummy (1932) rather than a sequel to any of the previous films.
- The Wolf Man: Hunter's Moon (2007) - direct sequel to The Wolf Man (1941). Ignores the events of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and its three sequels.
- The Bride of Frankenstein: Pandora's Bride (2007) - direct sequel to Bride of Frankenstein.
- Allan Rune Pettersson's novel Frankenstein's Aunt is a young adult parody of, very specifically, the Universal Horror universe.
- Bally's Creature from the Black Lagoon is a game based on both the movie itself (in 3D!) and attending a drive-in to see the movie.
- Monster Bash is an ensemble game, with the player collecting six of the Universal Monsters to form a rock band.
- Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue, a Crossover stage show where Beetlejuice makes the Universal Monsters into his own rock band.
- Halloween Horror Nights, an annual event at Universal Studios Orlando and Hollywood, has featured haunted houses and scarezones based on the classic Universal Horror properties and has been used to promote properties like The Mummy, Van Helsing and The Wolfman (2010) remake as well as properties from other studios. Also notable that the Orlando incarnation of the event has invented original horror icons with detailed backstories that feature heavily in the events and their marketing.
- Universal's Horror Make-Up Show, a behind-the-scenes presentation at Universal Studios Florida that focuses on how makeup has been used throughout Universal's horror film legacy, including the Classic Monsters films.
- The Universal Monsters brand has provided fertile ground for trading card manufacturers. Perhaps the most remarkable is the series put out by Kitchen Sink in 1996, which incorporated just about anything remotely horrific that was made by Universal up until 1960. Anyone remember The Man Who Reclaimed His Head note
- A few video games have been based on the films, such as
- Dracula, Wolfman, the Creature, Frankenstein, and the Bride of Frankenstein (under the Universal Studios Monsters) are characters in Funko Pop! Blitz.
- Monster Force, a futuristic 1994 series in which Frankenstein and the Werewolf do Heel-Face Turns and team up with the titular heroes (a Darker and Edgier version of the Ghostbusters) to hunt down their fellow monsters.
- Monster Old Maid, a deck for playing Old Maid featuring Universal monsters (and a few Hammer Horror monsters that snuck in). Dracula's Daughter is the eponymous Old Maid.
- Horrified! is a published 2019 Ravencroft tabletop strategy/horror game that lets players work together in defeating seven titular classic Universal Monsters: Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, Frankenstein (The Monster) and the Bride of Frankenstein.
- The Monster Squad pits a Goonies-esque team of kid heroes against Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, a Mummy, a Wolf Man, and the Gill Man. Because the movie was not made at Universal, however, these are technically not the Universal Monsters.