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The original Monster Mash.

Back in The Silent Age of Hollywood and The Golden Age of Hollywood, several of the studios found a genre to build themselves a reputation for in order to stand out from the competition. In the case of Universal Pictures, this genre was horror. Horror wasn't an obvious choice because of the high-risk-high-reward nature of the genre, but the outcome of five decades of on-and-off commitment is a franchise which cultural impact few can match.

The first horror films that fall under the Universal banner were produced in the early 1910s and are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Werewolf, and The White Wolf. These films were all produced by companies that had recently merged or would soon after merge with Universal and represent continuations of their respective line-ups. A lull followed, as horror in films was more of a novelty at this point in time. The catalyst for change were the highly regarded horror films produced by Germany, notably the Golem trilogy and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Taking a cue, Universal found its own horror footing in the mid 1920s with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. These films star Lon Chaney, a prolific actor with a reputation for macabre roles, and are the last two Universal films he made, dying five years later in 1930. In the long run, the vacuum he left gave others a chance to make their horror mark. More directly, without Chaney, his two films weren't ideal for sequels or sound remakes, which meant that it was the third horror hit of the 1920s, The Cat and the Canary, that received the royal treatment. Its success led to the spiritual do-over The Last Warning, Universal's first horror film to come with some sound, and a remake known as The Cat Creeps, Universal's first full sound entry into the genre.

The first half of the 1930s is known as Hollywood's Golden Age of Horror, an era Dracula threw open the gates for. Up until Dracula, the supernatural was a no-go in the American film landscape. Supernatural elements could be used, but it was expected for a film to end with logical explanations. Due to the popularity of the novel and its stage adaptations, Universal's film adaptation couldn't very well end with the vampire being a fake. Dracula proved that the American audience responded well to supernatural horror, along the way establishing Universal as the horror specialist and turning Bela Lugosi into a horror icon. Universal kept the train rolling with Frankenstein, which made Boris Karloff a horror icon, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and sequels to its 1931 giants: Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula's Daughter.

Hollywood's Golden Age of Horror came to a screeching halt in 1936 due to three factors. Since its founding, Universal had been headed by Carl Laemmle and later his son Carl Laemmle Jr, who in particular had faith in horror. They invested a lot of money in the studio's A-Movies and while each did immensely well, rarely did these films make up for the costs. The Laemmles were ousted in 1936 as a result and while Universal returned to horror later, they were never done as lavishly again. Another factor was the sudden enforcement of The Hays Code in 1934. The terror, fright, and shock horror relied on suddenly was restricted by the Catholic whims of the Production Code Administration as headed by Joseph Breen. He in particular did not take kindly to horror, but could only muzzle and discourage it. This connects to the supposed British horror ban of 1935, ignited by the poor reception of Universal's The Raven. Rather than an adaptation of the poem, it is a Poe-inspired torture horror. It was not banned in Great Britain, but its controversial content did lead to harsher regulation by the British Board of Film Classification. Back in the United States, the PCA exaggerated that this move was as bad as an outright ban. With the British market supposedly being lost to horror films and the PCA being as difficult as they could get away with, there was no more incentive for America to make horror films.

A funny thing about The Raven is that it co-stars Lugosi and Karloff, the two actors who ignited Universal Horror in the first place. And they would be revive it too. In 1938, Emil Umann of the Regina Theatre in Beverly Hills packaged together Dracula, Frankenstein, and RKO Pictures's The Son of Kong for a run of four days. The novelty here was a full horror experience, because Universal's own reissues always paired a horror film with a comedy to entice a bigger range of people. Umann had the better idea, because on opening day crowd control had to be called in. As Umann increased the duration of the run, Universal took notice and packaged Dracula and Frankenstein together themselves to offer to other theaters. This evidence that there very much was an audience for horror led Universal to produce Son of Frankenstein, ringing in the second horror era for Hollywood.

The 1940s are the domain of horror B-Movies as studios on one hand wanted in on the renewed interest but on the other didn't want to get ambitious on a genre that in particular was on the PCA's radar. Despite repeated successes, supernatural horror remained a rarity and instead the impossible was provided by Mad Scientists. After all, World War II was raging and its technological and scientific advancements equally amazed and terrified society. Another effect of the war was the need for war propaganda. Invisible Agent is Universal Horror's only overt call to action, but many films of this period are female-centric, such as Son of Dracula and the ape woman series, to entertain and rouse the women war workers.

Universal opened the 1940s with a recognizable new star: Lon Chaney Jr., son of the late Lon Chaney. After a test run in Man Made Monster, he was given the star role in The Wolf Man and with that became one of Universal's big three. Chaney also played Kharis in the 1942-1944 mummy films, thereby defining both of Universal's core monsters of the 1940s. On top of that, he was the leading man of the six Inner Sanctum Mysteries films released from 1943 to 1945, altogether making Chaney Universal's most prolific horror actor of any era.

Around half of Universal's films in the second horror cycle are sequels and remakes, mostly of the big hitters of the 1930s. Taking a cue from various villain segments in the 1930s, the 1938 success of Dracula and Frankenstein combined, and 1940 "The Three Horror Men" marketing strategy for RKO's You'll Find Out, Universal took its sequels to their final stage and effectively created the Monster Mash-style of horror, at the time known as a Monster Rally. The first film of this type was 1943's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the last was 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. As per the title, the latter is a crossover with Abbott and Costello and Universal's first go at Horror Comedy.

In 1944, Universal Horror had to consider its future. Half of the studio's horror stars had walked by then and the other half was going to follow suit when their contracts would expire in 1945. Ben Pivar was given the task of renewing the horror output, the first film representing the new direction being Jungle Captive. The star of this period was Rondo Hatton, who on account of his acromegaly was promoted as the monster without a need for makeup. From 1944 to 1946, he played four different characters for Universal, all small variations of the Creeper, his defining role. Then on February 2, 1946, Hatton died from acromegaly-related complications following some months of sharply declining health.

Hatton's death occurred in the final year of the second horror era. From November 1945 to July 1946, Universal prepared for a merge with International Pictures. The new strategy for the postwar economic boom was a return to prestige and horror films had become the antithesis of that. William Goetz is specifically credited for putting a lock on the genre. With still a good amount of Pivar-produced films on the shelves, they were rushed out on a monthly basis to make some money while ensuring they would be gone before the post-merge logo came into use. Hatton's final film, The Brute Man, was sold off outright to PRC, making it the only Universal Horror film neither owned by Universal nor in the Public Domain. Of the four other Hollywood studios still releasing horror films in 1946, Monogram and Republic Pictures went horror-free prestige routes comparable to Universal's. PRC was taken over by Eagle-Lion Films, which only did horror on occasion. And over at RKO, the death of Charles Koerner, coincidentally on the same day as Hatton passed away, critically soured the working conditions for Val Lewton and so he left. RKO failed to replace him. Collectively, the studios' individual reasons affirmed that horror was over.

The 1947-1952 hiatus was less thorough than the 1936-1938 hiatus. Film Noir, a genre very closely related to Hollywood's horror, was going strong and the end of the second horror cycle coincides with the rise of horror comics. But what would truly revive the horror film was Science Fiction. The early Golden Age of Science Fiction coincides with the second horror cycle and matured with the atom bomb into the late Golden Age. What separates the two halves is medium: the early age fiction were predominantly magazines, while in the late age every medium welcomed sci-fi. For the film industry in particular, sci-fi was a means to turn the tide. During the postwar economic boom, it became the norm for households to have their own television sets and the audience for the cinema experience thus dwindled. A means to get people back was extras they couldn't get at home, such as 3-D, scent, vibrating chairs, moving props in the auditorium, and so on. That kind of stuff doesn't combine well with prestige films, so sci-fi took the lead. As it introduced audiences to alien invaders, nuclear trouble and giant critters, horror returned naturally. Prehistoric remnants also reared their heads, which came about due to the long-awaited discovery of the coelacanth in 1952 and is the thought behind Universal's final iconic horror film: Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. Other films of note from this era are This Island Earth in 1955, The Mole People in 1956, and Monster on the Campus in 1958.

A move critical to the franchise occurred in 1957 when Universal teamed up with Columbia Pictures to distribute their film catalogue up to August 1948 to television networks in themed packages. Shock! (1957) and Son of Shock (1958) were the horror offering and they were a massive hit, kickstarting the Horror Boom of the 1960s. This is when Universal Horror as a franchise was established and the Monster Mash was codified. Universal responded with a sharp turn back to classic horror shortly before stopping horror production altogether. Rather, in the late 1950s, the British Hammer Film Productions began making movies based on the same material Universal worked with prior. Universal arranged to be the distributor of these films in America.

In the decades following, Universal has from time to time made new material based on their key properties. 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 action movies known as The Mummy Trilogy. They reunited the Wolf Man, Dracula, and Frankenstein's monster for the 2004 Summer Blockbuster Van Helsing, and did a remake of The Wolf Man in 2010, starring Benicio del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Finally, Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood have a reputation across America for throwing some of the biggest Halloween celebrations around.

Universal Horror 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 loose continuity, which in turn codified the Überwald trope. Via the Abbott and Costello film series, the Invisible Mannote  and the Mummynote  were also added to this shared universe. During the 1960s Horror Boom, these five classic Universal monsters and the then-new Creature from the Black Lagoon were treated as a package deal for purposes of homage and satire. Decades later, 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 a Legacy collection for each as a way of promoting Van Helsing.

Due to the successes of The Mummy Trilogy and Van Helsing, as well as the example set by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Universal went to work setting up a new, rebooted Universal Horror universe under the name of the Dark Universe. 2014's Dracula Untold was intended to be the first film in this shared setting, but its underperformance caused it to be scrapped from continuity and 2017's The Mummy (2017) was set to become the new first film. It bombed even more spectacularly than Dracula Untold and the plans for the Dark Universe were subsequently shelved. The Invisible Man (2020), made by Blumhouse and distributed by Universal in 2020, was produced and marketed as a standalone film. It was the first time since Van Helsing that a Universal Horror movie did well in the box office.

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 in the 1950s.


Films:


  • 1913, Mar — Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Made by the Independent Moving Pictures branch of Universal.)
  • 1913, Dec — The Werewolf (Made by Bison Film Company, published by Universal.) (lost)
  • 1914, Sep — The White Wolf (Made by Nestor Film Company branch of Universal.)
  • 1932, Dec — Island of Lost Souls (Produced by Paramount, but Universal released it on VHS in the 1990s, associating it with the "Universal Monsters" label.)
  • 1933, Mar — Murders in the Zoo (Produced by Paramount, but released as part of the "Universal Cult Horror Collection" by Turner Classic Movies in 2012, then in "Universal Horror Collection: Volume 2" by Shout! Factory in 2019.
  • 1956, Dec — Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (Made by Jewel Productions, published by Universal.)

Expanded Universe:

  • Original novels expanding on the stories of the film series occasionally pop up, including:
  • Frank Dello Stritto wrote novels based on the Universal Monsters:
    • Carl Denhams Giant Monsters is centered on an old Carl Denham on a final adventure, years after King Kong (1933), searching for redemption and remembering his last.
    • A Werewolf Remembers The Testament Of Lawrence Stewart Talbot is essentially an autobiography of Lawrence "the Wolf Man" Talbot, showing more development to him, his eventual curse, some adventures between the movies, his "deaths" and finally his anger against Dracula.
    • The Passion Of The Mummy is centered many years after The Mummys Curse and a sequel to the classic mummy series, featuring Kharis the mummy as having a psychic connection with the narrator, showing how his immortality is a hell to him, evil demon-like immortal women, and connecting the five original Universal mummy films with Hammer's 1959 remake.

Comic Books:

  • Starting in 2023, Skybound Entertainment (Robert Kirkman's division of Image Comics) teamed up with Universal to produce reimaginings of the original Universal Horror stable:
    • Universal Monsters: Dracula (2023-2024) — a retelling of the 1931 film from the perspective of Dr. Seward and Von Helsing. Four issue miniseries by James Tynion IV and Martin Simmonds.
    • Universal Monsters: Creature From The Black Lagoon Lives! (2024) — Journalist Kate Marsden hunt a notorious serial killer in the heart of the Amazon. Hot on the trail of this madman, she soon encounters an unexpected new threat — the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Four issue miniseries by Dan Watters and Ram V, with art by Matthew Roberts.
    • Universal Monsters: Frankenstein (announced for 2024) — Dr. Henry Frankenstein begins his unholy quest to create life by robbing the grave of a decorated police officer to find necessary parts. But little does he know that the corpse has a son who is mourning a father — and that this young boy will forever change Frankenstein’s life. Written by Michael Walsh and art by Matthew Roberts.

Pinball:

  • 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.

Theme Parks:

  • 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.
  • Dark Universe, a themed land in the forthcoming Epic Universe park set to open in Universal Orlando sometime in 2025.

Trading Cards:

  • 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 

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A&B Meet Frankenstein

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, opens with a brief animated opening done by Walter Lantz, of Woody Woodpecker fame.

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