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, big 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.
- 1923, Sep — The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- 1925, Sep — The Phantom of the Opera
- 1927, Sep — The Cat and the Canary
- 1928, Mar — Haunted Island (1928) (Serial; lost)
- 1928, Apr — The Man Who Laughs
- 1928, Dec — The Last Warning (Creator-Driven Successor to The Cat and the Canary.)
- 1929, Nov — The Last Performance
- 1930, Nov — The Cat Creeps (Sound remake of The Cat and the Canary.) (lost)
- 1930, Dec — La Voluntad Del Muerto (Spanish-language version) (lost)
- 1931, Feb — Dracula <!—/index—>
- 1931, Mar — Drácula (Spanish-language version) <!—index—>
- 1931, Nov — Frankenstein
- 1932, Feb — Murders in the Rue Morgue
- 1932, Oct — The Old Dark House
- 1932, Dec — The Mummy
- 1933, Jul — Secret of the Blue Room
- 1933, Oct — The Invisible Man
- 1934, May — The Black Cat
- 1935, Feb — The Mystery of Edwin Drood
- 1935, Apr — Bride of Frankenstein
- 1935, May — Werewolf of London
- 1935, Jul — The Raven
- 1936, Jan — The Invisible Ray
- 1936, May — Dracula's Daughter
- 1937, Apr — Night Key
- 1939, Jan — The Phantom Creeps (Serial)
- 1939, Jan — Son of Frankenstein
- 1939, Nov — Tower of London
- 1940, Jan — The Invisible Man Returns
- 1940, Feb — Black Friday
- 1940, Sep — The Mummy's Hand
- 1940, Dec — The Invisible Woman
- 1941, Mar — Man Made Monster
- 1941, Mar — Horror Island
- 1941, May — The Black Cat (No relation to the 1934 film of the same name.)
- 1941, Dec — The Wolf Man
- 1942, Jan — The Mad Doctor of Market Street
- 1942, Mar — The Ghost of Frankenstein
- 1942, Apr — The Mystery of Marie Roget
- 1942, Apr — The Strange Case of Doctor RX
- 1942, Jul — Invisible Agent
- 1942, Oct — Night Monster
- 1942, Oct — The Mummy's Tomb
- 1943, Mar — Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Monster Rally)
- 1943, Jun — Captive Wild Woman
- 1943, Aug — Phantom of the Opera (Sound and color remake of the 1925 film.)
- 1943, Oct — Son of Dracula
- 1943, Nov — The Mad Ghoul
- 1943, Dec — Calling Dr. Death (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1944, Mar — Weird Woman (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1944, Jun — The Invisible Man's Revenge
- 1944, Jun — The Mummy's Ghost
- 1944, Jul — Jungle Woman
- 1944, Oct — The Climax (Originally meant to be a sequel to Phantom of the Opera of 1943; color film)
- 1944, Nov — Dead Man's Eyes (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1944, Dec — House of Frankenstein (Monster Rally)
- 1944, Dec — The Mummy's Curse
- 1945, June — The Frozen Ghost (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1945, June — Jungle Captive (Pseudo-Monster Rally)
- 1945, Oct — Strange Confession (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1945, Dec — House of Dracula (Monster Rally)
- 1945, Dec — Pillow of Death (Inner Sanctum Mysteries)
- 1946, Feb — House of Horrors
- 1946, Mar — The Spider Woman Strikes Back (Pseudo-Monster Rally)
- 1946, Apr — She-Wolf of London
- 1946, May — The Cat Creeps (No relation to the 1930 film of the same name.)
- 1946, Oct — The Brute Man (Sold to Producers Releasing Corporation prior to release. Currently owned by Cinedigm.)
- 1948, Jun — Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Monster Rally)
- 1949, Aug — Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff
- 1951, Mar — Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
- 1951, Oct — The Strange Door
- 1952, Nov — The Black Castle
- 1953, Jun — It Came from Outer Space
- 1953, Aug — Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
- 1954, Feb — Creature from the Black Lagoon
- 1955, Mar — Revenge of the Creature
- 1955, Jun — This Island Earth
- 1955, Jun — Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy
- 1955, Nov — Tarantula!
- 1955, May — Cult of the Cobra
- 1956, Apr — The Creature Walks Among Us
- 1956, Dec — The Mole People
- 1957, Feb — The Incredible Shrinking Man
- 1957, May — The Deadly Mantis
- 1957, Oct — The Land Unknown
- 1957, Dec — The Monolith Monsters
- 1958, Jun — The Thing That Couldn't Die
- 1958, Dec — Monster on the Campus
- 1959, May — Curse of the Undead
- 1960, Jul — The Leech Woman
- 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.)
- 1956, Dec — Curucu, Beast of the Amazon(Made by Jewel Productions, published by Universal.)
- Island of Lost Souls (1932) (Made and published by Paramount in 1932, but Universal released it on VHS in the 1990s, associating it with the "Universal Monsters" label.)
- Original novels expanding on the stories of the film series occasionally pop up, including:
- Jeff Rovin's 1998 book Return of the Wolf Man, 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.
- Frank Dello Stritto wrote novels based on the Universal Monsters.
- Carl Denhams Giant Monsters is centered on a old Carl Denham, years after King Kong (1933) searching redemption, remembering, and on a final adventure.
- A Werewolf Remembers The Testament Of Lawrence Stewart Talbot is about Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man himself's memories discovered on La Mirada Florida. Basically an autobiography of Lawrence 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 of the classic mummy series. Has some great and interesting stories, as Kharis, The Mummy himself having a psychic connection with the narrator, showing how Kharis's immortality is a hell to him, evil demon-like immortal women, and connections with some Mummy movies, as Hammer's ones, and the original 1932 film.
- 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
- Universal Studios Monsters: Dracula on the Game Boy Color
- <!—index—>Universal Monsters Online, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena
- 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 Ravensburger 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.