Most fans ignore the fact that before the DCEU and MCU, before Aliens vs. Predator, before Freddie vs. Jason, before Quentin Tarantino, Stephen King, or even Norman Lear, the original Shared Universe was in black and white: Universal Classic Monsters!
And like the MCU, it built a shared world in three phases over more than a decade of American cinema.
Taking place in 19th Century Transylvania, London, and Bavaria these movies establish the world and its rules.
- Dracula (1931)
- Frankenstein (1931)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
- Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
We learn that the supernatural and the scientific combine in surprising ways to extend life after death. We’re introduced to the undead in Dracula, and learn the hubris of replicating it in Frankenstein and the Bride.
Most importantly, Dracula’s Daughter introduces the theme of redemption: the plight of the monster is psychological, and even the vampiric Marya is driven to “release” her psyche from the monster within and thus be cured.
Produced largely pre-code, Universal Classic Monsters play fast and loose with sex and violence for their era.
Dracula's Daughter, Trailer screenshot [Public domain]
Other classics are set ostensibly in the same black and white horror world, but without tying into the “spine” of the emerging shared universe.
- The Mummy (1932)
- The Invisible Man (1933)
Each started its own standalone series. Think of these like Sony’s Spider-Man franchise to Disney’s Marvel movies.
After a lull, Universal swung back with a hit that launched a second wave, following the next generation of monsters and mortals in the modern world of the 1930s/40s.
- Son of Frankenstein (1939)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
- The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Phase 2 brings the Monsters into the modern world for the descendants of the original casts to deal with. These films introduce a new central protagonist and villain at the heart of the series:
- Lugosi’s vengeful Ygor
- Chaney’s tragic Larry Talbot, the Wolf Man seeking to escape his curse
Horror Monsters [Public domain]
Whether Rathbone’s Son of Frankenstein or Ygor’s quest for an undamaged new body, the root evil of Universal Classic Monsters is the hubris of cheating natural death.
Talbot’s Wolf Man becomes the conscience of the franchise, as Frankenstein’s family becomes its foil; Phase 1’s Victor, then his sons Wolf and Ludwig in Phase 2. Even his daughter Elsa, introduced here plays a role in Phase 3, along with the soulful Maleva the Gypsy, played masterfully by Maria Ouspenskaya.
BONUS: Does the young grandson of Frankenstein (played by Bambi’s Donnie Dunagan) grow up to become Gene Wilder in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein 35 years later in 1974?
Phase 2 also establishes the town of Visaria, the Eastrn European town where all the threads of Dracula’s Transyvania, Frankenstein’s Bavaria, and the Wolf Man’s Wales come together for the rest of the series.
This is where the Avengers assemble, the Endgame of the Universal Classic Monsters Universe.
- Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
- Son of Dracula (1943)
- House of Frankenstein (1944)
- House of Dracula (1945)
After being killed in his solo film, Chaney’s Wolf Man Talbot drives the human drama. Phase 3 opens with his resurrection. His tortured quest to die and stay dead makes him both the hero and the macguffin of the final trilogy of “monster rally” films bringing the “big three” together.
The final two “House” films close out the redemption theme established in Dracula’s Daughter, as Talbot flees to Visaria, seeking a cure from a combination of Frankenstein’s science, Dracula’s blood, and a big dose of mid-century Freudian psychology.
Between Phases 2 and 3, Chaney becomes the only character to play all of the major Universal Monsters: the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster (inherited from Karloff), Dracula (inherited from Lugosi), and even the Mummy in that parallel franchise.
Lugosi comes in a close second. Although typecast as Dracula, his master performance is the deformed blacksmith Ygor in “Son” and “Ghost” of Frankenstein. After tricking Ludwig into transplanting his brain into the monster’s powerful body, Lugosi then inherits the role of the Monster in “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.” Tragically, the procedure is a failure, and the monster is blinded, burned, and buried at the end of “Ghost.”
When we see him next, Lugosi’s Monster has lost his sight and the power of speech, resulting in the lumbering, straight-armed Frankenstein walk. Tragically, audiences didn’t get that backstory in Frank/Wolf, and found his performance unusual.
As Lugosi’s career spiraled into addiction and obscurity, he played Dracula for the second time in the apocryphal 1948 comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the final film to reunite the Monster, the Bat, and the Wolf.
A delightful romp, with many of the classic performers, it undoes the gravitas of Talbot’s final cure at the end of Phase 3’s House of Dracula. A fan of this shared universe, I prefer to let that close the series as its Endgame.
BONUS: Except for the Abbott and Costello films, the most significant contribution after Phase 3 is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I recommend watching that film and 2017’s Shape of Water back-to-back as a thematic sequel.
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