I’ve been watching Universal classic horror films for as long as I can remember, thanks to late night horror movies on channels like Turner Classic Movies and, when I was old enough to start blowing my allowance at Suncoast Video, on VHS tapes and then DVDs. Their signature monsters, Dracula, Frankenstein and his reluctant bride, the Mummy, the Invisible Man, the Wolfman, the Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Phantom of the Opera, are household names in many countries and have spanned everything from toys, theme park rides, breakfast cereals, posters, t-shirts, and much, much more.
Western horror cinema would not exist as we know it without this 20 year run of horror orchestrated by a few key directors, actors, writers, and producers. Studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. ran the show up until 1936 and kicked off most of their major franchises. Laemmle, Jr. took over the studio from one of its founders, his father, Carl Laemmle, a German immigrant who moved to the U.S. in the 1880s. After buying up nickelodeons, he founded IMP, the Independent Moving Pictures Company, in 1909. This was soon merged with a few other small companies and turned into Universal, which began producing films in 1912. It is the oldest studio in the United States.
After the Laemmles were forced out in the mid ‘30s due to some poor financial decisions, Universal mostly relied on a series of sequels and increasingly silly horror productions, such as the Inner Sanctum Mysteries starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and the Gorilla Woman trilogy, though they also managed to produce a few interesting films at this time. I’m going to try to cover all the major Universal horror films up until the ‘50s. I’m avoiding a few key sub-genres, including horror comedies like the Abbott and Costello series, ‘50s creature feature horror with the exception of the Creature from the Black Lagoon series, mysteries and sci-fi films typically listed alongside the horror films that don’t really belong with this genre, and the Fu Manchu series, which was produced by multiple studios and extended through the late ‘60s. I’m also saving the 14 Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce for a later date, though many of them have horror elements or can be seen as outright horror films. I will also not be reviewing the many horror films made by Paramount during this period, which were later sold to Universal and are technically now Universal films.
Horror in the 1920s:
Universal got their start in horror in the ‘20s with silent film icon Lon Chaney. Chaney’s powerful use of make up, his often painful physical performances, and dark, tortured characters earned him the moniker “the Man of a Thousand Faces” and made him one of the first American horror icons. He first starred in Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) as the titular tragic hunchback in love with an unlucky gypsy woman. This silent, historical drama with horror undertones is based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name. The incredible sets were built to recreate 15th century Paris, including the Notre Dame Cathedral. Hunchback was Universal’s most successful silent film and ensured a future partnership with Chaney.
His next film with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera (1925), is his first true horror film with the studio. Based on a novel by Gaston Leroux, Chaney again plays a tragic, deformed figure in love with a woman who will never reciprocate his feelings. In order to make Christine, a young chorus singer, into a prima donna, the Phantom begins secretly tutoring her and demands that the theater put her in the starring role of Faust. This spirals out of control and leads to a number of deaths. The Phantom kidnaps Christine and drags her into the shadowy bowels of the opera house, threatening to end it all.
Universal’s next horror film, The Cat and the Canary (1927), is the first in a sub-genre known as “old dark house” movies. Based on a play of the same name by John Willard, The Cat and the Canary fuses silent scares and black comedy. A family gathers in a spooky old mansion to hear the reading of their very rich uncle’s will. Universal’s most popular actress at the time, Laura LaPlante, stars as Annabelle, who is named heir... if she can survive the night. To complicate matters, an escaped lunatic known as the Cat may be hiding somewhere in the house. This film is a strong example of the influence of German Expressionism on American horror. German director Paul Leni took up the directorial reins for The Cat and the Canary and a number of subsequent horror films for Universal. His use of stark visuals and eerie shadows are a clear precursor to later noir films.
Lon Chaney returned for his final horror film with Universal, The Unknown (1927), also costarring a very young Joan Crawford. Directed by Tod Browning of later Dracula fame, The Unknown stars Chaney as an armless carnival knife thrower in love with a beautiful circus girl (Crawford). One of Browning and Chaney’s most powerful, tortured, and gruesome films, Chaney’s character is really a criminal (with arms) hiding out at the circus. His love for the carnival girl exposes his troubled past and leads to a tragic conclusion. Chaney’s death in 1930 sadly prevented further outings in his partnership with Universal, though soon his son, Lon Chaney, Jr., would attempt to take up his father’s name and mantle.
Universal returned to German Expressionism with their next film, The Man Who Laughs (1928). Paul Leni was again at the helm and The Man Who Laughs’ star, Conrad Veidt, was famous for his role in what is arguably the most influential German Expressionist film of all time, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). As with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (both films were based on Hugo novels), The Man Who Laughs is an epic, historical melodrama with horror undertones and some terrifying visuals. Gwynplaine, the disgraced and disfigured son of a noble has a gruesome smile permanently cut into his face. He and his companions earn money with street performances based on Gwynplaine’s disfigurement, but he soon finds his way back into his aristocratic lineage with tragic results.
The Cat and the Canary’s Laura LaPlante returned for horror-mystery The Last Warning (1929), also directed by Paul Leni. This was his last film before his death later the same year. An actor is murdered during the performance of a play and the crime remains unsolved. Several years later the play’s producer decides to get the remaining actors together and re-stage the play at the same theater to solve the mystery. This is a nice early example of the horror tinged murder mysteries that Universal would produce several of over the next 20 years.
Conrad Veidt and his costar from The Man Who Laughs, Mary Philbin, would return again for The Last Performance (1929). Philbin also costarred opposite Chaney in Phantom and The Last Performance was shot on much of the same set. Veidt plays a stage magician, Erik the Great, who falls in love with the much younger Julie (Philbin), though she is in love with his troubled young apprentice, Mark. When Erik’s other apprentice turns up dead, Mark is the main suspect. Can Julie help clear his name? As with many films in the silent to sound transition, there is a silent version and a version with music, sound effects, and some dialogue.
The Dracula Series:
Arguably Universal’s most iconic, enduring, and revisited monster, Dracula (1931) brought fame to director Tod Browning and Hungarian star Bela Lugosi, who first starred as the titular Count in the Broadway product of the play. Browning’s Dracula may seem slow moving and dialogue heavy to modern audiences. This is because the film is actually based on the play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, which is in turn based on Bram Stoker’s novel. In this drawing room pot-boiler version, Renfield travels to Romania to do business with Count Dracula. After Dracula makes Renfield his servant, they go to England, where Dracula meets the young Mina Seward. She becomes fascinated with him and he begins drinking her blood. Her father and her fiancee, John Harker, must enlist the aid of Dr. Van Helsing to try and save her from a cold-blooded, demonic fate. Though the film deviates widely from the novel, it is memorable for a strong, genre-defining performance from Lugosi. It is also wonderfully atmospheric, creepy and suggestive; the visuals from great cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to heavily influence the next fifty years of horror cinema. And then there are the fake rubber bats.
Dracula would shape the rest of Bela Lugosi’s life for better or for worse. Born Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó, Lugosi acted in Hungary but left after the disastrous Hungarian Revolution. Though Dracula made him internationally famous, it did not make him any money, and though he went on to appear in dozens of other horror films throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was typecast due to his accent and out billed by Boris Karloff. A painful illness also resulted in his addiction to morphine, which prematurely ended his life in 1956. Lugosi deserves to be remembered for much more than Dracula and he made several other excellent horror films, which I will visit here. Ed Wood also tried to revive his career at the end of his life with films like The Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space.
While Lugosi was on the set of Dracula by day, a very different Drácula (1931) was being filmed at night: the Spanish-language adaptation. Starring Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar and directed by George Melford, this was shot on the same sets as Dracula and the cast and crew were allowed to watch the Browning’s rushes before they began filming at night, resulting in some improvements over the English-language version. The Spanish version is certainly sexier, with more cleavage and passion, though there are also much more flamboyant hand gestures and absurd facial expressions from Villarias. The Spanish-language version even has more exuberant rubber bats.
The English-language Dracula was followed by two of the most bizarre horror sequels ever put to film. The first, Dracula’s Daughter (1936), concerns the Countess Marya Zaleska, played by the phenomenal Gloria Holden. She suffers from her dead father’s vampiric curse and is determined to rid herself of it, even if she has to try occult and medical means, including psychiatry. For Zaleska, vampirism is a sexual and physical addiction and as much as she hungers for it, she has an equal desire to rid herself of the thirst for blood even if that means forfeiting her life. The film has some surprisingly overt references to lesbianism and is emotionally bleak, full of Gothic atmosphere and melancholy.
The third and possibly most bizarre film in the series, Son of Dracula (1943), deals with another unusual female character that straddles the line between villain and victim. The Caldwell sisters, Kay and Claire, await the arrival of Kay’s visitor, Count Alucard (Lon Chaney, Jr.), to their plantation home in Louisiana. To put it mildly, Kay is a very strange girl. She is obsessed with the occult and the supernatural. Her guest Count Alucard, who she met during her travels in Europe, is really a descent of Dracula and has come to kill Kay’s father and give her his vampiric kiss. But Kay plans to double cross him and have her fiancé Frank kill Alucard and spend eternity with her as a vampire, regardless of Frank’s feelings about the matter.
The Frankenstein Series:
Perhaps Universal’s most profitable series with its most successful star began with Frankenstein (1931), directed by the great James Whale and starring the legendary Boris Karloff. This film also features Dracula’s Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, two of Universal’s most used supporting actors. Like Dracula, this was based on the play adaptation of a novel, Peggy Webling’s version of Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. Both the film and the play make many changes from the novel, turning Shelley’s isolated, yet intellectual creature into a mute, shuffling monster. A young scientist, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, and his hunchbacked assistant begin experimenting on corpses. They soon pieces together and revive one with electricity, which unfortunately has some tragic consequences, as the creature was accidentally given a criminal’s diseased brain.
Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr were eager to repeat their success and convinced director James Whale, Boris Karloff, and Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein) into returning for a sequel, despite the fact that we are led to believe the monster died in a burning mill at the end of the first film. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is an entirely different sort of horror movie. Henry’s mentor, Dr. Pretorius, convinces Henry to continue his experiments and to create a mate for the lonely monster, who is still being pursued through the countryside. This melancholic, dreamlike film is one of the finest sequels ever created and is easily as good a film as Frankenstein. It remains one of Universal’s best horror films.
After the departure of the Laemmles from Universal in 1936, there were a few years without any Universal horror films until the studio returned to one of their biggest successes. Karloff returned to the series in Son of Frankenstein (1939) and was joined by Universal’s other major horror icon, Bela Lugosi. Surprisingly successful despite the dumbed down monster, Son of Frankenstein concerns Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) who returns his family to the ancestral Frankenstein Castle and meets the grave robbing Ygor and many suspicious townsfolk. Wolf finds his father’s creature and decides to revive him to restore his family name. Things turn predictably disastrous when the demented Ygor begins controlling the monster.
For the fourth film in the series, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Lon Chaney, Jr. replaced Boris Karloff as the titular monster, while Lugosi returns as Ygor. This is where the series really went off the rails. Ygor rescues the monster from villagers (even though the monster died at the end of the third film and, really, all the films) and goes to find Henry Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig Frankenstein, who is off experimenting with brain implants (what is with this family!). The monster is soon captured and Ygor blackmails Ludwig into helping them. He tries to perfect his father’s monster, rather than destroy it.
The Mummy Series:
One of my favorite horror films, The Mummy (1932), is the third in Universal’s now classic monster series and was directed by Universal's regular cinematographer, Karl Freund. Starring Boris Karloff as the titular Mummy, the ancient priest Imhotep, and as the strange Egyptologist Ardath Bey, this is the first time Karloff was really able to shine in a horror film. With a plot similar to Dracula, a young woman, Helen, is traveling in Egypt when she entrances the creepy, intense Ardath Bey, who is obsessed with the legend of Imhotep, a mummy recently unearthed and secretly brought back to life. Bey wants to also revive Imhotep’s love, Ankh-es-en-amon and shows the archaeologists where to find her tomb. It turns out that Bey may be more than he seems and he takes Helen with the intent of killing her and resurrecting her as the beautiful Egyptian mummy she resembles.
The Mummy’s Hand (1940), though still technically in The Mummy series, no longer features Karloff or Imhotep, though it copies much of the doomed, centuries old love story. Tom Tyler (Captain Marvel) portrays the mummy Kharis, who, like Imhotep, was cursed for trying to revive his dead love, Princess Ananka. Modern day archaeologists discover Kharis on their way to Ananka’s tomb and revive him, which results in bloodshed. The mummy is eventually destroyed, the heroine (their financial backer’s sassy daughter) is saved, and Ananka’s remains are found and brought back to the United States.
In The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Lon Chaney, Jr. took over as the Mummy, a role he maintained for the rest of the series. The make up was still done by the famous Jack Pierce, who did Karloff’s make up on Frankenstein, among many other Universal horror films. Though this was only the third entry in the series, it was very poorly received. Thirty years after the events in The Mummy’s Hand, the original team of archaeologists and their descendants are being hunted down by a revived Kharis and his companion, Mehemet Bey, an heir to the line of the High Priest of Karnak. Kharis travels to the U.S. to get revenge for the desecration of Ananka’s tomb and theft of her body.
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944) were both churned out in the same year and both star a reluctant Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Mummy. In The Mummy’s Ghost, the very old High Priest from the first Kharis film, Andoheb, has somehow survived and searches for Kharis, who he knows to be alive. He sends his heir, Yousef, to Massachusetts to find and revive the Kharis, who is still on the search for Ananka, except it turns out that she has accidentally been reincarnated into a new human body. The Mummy’s Curse is a last ditch attempt to revive Kharis, though the action is inexplicably moved from Massachusetts to Louisiana. A local swamp is drained, uncovering the mummified bodies of Kharis and Ananka (yes, really). An Egyptian High Priest and his follower happen to be near by, so they resurrect the Mummy and his bride. Unfortunately Ananka arises elsewhere and Kharis goes on a rampage to find her. Those two crazy kids just can’t get a break.
The Invisible Man Series:
The next monster in the series is all too human. Directed by James Whale, The Invisible Man (1933) is yet another adaptation of a famous novel, this time H.G. Wells’ sci-fi horror hybrid about a chemist who discovers the formula for invisibility. Unfortunately one of the ingredients in the formula drives him mad and he goes so far as to develop a plot for world domination. The titular invisible man, Dr. Jack Griffin, was played by the incredibly talented Claude Rains. Unlike most of Universal’s horror stars, Rains was not known for being a genre actor and attained fame with roles in Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, among many others. He was cast in several other Universal horror films after this, though he did not reappear in the Invisible Man series.
Thankfully for the sequel, Universal did not attempt to revive the now dead Invisible Man and the sequel is more of a spin-off with connections to the first film. The Invisible Man Returns (1940) stars one of horror’s biggest icons, though he did not often work with Universal. Vincent Price plays Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, who has been framed for his brother’s murder. Before his execution can take place, Dr. Griffin, the brother of the original Invisible Man, injects him with the invisibility serum. Radcliffe escapes prison and must find his brother’s real killer before the serum drives him mad.
The third film in the series, The Invisible Woman (1940), veers completely off course and is a comedy sci-fi film with almost no connections to the original movie. A crazy old professor (John Barrymore) creates an invisibility device, which is funded by a millionaire. His first test subject is a down on her luck model Kitty (Virginia Bruce), who is successfully turned invisible. When it starts to wear off, she learns her invisibility can be revived with a little alcohol. Mobsters break into the millionaire’s home and try to steal the invisibility device, but Kitty has something to say about it.
The Invisible Agent (1942) brought German actor Peter Lorre to the franchise and though this is fortunately not a comedy, it is more of an anti-Nazi war propaganda film than a true horror movie. The grandson of the original Invisible Man still possesses the formula, which leads Nazis (led by Lorre) to hunt him down in Manhattan and demand to buy the formula from him. He escapes and is convinced by the U.S. government to use the invisibility serum to become a secret agent, go behind enemy lines, and find a list of enemy agents operating in the U.S.
The final film in the series, The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), returns to the horror genre and stars John Carradine, John Hall, and Universal regular Evelyn Ankers. A scientists tests his invisibility formula on an escaped convict. When the test is successful, the convict, Griffin, runs away intending to get revenge on a family. Unfortunately for the Herrick family, Griffin is completely insane. Female star Evelyn Ankers would go on to be in a number of other Universal horror films.
The Wolf Man Series:
Though the Wolf Man is one of Universal’s most enduring horror icons, this is not a true series like Dracula, Frankenstein, or The Mummy, as the films are unrelated. Werewolf of London (1935) was Universal’s first lycanthropic film. An English botanist, Wilfred Glendon, is traveling in Tibet to find a rare plant. Though he finds the plant, he is also attacked by a strange, wolf-like creature. When he returns home to London, he learns that the bite is contagious and though the rare herb he collected is an antidote, it is only temporary. Before long, he is unable to stop himself from transforming into a blood thirsty monster.
Because Werewolf of London was not as successful as Universal had hoped, they made an entirely new Wolf Man film with a revised plot. The Wolf Man (1941) starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as the iconic Larry Talbot, who returns to his home in Wales to reconcile with his father. He begins to fall for a girl working at an antique shop and, as a reason to talk to her, buys a walking stick with a silver wolf’s head on it. It is clear the local populace, particularly the villagers and nomadic gypsies, believe that werewolves are real. Talbot tries to save someone from a wolf attack and is bitten in the process. Soon Talbot transforms into a werewolf and begins attacking the villagers. Evelyn Ankers, Claude Rains, and Bela Lugosi co-star. The film’s werewolf mythology would go on to influence nearly every piece of werewolf cinema and fiction to come after it.
The last film in this loose series, She-Wolf of London (1946), is more a dark mystery than an outright horror film. A lovely young woman, Phyllis (June Lockhart), is about to be married in London and lives in a supposedly cursed family estate. Meanwhile, there have been a series of murders at a local park attributed to a werewolf. Phyllis comes to believe that she is responsible and is turning into a wolf at night due to the curse on her family. Her faithful fiancé begins his own investigation, because he thinks something or someone other than Phyllis is wandering the park at night.
Monster Rally Films:
Towards the end of all their classic monster series, Universal decided to try something new: put several of the monster together in one wild and crazy film where anything goes. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) starred Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man and, oddly, Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster. Larry Talbot is revived from death when the full moon rises and he continues his search for a cure. This leads him to Dr. Frankenstein’s castle, where he hopes to find a way to permanently commit suicide. Here he comes across Frankenstein’s monster and unleashes violence on the local village.
The follow up, House of Frankenstein (1944) loosely brought Karloff back into the series, though this time as a villainous doctor who escapes from prison with the help of a hunchback, for whom he promises to create a new body. The two murder a traveling performer, take over his exhibit, and begin a revenge plot that involves reviving Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man. Insanity ensues. The film features Universal regulars like Lon Chaney, Jr., John Carradine, J. Carol Nash, Lionel Atwill, B Western star Glenn Strange, and one of Universal’s regular villains, George Zucco.
House of Dracula (1945) is the final attempt to throw the Universal monsters together in one one weird, campy film. A scientist gets a call from Dracula, desperate for help with his “curse.” Larry Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) also demands help for his furry affliction. The doctor saves Talbot with a medicine made from spores that he has been cultivating to save his beautiful, but unfortunately hunchbacked assistant(?!?). Dracula gets out of hand and the doctor is forced to destroy him, though not before Dracula’s blood infects the doctor and he randomly transforms into a cross between mad doctor and murderous ghoul. Frankenstein’s monster appears and then all hell really breaks loose. Though there are moments of comedy, the film still takes itself fairly seriously, resulting in an almost cartoon-like smorgasbord of Universal horror.
Horror in the 1930s:
Aside from the classic monster franchises, there were also a number of successful stand-alone horror films produced by Universal in the ‘30s. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), loosely inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe story, stars Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist, Dr. Mirakle, who kidnaps lovely young women and infects them with the blood of his insane sideshow ape in order to create a mate for the ape. This is the first horror film of many throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s that features a psychotic, killer ape as the primary monster, usually controlled by a mad scientist or doctor. The film still retains many of the German Expressionism influences found in earlier Universal horror films and has since attained cult status.
One of the most famous film of the ‘30s, The Old Dark House (1932), follows the formula established by The Cat and the Canary: people are trapped in a spooky old mansion and during the night, someone begins killing them one by one. This genre actually came to be known as “old dark house” films. Directed by Frankenstein’s James Whale, Karloff stars as the deranged, mute butler of a creepy old family, the Femms. During a very bad storm, a number of local travelers are forced to take shelter at the Femm house, but they don’t realize that they will suffer much more at their hands than out in the storm.
Secret of the Blue Room (1933) is a horror-tinged murder mystery that is actually a remake of an earlier German film. Three men all in love with the same woman challenge each other to spend the night in a room where a few murders occurred several years ago. When the first man disappears and the second man dies, the third suitor must brave the terrors of the Blue Room. This popular story was remade two other times by Universal (bizarrely one of these is a musical comedy) and is one of the finest examples of Universal’s many murder mysteries. Though not strictly a genre film, these movies should still appeal to genre fans.
Another film very loosely inspired by Poe, The Black Cat (1934), is one of Lugosi and Karloff’s finest films. Peter and Joan, a couple of their honeymoon in Eastern Europe, cross paths with Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who is traveling to visit an old friend, Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff). After a bus accident where Joan is injured, the couple are forced to travel to Poelzig’s home with Werdegast. Poelzig, an architect, built his mansion over top of the fort he commanded during the war. It turns out that Poelzig and Werdegast are old rivals, not friends, and Peter and Joan get mixed up in their decades old feud and Poelzig’s satanic cult. The film was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, known for his work has a set designer for Fritz Lang and for a number of horror films, though this remains his most beloved work.
The final Poe-based film, The Raven (1935), also stars Karloff and Lugosi. Lugosi is a surgeon obsessed with Edgar Allan Poe, particularly the torture devices in his stories, which he has a great collection of. He falls in love with a young girl after saving her life, but her father rejects him. To get revenge, he blackmails an escaped convict (Karloff) into doing his dirty work. Though the convict is reluctant to cause the girl and her family any harm, the surgeon turns him into a monster and will not fix the convict’s face until his revenge his complete. He then stages a dinner party where the girl’s family has to contend with his Poe-inspired torture chamber.
Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935) is a horror-mystery based on Charles Dickens’ final novel. The film stars Claude Rains and David Manners, the latter of whom is known for being type cast as the romantic male lead, which he plays in Dracula, The Mummy, and The Black Cat. Rains stars as John Jasper, a choirmaster with a double life as an opium addict. He becomes obsessed with a young woman who is engaged to the titular Drood, Jasper’s nephew, and she begins to fear the choirmaster. Drood doesn’t take her concerns seriously and soon he disappears.
The sci-fi influenced The Invisible Ray (1936) reunited Karloff and Lugosi, with Karloff starring as the brilliant Dr. Rukh, who invents a telescope that can look far into space, so far that he can get glimpses of the Earth’s past. When Rukh learns of a strange meteor crash, he sends an expedition to dig it up, but it gives off a strange and powerful radiation. When Rukh is exposed to it, he glows at night and beings to go mad. The situation takes a turn for the worse when he wife falls for another man and he becomes obsessed with revenge.
Lugosi returned for another horror film about a mad doctor, The Phantom Creeps (1939), which is actually a serial shot in 12 parts. Lugosi plays Doctor Zorka, a man hell bent on ruling the world. To do this, he creates a number of outlandish inventions. Spies, both domestic and foreign, try to steal the inventions for themselves. When Zorka’s wife is accidentally killed, he completely loses his mind and plans revenge against all of society.
The Inner Sanctum Mysteries:
Throughout the ‘40s, Universal made a series of six films based on the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, a popular radio show that ran from 1941 - 1952. The anthology-style episodes included tales of horror, mystery, and suspense. All six of the films starred Lon Chaney, Jr. The first, Calling Dr. Death (1943), stars Chaney as a neurologist who loses his memory right around the time that is wife is murdered. Learning that he is the main suspect, due to his wife’s infidelity, he must reclaim his memory at any cost. Celebrated actress Patricia Morrison costars as his office assistant.
Possibly the best film in the series is Weird Woman (1944), which costars Evelyn Ankers. This is based on Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife, a tale of witchcraft and murder that was later remade as Burn, Witch, Burn!. A professor marries an exotic woman with some strange, supernatural beliefs. The local community dislikes her and suspects her when one of the professor’s colleagues dies. He must work to clear her name before she is convicted. Dead Man’s Eyes (1944) stars Chaney as an artist who is blinded by a jealous model. His fiancé’s father offers to spring for eye replacement surgery, but Chaney has to wait until the man dies. When he dies suddenly, the artist is the main suspect. Jean Parker (Bluebeard) and model and actress Acquanetta costar. Acquanetta would go on to star in Universal’s Captive Wild Woman trilogy about an ape were-woman.
The Frozen Ghost (1945) stars Chaney and Evelyn Ankers as a stage magician and his fiancee/assistant. When the magician hypnotizes a skeptical audience member and the man accidentally dies, he is wracked with guilt. He leaves his fiancee and his stage career and goes to work in a wax museum. When the owner of the museum goes missing, the magician is the leading suspect. He must find the missing woman in order to clear his name. Strange Confession (1945) concerns a scientist working on an influenza vaccine. His greedy, millionaire boss takes all the credit and tests it on the scientist’s own son before it is ready. He also tries to steal the scientist’s wife and ruins his career. When the boy dies, the scientist is determined to get revenge. The final film of the series and easily the one with the most ludicrous title, Pillow of Death (1945), concerns an attorney (Chaney) who intends to divorce his wife and marry his wealthy secretary. When his wife turns up dead, suffocated by a pillow, he becomes the main suspect and must work to clear his name. But soon other bodies turn up, all smothered to death the same way.
Horror in the 1940s:
The ‘40s were an active decade for Universal, though many of the horror films they produced during this period did not reach the heights of their output from the ‘20s and ‘30s. There are still a number of fun horror films, beginning with Black Friday (1940), another Karloff and Lugosi vehicle. This sci-fi/horror/crime hybrid concerns a man who almost dies when he is hit by a car. His friend, Dr. Sovac (Karloff), tries to save his life with a brain implant, but it turns out that his new brain belonged to a gangster. His friend undergoes a dramatic personality change and may know the location of a hidden cache of money.
Another sci-fi horror film, Man-Made Monster (1941), stars Lon Chaney, Jr. in his first horror role as a McCormick, the sole survivor of a bus/power line accident. He survived because he is inexplicably immune to electricity. The fascinated Dr. Lawrence begins studying him, but Lawrence’s rival, Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwill) wants to use McCormick to create an army of electro-zombies. He tortures McCormick with electricity and accidentally creates a super-charged and now completely insane monster.
Horror Island (1941) is a sort of adventure-horror tale about an island that holds a secret pirate treasure. Bill Martin, a suffering businessman, decides to travel to an island he recently inherited when he learns it holds pirate Sir Henry Morgan’s hidden treasure. Unfortunately for Martin and the group he has rounded up, the island is haunted by a phantom who has stolen half the treasure map. They must investigate a spooky castle to try to get it back and find the treasure. The Black Cat (1941) is an average murder mystery that has nothing to do with the previous Black Cat (1934) and has Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone in side roles. The highly underrated Night Monster (1942) concerns a number of doctors who are called out to a creepy old mansion in the swamp to examine the young female heir, who may be insane. Someone begins murdering the doctors and a young man must discover the killer before his lady love - a visiting psychiatrist - is also dispatched before her time. There is tons of fog, a very spooky mansion, some nice special effects, and a small cameo from Bela Lugosi as the odd butler.
Claude Rains stars in the remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943) and this talkie version may appeal to newer horror fans who have trouble sitting through the original, superior, silent version. To this film’s credit, there are a number of plot changes and other than a basic shared premise, this is a completely different film. It is also the only Universal Monster film to win an Academy Award. George Zucco returns for The Mad Ghoul (1943) as a scientist exploring a nerve gas used in Mayan rituals of human sacrifice. Things turn ugly when he and his assistant fight over a young woman and the doctor exposes his assistant to the gas and turns him into a ghoul-like creature. Unfortunately for them, the assistant can only survive by feeding on human heart blood and they are forced to go on a killing spree.
Captive Wild Woman (1943) is a sci-fi/horror film that fits into the killer ape subgenre. Model Acquanetta stars as an ape that is transformed into a woman by a demented endocrinologist, but because she still has her animal instincts, all hell soon breaks loose. Universal regular Evelyn Ankers costars. This was followed up by two films, Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945). The Climax (1944) was initially intended to be a sequel to Universal’s remake of Phantom of the Opera (1943), but only bears vague similarities to the plot. Karloff stars as the Vienna Royal Theater’s personal physician. He murders his lover, the lead soprano, after his jealousy drives him insane. Several years in the future, he meets another singer who arouses similar feelings.
House of Horrors (1946) stars the delightful Rondo Hatton as a villain known as the Creeper. A depressed artist on his way to commit suicide winds up saving a drowning man, the Creeper, but he turns out to be a madman and goes on a murderous rampage. Due to a pituitary disorder known as acromegaly, Hatton’s exaggerated facial features made him a prime candidate to appear as a gangster in crime/noir films and as the star of two Creeper movies for Universal. Hatton unfortunately passed away before more films in this series could be made. Hatton starred in a sequel, The Brute Man (1946), where he reappears as the Creeper, this time to get revenge on those who disfigured his face. A loose sequel to House of Horrors, this also explains his origins. Created during the end of Universal’s horror boom, the film was considered lost for several decades until it reemerged in the early ‘80s.
Creature from the Black Lagoon Series:
Universal’s true last gasp of horror was the Creature trilogy which began with Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Though this was made in the ‘50s and includes some post-war, nuclear horror themes, it feels very much like one of their classic ‘30s monster entries. It is also one of Universal’s few 3-D films. A scientific expedition in the Amazon finds a strange fossil showing evidence of webbed fingers, so a second expedition is launched to further examine the area. They find that the first team has all been killed and speculate how, but soon they track the creature, a strange amphibious humanoid dubbed the Gill-man, to its lair in the mysterious Black Lagoon.
This was followed by Revenge of the Creature (1955), the only 3-D sequel to a 3-D film. The Gill-man somehow survived his bullet-ridden ordeal at the end of the first film and is captured and sent to Florida to be studied. To no one’s great surprise, the Gill-man is distracted by a woman and escapes into the ocean. When he finally captures her, the scientists and local police must try to rescue her before it is too late.
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the final entry in the series, sadly does not live up to its excellent title. The Gill-man is again captured, but begins shedding his gills after he is burned in a fire. He is given clothes and doctors try to convince him to live with humans. He is clearly depressed on land and when a human betrays him, he goes on a killing spree and triumphantly returns to the sea.
You, like many people, probably though there were 8 or 9 Universal films and that you had seen them all. Sorry for the rude awakening, but the silver lining is that the advent of DVD and Blu-ray means there are more classic horror films available than ever before. On the other hand, if you're a Universal horror expert and you think there's something I'm missing, please let me know.
If you’re going to watch along with me, happy viewing! Otherwise, expect detailed reviews of all these films over the next few months. It will hopefully be a fun, creepy, and thoroughly air-conditioned summer.
If you’re going to watch along with me, happy viewing! Otherwise, expect detailed reviews of all these films over the next few months. It will hopefully be a fun, creepy, and thoroughly air-conditioned summer.