Category Archives: Universal Classic Monsters

Universal Classic Monsters: “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954)

Gill-Man

The 1950s brought us the final Universal Classic Monster… The Gill-Man. Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf Man have become Halloween mascots, but the Gill-Man was the first summertime monster, a precursor to “Jaws.” “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” story begins with the actual creation of the universe, hinting at an alternative evolution, resulting in an aquatic humanoid.

Bud Westmore had taken over for Jack Pierce as head of the makeup department around the time of “Abbot & Costello meet Frankenstein.” Westmore now oversaw the creation of the Gill-Man suit. Ricou Browning played the Gill-Man in the underwater sequences while Ben Chapman played the creature on land. If this film were ever to be remade, the creature would probably lose its humanoid legs and closely resemble a merman with a CGI tailfin.

As with any sci-fi monster flick, there is a good amount of dialogue which is mainly techno-babble, but the actors (Richard Carlson and Julia Adams) were earnest in their performances and delivered their lines without a sense of irony. This helps the audience with what is known as “suspension of disbelief.” Besides all the obvious similarities to “Jaws,” which was releases twenty one years later, some film historians have sited the original “King Kong” as a film which inspired the beauty and the beast themes present in “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

A sequel, “Revenge of the Creature” was released in 1955. The Gill-Man (still played by Ricou Browning underwater and now played by Tom Hennesy on land) is captured and brought to an oceanarium, where it quickly escapes and runs amok… Clint Eastwood played a small role, but I think everyone who’s a fan knows that by now. Jack Arnold helmed the first two films in the series. “The Creature Walks Among Us,” released in 1956, concluded the saga. The Gill-Man (again played by Ricou Browning underwater and now played by Don Megowan on land) is badly burned, necessitating surgery that prevents it from ever returning to the water.

Gill-Man never met Abbot and Costello in a movie, but he did guest star on their TV show. Hammer Films had no equivalent to the Gill-Man, so you’ll need to view “The Monster Squad” (1987) to see the Gill-Man along side Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy. The band was back together.

Universal Classic Monsters: “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948)

Abott & Costello

The end of an era. The final Universal Studios film to feature Count Dracula, The Wolf Man, and the Frankenstein Monster. Though this was a comedy starring the famed team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the plot is no more absurd than “House of Dracula,” while both Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr. play their signature parts straight, adding to the humor of the film. It’s so important in a horror / comedy for the monsters to remain scary.

It’s great to see Bela Lugosi return as Dracula. It’s hard to believe that he only played the count in two films as he is so identified with the role. And what of poor Lawrence Talbot? I thought he was cured of his lycanthropy in “House of Dracula?” I guess it was only temporary. Nobody plays torment like Lon Chaney Jr.. Glenn Strange may have more screentime as the Monster in this film than “House of Frankenstein” and “House of Dracula” combined. He even has a couple lines of dialogue.

Bud Abbot is caught up in a love triangle, but the monsters get in the way. Lawrence Talbot wants Abbott and Costello, who played a pair of dim witted baggage handlers, to assist him in his battle against Count Dracula. Even though Lawrence and Dracula only crossed paths briefly in “House of Dracula,” this film implied that they were sworn enemies. Actually, this may have been the first film to establish the vendetta between vampires and werewolves.

Count Dracula has arranged for the Monster to receive a new brain, which belongs to Bud Abbot. If only Fritz the hunchback hadn’t stolen the criminal brain seventeen years earlier. All the characters gather in a laboratory and all hell breaks loose. Dracula and the Wolf Man fall to their demise and the Monster gets burned on the docks. Abbott and Costello flee, then in a nice cameo, we hear yet another master of horror, Vincent Price voicing the Invisible Man.

Abbott and Costello would also meet Dr. Jekyll, played by Boris Karloff, and a mummy in the follow up films. Meanwhile, Universal Studios added one more classic monster to their stable in the 1950s, the Gill Man from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” in 1954. Luckily, all the classic monsters were not done for. They were merely dormant, waiting to be resurrected by Hammer Films.

Universal Classic Monsters: “House of Dracula” (1945)

John Carradine as Dracula

Here we go again. Even though Count Dracula (John Carradine) and Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) were vanquished in “House of Frankenstein” a year earlier, they are both inexplicably resurrected for this third monster rally and coincidently arrive at the very same clinic in search of cures for their supernatural afflictions. Of course, this clinic is located in Vasaria. There seems to be a lot of villages called Vasaria in these movies.

Unlike all the mad scientists in the past, Dr. Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens) is kind and sympathetic. He is the first doctor to have the common sense to not try and revive Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange), who conveniently washed up in cave beneath the good doctor’s clinic. What are the odds? Lionel Atwill is again cast as an inspector and in a nice twist, the traditional hunchbacked assistant is now played by an attractive actress (Jane Adams).

Dracula does seem sincere in his intentions, but his lust for Doctor Edelmann’s other assistant (Martha O‘Driscoll) has him returning to his wicked ways and he infects Dr. Edelmann with vampire blood via a transfusion. Dr. Edelmann is able to stays sane long enough to destroy Dracula and cure Lawrence of his lycanthropy. A rare glimmer of hope for the Wolf Man.

Tainted blood of Dracula eventually morphs Dr. Edelmann into a “Jekyll & Hyde” type character and he goes on a rampage before reviving the Monster. The final scene of the laboratory burning to the ground was lifted from “Ghost of Frankenstein,” so that is Lon Chaney Jr. and not Glenn Strange thrashing in the flames. Though “House of Dracula” has some interesting variations of previously established hallmarks, overall it is not as fun as the previous monster rallies.

“House of Frankenstein” neglected any monster on monster action, but this film could have used some. John Carradine has more screentime as Dracula than he did in “House of Frankenstein,” but all the monsters played again second fiddle to a doctor. This was more acceptable when Boris Karloff filled that role, but this imitation Jekyll & Hyde character doesn’t quite measure up. It may have been different if Dr. Jekyll actually was a character in this film, but Universal didn‘t tackle Robert Louis Stevenson’s creation until “Abbott & Costello meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” in 1953. “House of Dracula” is probably my least favorite monster rally, save for poor Lawrence Talbot finally being liberated from his horrible curse… albeit temporarily.

Universal Classic Monsters: “House of Frankenstein” (1944)

House of Frankenstein

Universal Studios was really starting to crank out monsters movies in the 1940s. This was the third consecutive film to feature the Frankenstein Monster, second in a row for the Wolf Man, and now Count Dracula was added to the mix. Working titles for this monster rally were “Chamber of Horrors” and “The Devil‘s Brood.”

Boris Karloff returns to the franchise that made him famous as Dr. Gustav Niemann, a deranged scientist who also claims to be the brother of an assistant to the original Dr. Frankenstein. It would have been more interesting if he was related to one of the bodies stolen by Dr. Frankenstein to create the Monster, explaining their uncanny resemblance. Dr. Niemann escapes from prison with a hunchback named Daniel, played by J. Carrol Naish. They murder and assume the identities of proprietors of a traveling chamber of horrors.

Dr. Niemann unintentionally resurrects Count Dracula, who is sadly not played by Bela Lugosi, but rather John Carradine. Carradine as the count is more subdued than Lugosi when trying to blend into society. He only reveals his true nature in private. It is in this first half of the film where Lionel Atwill pops up again as an inspector. Dracula and Dr. Niemann strike a bargain, but Niemann quickly betrays Dracula, causing Dracula to be disintegrated by sunlight when he cannot return to his coffin by dawn.

Dr. Niemann and Daniel continue to the village of Frankenstein to retrieve the Monster and the Wolf Man. This was a major continuity error as “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” was set in Vasaria. They then travel to Vasaria, where Dr. Niemann’s laboratory is located. I guess one has to assume that the villages of Frankenstein and Vasaria are close enough that the mad scientist lairs can be zoned in either? This is another monster movie with an oddly touching subplot in which Daniel the hunchback falls in love with a beautiful gypsy girl named Ilanka, played by Elena Verdugo, who is herself in love with Lawrence Talbot. What is it about Lawrence Talbot and his connection to gypsies? Lon Chaney Jr. is tragic as ever and is put out of misery when Ilanka shoots him with a silver bullet.

Glenn Strange plays the Monster for the first of three times. I really prefer Strange as the Monster when compared to Chaney Jr. and Lugosi in the previous two films. They were icons in their own right and looked peculiar with electrodes protruding from their necks. Boris Karloff was not well known before the first “Frankenstein” in 1931. The same can be said for Christopher Lee in Hammer Films’ “The Curse of Frankenstein” in 1957. Conversely, how bizarre was it for Robert De Niro to appear as the Monster in Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel? It’s better to have a lesser known actor portraying the Frankenstein Monster, so the audience cannot look past the makeup.

“House of Frankenstein” was Boris Karloff’s swansong to the Universal Frankenstein franchise and it was a fitting finale. Karloff is dragged to his death by the Monster while being chased by angry villagers, reenacting Karloff and Colin Clive in the climax of the original “Frankenstein.” Karloff’s journey from monster to mad scientist had come full circle. Even though the film’s title, “House of Frankenstein” doesn’t make much sense as the primary location is Dr. Niemann’s laboratory, it is probably the most heralded of the monster rallies.

Universal Classic Monsters: “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” (1943)

Frankenstein vs. The Wolf Man

The first of what is known as a “monster rally.” After playing the Monster in “Ghost of Frankenstein,” Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his signature role as Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man, while Bela Lugosi finally plays the part of the Monster after turning down the original “Frankenstein” twelve years earlier.

The first half of this film plays like a straight sequel to “The Wolf Man,” then midway it crosses over into the Frankenstein franchise. Maria Ouspenskaya returns as Maleva the gypsy, who is now a surrogate mother to Lawrence. The role of Elsa Frankenstein is recast with Ilone Massey, taking the place of Evelyn Ankers. This was a wise decision as Ankers had appeared in both “The Wolf Man” and “Ghost of Frankenstein,” so her presence as Elsa in this film would have been a bit confusing since she was far more recognizable as Lawrence Talbot’s love interest than Dr. Frankenstein’s granddaughter.

Lionel Atwill makes his third consecutive appearance in a Frankenstein film, playing the mayor of Vasaria, and the incomparable Dwight Frye was again featured as an angry villager. Patrick Knowles is upgraded from a thankless role of Lawrence Talbot’s rival in “The Wolf Man” to a compassionate doctor who is ultimately seduced by the legacy of Dr. Frankenstein.

Bela Lugosi’s performance as the Monster has been widely criticized. His dialogue, references to Ygor’s brain, and apparent blinding in “Ghost of Frankenstein” ended up on the cutting room floor, resulting in his very awkward posture and stumbling to be unintentionally comical. Though I greatly admire Bela Lugosi as an actor, I will admit that he was not physically imposing enough to be convincing as the Monster. In “Son of Frankenstein” and “Ghost of Frankenstein” the Monster is often referred to as a “giant.” The heavy brow and flat top head complimented Boris Karloff‘s features, but they don’t blend well with Lugosi at all. If Lugosi had originated the part in 1931, then monster makeup maestro Jack Pierce would have created a makeup that was unique to him.

The Wolf Man should have been the underdog in final scuffle, but Lon Chaney Jr. vs. Bela Lugosi seems to be a big mismatch in favor of Chaney. Even with suspension of disbelief, the cutting between Lugosi and his double is too apparent. It would have been a simpler if the filmmakers didn’t even bother casting an actor the caliber of Lugosi and just hired a stuntman to play the part.

I do enjoy that the villagers flood the castle as apposed to burning it down, which was already becoming a cliché. This historic clash of titans plays better as a sequel to “The Wolf Man” than it does the fifth “Frankenstein” film because that storyline was quite frankly becoming muddled.

Universal Classic Monsters: “Ghost of Frankenstein” (1942)

Ghost of Frankenstein

Here’s where the Frankenstein film series and the Universal Classic Monsters saga as a whole begins to get somewhat convoluted. Though this is the fourth of the Frankenstein films, it is also a reunion of ”The Wolf Man” with Lon Chaney Jr., Evelyn Ankers, and Ralph Bellamy in the cast. George Waggner, the director of “The Wolf Man,” stays on as this film’s producer. Talbot Castle doubles as Dr. Frankenstein’s sanitarium and the opening titles have the same ominous woods as its backdrop.

Bela Lugosi returns as Ygor, who somehow survived being shot several times by Basil Rathbone in “Son of Frankenstein.” Dwight Frye, the unsung hero of the Universal Classic Monsters saga, has a bit part as one of the angry villagers, but he never crosses paths with the Monster. That was probably for the best as he met with bad ends in both “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein.” I can accept that Ygor returns since “Son of Frankenstein” established that he was able to endure is own hanging, but why are the two councilmen he had murdered seen alive in the crowd shots? These actors appeared in “Frankenstein,” however, their parts were recast in “Bride of Frankenstein.” They returned for “Son of Frankenstein” in different roles, but here I find their inexplicable presence to be distracting. Only Dwight Frye has the gravitas to be a recurring player in my humble opinion.

The foremost casting change is Lon Chaney Jr. assuming the role of the Monster from Boris Karloff. Of course, Chaney Jr. is forever associated with the role of Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man, just as Karloff is to the Frankenstein Monster, but Chaney Jr. gives a fair performance. Yes, he is stiff in his movements, but that is acceptable as the Monster has twice been in a coma. Sir Cedric Hardwicke receives top billing as Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, a previously unmentioned second son of Dr. Henry Frankenstein. His characterization is bland compared to that of Colin Clive and Basil Rathbone in the previous films. Hardwicke doubles as the ghost of Henry Frankenstein. Lionel Atwill, who appeared as a sympathetic, one armed inspector in “Son of Frankenstein,” returns as the bitter Dr. Bohmer, who eventually betrays Dr. Frankenstein in favor of Ygor.

There is an oddly touching subplot in which the Monster befriends a little village girl. Remembering the accidental drowning from the first film makes the audience fear for her life even when the Monster is without malice. The climax features one of the most bizarre moments in monster movie history. The brain of Ygor is transplanted into the skull of the Monster, resulting in Lon Chaney Jr. guised as Boris Karloff’s signature character, with the voice of Bela Lugosi. Despite this noteworthy amalgam, “Ghost of Frankenstein” just does not hold the same iconic status as the other films produced by Universal Studios to feature the Frankenstein Monster. I don’t believe any elements of this film were even spoofed in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein.”

The final shot, Evelyn Ankers and Ralph Bellamy walking off as the sun rises seems out of place to me since heir romance is of little consequence to the main plot. The final shot should have been Dr. Frankenstein’s sanitarium burning to the ground. Maybe I’m over analyzing, but perhaps the romantic image was meant to be reminiscent of Henry and Elizabeth in the climax of “Bride of Frankenstein?”

“Ghost of Frankenstein” is entertaining, but does not stand the test of time as well as the previous three films. The plot thread involving the Monster being blinded and having Ygor’s brain was axed during post-production of “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” so “Ghost of Frankenstein” is a competently produced, though unnecessary chapter in the legend of Frankenstein.

Universal Classic Monsters: “The Wolf Man” (1941)

Wolf Man

“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” My personal favorite of the Universal Classic Monster films and werewolves are, without a doubt, my favorite all time monster. I went trick-or-treating as a werewolf when I was in the third grade. They are way cooler than those Euro-trash vampires… My sister would get ticked if she heard me say that.

Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of “The Wolf Man,” created the lore that is associated with werewolves. Transformations occurring during the full moon (though there are no shots of the full moon in this film), pentagrams as the mark of the werewolf, and silver being the only way to vanquish a lycanthrope. The first sequel, “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” would reinforce the full moon aspect of the legend. Naturally, Jack Pierce was responsibly for the Wolf Man makeup just as he had been for the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy. I find it ironic that Lon Chaney Sr. starred as the original Phantom of the Opera in 1925 and Claude Rains, who would play the Phantom in the 1942 remake, was cast as Sir John Talbot, the father of the Wolf Man, played by Lon Chaney Jr.. In an odd way, it’s like the Wolf Man is the son of the Phantom.

“The Wolf Man” also features a well done love story. In previous monster movies, you would have a mad scientist betrothed to woman who can’t understand his megalomania (“Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man”) or an undead individual trying to claim the immortal soul of an innocent woman (“Dracula” and “The Mummy”). This is the only love triangle where you’re rooting for the leading lady, Gwen Conliffe played by Evelyn Ankers, to end up with the monster because he is a monster through no fault of his own. Lawrence Talbot is a hopeless romantic, who is sadly destined to meet with a bad end.

Lon Chaney Jr. won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lennie Small in a film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1939. Chaney Jr. is unique from other Oscar winners in that he spent the majority of his career pursuing horror roles. He would also play the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, and Count Dracula. One can suppose that he was trying to live up to his late father, who was known as “the man of a 1,000 faces.”

Universal’s first werewolf movie, 1935’s “Werewolf of London,” starring Henry Hull, failed to inspire audiences. Contrarily, Lawrence Talbot became the next inductee into the pantheon of classic monsters. Lawrence Talbot was sired by a gypsy fortune teller, played by Bela Lugosi in an extended cameo. Maria Ouspenskaya plays the mother of Bela, who does her best to look after Lawrence when he is cursed to be a lycanthrope and gives him a charm which just might hold the beast within at bay. Lawrence instead chooses to give the charm to Gwen because her safety matters the most to him. A charm would also be used in 1994’s “Wolf,” starring Jack Nicholson. Sir John ties his son to a chair to help prove that there are no such thing as werewolves, but to no avail. Sir John kills his son with the same silver tipped cane that his son used to kill Bela the gypsy. Gwen was saved, but such a bummer of an ending. Werewolves are so tragic. Dracula is evil and needs to be destroyed. The Wolf Man, not unlike the Frankenstein Monster, is purely a victim of circumstance.

Unlike, “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” the Wolf Man wasn’t based on a novel, so when Hammer Films got around to making a lycanthrope flick, they made “The Curse of the Werewolf” in 1961, which was loosely based on Werewolf of Paris, a novel written by Guy Endore in 1933. Oliver Reed starred and sported a werewolf makeup that had some simian features mixed in with Jack Pierce’s 1941 Wolf Man design. Keep an eye out in “The Curse of the Werewolf” for supporting actors would appear in the early James Bond films.

1981 was a big year for werewolves with the release of both “The Howling” and “An American Werewolf in London.” These films both paid tribute to “The Wolf Man,” but “An American Werewolf in London” was closer in tone to “The Wolf Man,” in telling the story of individuals in the wrong place at the wrong time, whose lives are destined to end in tragedy. “The Wolf Man” was remade back in 2010, with Benicio Del Toro cast as Lawrence and Anthony Hopkins as Sir John. Though not a commercial success, I do enjoy how this film tied plot devises from other werewolf movies together to create a sense of uniformity in the legend. Anthony Hopkins was bitten while on an expedition in the mountains like Henry Hull in “Werewolf of London” and Benicio Del Toro suffered from horrific nightmares in the vein of David Naughton in “An American Werewolf in London.” The Wolf Man in this movie was also running across the rooftops, wearing a bloodied white shirt, which was very reminiscent of Oliver Reed in “The Curse of the Werewolf.” (Credit goes to artist Phil Gormley for noticing the Hammer influence.)

Lawrence Talbot became the star of the 1940’s “Monster Rallies.” Count Dracula was always up to his wicked ways and the Frankenstein Monster was portrayed as a simple minded brute post-Boris Karloff, so by default, the Wolf Man had to be the protagonist. He battled the Frankenstein Monster to a draw in “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man,” a gypsy girl fell in love with him in “House of Frankenstein,” he stopped a mad doctor in “House of Dracula,” and he teamed up with Bud Abbot and Lou Costello in “Abbot & Costello meet Frankenstein” for a final showdown with Count Dracula, played by Bela Lugosi. Lawrence Talbot is without question the hero of the Universal Studios Monster saga.

Universal Classic Monsters: “Son of Frankenstein” (1939)

Ygor & Monster

Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi, may be more of a fiend than any of the Universal Classic Monsters. Director Rowland V. Lee may not be James Whale, but he beefed up the part of Ygor so Lugosi could have more screen-time. There are those who consider this to be the best role of his career, above even Count Dracula. The runtime of this film is just under and hour and forty minutes. It’s two predecessors clocked in around an hour and fifteen minutes, so “Son of Frankenstein” was an epic. It was also an original story as all plot threads from Mary Shelley’s original novel had been expended in the first two films.

Basil Rathbone plays Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, who is distraught that the locals in the Village of Frankenstein have bestowed the Monster with his surname, which is an inside joke that also serves as genuine motivation for the character. A portrait of the late Colin Clive looms in the background of certain shots. Clive passed away in 1937, but the memory of Dr. Henry Frankenstein remains. Lionel Atwill plays the part of the one-armed Inspector Krogh. Atwill, joining the ranks of Dwight Frye, became a recurring player in horror movies during the 1940s.

There are some continuity errors in the geography. In the two James Whale films, the house and Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory had much more distance between them. Also, the set design was completely different, but these are acceptable gaffes. Chalk it up to artistic license.

Ygor has a broken neck because he was hung, but somehow did not die. As I mentioned in my retrospective of “Frankenstein,” he is often mixed up with Fritz the hunchback, Dwight Frye’s character. Ygor has power over the Monster, played by Boris Karloff for the final time. The Monster has traded in his sports jacket for an animal pelt. He spends the first half of the film in a coma and has no dialogue when he wakes. Only grunts and screams. Even though Karloff has less to do then he did in “Bride of Frankenstein,” he was still effective. The sins of the father return to haunt the son. Baron Frankenstein is determined to vindicate his father’s name. He experiments on the Monster and finds that, unbeknownst to his father, cosmic rays were harnessed in its creation. When the Monster is finally up and around, he kills for Ygor, who plays his horn for all to hear, establishing his alibi. There are only glimpses of humanity left in the monster. You can sense that the fate of character is to become a lumbering brute in the remaining sequels.

Baron Frankenstein is quite coy when dealing with Inspector Krogh, especially after his butler disappears. Basil Rathbone plays paranoia well. Baron Frankenstein eventually shoots and kills (?) Ygor, leaving the Monster without a friend. Whether it’s little Marie in “Frankenstein” or the blind hermit in “Bride of Frankenstein,” all the Monster really wants is a friend. He kidnaps Baron Frankenstein’s son in the climax and gets knocked into a sulfur pit. Boris Karloff’s swansong as the Frankenstein Monster. The part that made him famous.

Baron Frankenstein is cheered as he departs the village. I’m not sure why? Either they are really happy to see him go or everything was blamed on Ygor. The first three films in this series were fodder for Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” in 1974.