By Ryan Fleming
When we last looked at horror films in this series we left them at the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. A decade of artistic experimentation in Germany had resulted in a style that came to be known as German Expressionism, exemplified by titles like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. Across the Atlantic, closer to the Pacific, in Hollywood, the horror film had snuck in via adaptations of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera. The horror in those coming from the makeup efforts of their star: Lon Chaney.
Changes were afoot in both Germany and the United States that would drive both trends together. The rise of the Nazi Party in Germany turned an already steady stream of immigrant talent that had existed since Hollywood’s early days into a mighty river. Advances in film technology bought by the major Hollywood studios allowed them to market sound films, or talkies, and solidify them as a powerful cultural centre of influence. One of those studios, Universal Pictures, were looking to parlay the new technology into their next big horror adaptation following The Phantom of the Opera. They had the star, and the tale was already a smash hit as a play on Broadway.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula had already been adapted on film in the 1922 German production Nosferatu. This was an unauthorised adaptation and Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement. It would not be until 1924 that Dracula would receive its first authorised adaptation by Irish playwright Hamilton Deane, revised by American writer John L. Balderston in 1927. This was the version Universal sought to adapt, re-pairing the director and star of 1927’s London After Midnight: Tod Browning and Lon Chaney, respectively. Chaney would die in 1930 before production on the film could start but the show would go on.
The success Universal Pictures had in horror films was one of trial and error. Carl Laemmle Jr. had been given the role as head of production at the studio by his father at the age of 20 and the young man took to it with great enthusiasm. He had already found success in 1930 with the Great War film All Quiet on the Western Front and Laemmle Jr. saw similar potential in Dracula. There was just the small matter of casting the title role following Chaney’s death.
Chaney had originally intended to play both Count Dracula himself and his adversary, Professor Van Helsing. The roles would be played separately in the eventual film, as it happened both by the actors that played them on stage. Edward Van Sloan played Van Helsing, and Count Dracula was played, after much lobbying by the actor and against the original opinion of both Laemmle and other executives, by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. It is difficult to understate just how much the popular image of Dracula owes more to Lugosi’s portrayal in the film, particularly the hair, the cape, and the accent, than anything from Stoker’s novel. Unlike Chaney, Lugosi wore little in the way of makeup instead conveying menace via acting alone. This was a departure from prior American, and even German, horror films. Another departure was the explicitly supernatural element not being debunked in the denouement, such as had happened in London After Midnight. Instead, Dracula, as in Stoker’s novel, really was a vampire. This was originally hammered home in the film in an instance of breaking the fourth wall where Van Sloan, in character, would appear before a curtain and tell the audience before they left that “there are such things as vampires!” This was directly taken from the stage play, but it would be deleted from the film when it was re-released in 1936 during enforcement of the production code for fear of encouraging a belief in the supernatural. It had never been restored.
Dracula was a gamble that paid off for Universal Pictures, aided by a publicity campaign that reported audiences fainting in shock, a tactic that would be replayed time and time again in various forms by studios to the present day. Its success would spur Laemmle Jr. to commission more horror films to makeup for the studios 1930 losses. Losses despite critical acclaim and commercial success, it should be noted. The next feature saw the studio purchase the rights to another John Balderston stage adaptation of a Victorian novel: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Lugosi, as the star of Dracula, was hired to a contract and Laemmle wanted him to appear in Frankenstein. The only problem was that Lugosi wanted to play the title character, the scientist, whereas Laemmle wanted Lugosi to play that character’s creation, a monster. That role was robbed of all that characterised him in the novel by original director Robert Florey. Both Lugosi and Florey would be moved to Murders in the Rue Morgue, adapted from the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name. Brought into replace Florey was English director James Whale, originally poached from the West End to Broadway and later Hollywood as a dialogue director. Whale’s choice for the role of Frankenstein’s Monster was Boris Karloff, who had been acting since 1909 and already had 81 film credits to his name. Like Lugosi, this would be his star-making turn. He endured hours in a makeup chair under the expertise of Jack Pierce, whose flattop, scarred look for the monster with electrodes in the neck would, like Bela Lugosi’s appearance had before it, become synonymous with the character. It is also possible that without the popularity of the film and its sequels the perennial mis-labelling of the monster with the name of his creator would not come to pass.
Frankenstein would surpass the success of Dracula both critically and commercially despite being produced on a smaller budget. It convinced Universal to roll more dice on horror pictures, including Murders in the Rue Morgue which had already ended production but was restarted and its total budget more than doubled. Lugosi also got to play a mad scientist in the film, fulfilling his original desire for Frankenstein. He would play another mad doctor of sorts in The Black Cat, another Universal adaptation of Poe, which strayed so far from the source material to have the backstory to the film take place during the Great War, a conflict which started more than 60 years after Poe’s death. Universal would also film original horror screenplays during the early 1930s but only where no existing material could be found.
The opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 received worldwide coverage, as did the sensationalised linking of several deaths of people associated with the opening to an alleged curse of the pharaohs. Recognising the potential as the basis for a horror film, Laemmle tasked Universal’s story editor to find a novel to act as the basis for an Ancient Egyptian themed horror film. When none could be found, an original pitch was rewritten by John L. Balderston to pertain to Egypt. The Mummy owes a lot to Dracula, down to sharing two cast members in almost the exact same roles as the earlier films. Edward Van Sloan plays the distinctly Van Helsing-esque Dr. Muller and David Manners brings the same bland hero traits to Frank Whemple as he did to Jonathan Harker. Hollywood was already prone to remaking themselves, albeit much more shameless about reusing stuff between films. Directing The Mummy was none other than the cinematographer on Dracula, Karl Freund, who some regard as an unofficial director of the earlier film. Freund started as a cinematographer in his native Germany, including on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The Mummy was his first directing credit and would go on to pioneer sitcom filming techniques in the 1950s on I Love Lucy, at the behest of Desilu studio head Desi Arnaz.
A similar quasi-remake came in the shape of The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains as the title character. Universal bought the rights to H. G. Wells’s novel in 1931 as a potential follow-up to Dracula, before Frankenstein was settled upon as the next film. It wound up going through many iterations of scripting before it met with the approval of Wells, who had secured approval as part of his rights negotiations. One, by Garrett Fort, drew more heavily from Philip Wylie’s 1931 novel The Murderer Invisible. John L Balderston of course turned in a script, again based more on Wylie’s novel. Young screenwriters John Huston and Preston Sturges made separate attempts to write the winning script. Sturges’s version transplanted the character to Russia where a chemist sought revenge on the Bolsheviks. He was fired the day after turning it in. In the end, playwright R. C. Sherriff would pen the winning version. He was best known for his play Journey’s End, which had been directed on the stage starring Laurence Olivier and directed by James Whale. Whale, who originally turned down the film, not wanting to be painted as a horror director, had also collaborated with Sherriff on his 1932 picture The Old Dark House, another horror film with Boris Karloff. The final script wound up bearing more than a passing resemblance in some ways to Frankenstein, albeit combining the scientist and monster into a single character.
Despite his not wanting to be boxed in as a horror director, lack of success outside the genre kept Whale coming back. His films began to take on more and more of Whale’s sense of humour, equal parts camp, dark, and British, from The Old Dark House onward. This reached an apex with the 1935 sequel to Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein. Though sequels were not unknown at the time, they were nowhere near as common as today, yet already they had a reputation of being inferior products. With that in mind, Whale decided to make it memorable in other ways. Universal considered a sequel as early as test screenings of Frankenstein in 1931, where they hastily changed the ended to confirm the survival of Henry Frankenstein. Most of the cast reprised their roles in the sequel, with one exception being Mae Clarke, who had played Frankenstein’s fiancé Elizabeth, being unable to reprise due to ill-health. In her place was cast 17-year-old Valerie Hobson, whose marriage in 1954 to John Profumo would be the subject of a major scandal in UK politics in 1961 where her husband was revealed to have been in an extramarital affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler.
Whale was also sought by Universal for their 1936 sequel to Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, apparently feeling female relatives in sequel titles were indicators of box office success. In addition to Whale, Universal also wanted Lugosi to reprise his performance as Dracula, Van Sloan to return as Van Helsing, as well as Boris Karloff and Colin Clive (who played the title role in Frankenstein) in supporting roles. In the end, only Edward Van Sloan would reprise his role, for some reason misspelled as Von Helsing. Whale would also leave the project. It would not be as successful as the preceding films; it also fell afoul of the Production Code for the lesbian overtones of Gloria Holden’s title character. It was ostensible adapted from Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” but also owed a great deal to Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Camilla. Had Dracula’s Daughter been the star-studded, Whale directed film Universal originally promised, it would still have to be altered from the original R. C. Sherriff script to appease both the British Board of Film Censors and the US Production Code Administration. Despite not being as successful as its predecessors, Dracula’s Daughter would prove influential. Anne Rice has cited it as an influence on her own literary vampire fiction.
1936 would see a pause in Universal’s production of horror film. Though Laemmle Jr. could hit upon successes his enthusiasm could also lead to major failures, spending too much on films that did not recoup their budget. That year would see both he and his father ousted by the company. The new powers that be did not see continued success in horror pictures in the immediate future, but like any good monster, it would not remain dead for long.
In the days before television, home video, streaming services, and lots and lots of merchandising allowed film studios to make money off their output long after their initial release, it was common for films to be re-released to limited engagements years after they initially appeared on screens. These re-releases were so lucrative for Disney that, by way of example, they for years refused to release their classic films to home video and eventually only did so for a limited time, right up until they debuted their own streaming service. It would be re-releases of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, packing theatres, that would convince the new Universal regime that horror films were still viable.
First up in the new slate would be a second sequel to Frankenstein, taking an almighty gambit on a title using a male relative, Son of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff would reprise the role that made him famous for the final time. Bela Lugosi would finally make his appearance in a Frankenstein film in the role of Ygor, a broken-necked figure whose combination with the hunchbacked Fritz (Dwight Frye) from the original Universal film would make its own frequently used stock character more commonly known by the spelling Igor. The script would be written by Wyllis Cooper, of whom we shall hear more of in the next article in this series. The 1939 film was successful enough to warrant another sequel, 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, with Lugosi reprising his role as Ygor but with a new actor stepping into Karloff’s hobnail boots. The same actor would try to fill Lugosi’s cape in 1943’s Son of Dracula, though unremarkable at the time it did show much of the same technique from director Robert Siodmak that he would use on his film noir pictures. Son of Dracula does mark in other production aspects a certain paint-by-numbers approach that would mark the Universal films as the 1940s wore on.
In no series was this more pronounced than in the sequels to The Mummy. The Mummy’s Hand in 1940 would be followed in 1942 by The Mummy’s Tomb which would be followed by two films in 1944: The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse. It is also these 1940s efforts that showcase the Mummy character as a shambling, bandage wrapped revenant that would become the iconic look of the character. As well as the commonly mocked limping gait that proceeds at a pace that snails would be embarrassed by. These films also have a curious timeline: Hand being contemporary with its 1940 release, Tomb being set thirty years later (1970), Ghost five years later from that (1975), and finally Curse is set twenty years later. If we take this at face value, when The Mummy’s Curse takes place Bill Clinton is President of the United States, Oasis and Blur are battling it out in the UK singles chart, and the World Wide Web was easily accessible to the general public for the first time. Considering Ghost is explicitly set in Massachusetts, and the plot of Curse abounds with bayous and Cajuns perhaps we should not take these films at face value.
It is perhaps indicative of how tied to the roles of Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were (and, as could be argued, are) that it would be other Universal monsters that saw the most sequels in the 1940s. Alongside The Mummy, The Invisible Man would tie with four sequels. First, The Invisible Man Returns in 1940 would herald one of the heirs of Lugosi and Karloff, featuring Vincent Price taking over the title role as a different character from the one portrayed by Claude Rains. The Invisible Woman would put a comedy spin on the concept, Invisible Agent would see the Invisible Man, alone amongst the Universal monsters, do his part for the War effort and take on the Third Reich, whilst The Invisible Man’s Revenge in 1944 would see even the vaunted special effects of the series become tired. Despite some series becoming tired, Universal also found box office success in 1943 with their Technicolor adaptation of Phantom of the Opera, with Claude Rains taking over the title role from Lon Chaney. Its success was meant to lead to a sequel that was abandoned over script problems and the availability of Rains. Thus leaving the Phantom as one of the few Universal Monsters never to have been played by the son of Lon Chaney.
Creighton Chaney began acting the year following his father’s death, but only started being credited as Lon Chaney Jr. from 1935 onward. Even before signing with Universal and making horror pictures he was seen as a character actor in the same vein as his father. His turn as Lennie in Of Mice and Men won many plaudits in 1939. Universal hired him in 1941, and he appeared in several comedies for the studio before making his first appearance in a Universal horror film. Alone amongst the sequels and remakes of Universal’s 1940s horror output, The Wolf Man was an original script from screenwriter Curt Siodmak. It was actually the second time Universal had produced a werewolf picture, being preceded by the far less successful Werewolf of London in 1935. The werewolf makeup was also far muted in the earlier film, whereas Chaney endured hours in Jack Pierce’s makeup chair to play the title role. Siodmak’s script was the first time silver had been linked to werewolves as a weakness, as well as aspects less duplicated such as being marked by a pentagram. The Wolf Man would be the only Universal Monster to be played by the same actor in all his sequel appearances. Chaney also played the Frankenstein Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, Dracula in Son of Dracula, and the Mummy in all the 1940s sequels. No man spent more time in the makeup chair of Jack Pierce.
However, despite appearing in four more films, the Wolf Man would never receive a standalone sequel the way Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy or the Invisible Man did, being used instead in an entirely different way. It would be these efforts that would spell the end for Universals renewed run in horror films of the 1940s. Dismissed at the time, Universals tactics in the 1940s have gone on to become much more mainstream in the 21st century.
The Wolf Man was the most successful of the 1940s Universal films, so a sequel seemed inevitable. Seemingly bereft of any other ideas, producers pitched a crossover between their most successful new monster of the 1940s with their most successful monster of the 1930s. Universal’s go-to screenwriter of the decade, Curt Siodmak, needed money for a new car and thus Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man entered production. It would not be the last crossover between Universal monsters in their original runs.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man made several liberties with the preceding films. The Wolf Man was seemingly set contemporarily with its 1941 release, though its purported location of a rural Welsh village populated by English Lords with American sons and Eastern European gypsies raises some eyebrows. The Frankenstein series in comparison were set some time in an earlier era, though this was never consistent in those films. Despite this, some care was paid to the storylines of both films. Lawrence Talbot, the Wolf Man, is dead at the beginning of the film only to be brought back to life by some graverobbers. Again, this is meant to be 1940s Wales and that’s a drastic reaction to World War II rationing.
The Ghost of Frankenstein had ended with Ygor’s brain being put into the Monster’s body, which was originally meant to be acknowledged in the film. Since Lugosi was finally playing the Frankenstein Monster in the film, this was a happy coincidence. However, all of the Monster’s dialogue was cut from the final film. You can still see him mouthing silently in some scenes. Since the Monster also ended the preceding film blind, but without the dialogue this is never acknowledged, this is the first film in which the Monster gets his stomping around, arms outstretched gait that would become another stereotype. It is also the first film to use Frankenstein incorrectly in the title, albeit the Wolf Man does meet a Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, granddaughter of Henry.
Two further crossover pictures would follow in 1944 and 1945. House of Frankenstein brought Boris Karloff back to the series, albeit in the mad scientist role of Dr. Gustav Neimann. The Monster was played by Western actor Glenn Strange, who followed Lugosi’s performance in the role. Dracula also joined in the fun, now played by John Carradine. Carradine, like Lugosi in Son of Dracula, reflect Jack Pierce’s original makeup ideas for the character, grey haired and moustachioed. House of Frankenstein never had all the characters active at the same time, with Dracula forming a mid-plot distraction for Neimann and his hunchbacked assistant (J. Carrol Nash) before they find the bodies of the Monster and Talbot where they were left in the prior film. House of Dracula gave audiences more of the same. Dracula was the main antagonist once more, Talbot was cured of his lycanthropy, whilst the Monster was relegated to a thankless lurch around the laboratory in the climax.
House of Dracula was met with a negative response from audiences. That same year, more corporate shenanigans would put additional horror films on hold as Universal Pictures merged with J. Arthur Rank’s International Pictures as Universal International. Among the few actors left on its roster were comedy stars Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Like the Universal Monsters, Abbott and Costello’s popularity was waning, so naturally the first instinct was to put them all together. To its credit, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein manages to balance comedy and horror well. It brought back Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man and had Bela Lugosi reprise his most famous role as Count Dracula for the first time in years. However, it also returns Glenn Strange to the role of the Monster. Boris Karloff refused to even see the film despite publicising it. The original script would have gone beyond Dracula, the Monster, and the Wolf Man. The Mummy, Dracula’s son, and the Invisible Man were all also meant to factor into the plot. In the end, all that remained of those characters was a cameo from the Invisible Man at the end, with Vincent Price reprising the role. In some respects, the film followed James Whale’s approach to Bride of Frankenstein, that if it won’t be better might as well make it a hoot. It kept Abbott and Costello’s stars burning bright, and they’d be placed in similar situations including tussles with the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Boris Karloff.
By the time the 1940s became the 1950s, trends in horror films had moved beyond the Gothic tinged monsters of Universal. It was more science fiction oriented, but that’s a tale for another day. Universal did have one final monster left in them. Creature from the Black Lagoon would be released in 1954 and receive two sequels in later years. The titular Gill-man would be the final entrant in Universal’s stable of classic monsters. It is also the only one whose on-screen design was made by a woman. Milicent Patrick designed the Gill-man and was even booked on a press tour called “The Beauty Who Created the Beast”. However, the jealously of special effects and makeup department head Bud Westmore led to it being redubbed “The Beauty Who Lives With the Best”. Then when she arrived back from the press tour, she was told she was fired. Patrick left behind the scenes work and returned to minor acting parts. Starting with Forrest J. Ackerman in the 1970s, fans have sought to see her properly credited for her work in creating an iconic monster design. Her continued career might have produced more iconic designs in special effects and makeup, instead of being a buried success that has only been properly uncovered in recent years.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Universal kept marketing their classic monsters via costumes, models, and a plethora of other tie-ins, long before tie-ins were revolutionised as a money-spinner in 1977 with Star Wars. They would also form the basis for the titles characters on The Munsters in the mid-1960s, which Universal co-produced. In the lead role as Herman Munster, Fred Gwynne would appear with the same iconic makeup that Jack Pierce had pioneered on Boris Karloff a generation prior. They would eventually become genericised as can be seen with the monster cereals of the 1970s. Most famously, Count Chocula, but also Franken Berry, whose food dye in February 1972 caused a minor panic when it would turn children’s faeces pink. Whatever Boris Karloff, Jack Pierce, James Whale, or Mary Shelley for that matter thought about their work the furthest thing from their mind would have been the “Franken Berry Stool”. Universal have tried on multiple occasions to revive these films. Attempts include a 1979 adaptation of Dracula starring Frank Langella, an abandoned remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon in the 1980s, Stephen Sommers’s 1999 action-adventure remake of The Mummy, which via its 2002 spin-off to its sequel kick-started Dwayne Johnson’s acting career, Sommers’s 2004 crossover picture Van Helsing, Joe Jonhston’s troubled 2010 remake of The Wolf Man, as well as Universal’s attempt to start their own cinematic universe in 2014 with Dracula Untold and 2017 with another remake of The Mummy.
Universal was not the only Hollywood studio producing horror films during the 1930s and 1940s. Paramount released Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 and Island of Lost Souls in 1932. Tod Browning remade London After Midnight with Bela Lugosi in 1935 for MGM under the title Mark of the Vampire. Val Lewton produced nine horror films for RKO in the 1940s, several featuring Boris Karloff and even one (The Body Snatcher) bringing together Karloff and Lugosi against the backdrop of Edinburgh’s West Port murders. However, none occupy the same space in the popular consciousness as the efforts from Universal. Save one exception from RKO, but the biggest monster movie of the 1930s will be discussed another day.
This series has so far covered horror fiction in both literary and cinematic form. These will continue to dominate the content covered but next time we shall take a look at another medium, a new medium that brought horror to the masses on a regular basis in their own homes. The steppingstone between the pulp magazines and their film or television adaptations. In our next article we shall look at radio and other audio forms of horror. When we next return to film, we’ll take a look at the films that supplanted the Classic Monsters on the big screen in the 1950s, both in the United States and in another country across the sea.
Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP