Universal Monster Movies: A Brief Overview


The Real Scene Is Around The Silver Screen.

It’s not that Universal was the only production company making monster movies in the 1920’s.  But when you have Lon Chaney on your crew, your movie is just a little bit better than the rest, and a little more fondly remembered.  Lon was not only an effects genius who understood the world of filmmaking better than most actors, but through a twist of fate Universal was also getting some pretty incredible properties when it came to their films: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of The Opera.  It was very clear to all the heavy hitters in Hollywood then that, by the end of the decade, Universal had made a name for themselves as the place to deliver actual, terrifying horror, with good acting and believable effects that blew everyone else away.  Their moody period pieces could really evoke the right kind of atmosphere for these stories that originated in the decades previous, steeped in nostalgia before audiences had even seen them.  And, for the few misses they released, even a few well-timed scares and schlocky effects could draw in late night crowds.  As other companies churned out no-name characters filmed by Z-level directors, it didn’t take being that much better than the rest for Universal to quietly take home the entire Fall movie box office.

856-deporting-dracula_1In the ’30’s, they scored huge in securing Dracula and Frankenstein as properties, and getting Bela LegosiBoris Karloff ,& Basil Rathbone in their roster set them off to the races.  Universal’s reputation not only led to quality actors, directors and special effects artists wanting to work for the company, but innumerable revival showings of films that were even only a few years old proved that huge crowds turned out, even for something they remembered from the past.  More franchises began to develop as they continued to find new scary works to mine: The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon.  Pretty soon their horror films were doing better than their other projects.  Not much, but enough for board members to care a little more about monsters than they ever had before.

1024px-Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)Throughout the 1940’s Universal kept up this high level of monster movie production, largely aided by the addition of two key actors: Lon Chaney Jr. & John Carradine, not to mention the monster-prone comedy duo of Abbot & Costello, though many other folks drifted through their studios, too.  As sequels and new properties began to pile up, it seemed as if Universal was on their way to maintaining that top position as a monster movie production house.

As the ’50’s started, Universal began to integrate Sci-Fi stories with their monster-de-jour scripts, and with their new comedic horror films, they were poised to move their success into other genres.  They even hired a separate company to handle the Television broadcast rights, and closed out the decade by selling the Shock Theater! & Son of Shock packages to most television stations.  Magazines began to pop up dedicated to their films, and horror junkies began to develop as the access to these films began to increase.

mummy-universalAnd, in a way, it was the new media that killed Universal’s stranglehold on the genre as time wore on.  Famous Monsters of Filmland published so often that they would cover almost any half-decent monster movie, regardless of the company that released the film, moving Universal from first position to just another production house.  Other companies were selling their films to TV as well, and now people could stay home on the weekends, pop some corn, and sit down to a double-feature of horror films while the viewer lounged around in their PJs.  This reduced the number of people attending midnight showings, making the audience that showed up to see Universal Pictures smaller as well.  This, on the heels of the breakdown of the Studio System in the late ’40’s, seemed to be the last nail in the coffin of a Hollywood where studios were associated with certain genres.  From now on, any studio could release any kind of movie, eliminating the genre stranglehold.  Now, in spite of your reputation, the movie actually had to be good.

For a while Universal backed off of the monster-heavy fare, and began to develop other genres and franchises they could work with in other areas.  The ’60s saw a huge slowdown, and then the ’70’s saw them dip their toes back into the water.  While Universal never stopped making monster movies, it was clear that their “Golden Age” was well behind them, and now anything they released was just another film among a sea of other releases.

In 2015, not only does Universal have an entire set of launch-dates for new entries into their ever-expanding cannon of films, a few of them are also Horror, featuring these old characters that are so well loved.  More importantly, the idea of “classic” Universal monsters has also become a point of nostalgia itself.  This has a lot to do with tradition: since the ’20’s, theaters have gone in for revival showings every so often, introducing a whole new batch of kids and adults to the films.  (See also the Shock Theater effect.)  In a way, more than the characters and the films, Universal discovered nearly instantaneous nostalgia, where the first exposure to something that started out old immediately makes you want to see more old scary movies to sate the need for “classic” horror.

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