Universal Monsters or Universal Horror is a phrase used to describe the series of horror, suspense and science fiction films made by Universal Studios during the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s. The series began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, both silent films starring Lon Chaney. Universal continued with talkies including monster franchises Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. The films often featured Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr.
In 1931, Bela Lugosi starred in Universal’s Dracula and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Actors Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan, who played major supporting roles in both films, made several film appearances in this decade. Make-up artist Jack Pierce created several monsters’ make-up starting in the 1930s.
The Mummy, starring Karloff, was produced in 1932. This was followed by a trilogy of films based on the tales of Edgar Allan Poe: Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) starring Lugosi, The Black Cat (1934), and The Raven (1935), the latter two of which teamed Lugosi with Karloff. Universal began releasing sequels including Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and sequels for The Invisible Man (1933).
The end of Universal’s first run of horror films came in 1936. The monster movies were dropped from the production schedule altogether and would not re-emerge for another three years. In the meantime, a theatre owner revived Dracula and Frankenstein as a double feature, prompting the studio to re-release the original movies. Son of Frankenstein (1939) starring Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi was released.
During the 1940s, Universal released The Wolf Man (1941), with Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney became the studio’s leading monster movie actor in the 1940s, just as his father had been two decades earlier, supplanting the 1930s’ Karloff and Lugosi by a wide margin in terms of the number of leading roles that he played.
The Frankenstein and Wolf Man series continued with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), in which Chaney, Jr. played Frankenstein’s monster, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) with Lugosi as the Frankenstein monster and Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. Son of Dracula (1943) featured Chaney, Jr. in Lugosi’s original role as the Count. The Mummy series was also continued with The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse (both 1944). House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), featured many of the monsters from the studio’s previous films. As the decade drew to a close, the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), with Lugosi in his second movie as Dracula, starring alongside Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot (the Wolf Man), and Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster.
Abbott and Costello appeared in films featuring characters such as the Mummy and the Invisible Man.
Creature from the Black Lagoon, directed by Jack Arnold, was released in 1954. Dracula and Frankenstein were re-released as double features in theatres, and were later broadcast in syndication on American television in 1957 as part of the Shock Theater package of Universal Monster Movies. Magazines such as Famous Monsters of Filmland covered the monster films. Universal spent the last half of the decade issuing a number of one-shot monster films.