Monster Family Pedigree

(Pictured above: Boris Karloff in ‘Frankenstein’ from Universal. Source: Needpix)

Looking for classic chills this Halloween? Try streaming the Universal monsters.

During my formative years, the days of VHF channels and rabbit ears, I devoured the Universal Pictures classic monster movie franchise. In the New York metro area,  WPIX Channel 11’s Chiller Theater and WOR Channel 9’s Million Dollar Movie offered a regular menu of Universal fare starring such iconic monsters as Frankenstein, Wolfman and Dracula. Sure, those classic characters have appeared in countless remakes over the years with increasingly impressive special effects. But the Universal originals –  produced between 1931 and 1948 – have monster pedigree. I have an idée fixe about these monsters, an almost familial relationship with them, and the actors who brought them to, uh, life?

Fortunately, in the streaming age, the Universal greats are readily available for viewing. They can be rented on sites such as Vudu and Fandango, typically for $2.99 SD/$3.99 HD. (Click the individual movie links for rental options.)

How best to binge on the Universal family of monster classics? Genealogically, of course.

Putting aside Universal’s The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933) and siloed off-shoots such as Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Dracula (1943), let’s go monster by monster.

Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Universal "monster" Dracula
(Above source: Wikimedia)

The monster saga starts with Bela Lugosi (pictured left) in Dracula (1931) and ends with House of Dracula (1945). Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), an excellent blend of comedy and horror, enabled a Universal family reunion. It featured a 68-year Lugosi’s Dracula, Lon Chaney Jr.’s fifth outing as the Wolf Man, and Glenn Strange in his third and final muted, lumbering performance as the Frankenstein monster.

It’s hard to believe, but Lugosi was Dracula just twice, both times for Universal. When Dracula returned to the Universal series in House of Frankenstein (1944), John Carradine played the Count.

Frankenstein

Boris Karloff as Universal classic monster Frankenstein
(Above source: Wikimedia)

Boris Karloff (right) was the monster in three films: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Son of Frankenstein begat Chaney in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), followed by Lugosi in the role in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), and Strange in three more sequels.

Arguably, director James Whale’s Bride sequel stands out as the most satisfying and engaging of the series. The sweet comic swan song, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, is a close second. In fact, Bride feels like a fully formed part two, with superior special effects and a wondrous score by Franz Waxman.

Elsa Lanchester in Universal's Bride of Frankenstein
(Above source: Wikimedia)

The performances in Bride are top-notch. Ernst Thesiger’s Dr Pretorius, Henry Frankenstein’s manipulative colleague, is delicious. (“Take your hand off that lever – you’ll blow us all to atoms!”) Elsa Lanchester’s (left) brief screen time as the bride (choosing swan hisses and screams to voice her character), made her famous.

Reportedly, Karloff was unhappy voicing the monster with fundamental speech. In Bride, the monster learns language through human interaction with a kind, blind hermit, but also through mistreatment as a horrifying, social outcast. When Karloff made his final appearance, the monster was again mute, and remained so for the rest of the Universal sequels, with one notable exception.

In The Ghost of Frankenstein, when Ygor’s brain is transplanted into the creature’s skull, the monster speaks with a Romanian accent. That’s because Lugosi played Ygor.

The Wolfman

Lon Chaney Jr as classic Universal monster Wolfman
(Source: Wikimedia)

Lon Chaney Jr. (right) risked typecasting for his fine performance as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939). Then came The Wolf Man (1941). Finally, junior was the kind of monster his father, Lon Chaney Sr., always wanted him to be.

As the Wolfman, Chaney was the suffering Larry Talbot, forever searching for a Lycanthropy cure. The original was very well made, thoughtful and atmospheric.  With Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, however, Chaney became simply another player in Universal’s monster factory.

Side note: Franky goes blind at the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein. In the script for the next film, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, the monster was to be brought back sightless. That’s the way Lugosi, now the monster, played him. That little plot point, however, was left on the cutting room floor, rendering Lugosi’s performance inexplicably hammy and affected. Still, Lugosi’s outreached arms became the template for the Glenn Strange portrayals.

Monster Intermarriage

The intermarriage of franchises is not unusual (think Marvel). It can, however, be confusing.

Below is a graphical representation of the Universal monster family tree. It shows when one monster rudely crashed the franchise of another:

classic Universal monsters family tree

(The preceding is an updated version of a previously published article.)

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Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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