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Marvel studios are often credited with the creation, or at least popularisation of the ‘Cinematic Universe’ craze that has caught on in recent years, and with the release of this month’s Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, Warner Bros’ and Legendary Pictures’ Monsterverse is getting a lot of attention.
So why isn’t more recognition being given to the original monsterverse (and the original cinematic universe): The classic Universal Monsters?
In 1931, under the watch of Carl Laemmle Jr., the original run of Universal Monster films began with Tod Browning’s Dracula starring Bela Lugosi, followed shortly afterwards by James Whale’s Frankenstein (also 1931) starring Boris Karloff. The massive success of Whale’s Frankenstein led to Universal having him direct Hollywood’s first great sequel, and the first ever major horror sequel; Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As with some of today’s popular cinematic universes (most notably Marvel’s MCU), the Universal Monster films ran in phases, the first of which ended in 1936, shortly after the release of Bride Of Frankenstein.
It would be another three years before the second phase of films emerged with Son Of Frankenstein (1939) but the film that really kicked off this new approach was George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. The film was (seemingly) a conscious effort on Universal’s part to be a more commercially friendly approach to a story similarly told in Werewolf Of London (1935), adding to the lore of lycanthropy and featuring an all-star cast including Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi, as well as the aforementioned Chaney Jr.
The Wolf Man was a massive success, despite opening less than a week after the Pearl Harbour Attacks. This was a turning point for the studio. With the advent of U.S involvement in World War 2, Universal were under pressure to churn out cheap, easy entertainment which audiences would be drawn too, and enlisted Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak to pen Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943). Thus, the third phase of Universal’s Monster series, as well as a seemingly immortal cinematic concept, were born.
After several further sequels 1944 saw the release of House Of Frankenstein, making this series part of a fully-fledged shared universe by allowing the Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster to share the limelight for the first time.
This again was followed by a film with a similar setup, and further stringing along the shared universe idea: House Of Dracula (1945). Lastly, came the ‘Abbot And Costello Meet …’ series of films, with which Universal attempted to remedy a series becoming stale by adding comedic twists (comparable to Marvel with Ant Man or Guardians Of The Galaxy or DC with Shazam!)
These began with Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein (1945), which further unites Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, as well as tying these characters into Universal’s Invisible Man series of films with the 1948 equivalent of a modern day post-credits tease. Vincent Price’s Invisible Man cheekily appears in the closing moments of the film, as Abbott And Costello escape from Frankenstein’s Monster, possibly hinting at the future film Abbott And Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951).
Abbot and Costello further connect the worlds of the Universal Monsters thanks to their adventures in Abbott and Costello Meet The Mummy (1955) and (although its status as canon is HEAVILY debateable) the promotional, live television special: Abbott and Costello Meet The Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954) which aired on the Colgate Comedy Hour.
The original run of Universal Monster films may have died out in the mid to late 1950s. Yet, the studio has never forgotten their ability to capture and entertain audiences. There have been a plethora of merchandising and constant revivals since then including several co-production remakes with Hammer Studios, a 1979 remake of Dracula, An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Monster Squad (1987), The Mummy (1999) and its sequels and The Wolfman (2010).
The studio have even made attempts to return to the shared universe game with the criminally underrated Van Helsing (2004). They also tried to directly attach themselves to the modern Cinematic Universe craze with the so-called ‘Dark Universe’: beginning with Dracula Untold (2013) and continuing with The Mummy (2017) before box-office failure ground those plans to a halt. Blumhouse pictures are reportedly at the helm of a continuing Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe. They are set to produce an Invisible Man picture. Yet, perhaps the new Kaiju ‘Monsterverse’ is set to reign supreme in this game in modern times, as Universal did in the Golden Age of horror.