Universal Studios made a name for themselves in silent horror, including several groundbreaking films with Lon Chaney, Sr., the legendary Man of a Thousand Faces. Their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera stood alone; the producers had no interest in a shared world of horror. Only with the success of their early gothic "talkie," Tod Browning's Dracula, did a recognizable "world" of classic movie monsters begin to take shape. The films, for the most part, take place in a fogbound, mythic Europe, filled with gnarled trees, torch-bearing peasants, and silver screen melodrama. The histrionic acting and cheesy special effects seem dated now, but the films have a lasting appeal, and their iconic characters continue to sell videos, posters, masks, toys, action figures, models, and other paraphernalia.
The idea that the films composed a story cycle only gradually emerged, and the series is wracked with continuity errors. Prior to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, it seems as though Universal intended each movie to be the last. Consequently, they told the story for dramatic effect and did not worry if the ending precluded the possibility of a character returning or a setting being accessible. When profits suggested a sequel was a good idea, they simply ignored those aspects of the previous film that proved inconvenient. People die and come back to life between films and Castle Frankenstein is destroyed and rebuilt and redesigned continually, all the while remaining the ancient ancestral home of the Frankensteins. A supernatural world, indeed!
Many of these films have been (or soon will be) noded in greater detail. The purpose here is to provide an overview of the entire series. Expect spoilers if you read further.
The film still works fairly well, and reflects an era when the horror movie was sold and played seriously and moodily and without the benefit of multi-million-dollar effects. The tone can be melodramatic and the dialogue somewhat hokey, but these things reflect both traditional gothic fiction and Hollywood's Golden Age. Dwight Frye's Renfield and Bela Lugosi's aristocratic Count still impress, and allow me to overlook the fake bat effects and the armadillos that, inexplicably, play the part of rats in Castle Dracula.
The success of this film spawned Universal's classic monster series, though Dracula would play second fiddle to a man-made Monster.
Dracula's Daughter (1936)
This film opens with the Count's daughter (Gloria Holden) stealing her father's body and presiding over his funeral pyre. (Only later will it be established that a staked vamp poofs into dust, negating the need for a pyre). Edward Van Sloane appears again as Van Helsing, picking up immediately after the events of 1931. He faces consequences for killing what all of London assumed was an ordinary man, and enlists the help of a high-living psychiatrist (Otto Krueger) and his heiress assistant (Marguerite Churchill), who behave like refugees from a period romantic comedy. One wonders where the various characters are who could corroborate Van Helsing's account. Nevertheless, this is a fairly stylish, moody period piece which in some respects works better than its predecessor.
The film ends somewhat hurriedly, back in Transylvania, which has transformed from the Slavic setting of Dracula into the Germanic neverland of the Frankenstein films.
Many elements of later vampire pictures appear here: the hypnotic ring, a very goth Countess and servant, sexual subtext (including a scene with vaguely lesbian connotations), and a vampire who seeks redemption.
Dracula would rise again, but his daughter made only this appearance.
Son of Dracula (1943)
Lon Chaney Jr. plays either the original count or one of his descendants, alive and transplanted to Louisiana, no doubt anticipating New Orleans' ascendancy over Transylvania as Vampire Central, courtesy of Anne Rice. The film works fairly well on its own merits. Some of the acting is stake-wooden, but we get effective camerawork and shots. The vampires plot and counter-plot with appropriate ruthlessness, and they use their supernatural powers to good advantage.
We also learn that Universal's vampires don't like to be called vampires. "Don't say that word," says one. "We don't like it. Say rather that we are... Undead."
Fitting this film into continuity is problematic. If Alucard is a descendant of the original Dracula, as the title and some of the dialogue suggest, then we have no serious problem, although the film claims the original Count was destroyed in the late nineteenth century, as depicted in Bram Stoker's novel, rather than in the 1930s, as shown in the film. If he is Dracula himself, we have to deal with the fact that the character died in the original film, remained dead in the sequel, and is revived in Europe in House of Frankenstein.
Apple films produced a very strange remake, many years later.
This enjoyable adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic novel, directed by James Whale, features some hammy acting, and tampers significantly with the source material. Nevertheless, Boris Karloff's performance and expressive face, made up by Jack Pierce, produced the definitive pop-culture image of the Frankenstein Monster.
This film, and those which followed, created the look and feel of the classic horror films of the era: shadows creeping over insanely-angled castle walls, lightning arcing from cannibalized machine parts, fog drifting across studio forests. By Ghost of Frankenstein, the iconography will be so well-established that the opening credits will appear over a pan of the standard Monster Movie forest, and we will know immediately what sort of film we're watching.
The era remains unclear, a point which will be addressed later. Costumes mix contemporary 1930s, Victorian, and German folk outfits. Frankenstein uses electricity, but cars appear nowhere in the charming Teutonic village of Oldstadt.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
A superior sequel, the film features many memorable scenes, including the Monster's touching encounter with a blind hermit. It's also lightened with the touches of humour that would increasingly alter the mood of the series. The producers maintained continuity with the first film; Karloff's make-up was even altered, slightly, to display the damage done by the fire that supposedly killed the Monster at the end of Frankenstein. He's even given a plausible escape, something later films will ignore. Elizabeth, Frankenstein's fiancee, has de-aged somewhat; 17-year-old Valerie Hobson now plays the role.
The lab has been redesigned, but one supposes Dr. Frankenstein may have renovated. Everything, in fact, is bigger and better, as director James Whale had a substantial budget with which to work. We see more equipment, more elaborate, stylized countryside, and a greater number of torch-bearing residents from the quaint village, now called Goldstadt.
An explosion destroys the lab and castle in the finale. Henry and Elizabeth Frankenstein escape.
Son of Frankenstein (1938)
Bride ended with the utter demolition of Castle Frankenstein; Son shows the ancient home of the family not only intact, but larger than it had been in either film. It's also less-crowded: the crazy stone walls have been replaced by vast, underfurnished rooms. Basil Rathbone stars as the next generation of the family. He and his family (including a hideously precocious little boy, a male Shirley Temple who speaks as though he's holding marbles in his mouth) must face the prejudice of villagers, who feel cursed because of the Frankenstein legacy. This may be understandable, but it leaves us wondering why they changed the village name to Frankenstein.
Karloff plays the monster for the last time; this film gives him little to do, and the film's real star is Bela Lugosi. The former Count makes his first appearance as Ygor, a character often confused with "Fritz," Baron Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant in the first film.
The studio takes some literary license with the era. More than twenty years have passed since Bride, yet we remain, seemingly, in the same era. Benson the Butler's watch was, however, given to him by his father in 1901, suggesting we may be in 1938, though in a somewhat backwards backwater.
The Monster gets knocked into a pit of sulphur as the lab once again collapses. There is no way he's surviving that.... Right?
Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Ygor, definitively killed in Son, remains at large. Frankenstein's hitherto unmentioned second son inherits the lumbering Monster. Ygor chips the monster out of the now-dried sulphur, and finds it undamaged, save that it now resembles Lon Chaney, Jr. The sheepskin coat it wore in Son has somehow become the more familiar clothing it had worn in the first two films.
Basil Rathbone does not appear in this film and instead, Cedric Hardwicke plays the problematic second son of Dr. Frankenstein. The time appears to be soon after Son..., though this son is older than Rathbone's character, and has a young adult daughter. As in the previous movies, the era remains vague. People wear a mix of contemporary and German folk clothing; they ride horses rather than drive cars.
Ygor has his brain transplanted in the Monster's body. "I Ygor, will live forever!" he exclaims, his voice having made the move with his brain. Unfortunately, he goes blind; he and his creator die in an explosive fire.
The Wolf Man (1941)
Lon Chaney Jr. confronts the curse of lycanthropy; he definitively dies at the movie's end, shot by a silver bullet.
Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (1942)
At the end of Ghost, Ygor's brain had been transplanted in the Monster's head, so it's not surprising that Bela Lugosi should now play Frankenstein's creation. Despite the ending of the previous film, the Monster is once again a lumbering dummy who, after being burned alive yet again, shows no signs of physical damage; even his suit remains intact.
Lugosi had spoken in the first version of the film, but test audiences could not take seriously a monster with Bela Lugosi's distinctive accent, and speaking scenes were cut. This leads to a very choppily-edited second half, and one scene where the Monster clearly mouths dialogue which has been muted. Lugosi also had been directed to play the scenes "blind," and he walks with his arms stretched in front of him. Since editing removed any direct reference to blindness, we receive no explanation for why he appears to be feeling his way through the darkness. This odd walk has now become a part of the Universal Frankenstein package. Ask someone to picture the Frankenstein Monster and they'll probably imagine a bolt-necked flathead walking with his arms stretched out in front.
Lawrence Talbot, the same werewolf who died in The Wolf Man, finds the Monster, after being revived in a fairly effective first Act. The reason for his revival is unclear, but they certainly attempt continuity with The Wolf Man in many respects.
The castle, inherited by Frankenstein's granddaughter remains a ruin, though partially serviceable. Somehow, the doctor who has pursued Talbot across Europe knows how to repair complex electrical equipment. The village is Valaria, home of Ludwig Frankenstein, the second son from Ghost, but the castle appears to be that of Henry Frankenstein. The setting remains stuck in its original, unspecified era. Perhaps, in the end, this is a fitting setting for a saga that, in its better moments, functions as a kind of faerie tale, set in a world mostly-- but not entirely--like ours.
Monster and lycanthrope supposedly perish in the final disaster which, if he you pay attention to the village layout, should have also wiped out everyone else.
House of Frankenstein (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
Universal let the series die with quickly-made, all-star monster rallies that feature Glenn Strange as the Monster, Chaney as the Wolf Man (once again, returned from the dead), and John Carradine as Dracula. Different hunchbacks appear in each film, and the first features Boris Karloff as a mad scientist.
House of Frankenstein may be the worst of the series, a stitched-together monster of a film with the acting, pacing, and budget of a period serial. The monster plots only tenuously connect; Dracula dies early in the film, the Wolf Man spends more time brooding than prowling, and the Monster lumbers into quicksand moments after being revived. The creatures do not even really meet each other. The finale takes place in the ruins of the castle last seen in the previous film, but it has somehow found its way back to the village of Frankenstein.
Talbot and Dracula return in House of Dracula, again without explanation, despite the number of references to the previous film. The Monster and the skeleton of the previous film's mad scientist have somehow travelled miles underground in the mud, and are found beneath the seaside castle where much of the action takes place. It's an improvement over its predecessor, but not much of an improvement. Once again, the monsters don't really interact, despite a more unified plot. For a change, the hunchbacked assistant is female (Jane Adams), and pure-hearted. The Monster gets a more effective stomping scene, though he once again amounts to a cameo, and anything like an effective ending remains curiously absent.
The film makes several attempts to give semi-scientific explanations for both vampirism and lycanthropy. The former even involves strange parasites in vampiric blood: mitochlorians, anybody?
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Although a comedy, it's as much in chronology as the earlier films, and the monsters, Frankenstein's (Strange), Dracula (Lugosi again), and the Wolf Man (Chaney again-- let this character die in peace!) play their roles straight. Indeed, the film's strength lies in the clash between the comedy duo's hammy shanningans and the Monsters' self-serious horror-acting.
Culturally, the film anticipated a 1950s/1960s Universal Monster revival, mostly among teens, who could watch the old films on television, and their imitations at the Drive-In or a touring Spook Show.
Chaney and Karloff would don their famous outfits once more, in a 1962 Halloween episode of Route 66, "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing." Here, however, the veteran actors, along with Peter Lorre, play themselves playing their old roles as a sort of prank. It's not great television, but it's a somewhat charming epilogue to one of the most influential series in motion picture history.
Soon after, Universal would produce yet another comic epilogue: The Munsters, whose principal characters are supposed to be a creation of Dr. Frankenstein, Dracula himself, and his daughter.
Note: Although created by Universal Studios, The Creature from the Black Lagoon never interacted with their other famous monsters-- or so, for years, I thought. It turns out that a 1953 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour reunited Bud and Lou with the Frankenstein Monster. The sketch's blackout gag features Lou Costello menaced unexpectedly by the Creature. The sketch may be found on Youtube.