The Original Shared Universe: A Look Back At the Universal Monsters

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Everybody’s doing it. Shared universes, I mean. It’s the ‘In’ thing to do these days. Disney, Fox and Warner Bros are doing it with their comic book characters. Transformers, Ghostbusters and Robin Hood are planning to do it with their franchises. And so are the revamped Universal Monsters. It already started with Dracula Untold, and others are to follow. Of course, it’s not the first time the Universal Monsters shared the screen together.

And that brings us to the point of this article. Since it’s Halloween time, we get into the spooky spirit of the season as Cinelinx looks back at the one that started it all…the shared universe of monsters from Universal Studios back in the 1930s-40s. That groundbreaking cross-over series lasted 17 years and consisted of (appropriately) 13 interconnected movies. (Dracula, Daughter of Dracula, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, the Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, and the Return of the Invisible Man.) How does the original shared universe stack up to Marvel, DC and the newer studio crossovers?

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Give credit where credit is due. Whatever you may think of old movies, black-and-white films and 1930s monster movies, you have to give props to Universal for pioneering a gimmick that is still being widely copied today. Even if you’re one of those people who think old movies are terrible, give them their due. Fair is fair. What Marvel is doing so well today was done first, before black-and-white films were even invented.

Universal stared its monster franchises with the hit film Dracula in 1931, starring Bela Lugosi, spawning a Dracula-less sequel called the Daughter of Dracula. On the heels of the success of Dracula, Frankenstein (1932) was released, becoming even more successful than Dracula. This film also began the long career of Boris Karloff as the King of Hollywood Horror. This franchise ran for years, leading to many sequels. Other monsters appeared, such as the Wolf Man, The Mummy and the Invisible Man. Universal was making money claw-over-fist in the 1930s with these guys.

By the early 1940s, the monster movie fad was winding down (The real-life horror of World War Two had a lot to do with the fact that people were abandoning horror films in favor of comedies, starring people like Abbott & Costello) so Universal needed to do something new and unique to get people back into those theater seats. Their answer—the first shared movie universe ever!

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The crossovers began in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which was a major success. After that came the ‘House’ movies, which united the top-three Universal monsters, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein Monsters for the first time. Back then, it was a bold, unprecedented move to combine three franchises together as one. The First was the House of Frankenstein.

Fun fact…the original script included The Mummy as well, but the studio big shots felt that the script was too muddled and crowed, and so decided to drop the least popular of the trio, which was the poor Mummy. Sorry Karis. (Looking back at the film today, it’s hard to see where exactly the Mummy would have fit into that particular plot.) Perhaps they were right to do so, because the film seemed to have a hard time giving sufficient screen time to the trio of monsters they utilized. The film focused mostly on the Wolf Man (played by Lon Chaney) with the Frankenstein Monster reduced to a plot MacGuffin, and Dracula (John Carradine) limited to little more than an extended guest appearance during the middle section of the film. (To be fair, uneven dispersal of characters is a problem in super hero films as well. the X-Men films focus mostly on Wolverine, and the Avengers films centered on Iron Man.) The presence of Boris Karloff as a mad scientist helped make up for the lack of screen time for Drac and Frankie.

Despite the uneven use of the main monsters, the film was –dare I say it—a monster hit! This led to the second of a planned trio of ‘House’ films, namely the House of Dracula (1945) which recruited the same threesome of monsters. (Once again, no room for the Mummy.) This film suffered the same problem as the previous one, although this time it was Dracula (Carradine) who was the central ghoul and the Wolf Man (Chaney) only transforming once in the entire film. And again, the Frankenstein Monster was nothing but a prop. The scientist Dr. Edelmann actually got more screen time than all three monsters together. There were a lot of flaws here.

This film not only disappointed fans but the studio as well, since it underperformed. This ended the ‘House’ series before the third entry (the planned ‘House of the Wolf Man’) could materialize.  With their horror cash cows fading and audience interest waning in favor of bright comedies, what could a studio that specialized in monsters do? What else but make a monster comedy.

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Universal was fortunate to have the popular duo of Abbott & Costello signed to a contract. They were the biggest comedy act of their day, and so universal decided to hitch the monsters to the comedy team and see if they could get one last box office bonanza out of their three beasties.

The tactic worked. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) was a box office smash, becoming the biggest hit ever for the red hot Abbott & Costello, and giving a big final screen farewell to the featured creatures of Wolfman, Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Trivia note…this film was the second and final time that Bela Lugosi would ever play Count Dracula. One other little extra Easter Egg that this film tossed in was a cameo by horror icon Vincent Price reprising his role as the Invisible Man. Price had played the Invisible Man in the Return of the Invisible Man (1940.) This movie is arguably the greatest horror parody ever made. (With all due respect to Young Frankenstein and Shawn of the Dead.) And so, after 17 years, the first shared universe ended on a high note.    

how shared movie universes are hurting superhero films

With all that said, how does the original horror cross-franchise series stand up to the modern ones, such as the MCU? Well, one major difference between the universal franchise and the Marvel one is that there was no real overall story arc in the old monster films.  There was no equivalent of Thanos, the Infinity Stones or SHIELD. The monster movies were more episodic, picking up the thread of the previous film and making up the story as they went along. Abbott & Costello were never part of the studio’s original intentions for the monsters. In one sense, that’s a good thing, because it helps build a strong sense of continuity and familiarity; but in another way, the mandatory interconnectedness of the MC sometimes weighs down their films with foreshadowing subplots. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a good example of that, since 60% of the film played out like various coming attractions trailers for future Marvel films. 

The MCU is still relatively new, having started essentially in 2008 with Iron Man. That’s only about half the time that the Universal franchise was around, but it’s already done 12 films, with a dozen more announced for the next 4 years. When all is said and done, it’ll probably end up triple the size of the Universal universe, but then again, at the rate its going, Marvel is risking overexposure and public backlash, especially with Fox and Warner Bros also doing their own super-verses.

While the Marvel films, as well as DC’s Man of Steel, are massive profit machines, are they of classic caliber? Frankenstein has been cited by the AFI and many film critics as one of the seminal classics of all time, as well as one of the most influential. Will any MCU or X-Men film, or Man of Steel, be remembered with that kind of honor decades from now? We’ll see.

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It honestly has to be said that the classic films were more daring for their era. Despite the fact that they weren’t allowed to use profanity, nudity or blood, the directors slipped in lots of things that were taboo at the time. For instance, the Bride of Frankenstein was filled with hints of homosexuality and necrophilia that completely went over the heads of the censors, editors, studio heads and critics of the day.     

Both universes have had their big hits, and their flops. They both adopt a variety of styles, aside from just horror and action, even delving occasionally into comedy (Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein). Both incorporate iconic characters. Both have immortal princes (Dracula and Thor), tragic figures who transform into monsters (Wolf Man and Hulk), man-made-beings (Frankenstein, the Vision), guys who got their powers from weird experiments (Invisible Man, Captain America), vengeful villains with weird accents (Ygor, Whiplash) and numerous evil scientists.

In retrospect, the old Universal horror films hold up very well against the modern shared universes. So in honor of Halloween, let’s give the proper respect to the grandfather of all shared universes and enjoy their cinematic influence on modern cinema.