There’s little doubt that we horror fans are weird. After all, much of the subject matter from the films, books, and comics that we love so much is from the world of the fantastic and the supernatural. In real life, there are not actual werewolves, or vampires (at least immortal ones), or Frankenstein’s monsters walking around. (At least I don’t think they are.)
In a different but still strange way, horror fans enjoy makings lists and categories, almost to the point of obsession. And they’re not just lists with the basic title of “my 10 favorite horror movies.” We put horror into categories and sub-genres, everything from “the best slasher pics” to the “greatest found footage films” to the “best movies dealing with the subject of Satanic worship.” On the surface, this might seem irrational, especially to outsiders, perhaps a sign that there is something wrong with us.
To put your mind at ease, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this desire to create categories and lists of favorites. As long as we’re able to maintain a sense that most of this is not real— that it’s fantasy—and that we should not emulate what we observe on the screen, then it’s really harmless. Finding categories and compartments within any hobby is a natural outgrowth of being passionate about something. For years I’ve been a fan of baseball, and I can tell you with no level of uncertainty that many diehard fans cannot resist the temptation of listing the greatest players, teams, managers, and executives. Baseball fans are forever creating rankings and making lists, to a level that might shock even the most diehard of horror fans.
On a more precise level, why exactly do we as horror fans do this? Why do we spend time creating lists and sub-genres, and ranking movies from top to bottom? First and foremost, it’s an enjoyable practice, it creates conversation, and it stirs debate. Beyond that, I think that I (and many other horror fans) have a basic need to categorize and compartmentalize areas that are of interest. Perhaps it allows us to put some sense of order into a world lacking in logic, one that is full of chaos and craziness, murder and violence.
Along the lines of this list-making obsession, I’m occasionally asked by others, both horror and non-horror fans alike, to put some thought into the classic monsters. Of those monsters, particularly the ones depicted by Universal Studios from the 1930s through the 1950s, which ones do I like best? Which monster is the weakest? Why do some of the classic creatures work better, and instill more fear in us, than some of the others?
In assessing these classic monsters, let me emphasize that I actually like all of them, to some degree or another. They all had something to offer, a hook that made us watch over and over. But like anyone, I do have my preferences. So let’s begin with the classic monsters that I find less interesting and compelling, and then work my way up the ladder to the ones I consider the best.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Of all the Universal films monsters, The Invisible Man, as presented originally through the voice of Claude Rains, may be the most vicious and violent. As his mental illness grows due to the effects of the invisibility formula he digested, Rains’ character becomes more vindictive and sadistic, even more so than a vampire or a werewolf. In terms of sheer numbers, he murders far more victims than most of the other studio monsters.
Yet, when a monster cannot be seen, except for a brief glimpse at the end of the film, the creative imagery that makes monster movies so attractive to me is somewhat lost. We only know that The Invisible Man is there because of his voice, or when he is clothed, thus giving us a framework for his unseen physical form. When he doesn’t speak, when he wears nothing, we have no sense of his vicious tendencies or the glee that he seems to take from killing.
It’s true that the unseen can still be frightening and terrifying, particularly in real life, but the lack of a visual component on film takes away the ugliness and the deformity that we associate with monsters. It’s simply the price that has to be paid with a creature whose power is vested in his invisibility.
The Mummy (1932)
On the surface, the mummified creature that Boris Karloff unveiled in the original film was quite frightening and terrifying. With his facial features wrinkled by horrible creases and his wrappings in tatters, The Mummy takes on the look of an ancient, soulless creature that is far removed from humanity.
But there are problems with The Mummy. He moves slowly, oh so slowly, to the point that he is even more deliberate than most of the zombies that we see in films like Night of the Living Dead or current shows like “The Walking Dead”. Without the ability to move faster, he loses much of his threatening quality. As long as a victim can find an open space and walk at a decent clip, The Mummy can be avoided. Furthermore, The Mummy does not speak, at least when he is fully transformed into a mummified creature. He cannot intimidate or coerce with his voice, like The Invisible Man or Dracula.
Even with these failings, Karloff’s presence elevates the impact of The Mummy. Of all the actors called upon to play the character, Karloff did the most to overcome some of the basic shortcomings that come with a mummified monster who cannot run or speak. His appearance and mannerism alone make The Mummy a worthwhile creature.
The Creature From The Black Lagoon, AKA The Gillman (1954)
In my mind, this 1954 creation is still the most underrated of the Universal monsters, perhaps because of its relatively late arrival on the Hollywood scene. While it’s true that The Creature/The Gillman does not speak or move quickly on land, much like The Mummy, he makes up for those shortfalls with the ability to swim like an Olympian. That is owed to the real-life swimming skills of Ricou Browning, a champion amateur swimmer who handled all of The Gillman’s duties in the water. Of all the images left behind by those black-and-white Universal Studios productions, the underwater scenes in which The Gillman pursues his victims remain some of the most beautifully photographed scenes in horror history.
Another real strength of The Creature is his physical appearance—a form-fitting rubberized costume that was made by either Bud Westmore’s assistants or Milicent Patrick. (That remains a subject of some debate, perhaps fodder for a future article.) While many bodysuits don’t work on film because they lack detail and look all too fake in close-ups, The Creature’s outfit remains the standard bearer of excellence. The facial features are frightening, in part because of the level of detail. And even on land, with the costume filled by the muscular Ben Chapman, The Creature moves in a natural, flowing way while showing off his size and strength.
In summary, The Creature is a legendary monster that hasn’t received its full due. It’s a shame that no additional films involving The Creature have been made since the three movies that were produced during the 1950s. Perhaps Universal will get around to correcting that in the aftermath of the success of the new Invisible Man.
The Wolf Man (1941)
This is another underrated monster, one that Lon Chaney, Jr. honed to near perfection. In playing The Wolf Man on repeated occasions for Universal, the younger Chaney actually handled dual roles: the werewolf itself and the human character of Larry Talbot. Chaney gave Talbot a sense of forlorn torment, making us feel sympathy for a man who felt that he was doomed to a cursed life. Once fitted with his extensive makeup by the extraordinary Jack Pierce, Chaney made The Wolf Man boldly vicious and relentless in his pursuit of victims.
Chaney’s Wolf Man also proved consistent; he never gave a subpar performance in playing the monster, first in the original film and then in all of the follow-ups, including Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In becoming the signature role for Chaney, The Wolf Man deserves its place among the top three of Universal monsters.
The famed vampire was the first of the monsters that Universal showcased during the start of the talking era, and he remains near the top of the list. After all, vampires are fascinating creatures, in large part because they are defined by such intricate laws: they can only come out at night, must sleep in a coffin filled with earthly soil, and are susceptible to crosses and other instruments of holy men. Some of these rules change from film to film, but they create boundaries that make vampires mysterious, but also vulnerable.
After being introduced by Bram Stoker in his 1897 novel, and then reintroduced by the silent production of Nosferatu, the character moved on to a higher stature through the work of Bela Lugosi. He played Dracula only twice on film—in the 1931 original and in the 1948 film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but Lugosi tackled the role numerous times in the theater, thus perfecting the role by which all other Draculas have been judged. The stare, the slow-motion delivery of his words, the Hungarian accent, the creepy mannerisms, and the slicked-back hair all make Lugosi’s Dracula the epitome of a frightful vampire.
Lugosi’s performance as Dracula carries the 1931 film. So why doesn’t Dracula rate the No. 1 position on my list? Sadly, the mediocre quality of the 1931 movie takes Dracula down a notch. With its choppy editing, lack of special effects, and sometimes incoherent storyline, Dracula is simply not that great a film. Lugosi’s effort makes it an important part of history, but the movie is so mediocre that it prevents the character from becoming even more compelling. If only the 1931 film had been as entertaining as its 1948 counterpart, the far more well-produced horror/comedy starring Lugosi, Chaney, Abbott and Costello.
With Dracula falling just short, that leaves the top spot to the character of Frankenstein’s Monster, which was not only memorable in the original 1931 film but remained at a high level in the two immediate sequels, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein. Karloff handled the role each time, making him the master when it came to playing The Monster.
In truth, Frankenstein’s Monster does have flaws similar to some of the other creatures listed here. He does not speak (except for his role in The Bride) and moves very slowly. Additionally, he is not very intelligent, thanks mostly to the demented brain that was accidentally provided by Dwight Frye’s hunchback. But for me, Frankenstein’s appearance epitomizes what a revolting monster should look like: unusually tall and bulky, with that flattened head, a jagged scar, deep-set eyes, electrical bolts protruding from his neck, and a snarled facial expression of almost constant anger.
The idea that a creature could be created from the body parts of various corpses is truly horrific, yet it seems in some ways more likely than the existence of vampires or werewolves. Those two factors also contribute to Frankenstein’s Monster being at the top of our list.
So there you have it: Frankenstein at No. 1, followed by Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Gillman, with The Mummy and The Invisible Man residing in the dungeon. So what do you think? Which of the Universal Studios monsters is your favorite? There’s no right answer, of course, but lots of room for a good argument.
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