The History of Classic Universal Monsters Movies

Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man in Classic Films

Dracula
Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler in 'Dracula', 1931, movie directed by Tod Browning for Universal.

Universal Pictures

 

The most dominant imagery of classic horror monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man in popular culture exists because of Universal Pictures, which released many highly-regarded, popular, and influential movies featuring classic monsters in the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s.

The following is a timeline of the major releases from Universal during this productive period of classic monster movies.

Before 1931

In the 1920s, Universal released several silent horror films. Most notably are two that starred Lon Chaney, an actor whose proficient use of makeup earned him the nickname "The Man of a Thousand Faces." Chaney stars in 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1925's The Phantom of the Opera (the latter was one of the earliest movies to utilize Technicolor). A 1930 re-release of The Phantom of the Opera with sound added was such a significant box office success that Universal decided to move forward with more horror films.

Phantom of the Opera
American actors Lon Chaney Sr. and Mary Philbin on the set of The Phantom of the Opera, based on the novel by Gaston Leroux and directed by Rupert Julian. Universal Pictures

1931

February: Universal releases Dracula starring Hungarian-American stage actor Bela Lugosi as the title character and directed by Tod Browning. Lugosi's otherworldly portrayal of the vampire helped make Dracula a box office success and Universal's top-earning film of 1931.

April: A Spanish-language version of Dracula, filmed at the same time as the English version, is released.

November: Universal releases Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster and directed by James Whale. Like Dracula, it is another significant box office success.

1932

December: Universal releases The Mummy starring Boris Karloff as Imhotep, an ancient Egyptian priest whose body is reanimated. While the marketing for the film promoted Karloff as a bandaged-up mummy, he only appears like that briefly in the film.

1933

November: Universal releases The Invisible Man, starring Claude Rains as the titular character. It was directed by Frankenstein director James Whale.

Bride of Frankenstein
Elsa Lanchester And Boris Karloff In 'Bride Of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester reacts as Boris Karloff grabs her hand in a scene from the film 'Bride Of Frankenstein', 1935. Universal Pictures

1935

April: Whale and Karloff reunite for the sequel Bride of Frankenstein, considered by many critics to be the best of Universal's Classic Monsters movies. It also stars Elsa Lanchester as both Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and the titular Bride.

May: Universal releases Werewolf of London, an early attempt at creating a werewolf movie that does poorly at the box office.

1936

May: Universal releases a sequel to Dracula, Dracula's Daughter. Lugosi doesn't return and the film stars Gloria Holden as the daughter of Dracula.

1939

January: After the continued success of Universal's original Dracula and Frankenstein movies when re-released to theaters, Karloff returns to his most famous role in Son of Frankenstein with Lugosi playing the lab assistant Ygor. The resulting box office success led to Universal investing more money into its "creature features."

1940

January: Universal releases The Invisible Man Returns starring Vincent Price as a new Invisible Man in the actor's first-ever horror role.

September: Universal reboots its Mummy series with The Mummy's Hand, a new take on the 1932 film featuring a new mummy, Kharis, covered in bandages.

December: Universal goes for a comedic spin in The Invisible Woman, which has little to do with the previous two movies in the series.

The Wolf Man
1941- Picture shows actor Lon Chaney Jr., grabbing actress, Evelyn Ankers, in the Universal picture, 'The Wolfman.' (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images). Universal Pictures

1941

December: Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the legendary actor, follows in his father's movie monster footsteps in The Wolf Man, Universal's second, and more successful attempt at a werewolf movie. Claude Rains and Bela Lugosi appear in supporting roles.

1942

March: Universal releases Ghost of Frankenstein, now with Chaney Jr. in the role of the monster.

July: Moving the Invisible Man series from comedy to wartime propaganda, Universal releases The Invisible Agent, which brings the invisibility formula into World War II.

October: Kharis returns in The Mummy's Tomb, which stars Universal's now go-to horror star Chaney Jr. as the Mummy.

1943

March: Universal again revitalizes its horror brand by crossing over its popular monsters. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man features the two characters battling it out, with Chaney Jr. reprising his role as the Wolf Man and Lugosi playing Frankenstein's monster for the first time.

August: Universal releases a remake of The Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains.

November: After previously playing the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and the Mummy, Chaney Jr. stars in Son of Dracula as the famed vampire disguising himself as a younger aristocrat named Alucard.

1944

June: The Invisible Man franchise finally returns to its horror roots with The Invisible Man's Revenge.

July: Chaney Jr. returns as Kharis in The Mummy's Ghost.

December: After the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal throws more monsters together in House of Frankenstein, an ensemble movie featuring The Wolf Man (Chaney Jr.), Frankenstein's Monster (Glenn Strange), Dracula (John Carradine), and even Boris Karloff as a mad scientist.

In addition, Chaney Jr. stars at Kharis for the third and final time in The Mummy's Curse, which is also released in December.

1945

December: Universal rehashes the multi-monster movie with House of Dracula, again featuring Chaney Jr., Strange, and Carradine as the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and Dracula, respectively.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein
Frankenstein's monster lifts comedy team Bud Abbott (left) and Lou Costello off the ground in a promotional still for the film, 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,' directed by Charles Barton, 1948. (Photo by Universal Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images). Universal Pictures

1948

June: In yet another revival of its monster movies, Universal pairs popular comedy due Abbott and Costello with its monsters for the horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a comedy classic featuring Frankenstein's Monster (Strange), the Wolf Man (Chaney Jr.), and Dracula (with Lugosi returning to the role) that spoofs Universal's previous monster movies. It marked the final time those three actors would play those roles for Universal.

1951

March: Following the success of its 1948 monster comedy, Universal again teams Abbott and Costello against another monster in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.

Creature from the Black Lagoon
Julie Adams and Ben Chapman in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Universal Pictures

1954

February: Universal introduces a new monster to its pantheon in Creature from the Black Lagoon about a monstrous fish-man. It was filmed in 3-D, the latest movie craze.

1955

March: The Gill-Man Creature returns in Revenge of the Creature, also produced in 3-D.

June: Abbott and Costello star in their last "creature comedy," Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

1956

April: Universal's final release in its Classic Monsters series is The Creature Walks Among Us, a second sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon.