WRITTEN HISTORY: Defining The Classic Universal Horror Movie Canon

EDITOR’S NOTE This podcast is dedicated to Universal Monsters, but there are many excellent (and some awful) vintage Universal Horror films out there that don’t feature any of these classic monsters and so won’t be featured on our show. They are absolutely still worth covering, so we’ve invited guest writers from our listenership to share their thoughts on the finer points of the lesser-known Universal Horror films. Now, enjoy this chronicle of the classic Universal Horror movie canon, from Dark Mark Longfield.

Universal Pictures is a movie production company that was formed in 1912 with Carl Laemmle as president. It’s the oldest still-operating studio in the United States and has produced thousands of films. Among those films, Universal is famous for its early production of iconic horror films that helped create and define the genre of horror as we know today. In this article I will outline a canon of horror films produced by Universal Pictures during its classic era, beginning with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and ending with The Leech Woman (1960). The focus will be on defining the canon, rather than going in-depth on any individual film, actor, or filmmaker.

Most of these early films feature a monster so they are most commonly referred to as “monster movies” but it is more accurate to refer to them as horror films to account for films that are horror but don’t have a classic monster. As often is the case in genre classification, some of these films are pure horror and some have very little horror in them. I tried to throw a wide net to be as inclusive as possible. I have not included serials such as The Phantom Creeps (1939), or any of the Sherlock Holmes pictures, though I have included one spinoff from the Sherlock Holmes films, The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946).

Universal’s production began in 1912 and after only one year the studio experimented with its first horror film, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1913), but this 2-reel film was only 26 minutes and not a feature length film (which were at least 5 reels). Another short horror film from this year was The Werewolf (1913) whdich is considered the first werewolf film but is a “lost” film that probably burned in a fire at the studio in 1924. I won’t be including short films or lost films in the canon.

The canon begins with The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). It was the first feature length horror film produced by Universal Pictures and it was the studio’s most successful silent film (box office: $1,500,000).1  Although the film is more of a romantic drama, Lon Chaney was becoming known for his ability to create his own gruesome makeup and his Quasimodo scared and thrilled audiences of the time. Throughout the 1920s five more horror films were produced by Universal.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Cat and the Canary (1927)

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

The Last Warning (1929)

The Last Performance (1929)

As a 21st birthday present, Carl Laemmle Sr. gifted his son Carl Laemmle Jr. the position of Head of Universal Studios. Laemmle Jr. was interested in higher quality production and adding sound to their films. After his success producing The King of Jazz (1930) and All isQuiet On the Western Front (1930), and remembering the success of the early silent horror films, Laemmle Jr. decided to make more films in the horror genre. In 1931, he produced their first horror film with sound, the genre-defining Dracula (1931). Many of the best known, iconic horror films and characters were brought to life by Universal over the next five years.

Dracula (1931)

Drácula (1931 Spanish language version)

Frankenstein (1931)

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Mummy (1932)

Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Black Cat (1934)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1936)

Werewolf of London (1935)

The Raven (1935)

The Invisible Ray (1936)

Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

Carl Laemmle Jr.’s focus on making high quality films meant bigger budgets and, combined with the Great Depression, Universal fell into financial decline. In order to pay for the expensive budget of Showboat (a 1936 musical directed by Jame Whale) the Laemmles had to take a loan from the bank and they put up their company stock as collateral. When the bank foreclosed they took the Laemmles’ stock, and the family lost control of Universal Pictures. The studio then began to produce cheaper films, remakes and sequels in an attempt to return to profitability. The overall production increase (from 240 films 1930-1936 to 544 films in 1937-1946)2 also saw a slight uptick in the proportion of horror movies being made, going from 6.25% to 8.56% of overall production. As a result, during this era Universal made 44 of the 89 films in this canon. With this change in volume came a resurgence of monster films and monster mash films, as well as the rise of a new horror star, Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolfman 1942), who was the the son of the famous silent film star Lon Chaney (The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera). Lon Chaney Jr. was so popular Universal produced six films for him to star in based on the radio program Inner Sanctum Mystery.

Night Key (1937)

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Tower of London (1939)

The Invisible Man Returns (1940)

Black Friday (1940)

The Mummy’s Hand (1940)

The Invisible Woman (1940)

Man Made Monster (1941)

Horror Island (1941)

The Black Cat (1941)

Hold That Ghost (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942)

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

The Strange Case of Doctor RX (1942)

The Mystery of Marie Roget (1942)

Invisible Agent (1942)

Night Monster (1942)

The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

Captive Wild Woman (1943)

Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Son of Dracula (1943)

The Mad Ghoul (1943)

Calling Dr. Death (1943)

Weird Woman (1944)

Jungle Woman (1944)

Ghost Catchers (1944)

The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)

The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)

The Climax (1944)

Dead Man’s Eyes (1944)

House of Frankenstein (1944)

The Mummy’s Curse (1944)

The Frozen Ghost (1945)

The Jungle Captive (1945)

Strange Confession (1945)

House of Dracula (1945)

Pillow of Death (1945)

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

House of Horrors (1946)

She-Wolf of London (1946)

The Cat Creeps (1946)

The Brute Man (1946)

As World War 2 came to an end, movies were more popular than ever. At the end of 1946 Universal Studios merged with the independent production company International Pictures to become Universal-International. It was now led by production heads Leo Spitz and William Goetz, who wanted to bring prestige back to the studio. They announced the studio would no longer make B pictures or serials and no feature would run under 70 min; which contrasted with the previous era’s horror-friendly strategy. In 1947, there were no horror films. However, Abbott and Costello movies were making money and in 1948, they began to meet the monsters starting with Frankenstein. However, the studio was still struggling and in the red.

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbot and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)

The Strange Door (1951)

Decca Records acquired 28% of Universal in 1952 and Milton Rackmil became the new president of Universal. Spitz and Goel resigned, and Edward Muhl became the new production head. During this time the company once again focused on tightly-budgeted filmmaking and produced many science fiction horror films – including its final big name monster, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. This foray into science fiction horror reflected several public fascinations; the UFO mania of the 1950’s, the atomic bomb (after which, large mutated monsters became common), and the Cold War.3

The Black Castle (1952)

It Came from Outer Space (1953)

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

This Island Earth (1955)

Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)

Tarantula (1955)

Cult of the Cobra (1955)

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1955)

The Mole People (1956)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

The Land Unknown (1957)

The Monolith Monsters (1957)

The Thing That Couldn’t Die (1958)

Monster on the Campus (1958)

Curse of the Undead (1959)

The Leech Woman (1960)

The Universal classic horror canon ends in 1960 with The Leech Woman. In 1962, Universal was bought by MCA big changes were happening in entertainment. Blockbusters were the new form, television was well-established in homes across the United States, and color films were becoming the standard. In 1963 Universal-International simply became Universal again and the first film to be released under the new name and 4th new logo was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Far from forgotten, the horror films Universal produced during this classic era have stood the test of time. The monsters are instantly recognizable, the themes run deep, and the films have been embraced world-wide.

If there are any films that you think I’ve missed in defining this canon or have any questions/comments, please let me know!

“Defining The Classic Universal Horror Movie Canon” by Mark Longfield
You can follow Dark Mark on Twitter and Letterboxd

Quigley (1938) International motion picture almanac 1937-1938. Retrieved from https://archive.org
2Hirschhorn, Clive (1983) The Universal story. New York, NY: Crown, ISBN 0-517-55001-6
3Skal, David J. (1993) The monster show: a cultural history of horror. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-571-19996-9
Aberdeen, J. A. (1999) Hollywood renegades: the society of independent motion picture producers. Retrieved from http://www.cobbles.com
Franchise/Universal Horror. August (2017) Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Franchise/UniversalHorror
Mayer, Geoff (2017) Encyclopedia of American serials. Retrieved from https://books.google.com
Neibaur, James L. (2017) The monster movies of Universal Studios. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, ISBN 9781442278165
Universal Monsters. (August 2017) Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Monsters
Universal Pictures. (August 2017) Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_Pictures
Weaver & Brunas, M. & Brunas, J. (2007) Universal horrors: the studio’s classic films, 1931 – 1946. Retrieved from https://books.google.com

8 thoughts on “WRITTEN HISTORY: Defining The Classic Universal Horror Movie Canon

  1. I loved this! Nicely done and wonderfully inclusive. Brought back a stack of memories. Nothin’ better than the horror oldies for the particular eerie charm they evoked, and still do, that none others have been able to reproduce. Thanks!

  2. Nice article, Mark.

    I’ve never looked too closely at the history of Universal Horror, resulting in it being a bit of a thrown together mess where I know at various points, money was cut back. Reading the article and then doing additional research of my own, I’m left with a question that I’m hoping you would know the answer to.

    When it comes to Universal’s peak time period with horror movies when the Laemmles were in charge (1931-1936), were the horror movies all success? There’s a lot of major horror movies during that time frame and I would have to assume that even with Laemmle, they weren’t costing a ton to produce, as compared to Universal’s non-horror projects.

    If they were all successful, like I’ve always assumed, it seems odd that horror was then treated as the ugly redheaded stepchild of Universal. The next Universal president after Laemmle, Charles Rogers (1936-1937) seems to be credited for making far better financial decisions, but in his time, Universal only made two horror movies (I believe The Invisible Man came out just before he took over), one of which (Night Key) is debatable whether it’s even a horror movie. Then once Rogers left, horror movies returned at the highest speed of all, but I’d imagine nearly all of them were made for very little money. Despite the fact that you’d assume these cheap movies were making profits, once Spitz and Goetz took over, horror movies suffered even more by being ignored.

    It all seems odd to me that horror movies were treated so poorly by Universal when they had done so much for the studio. However, that opinion is quite dependent on whether or not those main Laemmle movies did all make money.

    • That’s a big and really good question! Although those early films by Laemmle Jr. were successful they had high production costs and the studio was going bankrupt. He took a lot of chances and sometimes it didn’t pay off. Plus, they had built an entire city (Universal City) with lots of upkeep costs and the depression couldn’t have helped. I think Laemmle Jr. (not Sr. for sure) enjoyed making horror films and had a good artistic attitude about them.

      The following resurgence with the sequels and monster mashes were financially successful and helped pull the company back into profitability. But, they had low budgets and weren’t viewed as the top artistic arthouse films. The “B” movies were less publicized and actor’s often didn’t even want to appear in them. Movie theaters in the 30’s would play the B movie first and then the main feature which was usually a drama or romance. The double feature became so popular that studios starting making movies just for double features in second run or “neighborhood theaters.” That’s where a lot of these monster movies played and they were never intended to win awards or showcase the best talents in Hollywood.

      Spitz and Goetz didn’t like the B movies and wanted to bring “prestige” back to Universal. They felt westerns, sci-fi, and horror films were bringing down the reputation of the studio even though they were making money. The output of the studio really depends on who’s in charge and they’re personal opinions. It seems whether a film or genre makes money or not doesn’t mean it will be revered. Today, genre films and children’s films are making lots of money but usually aren’t up for “best picture” awards. I don’t think profitability equals prestige, especially during Hollywood’s golden age.

  3. Pingback: Ep 1.9: The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) and The Mummy’s Curse (1944) | Universal Monsters Cast

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