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Universal Monsters: The Very First Cinematic Universe

Universal Studios is making yet another go at rebooting their classic monster movies with the in-the-works Dark Universe. This time around, they’re hoping to capitalize on the shared cinematic universe craze that Marvel and Warner Bros. have pioneered to great success. The first movie in this new Universal Monsters series is Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, which opens this weekend.

But wait. This all sounds oddly familiar.

Maybe because Universal already did the same thing over 80 years ago!

Long before the idea of a shared cinematic universe was a gleam in a madman’s eye, Universal unleashed crossover movies featuring some of their most iconic fiends. Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and Dracula met in frantic free-for-alls which left audiences breathless. But unlike their new Dark Universe, Universal didn’t originally set out to create an interconnected series of monster mashes.

The first crossover, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, came about when screenwriter Curt Siodmak jokingly pitched the title to producer George Waggner. What began life as a half-hearted joke soon became a loose cinematic universe of 10 movies – we’re only not talking about films like The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy here because those characters were never firmly connected to the larger universe… even if they’re technically part of the whole thing.

Before we can get to the main event, we have to first take a look at the solo adventures which introduced Universal’s monsters to the world. These early movies don’t build to a crescendo of continuity porn, but watching them helps to gain a greater sense of character and atmosphere.

To get the full experience of the crossover movies, one should start at the beginning…

Dracula (1931)

The 1931 version of Dracula needs no introduction. The iconic imagery of Bela Lugosi as the sinister bloodsucker is known even to non-horror fans. As an oldie, the movie does show its age, but holds together with a short running time.

Universal Classic Monsters

Frankenstein (1931)

The success of Dracula spurred the creation of what would become yet another face in Universal’s rogue gallery. Like the other solo vehicles, there are no references which link the movies together. Frankenstein is a gruesome creature feature that proved to be an even larger success than Dracula.

And with great success, comes a sequel…

Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

The second half of a one-two punch of cinematic bliss, Bride of Frankenstein builds upon the world created by its predecessor. In this one, the triumph of Frankenstein and his monster quickly turns to tragedy.

Since Bride of Frankenstein was a success, the sequels kept coming…

Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Here, Frankenstein’s son attempts to redeem his father’s reputation by resurrecting the monster which brought ruin to their family’s honor – and terror to the local village. Unlike the sequels to Dracula, the Frankenstein series had tight continuity, which helped to create a rich world of woe and wonder.

The Wolf Man (1941)

In this hair-raising howler, Universal introduced a new monster to its pantheon – the tragic Wolf Man. No good deed goes unpunished as Larry Talbot saves a woman from a werewolf only to be bitten himself. Audiences loved the movie, which ensured a sequel – but not right away.

The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)

Yes, the ghost of Frankenstein makes an appearance in this sequel which also features brain-swapping, panicked villagers, and of course, everybody’s favorite hunchback, Ygor. Another of Frankenstein’s sons continues the family tradition of playing god and things inevitably end in tragedy. When will they ever learn?

Now let’s bring these bad boys together, shall we?

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)

The streams officially started to cross with 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman… well, they do meet – eventually. The Wolf Man is resurrected and proceeds on a quest to end his tortuous existence. His quest puts him on the path to Frankenstein’s secrets – and to a confrontation with Frankenstein’s monster! You definitely can’t keep these guys down! The fight ends in a draw, but the world would have to wait a few years for a rematch.

Son of Dracula (1943)

While the Frankenstein and Wolf Man series’ maintained a relatively tight continuity, Son of Dracula posed more questions than answers. Here Dracula poses as Alucard (clever, huh?) in a world where a character is reading the Dracula novel. Is this movie a sequel or its own beast? If it’s a sequel, then how was Dracula resurrected?

Regardless of any confusion, Son of Dracula was just a brief diversion before the double main event…

House of Frankenstein (1944)

This movie isn’t the battle royale that Universal advertised (that would come in House of Dracula), but we are treated to monster mayhem when a mad scientist vows to get revenge against the people who put him in prison. Dracula doesn’t even meet Frankenstein’s monster and the Wolf Man, instead putting in what amounts to an extended cameo.

House of Dracula (1945)

Continuity? What continuity? Even though they met their demises in House of Frankenstein, all three monsters returned none the worse for wear one year later. Dracula and the Wolf Man seek a cure for their respective afflictions in this tale of desire and deception. We never really see a three-way battle between Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man, but having all three in a movie that’s more cohesive than the previous entry is a treat.

The mind marvels at what Universal could have achieved had they set out to make a unified series with an attention to continuity. What they created instead remain triumphs of terror that continue to thrill audiences to this day.

Here’s hoping the Dark Universe is as much of a success.



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COMMENTS

17 Comments
  • Ocelot006 .

    Wasn’t so much a cinematic universe as it was they just brought three big characters together for a couple films.

    • Darkknight2149

      There was more than just that. The Invisible Man appeared in “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein” along with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf-Man (which led to “Abbott and Costello Meets the Invisible Man” and “Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy”). Before that, there were three films where Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf-Man crossed over. So yes, the films form a single (albeit loose) continuity with each other.

      • Ocelot006 .

        The Abbott and Costello films aren’t even in their own continuity. They play different characters in each of those. So in the end still not much of a cinematic universe. Can’t call Friday The 13th and A Nightmare On Elm Street a cinematic universe just because they came together for one film.

        • Darkknight2149

          Regardless of who Abbott and Costello play, the Invisible Man still appeared in “A&C Meet Frankstein”, which is in-continuity with the previous films featuring Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf-Man. There are multiple films with multiple characters, while “Freddy vs. Jason” is a standalone crossover only featuring the bare minimum of two franchises.

          • Randy Moses

            I agree with Darkknight2149. This was definitely what we now call a “cinematic universe.” If you actually watch the films, in order, this is very clear.

  • Darkknight2149

    It’s amazing how, even decades later, people still think of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff as Dracula and Frankenstein. Even though the original novels are classic literature, the Universal versions have even overshadowed the novel versions of the characters to a degree. I mean, the original Dracula had hairy palms and a mustache, yet no one thinks of him that way. It’s fascinating to think about.

  • Darkknight2149

    My belief has always been that Dracula/Alucard (played by Lon Chaney) and Dracula (played by John Carradine) are descendants of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, just like how the vampire in
    “Dracula’s Daughter” was his daughter.
    -The film featuring Chaney is called “Son of Dracula” (even though he is never identified as such in the film).
    -Then, in “Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein”, they call Bela Lugosi’s Dracula ‘the original Dracula’ in the actual film. Assuming they weren’t just breaking the fourth wall, this implies that Bela Lugosi’s Dracula had successors.

    • Randy Moses

      I think what people don’t get, is that with Dracula (Lugosi) presumed destroyed, his son, who we’ll refer to as Alucard (Chaney), inherited his father’s title, thus he was the ‘new’ Count Dracula. He was Marya’s (Gloria Holden) brother. Thus the film’s title.

      Carradine as a descendant? I wish it was true! LOL. I just could never get into his take on Dracula. But, I do think he was (unfortunately) supposed to be Lugosi’s Dracula.

      I like to pretend that whenever Dracula is resurrected, his body regenerates to a degree depending on the severity of the damaged suffered. If it was light damage, he just heals up. If the damage is severe, it’s a total regeneration ala’ Dr. Who. Thus we can tie a myriad number of screen Dracula’s together if we want 🙂

  • Jack Derwent

    The “shared universe” aspects really didn’t come into play later. All of the ‘originals’ give no indication that they’re in the same universe and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ reveals its just Shelley telling a story to her friends (like irl) so unless the entire universe is all in Shelley’s head there’s not much in the way of actual continuity.

  • dukeblues

    These movies are amazing. Watch them every Halloween. Son of Frankenstein is my favorite as I used to watch a VHS of it from the 80’s when I taped one of those late night weekend horror shows on local TV. I’d rather watch these than the action packed shit they make today.

  • Brando

    Can we get an article about the League or Van Helsing? Those movies were more pure monster mash than this new Mummy.

    • Erik Handy

      If Bloody Disgusting would like one, I’m game!

  • MODOK

    Erik – Thanks for this! I keep seeing comments on various sites ridiculing the idea of a shared monster universe, and I keep replying that it’s been a shared universe all along. Nice to see an in-depth article about those original crossover movies that doesn’t just make a lame joke about Abbott & Costello.

    • Erik Handy

      You’re welcome and thank you for your feedback!

      And in my mind, those Abbott & Costello movies don’t exist. 🙂

  • i.am.pain.®™

    “The mind marvels at what Universal could have achieved…”
    lol. Excelsior!

  • Graham

    What I like about the old films is that although there were many sequels and increasingly convoluted continuity, they all functioned as standalone films, wrapping up completely each time (even if the next film would quickly find a way to undo the apparently finality of the last one). What bugs me about cinematic universes today is that you kind of have to see all of them to get any real sense of completion. Not all the time, but as a general rule these new movies aren’t meant to function as standalone films – each film is just a precursor to the next one. Hearing that the new Mummy film ends on a cliffhanger is really disappointing to me.

    • Erik Handy

      That bugs me about the most recent Marvel movies. They used to stand on their own and now they just exist to set up the following one.

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