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Universal Monsters: The Very First Cinematic Universe

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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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