Greetings, Boils and Ghouls!
As we prepare for our Halloween celebrations in the Starburst office, we’ve cracked open the creaking crypt and blown the dust from some of our favourite fearful films to bring you, our loyal victims... I mean... readers... our top ten favourite monsters from the vaults of Universal Pictures. Settle down with a vintage glass of A-positive as we select the ultimate list of the best and most memorable things to walk, stagger, and pounce from the silver screen.
We begin with a chip off the old block...
Contessa Marya Zeleska (Gloria Holden): Dracula’s Daughter - 1936
"She was beautiful when she died - a hundred years ago"
Meet Contessa Marya Zeleska, the solemn faced, moon eyed beauty who becomes the darling of London’s partying social elite. But beware; her family tree has some Dutch Elm. She’s the daughter of Count Dracula himself in this first sequel to Dracula. Abducting the body of her father, following his demise at the hands of Van Helsing, she burns it in a ceremonial pyre intoning "Be thou exorcised, O Dracula and thy body, long undead, find destruction throughout eternity in the name of thy dark, unholy master."
But despite seeking release from the curse of immortality and her demonic feeding habits, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. She feeds on a poor, homeless girl under the guise of wanting to use her as a model for a painting. Psychiatry can’t help her, neither can the less than helpful attitude of her jealous henchman Sandor (Irving Pichel) who accidentally shoots her through the heart with a wooden arrow while aiming for the good guys.
Dr Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull): Werewolf of London - 1935
"The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best"
Poor Dr Glendon, there he was, minding his own business on a Tibetan expedition, seeking specimens of the rare flower mariphasa lumina lupine, a flower that only blooms during the full moon, when he was savagely attacked by a mysterious creature. Bad news - that creature was a werewolf and follows Glendon home to London in his human guise of Dr Yogami (Warner Oland). Worse news - Glendon is now himself a werewolf. Can it get any worse? Yes, it certainly can - Yogami says the only way to treat lycanthropy is with a serum made from the mariphasa - but it’s only a temporary antidote. Unsurprisingly, Yogami is after the specimens Glendon brought back.
Not only is Glendon now a savage predator with blood on his paws as the body count increases (and includes Yogami, caught in the act of flower stealing,) but he is fated to kill his own wife. Luckily, Scotland Yard save the day AND Mrs Glendon with a well aimed bullet - a standard one made of lead, not silver. Silver bullets would be added to the mythology in later films, (But I guess it proves that the mariphasa wasn’t the only solution. Maybe Yogami meant the only survivable one.)
Erik (Lon Chaney): The Phantom of the Opera - 1925
"Feast your eyes! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!"
Easily the more memorable of Chaney’s portrayals, nudging its way on to this list ahead of Quasimodo, Erik is a musical genius living in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House and is infatuated with a beautiful operatic starlet Christine Daae (Mary Philbin). He’s also a homicidal psychopath. When the head of the Opera Company ignores Erik’s written demands that Christine become the new female lead, Erik begins a reign of terror, and nothing brings the house down like a huge falling chandelier.
He conceals his features, but Christine becomes curious and sneaks up behind him and we see one of the most startling unmasking scenes ever committed to film, one which still packs a punch to this day as Erik’s living skull is starkly revealed. (Of course, the big question that remains is how on Earth did he get that huge pipe organ down in the cellar?)
Universal remade the film in 1942 with Claude Rains in the title role, but despite the lush colour photography and not forgetting sound - the silent black and original is the version to watch.
Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff): The Black Cat - 1934
"Fifteen years I've rotted in the darkness... waited. Not to kill you, but to kill your soul - slowly."
Despite the title and there actually being a black cat in the film who freaks out cat-phobic Dr Vitus Werdegast (Bela Lugosi), that’s about all this story has in common with Edgar Allan Poe’s story.
Poelzig is a cold, corrupt, immoral, devil-worshipping traitor. He betrayed Werdegast during the war causing Werdegast to be sentenced to fifteen years in a Russian prison and about 10,000 others to their deaths.
Now released and visiting the scene of Poelzik’s war crimes, Werdegast believes both his wife and daughter are dead, but discovers that his daughter is now Poelzig’s wife. (She’s not even his first wife - he has a collection of exes, including Werdegast’s wife preserved in glass cases in the basement of his futuristic house.) Poelzik’s evil doesn’t even stop there - he plans to sacrifice a honeymooning young bride to Lucifer and forces Werdegast to play a game of chess for her life.
Of all the Universal monsters, Poelzig is the most inhuman with not one single shred of decency or empathy. He meets a nasty end as Werdegast, finally driven to insanity, skins him alive with a scalpel before throwing the red switch that blows the entire edifice of evil apart.
Jack Griffin (Claude Rains): The Invisible Man - 1933
"I meddled in things that man must leave alone"
Prophetic quote there - take a man like research chemist Jack Griffin who then injects himself with an untested invisibility serum called monocane which bleaches the tissues into transparency and causes madness as a side effect and you have a problem.
On the run in search of a cure, he disguises himself in bandages and takes a room in a village pub, but soon terrorises the suspicious yokels who are a little too nosy for their own good. His demented reign of murder and terror comes to an end when the police shoot him. It’s all well and fine being invisible, but those footprints of yours in the snow will betray you every time.
The Bride (Elsa Lanchester): The Bride of Frankenstein - 1935
"Alone, you you have created a man. Now together, we will create his mate."
Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) quit his ungodly experiments after his first monster (Boris Karloff) went badly wrong, causing chaos and death. Frankenstein himself fell from a burning windmill at the creature’s hands, while the monster itself supposedly burned to ashes. But karma has a habit of biting, and biting hard.
Enter the eccentric (to say the least) Dr Pretorious (Ernest Thesiger) who wants to build a female version, and has elicited the aid of the Monster to persuade poor recovering Henry to help him and for added leverage, kidnaps Henry’s young wife (Valerie Hobson). In an early draft, she was to be killed and used as the basis for the new creation, thus the bride of Frankenstein would become The Bride of Frankenstein. But instead, Elsa Lanchester, seen in the film’s prologue, as Mary Shelly would become the bandaged, funnel haired beauty in a bizarre twist - both creator and created.
She rejects the tender advances of her man made man with a snakelike hiss, leaving him to pull the lever that blows the entire lab to shrapnel with a tearful "We belong dead".
Im-Ho-Tep (Boris Karloff): The Mummy - 1932
"He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!"
Maybe this is the ultimate love story, one that spans the centuries.
Im-Ho-Tep is a high priest in ancient Egypt and is caught trying to resurrect his dead Priestess sweetheart with the Scroll of Thoth, which contains the secret of immortality. He pays the ultimate price - mummification and burial alive in an unmarked grave, with the scroll at his side.
Fast-forward 3700 years and an archaeological expedition unearths the Mummy and an unwitting party member reads the words from the scroll, bringing the Im-Ho-Tep back to crumbling life.
Disguising himself as best he can as a modern day Egyptian guide, he leads the party to the tomb of his long lost love with the intention of resurrecting her, but the incantations bring Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann) to him instead. The Priestess has been reincarnated and must now be killed and revived with the Scroll of Thoth so they can spend all eternity together.
It would take ten years for the Mummy to shuffle among us again, as Tom Tyler was under wraps for The Mummy’s Hand, which really began the ensuing series, adding the plot device of resurrecting the Mummy with tana leaves instead of the scroll. Lon Chaney took over the role for the final four films, but they unravel to dust compared with Karloff’s pathos.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr): The Wolfman -1940
"Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright"
Things aren’t well in the fictional Welsh village of Llanwelly. Bitten by Bela the gypsy (Bela Lugosi) in the guise of a wolf, Larry Talbot himself becomes a werewolf when the moon is full. He sees the pentagram in the palm of his next victim - until his father, Sir John Talbot beats him to death with the solid silver head of a cane. In the words of Maleva, (Maria Ouspenskaya) the old gypsy woman and Bela’s mother, "the road you walked was thorny".
However, even severe brain damage can’t keep him down as the Wolfman howls again and went with Maleva in search of a descendant of Frankenstein for a cure. When that failed, he tried and tried again until meeting Abbot and Costello in 1948 proved too much for him and he was never seen on cinema screens again. (Probably died of embarrassment.)
Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi) Dracula -1931
"I am Count Dracula - I bid you.....welcome"
With those words, Dracula made his screen debut in the form of Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi. His manner was gracious and courtly - especially for a man who has three undead brides walking around his ruined castle, though the armadillos in the cellar are a bit harder to explain.
He might not drink wine, as he explains to Renfield (Dwight Frye) but he’s certainly partial enough to Renfield’s blood to make the poor man helpless slave, willing to do his Master’s bidding on board the Vesta as it sails Dracula to Britain. With Dracula taking residence in Carfax Abbey, conveniently adjoining Dr Seward’s Sanitarium where the crazed Renfield is being held, the Count starts his nocturnal feeding and pursues Mina Seward (Helen Chandler). Only the ever-resourceful Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) can stop him and stakes him through the heart in the cellar of his abbey.
Survived by a daughter - though not for long (see number 10), Dracula reappeared in 1943’s Son of Dracula, adopting the pseudonym Alucard (clever, eh?) in an atmospheric tale set in the Louisiana bayou & swamps - though let down by a rather chubby Lon Chaney Jr in the role. Let’s face it, Count Dracula shouldn’t have jowls. John Carradine played the character in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula (both 1945), but it was the welcome return of Bela Lugosi in the role that closed off the Universal Studios version and elevated the otherwise bland Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
The Monster (Boris Karloff) Frankenstein - 1931
"The brain you stole, Fritz. Think of it. The brain of a dead man waiting to live again in a body I made with my own hands!"
There really could be no other candidate for the number one spot. The monster is head and shoulders above any other horror film creation from Universal or indeed any other studio. The tall, lumbering, flat headed, block footed monster with electrodes through his neck and the bolts showing where his skull was clamped back in place is as iconic as a Coke bottle.
But, lest we forget, Henry Frankenstein’s experiment to create a man from cadavers was, on the face of it, well intentioned. God shouldn’t be keeping the secrets of creation to Himself, surely? It was the hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) who took the criminal brain from the laboratory of Dr Waldman (Edward Van Sloan) - so no wonder Frankenstein is left with the equivalent of a seven feet tall child with issues. Fritz’s relentless torture by flaming torch doesn’t help either.
Of course the quick and easy answer is dissection, except that the Monster recovers very quickly from being administered a knockout injection. Misunderstood and reviled, he has no friends, accidentally killing a little girl; he is pursued by the villagers and burned in a windmill.
Or so they thought, the seemingly indestructible monster crashed through the floor to an underground stream, he learned to talk, he had a girlfriend for a couple of minutes, he was blown up. But his problems were just beginning, over the next several movies he was thrown in to a sulphur pit, he was burned in numerous lab fires, he was blinded, he had Bela Lugosi’s brain installed, he was seemingly drowned when a dam exploded and he was fighting the Wolfman, he was frozen, he was sunk in quicksand, he was supposedly helped by Henry Frankenstein’s two sons, Wolf (Basil Rathbone) and Ludwig (Sir Cedric Harwicke) but it all backfired ...AND he met Abbot and Costello.
Though Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange played the role under the heavy make-up, in the final analysis - nobody ever played the role as well as Boris Karloff.
So, as the sun rises and we bid adieu to those misshapen miscreants that staggered from the Universal lot between 1925 and 1948 the toast must surely come from Dr Pretorious.
"Here’s to a world of Gods and Monsters"
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