The Universal Monsterverse

Much has been talked about and written when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). From Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: End Game, Marvel and Walt Disney Productions created a canon of 23 interconnected films of superhero origin stories, team-ups, and mash-ups all leading to the saving of half of all life in the universe with the defeat of the Titan, Thanos. 

Familiar faces were thrust into adventures and battles alongside new characters as we learned about misogyny, femininity, and morality in ways rarely brought to the silver screen, but in ways comic books had been doing all along. I’m sure many of us had never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy or Captain Marvel, or even some members of the Avengers. And Black Panther had never been brought to life like this. 

Some of the movies are wonderful, exciting and thrilling; some are just okay; some are downright terrible. We were reintroduced to some little known actors and others made their debuts, while still others resurrected their careers. All in all, the MCU, which has more films in the works, features an amazing array of talent and storytelling, a brilliant attempt at continuity, and the most intricate web of interconnected tales ever purposely brought to theaters. In fact, if I am not mistaken, the only actor substituted for another was Don Cheadle in place of Terrence Howard as James Rhodes/War Machine. I’m very confused about what happened with Eric Bana and Edward Norton with the Hulk movies.

As much as I love Stephen King and what he has accomplished with his tangled web of mostly horror stories, cinematically I don’t believe there ever was a conscious effort to bring his works to interconnected life on screen. Film and TV adaptations of King’s work are a hodgepodge of studios, screenwriters and directors over the span of 45 years or so. I think King’s multiverse is the largest and most intricate ever created outside of the comic book world but it happened organically and not so much purposefully (at least with the screen adaptations).

Toho in Japan created a cinematic universe with its stable of Kaiju, but most of the films are linear timeline Godzilla sequels, although there is an American attempt afoot as I write this to create a “monsterverse” with Godzilla at the center of it. 

Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Roughly 95 years ago Universal Studios created the very first cinematic universe, the first Monsterverse shall we say. When Carl Laemmle took control of Universal Studios, he entrusted his son Carl Laemmle, Jr., to produce horror films. As Marvel and Walt Disney Pictures would do 83 years later with comic books, Universal and Laemmle Jr. turned to literature for source material. From 1925 to 1956, Universal Studios created a stable of creatures featured in mostly interconnected tales of the macabre and science gone wrong. 

It all started with the Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, directed by Rupert Julian, starring Lon Chaney – the Man of 1,000 Faces – and Mary Philbin, this silent film stunned audiences and it features one of the greatest creature reveals ever filmed. I saw it when I was an adolescent with a live orchestra performing the score. I already loved Universal horror films, but this was a treat. 

Next up was 1927’s London After Midnight, also starring Lon Chaney. Unfortunately this film is lost to the ravages of time as no copy exists, only still photographs remain. Tod Browning began his Universal horror directing career with this movie. Browning had directed Chaney in several other pictures before London after Midnight.

Actor and playwright Hamilton Deane adapted Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the stage in 1924, and John L. Balderston revised it in 1927. The theater production starred Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula. I have read conflicting reports and accounts, as well as watched numerous contradictory interviews and documentaries that state (or dispute) Lon Chaney was to play Count Dracula in Universal’s film adaptation. Regardless, Chaney died of lung cancer, and the role eventually fell to Lugosi. How and why Lugosi wasn’t the studio’s first choice despite the success of the stage play is a story for another time. Browning directed what is more a film version of the play than an adaptation of the novel with Lugosi as Count Dracula. The film features Helen Chandler as Mina Seward, David Manners as Jonathan Harker, Dwight Frye as Renfield and Edward Van Sloan as Professor Abraham Van Helsing. Lugosi turned in a genre- and character-defining performance.

I am no film historian (football is more my speed) and I will not pretend to understand how it worked back then, but it is my understanding studios had stables of actors they would draw on for any number of pictures while those actors were under contract. Those actors could also be “loaned out” to other studios. Dracula is the start of the Universal Monsterverse careers for Lugosi, Manners and Van Sloan. When it was released, the film featured an epilogue, a version of Van Sloan’s curtain call speech from the theater production where he would proclaim, “There are such things.” Unfortunately, video of this has been lost to the sands of time as well. 

In the MCU, although the writers and directors change, the same actors play the same characters throughout multiple films in all but one case. I don’t know if I want to count the reboot of The Hulk with an entire cast change, and then another when Mark Ruffalo was cast as David Banner/The Hulk for the MCU. With the Universal films, characters are killed off or written out of sequels and actors play different characters along the way.

Later in 1931, Universal released Frankenstein based on Mary Shelley’s novel with Boris Karloff as the monster. This film jumpstarted Karloff’s career off as a horror movie icon. Directed by James Whale and also starring Dwight Frye, Colin Clive, Edward Van Sloan and Mae Clark as Elizabeth. Clark would be replaced as Elizabeth by Valerie Hobson in 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein. Lionel Belmore plays the burgomaster. Michael Mark plays Little Maria’s father. Jack Pierce cemented himself as a master monster maker with his make-up techniques. Van Sloan would appear in a prologue before the film, a bit of a disclaimer: “Mr. Carl Laemmle feels that it would be unkind to present this picture without a word of friendly warning … I think it will thrill you, it may shock you, it might even horrify you. So if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to, uh … well … we warned you.”   

In 1932, Boris Karloff starred in The Mummy, along with David Manners and Edward Van Sloan. Karl Freund directed this tale of murder and undying love, while Jack Pierce provided the make-up for the mummy. As wonderful as Karloff is as the title character, it’s the one and only time he would play a mummy. And as far as continuity and canon goes, there is no true sequel to this film, it’s a one-off. 

Also in 1932, Lugosi starred in an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. And Karloff appeared in The Old Dark House along with Ernest Thesiger, with the pair starring together in The Bride of Frankenstein three years later. Charles Laughton and Gloria Stuart were also in The Old Dark House.

In 1933, several Universal horror actors appeared in The Vampire Bat from Larry Darmour Productions. Dwight Frye, Lionel Atwill, and Lionel Belmore all had roles in this film. Faye Wray, who starred in King Kong that same year, also appeared. Although not a Universal picture, I mention it because of the appearance of three Universal horror stalwarts.

In 1933, Claude Rains starred in Universal’s adaptation of H.G. Wells’s story The Invisible Man. This film is one of the better films yet one of the least talked about in the entire catalogue. Una O’Connor appears alongside Gloria Stuart (Titanic) and E.E. Clive, who plays a constable. Rains is brilliant as a scientist who goes mad after developing a formula that turns him invisible. Dwight Frye appears in an uncredited role as a newspaper reporter.

In 1934, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff teamed up for the truly disturbing film The Black Cat. David Manners also makes an appearance. Not necessarily a monster movie, but horror nonetheless. I mention it because of the on-screen pairing of Lugosi and Karloff. The story is loosely based on an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

In 1935, Universal made their first run at a werewolf movie with Henry Hull in the lead in Werewolf of London. Valerie Hobson starred as Hull’s character’s wife. Stuart Walker directed an original screenplay written by Robert Harris and John Colton. One of the most interesting sidebars in the one is the use of what looks like an iPad device connected to what amounts to a doorbell camera. Talk about foreshadowing future technology. Hull’s character is bitten by a werewolf while traveling the wilds of Tibet and subsequently becomes one as a result. This aspect of the story is conflated with the 1941 film’s storyline in Universal’s 2010 film The Wolfman starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins.   

Also in 1935, after much convincing, James Whale directed the much anticipated Bride of Frankenstein, starring Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, E.E. Clive as the burgomaster (a change from Lionel Belmore), Ernest Thesiger, and Una O’Connor. This movie is widely considered the best of all of the Universal horror/monster films, and as one of the greatest films of all-time. Karloff returns as the monster and Elsa Lanchester stars as Mary Shelley/The Bride. Lanchester was married to Charles Laughton who would go on to play Quasimodo in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1939. Lon Chaney starred in the 1923 silent film from Universal.   

Dracula finally got a sequel in 1936 with Dracula’s Daughter. Edward Van Sloan reprised his role as Van Helsing (now called Von Helsing for some reason), and Gloria Holden stars as one of Count Dracula’s victims turned vampire. Dracula himself is not in the movie. The film bears little resemblance to the source material, but Van Sloan’s presence lends itself to the continuity of the story. E.E. Clive appears as a police sergeant. It’s avant garde approach to on-screen lesbianism was way ahead of its time.

Basil Rathbone starred as one of Henry Frankenstein’s sons, Wolf, in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. Karloff once again plays the monster. Lionel Atwill joined the Universal monster stable as Inspector Krogh. Lionel Belmore and Michael Mark return to the franchise as different characters. Bela Lugosi, who turned down the role of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film, joins the cast as Ygor and becomes the driver of the story for two films. Josephine Hutchinson plays Elsa Von Frankenstein. Lugosi’s performance as Ygor may just be the best of his career.

In 1940, Universal took an interesting tack and instead of delivering a sequel to 1932’s The Mummy, the studio introduced a whole new mummy franchise and mythos, starring Tom Tyler as Kharis, an ancient Egyptian mummy, in The Mummy’s Hand. Kharis must defend the tomb of long dead Princess Ananka from infidels and graverobbers, and in this case, archaeologists. A line of priests descended through the ages possess the secret to keeping Kharis alive and shuffling. George Zucco stars as the high priest. Michael Mark makes an appearance in this film as well. Many believe that Hammer Studios’ The Mummy from 1959 with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee  is a remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff film, when in fact it is actually a retelling of The Mummy’s Hand.

The Invisible Man Returns was released in 1940 with Vincent Price and Cedric Hardwicke. That same year, Universal released the little known and seldom talked about The Invisible Woman starring Kitty Carroll. Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz, also stars.

Lon Chaney, Jr., entered the fray in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Bitten by a werewolf, played by Bela Lugosi, Chaney’s character, Lawrence Talbot, turns into a werewolf himself. His father, played by Claude Rains, kills him with a silver-handled walking stick. But as we all, know, nothing in these cinematic universes stays dead for long. Maria Ouspenskaya plays Maleva, Lugosi’s character’s mother, who tries to help Talbot. Ralph Bellamy and Patric Knowles also star.

In 1942, Universal released The Mummy’s Tomb with Chaney Jr. as Kharis the mummy in this one. Dick Foran reprised his role of Stephen Banning from The Mummy’s Hand. George Zucco returns as the high priest. Much of this movie is shown as flashbacks to The Mummy’s Hand.

Also in 1942, The Ghost of Frankenstein starring Chaney as the monster was released. Ralph Bellamy also appears in this film along with Lionel Atwill as Dr. Theodore Bohmer. Cedric Hardwicke stars as Ludwig Frankenstein and the ghost of his father, Henry. Colin Clive died in 1937. Bela Lugosi returns as Ygor and Evelyn Ankers plays Elsa Frankenstein.  

The Invisible Agent was released in 1942, not technically a horror or monster movie, it still follows the invisible man arc. Invisible man science is used to create a World War II solider who could operate behind enemy lines undetected.

In 1943, Chaney Jr. took on the role of Count Dracula, now calling himself Alucard, in Son of Dracula. The plot was a bit ridiculous and broke from the continuity of the Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter story arc in many ways, but the film has a few excellent, creepy moments.   

Also in 1943, Chaney returned as Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Lionel Atwill now plays the mayor, Bela Lugosi is Frankenstein’s monster, Maria Ouspenskaya returns as Maleva, and Dwight Frye plays a concerned citizen. Patric Knowles also stars as Dr. Mannering. Ilona Massey plays Elsa Von Frankenstein.  

George Zucco returned and John Carradine made his first credited appearance in a Universal horror film in 1944’s The Mummy’s Ghost, the third in the Kharis films. Carradine had an uncredited role in The Bride of Frankenstein. Chaney once again played Kharis.

In 1944, Universal released the second “mash-up” film of their monsterverse with House of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff plays Dr. Neimann, Chaney returns as Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, John Carradine is now Count Dracula, Lionel Atwill is Inspector Arnz, and George Zucco plays Lampini. 

Also in 1944, The Mummy’s Curse was released. The film’s locale changes to the deep south of the United States after the second and third movies were based in Massachusetts. As much as Universal did try to keep continuity throughout a franchise, changes like this make absolutely no sense.  

The Invisible Man’s Revenge was also released in 1944. Jon Hall plays Robert Griffin and the character is back to his vengeful, homicidal tendencies. John Carradine also stars.

House of Dracula in 1945 featured Carradine as Dracula, Chaney as Talbot, Atwill as police inspector Holtz, Onslow Stevens as Professor Edlemann, and Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein monster.  

In the three mash-up films, Dracula and Talbot search for cures for their conditions, and the scientists, altruistic at first, can’t help but help themselves to the monsters’ secrets.

In 1946, June Lockhart starred in She-Wolf of London. I’m going to have to watch this one again. It is my recollection that there aren’t any actual werewolves in this one, much like MGM’s Mark of the Vampire 11 years earlier, which didn’t have any vampires in it. Apparently, convincing someone or the people around them that they’re crazy was a good way to screw someone out of an inheritance back in the day.

In 1948, Universal put a comedic spin on its stable of monsters starting with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Lon Chaney, Jr., returns as Lawrence Talbot, Bela Lugosi plays Dracula for only the second time on the big screen (and last), and Glenn Strange returns as Frankenstein’s monster. In 1951, the comedic duo stars in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and then again in 1955’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. The mummy is now named Klaris, played by Eddie Parker, but there seems to be some continuity here from The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, and The Mummy’s Curse. The Abbott and Costello films have their charm but the monsters had become caricatures and shells by this point.

In 1954, Universal launched the gill-man franchise with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Richard Carlson, Richard Denning and Julia Adams star in this wonderful creature feature. Revenge of the Creature was released in 1955, with The Creature Walks Among Us following in 1956. Nestor Paiva reprises his role as Amazonian boat captain Lucas in Revenge

Here are the films listed in franchise order by appropriate monsters. You’ll see how they cross over.

Dracula
1931 Dracula
1936 Dracula’s Daughter
1943 Son of Dracula
1944 House of Frankenstein
1945 House of Dracula
1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Frankenstein

1931 Frankenstein
1935 Bride of Frankenstein
1939 Son of Frankenstein
1942 Ghost of Frankenstein
1943 Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man
1944 House of Frankenstein
1945 House of Dracula
1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Invisible People
1933 The Invisible Man
1940 The Invisible Woman
1940 The Invisible Man Returns
1944 The Invisible Man’s Revenge
1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (cameo by Vincent Price)
1951 Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

Mummies
1932 The Mummy (Imhotep)
———————————————-
1940 The Mummy’s Hand (Kharis)
1942 The Mummy’s Tomb (Kharis)
1944 The Mummy’s Ghost (Kharis)
1955 Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (Klaris)

Werewolves

1935 The Werewolf of London
———————————————-
1941 The Wolf Man (Talbot)
1943 Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man (Talbot)
1944 House of Frankenstein (Talbot)
1945 House of Dracula (Talbot)
———————————————-
1946 She-Wolf of London (June Lockhart)
———————————————–
1948 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Talbot)

Here are the actors who played the same character in more than one movie. Forgive me if I have missed anyone.

Bela Lugosi (Count Dracula): Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Edward Van Sloan (Professor Abraham Van Helsing): Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter

Lon Chaney, Jr. (The Wolf Man/Larry Talbot); The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

John Carradine (Count Dracula): House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula

Lon Chaney, Jr. (Kharis the Mummy): The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost

George Zucco (Andoheb): The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost 

Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein): Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein

Boris Karloff (The Monster): Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein

Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva): The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 

Nestor Paiva (Lucas): Creature from the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature

Now I will detail the actors and which characters they played throughout the Universal Monsterverse if they played more than one character and/or appeared in more than one film. Again, forgive me if I have forgotten anyone.

Bela Lugosi
Dracula, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, Son of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Lon Chaney, Jr.
The Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Tomb, Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Mummy’s Ghost, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein  

Edward Van Sloan
Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula’s Daughter

Lionel Atwill
Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula

David Manners
Dracula, The Mummy, The Black Cat

Dwight Frye
Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Invisible Man

John Carradine
Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Invisible Man’s Revenge, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, The Invisible Man’s Revenge

Michael Mark
Frankenstein, The Black Cat, The Mummy’s Hand, The Ghost of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein

Patric Knowles
The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 

Cedrick Hardwicke
The Invisible Man Returns, Ghost of Frankenstein

Evelyn Ankers
The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man’s Revenge

Ralph Bellamy
The Wolf Man, The Ghost of Frankenstein

Lionel Belmore
Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Ghost of Frankenstein

E.E. Clive
The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter

Valerie Hobson
Werewolf of London, Bride of Frankenstein

Boris Karloff
Frankenstein, The Mummy, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, House of Frankenstein

Your complete story arcs (without Abbott and Costello):

Dracula – Dracula’s Daughter – Son of Dracula – House of Frankenstein – House of Dracula

The Wolf Man – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man – House of Frankenstiein, House of Dracula

The Mummy’s Hand – The Mummy’s Tomb – The Mummy’s Ghost

Creature from the Black Lagoon – Revenge of the Creature – The Creature Walks Among Us

Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula

DC has tried unsuccessfully to replicate what Marvel has done with the MCU. As much as it had to have been planned, the MCU seems to have happened organically, while the DC attempt seems forced. Universal is guilty of this recently with its attempt to create the Dark Universe. The first film, The Mummy in 2017 starring Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, and Russell Crowe, was a mess. It’s an original story set in modern times that probably could have stood on its own, but the filmmakers decided to include Dr. Jekyll as the head of a secretive monster hunting organization. It just doesn’t work. The second film, The Invisible Man, which was released in early 2020, is an excellent, well-done entry. Word is the Dark Universe plans have been scrapped just as attempts to make Bride of Frankenstein were getting underway. 

Many have tried to remake Universal horror films over the years. I don’t want to take a deep dive into what Hammer Studios did from the late 1950s-early 1970s. I mentioned The Wolfman from 2010. I didn’t like the combination of storylines from Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man. Stephen Sommers, an admitted fan of Universal horror, perhaps did the best job with The Mummy in 1999. Starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, Sommers weaves a tale in the Egyptian desert and resurrects the name of Imhotep (Boris Karloff, The Mummy, 1932), played by Arnold Vosloo. It’s more action-adventure than horror, but I adore it. Watching all four Universal mummy movies, you can definitely see where Sommers drew inspiration. The two sequels fell flat, however. Sommers tried to turn Abraham Van Helsing into an action hero played by Hugh Jackman in an unintentionally comical film called Van Helsing in 2004. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula and plenty of werewolves make appearances.

And many have tried to use the characters that flew from the pages of Gothic literature that formed the basis of Universal’s horror canon in new and different ways with varying degrees of success. Showtime’s Penny Dreadful TV series is a great example. Many of the Universal horror stable, or variations thereof, appear throughout the series including Dr. Frankenstein and more than one monster creation, Lawrence Talbot, Count Dracula, Mina Harker (nee Murray), Renfield, and Van Helsing.  

The bottom line here is this. As much as we marvel at what Marvel has done with the MCU, admire (or loathe) what DC tried to do with their cinematic universe, see and appreciate what Stephen King has accomplished over the course of six decades with his multiverse, the Universal Monsterverse was the first. It may not even be the best, that title may belong to Marvel. Intentional or not, it looks and feels organic, at least until the mid-1940s with the mash-up and comedy films. Not all of the movies, monsters or characters crossover or intertwine, but many of the actors do – even if it’s in different roles. Watching them now, you feel like you know the characters, the actors, the screenwriters, the directors, the costumers, the make-up artists, the sound people and the special effects wizards. They’re old friends. They’re like a dram of good single malt Scotch, smooth and warm with a bite.

Just like many of the novels that spawned these characters, the films of the Universal Monsterverse have stood the test of time and will still be watched and enjoyed well into the future. You can’t keep a good monster down.

And just remember … There are such Things!          

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