Meet the Universal Monsters Starting Lineup!

In preparation for The Wolfman, we look at some of Universal's most iconic monsters.

by | January 25, 2010 | Comments

For centuries, monster legends have romped over geographic boundaries to permeate folklore stories around the globe. And for decades, ever since Universal first began creating monster flicks in 1923 and subsequently introduced the concept of the horror franchise, movies have made a select few of these monsters legendary through their birth and occasional resurrection on screen. With The Wolfman making his hairy return to theaters on February 12, we at RT thought it was time to recognize the journey that a few of the most iconic and classic Universal Monsters that have made over the years to blaze a path in not only cinema, but popular culture, breakfast tables, and beyond.


Count Dracula

Suave, worldly, seductive, and deathless: is it any wonder folks have never tired of Count Dracula? Ever since his debut in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, the Count has made boundless villainy seem positively charming — how else can he sink his fangs into so many young necks? For moviegoers, two early characterizations helped define the character: F.W. Murnau’s loose 1922 adaptation of Stoker’s book Nosferatu (Stoker’s widow successfully sued for copyright infringement) and Tod Browning’s 1931 classic for Universal, Dracula. While the former, starring Max Shrek, depicts the Count as a rat-like freak, the latter, featuring Bela Lugosi — he of Eastern European accent, impeccable dress, and hypnotic eyes — became the archetype for onscreen vampires thereafter.

However, Lugosi wasn’t the only actor to put a distinctive stamp on the role. In the late 1950s, Christopher Lee stepped into the cape for the bloody, lavish, Horror of Dracula. In more recent years, Francis Ford Coppola mixed bloody gothic horror with eroticism in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, starring Gary Oldman. Since then the Dracula story has undergone endless transformations — it’s been played for laughs (Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Love at First Bite), dark artistry (Guy Maddin’s Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary), and high camp (Andy Warhol’s Blood for Dracula). Even Universal got back into the act with Van Helsing in 2004. The Count may suffer from a terrible curse, but audiences have been blessed with his presence for nearly a century.

Strengths: Eternal life, superhuman strength, control over weather and animals, hypnotic abilities, shapeshifting, invisible in mirrors.

Weaknesses: Sunlight, garlic, crucifixes, Sacramental bread, requires Transylvanian dirt to sleep, constantly needs to drink fresh blood.

Number of movies
200+

First appearance
1922

Most recent appearance
2009


Memorable Appearances


Nosferatu


Nosferatu

1922


Dracula


Dracula

1931


Horror of Dracula


Horror of Dracula

1958


Bram Stoker's Dracula


Bram Stoker’s Dracula

1992


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: Count Chocula, Count Duckula, Count von Count, Blacula, the Castlevania series, Quacula, The Drak Pack, Bauhaus’ “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.”
  • Fun Fact: Plans for a Dracula-themed amusement park in Transylvania were scraped after protests from UNESCO and environmentalists, who said the park would wreak havoc on the rural area. However, the concept remains undead, as Romanian tourism officials still hope to build a Dracula Park closer to Bucharest, where the real-life count, Vlad Tepes, maintained a castle.

The Wolfman

Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein, the Wolfman wasn’t inspired by any particular piece of literature; instead, his legend was drawn from folklore dating all the way back to Greek mythology. As a result, there have been a number of cinematic wolfmen, some of whom came by their lycanthropy in different ways — but this year’s version, like the 1941 Lon Chaney classic, follows Lawrence Talbot, an ill-fated Welsh gentleman whose return home leads to a fateful bite.

By the end of Chaney’s first outing, his character was dead and buried, bludgeoned to death with his own walking stick (and by his own father!), but that didn’t stop Universal from bringing him back to fight Frankenstein (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), making him an unwitting pawn in a mad scientist’s revenge scheme (House of Frankenstein), and finally curing him (House of Dracula) — only to re-cursify the poor sap again for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

In recent years, filmgoers have been more likely to see the Wolfman pop up in campy fare like Transylvania 6-5000 or The Monster Squad — an error Joe Johnston’s updated version seems likely to rectify.

Strengths: Superhuman strength, sharp teeth and claws, heightened sense
of smell, built-in sex appeal with furries, and Natalie Portman

Weaknesses: Silver (particularly bullets and walking sticks), sunlight, fleas, inability to prevent further Howling sequels

Number of movies
25+

First appearance
1935

Most recent appearance
2009


Memorable Appearances


Werewolf of London


Werewolf of London

1935


The Wolf Man


The Wolf Man

1941


Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman


Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman

1943


An American Werewolf in London


An American Werewolf in London

1981


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: Robert Kirkman’s Astounding Wolf-Man comic, Wolfman Jack, the Commodore 64 Wolfman game, Teen Wolf and Teen Wolf Too, Jack Nicholson in Wolf, hippies, ZZ Top, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London,” Mr. and Mrs. Del Toro
  • Fun Fact: Though Lon Chaney wasn’t the first to play the Wolf Man — that honor went to Henry Hull, in 1935’s Werewolf of London — Chaney was justifiably proud of the fact that he was the only actor who could claim responsibility for all of his character’s appearances in the classic Universal monster movies of the ’40s. And my, how far special effects have come: While you’re marveling at Benicio’s remarkably lupine appearance (and Gene Simmons-supplied howl!) in The Wolfman, take time to remember that Chaney’s transformation involved hours of having yak hair glued to his face.

Frankenstein’s Monster

If you’ve taken any sort of high school English course, you’ve more than likely read Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (or at least crafted a report based on Cliffs Notes). And if you’ve read the book, you probably already know that the popular film portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster is less than faithful to its source. The monster’s first on-screen appearance came as early as 1910, in a silent film titled Frankenstein, which was actually somewhat close to Shelley’s original story. Since then, however, the monster has been portrayed and reimagined in many ways and in a variety of genres, from Blaxploitation to B-movie skin flicks..

In truth, it’s likely that Shelley turned over in her grave when the classic Universal horror films of the 30s and 40s reduced her emotionally and psychologically complex monster to a groaning, flat-headed, mentally deficient giant with bolts in his neck. But this characterization has become the, well, universally portrayed representation of the monster, and you can still find the same cold, lifeless expression plastered across green Halloween masks every October.

More recently, a few films, including 1994’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, have attempted to depict the story as it was originally written, characterizing the monster as a cognizant, functioning being, a tragic victim of his circumstances, as opposed to a sluggish zombie oaf. And while there are those who will argue that the prospect of a hideously disfigured undead goliath with the power to reason is much more terrifying, it seems most are content to cower in fear from a big green guy who moans and rips up junk.

Strengths: Brute Strength, mix-n-match body parts, resurrectibility

Weaknesses: Women, large bodies of water, mirrors, electricity, compound sentences, desire for romantic partnership, dependence upon Big & Tall stores

Number of movies
30+

First appearance
1910

Most recent appearance
2004


Memorable Appearances


Frankenstein


Frankenstein

1931


The Bride of Frankenstein


The Bride of Frankenstein

1935


The Curse of Frankenstein


The Curse of Frankenstein

1957


Mary Shelley's Frankenstein


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

1994


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: Frankenhooker, Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Edward Scissorhands, Rocky (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Herman Munster (The Munsters), Lurch (The Addams Family), Blackenstein, Franken Berry Cereal, Dolly the Sheep, the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein”, The Incredible Hulk, Master P’s catchphrase
  • Fun Fact: When Mary Shelley was still an 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and only “dating” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, the couple visited Lord Byron in Switzerland during a particularly rainy summer. As they sat indoors and told German ghost stories to each other, Lord Byron suggested they all pen their own similar tales. Not only did this result in the conception of Frankenstein, it also compelled Byron to compose the beginnings of what would become The Vampyre, another legendary work of horror fiction.

The Mummy

With over 3,000 years of life experience, the Mummy has proven a very adaptable monster teammate, manifesting himself as both a human seeking love long buried and a murderous killer with no regard for human life. First played by horror legend Boris Karloff (who also starred as Frankenstein’s Monster) in 1932, The Mummy was an Egyptian priest named Imhotep revived by an ancient spell who searches for a way to revive his lover or mummify one that looks like her — as most any guy in love would do if the resources were available.

The Mummy would later be revived in Kharis, a slow plodding, killing machine of very few words who delivered revenge on behalf of Egyptian priests in The Mummy’s Hand and The Mummy’s Tomb (where Wolf Man Lon Chaney took on the role of the Mummy) and two more follow-ups. The UK’s Hammer Films Productions would revisit the Kharis mummy character in The Mummy (1959), and created three more Mummy movies that were not part of a series, but followed the same general premise. While the Mummy made a number of appearances after the Hammer films, Imhotep was most notably awakened again in 1999’s The Mummy, which spawned four other franchise movies starring Brendan Fraser and later, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Part desperate lover, part bandaged killing machine, the Mummy might lack some of the charisma and sex appeal of his teammates, but his well-rested, adaptable personality makes him one of cinema’s most iconic monsters.

Strengths: Hearing people read while sleeping, death-inducing hypnotic gazes, catching up to people while walking, staying alive, confidence with women (when attempting to mummify them), sand/insect/mummy army control, ability to endure eternal pain, monogamy

Weaknesses: Dependent on life-giving scrolls, one track mind (love or killing), Brendan Fraser, flesh eating insects, eternal pain, dry, irritable skin

Number of movies
25+

First appearance
1932

Most recent appearance
2008


Memorable Appearances


The Mummy


The Mummy

1932


The Mummy's Hand


The Mummy’s Hand

1940


The Mummy


The Mummy

1959


The Mummy


The Mummy

1999


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: Muppet Mummy’s “Night and Day,” Three Stooges’
    We Want Our Mummy, Bubba Ho-Tep,
    Mickey Mouse’s Halloween costume, the Mummy Smurf, a bad guy in Duck Tales, Revenge of the Mummy ride at Universal Studios, Fruity Yummy Mummy cereal, toilet paperings of sleeping people
  • Fun Fact: Footage from The Mummy (1932) was recycled for 1940’s
    The Mummy’s Hand to tell the origin story of its mummy Kharis. Despite the 1932 Mummy star Boris Karloff being visible in the reused footage, he was not listed in the credits.

The Invisible Man

Despite his condition, the Invisible Man has become one of the most instantly recognizable and iconic of the Universal monsters — which just goes to show where a few bandages, a stylish fedora and a pair of dark shades will get you. Something of the thinking man’s monster, he’s less outright villain than just a really unfortunate, if overly curious dude.

H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel introduced the character as an opportunistic scientist who tests his formula for invisibility on himself and goes completely mad in the process. But it was Claude Rains’ sympathetic turn in James Whale’s 1933 film that brought the creature to enduring notoriety; afflicted by the misguided need to help mankind, Rains brought pathos and redemption to the character. It remains the best portrayal in the face of many sequels, spin-offs and inspired-bys: Vincent Price’s take in the sequel, unauthorized Japanese and Mexican versions, and Chevy Chase’s ill-fated comedic spin.

In recent years the character lent his essence to Paul Verhoeven’s creepy Hollow Man, his dignity to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and will soon appear in two new films. Not bad for a guy who doesn’t exist.

Strengths: Invisibility… avoiding law enforcement authorities, getting into places for free, spying on the girls’ locker room

Weaknesses: The crushing existential crisis that comes with the inability to be recognized; madness

Number of movies
20+

First appearance
1934

Most recent appearance
2009


Memorable Appearances


The Invisible Man


The Invisible Man

1933


The Invisible Man Returns


The Invisible Man Returns

1940


Mad Monster Party


Mad Monster Party

1967


Memoirs of an Invisible Man


Memoirs of an Invisible Man

1959


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: The Invisible Woman, Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hollow Man, Michael Jackson’s shopping disguises
  • Fun Fact: 2003’s Erotic Adventures of the Invisible Man concerned a struggling young Hollywood actor who breaks into the adult industry after discovering the fabled invisibility drug.

The Gill-man

Gill-man (the creature’s infrequently used actual name) first appeared in
1954 in The Creature from the Black Lagoon as a misguided amphibious humanoid,
the last of his kind and prone to violence. The following two years saw
Universal releasing two sequels, the first (Revenge of the Creature) sees
the Gill-man captured by humans and being studied in Florida, and the final
of the trilogy (The Creature Walks Among Us) features callous scientists
attempting to insert the Gill-man into normal human society.

Of all the Universal monsters, this creature from the black lagoon is the
least outwardly exciting though perhaps the most psychologically
fascinating. Gill-man’s human appearance evokes the uncanny valley effect;
he’s terrifying because of how much he reminds us of ourselves. He’s shy and
quiet until provoked and is prone to fall madly in love with female humans,
which he does in each movie. Of course, humanity doesn’t take too kindly
when your displays of affection don’t go beyond stalking and kidnapping
women.

Strengths: Swimming prowess, superhuman strength, sharp claws, tough
skin, fast healing

Weaknesses: Love, throbbing biological urges, can be damaged by prolonged sunlight
exposure, rotenone (a common chemical in pesticides and insecticides)

Number of movies
4

First appearance
1954

Most recent appearance
1987


Memorable Appearances




Creature From the
Black Lagoon


1954





Revenge of the Creature


1955


Mad Monster Party


The
Creature Walks Among Us


1956


Memoirs of an Invisible Man


The Monster
Squad


1987


Did You Know?

  • Pop Culture Presence: The Missing Link in Monsters vs
    Aliens
    , Rikuo in Capcom video game Darkstalkers, cameo appearance in
    The Munsters, The Toxic Avenger
  • Fun Fact: Gill-man will stalk the big screen once again
    when he returns in 2011 with an in-development Creature from the Black Lagoon
    remake.

Written by: Tim Ryan, Jeff Giles, Ryan Fujitani, David Chung, Luke Goodsell, and Alex Vo

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