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SYFY WIRE Universal Monsters

Universal Classic Monsters, ranked: Frankenstein, Dracula, and more

All of the Universal Classic Monsters deserve a place in the pantheon of horror greats, but only one can be the champ.

By James Grebey
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Yes, it's still hot outside, but October is just around the corner, and with it comes a bunch of new horror movies — just in time for Halloween. But, while there are tons of new and recent scares to be had, it’s always important to respect your elders. The Universal Classic Monsters — ghouls like Dracula, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster — are all carved into the Mount Rushmore of horror. And, as of Sept. 15, most of the Universal Monster movies (released in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and a few in the ‘50s) are all streaming on Peacock. 

Since these movies are now easy to stream, we have to wonder: Which Universal Classic Monster is the King of the Monsters? (Apologies to Godzilla.) Since some monsters are undoubtedly more iconic than others — Dracula and Frankenstein have been adapted many times, making those monsters cultural pillars — we’ll be ranking each monster’s debut film.

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There are a couple of omissions here. One-offs, like The Black Cat or The Mad Ghoul, aren’t on this list. The Phantom of the Opera isn’t on here, either, because the 1925 version starring Lon Chaney isn’t technically considered part of the Universal Classic Monsters group, but it would feel wrong to put lesser remakes like the 1943 movie on here in its stead. And, we are limiting it to monsters’ first appearance only (with the exception of Frankenstein’s Monster, who naturally does appear in the Bride of Frankenstein). That’s a good thing, because some of the later sequels and crossovers get buck wild, and because Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein might secretly be the best of all of them. 

In any case, SYFY WIRE bids you… welcome… to our Universal Classic Monsters ranking. 

7. The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941)

None of the core Universal Classic Monster movies are bad, but The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., is quite underwhelming on a rewatch. Larry Talbot’s transformation into a werewolf is a highlight even if the technical limitations of the special effects are easy to see more than 80 years later. However, the rest of the movie is oddly underbaked, and it feels like characters just run through a fog-filled spooky forest set for oddly long periods of time without anything interesting happening. For as much as Chaney sells the tragic pathos of Talbot’s curse, the film never really gives us too much of a reason to care about him in the first place.

6. The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy (1932)

The great Boris Karloff only looks like, well, a mummy in a short scene at the beginning of the movie, which on the one hand is a shame because the makeup and character design are incredible. However, Imhotep’s revived human form gives Karloff more freedom to act and to unleash a truly supernatural, hypnotizing stare. The Mummy is a fairly slow movie, especially when compared to the beloved 1999 remake, which turns it into a swashbuckling action-horror romp, but it’s a solid, eerie entry in the Universal Classic Monsters canon. 

5. The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man (1933)

The sequence where Claude Rains unwraps the bandages covering his head, revealing that there’s nothing underneath, is a technical marvel that surely astounded in the ‘30s and still wows today. The Invisible Man feels a little more human and intimate than many other Universal Classic Monsters movies. It’s less supernatural. There are no ancient curses and Dr. Jack Griffin isn’t playing God in the same way that Doctor Frankenstein is. No, he’s just a man driven mad by his invention — though part of the movie’s appeal is that you can only prescribe so much of his fall to abject villainy to the toxic monocane in his invisibility formula. Maybe this is just what men do when they can’t be seen.

4. Dracula (1931)

Dracula (1931)

So much of Dracula, the movie that officially kicked off Universal's reign of screams has become parody. “I do not drink… wine,” for instance, is easy to lovingly mock, as is Bela Lugosi’s whole shtick. If you watch the movie in full, though, it’s all very effective. Bela Lugosi, perhaps even more than Karloff — turns staring into a supernatural superpower, and his Dracula has become the iconic version of Dracula for a reason. There’s an ominous quiet to the whole movie, all of which builds to create a sense that this Dracula, ever so thoughtful and deliberate, is an unstoppable inevitability. 

3. Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

As with Dracula, Frankenstein is so iconic that it’s easy to take for granted because of how much it has been parodied. (Mel Brooks’ masterful spoof Young Frankenstein probably didn’t help, though Brooks’ clear love for the original is evident in that movie.) And yet, doing a mad scientist impression and screaming “it’s alive!” can’t compare with Colin Clive’s frenzied, hubristic exaltation. Make jokes about the bolts in his neck or his flat heat, but Boris Karloff makes The Monster into a truly imposing and, eventually, sad creature. That you comprehend The Monster’s deadly, childlike confusion when he unwittingly drowns a girl — his first and only friend — makes the film that much scarier. Frankenstein is the most iconic version of the science-gone-wrong text for a reason. 

2. The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954)

Is it kind of insane to say The Creature From the Black Lagoon, the fourth-to-last official Universal Classic Monster movie ever made (only two sequels and the final Abbott and Costello came after) is among the best of the bunch? Well, sure, but the thing is that The Creature From the Black Lagoon rocks. It is clearly a movie of the ‘50s. While most previous movies in the franchise dealt with folklore or were set in Europe — the old world — The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a movie about science and progress in the new world… and the threat comes from an even older world in an entirely different way. There is something both new and primal about the movie in a way that feels exciting. Special praise goes to the amazing design of the titular creature and some impressive underwater photography. Maybe it’s just a consequence of being made more than two decades after the early Universal Classic Monster movies, but this film looks incredible.

1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein

The Bride of Frankenstein is, at times, a little more cartoonish than its predecessor. Doctor Septimus Pretorius is almost comically evil compared to Dr. Frankenstein’s more garden-variety hubris, and there are plenty of odd touches. But, Bride of Frankenstein gives The Monster the ability to verbalize his pathos, making his heartbreak upon being rejected by The Bride more horrifying to watch as a viewer than anything we’d seen previously. His final (for now) words of “We belong dead” are gutting. And, though The Bride herself is on screen for what feels like maybe a minute, she makes an incredible impact. Fabulously styled, she acts like a frightened animal, and it’s hard to blame her. In her one scene, she makes two truths clear: She and The Monster are to be pitied, and neither one of them should exist. 

Tons of Universal Classic Monster Movies — including ones not on this list — are now streaming on Peacock