31 Days of Halloween: Universal vs. Hammer -- which classic horror studio reigns supreme?

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Oct 7, 2015, 7:52 PM EDT (Updated)

Horror movies have been around almost as long as cinema itself, but it was largely through the efforts of two studios -- one American and one British -- that horror became a cinema staple, with both companies advancing the genre, celebrating its many elements and making it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those two businesses were Universal Pictures and Hammer Studios, and the question is, which was the most important to the horror film as a whole? 

The mid-1920s also saw one American company -- Universal Pictures -- become the first Hollywood studio to embrace the genre, starting off with silents like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man Who Laughs (1929). The talkie era heralded the true launch of what is now known as Universal Horror. Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and many others not only cemented horror as a potent box-office and artistic force but made legends out of actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, along with directors like James Whale and even groundbreaking makeup artist Jack Pierce. 

The Universal films (as many as 74 between 1931 and 1960) ran the gamut in quality but established so much. The films introduced archetypal versions of monsters from both supernatural literature and folklore -- many ingrained in pop culture to this day -- and also visualized the Gothic trappings, haunted castles, European hamlets, misty graveyards and dank dungeons that were key genre components for years. They also arguably introduced ideas like that of a sequel continuing the story from the original (The Bride of Frankenstein), the shared universe (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) and even the horror/sci-fi crossover (The Invisible Man).

At the same time, Universal's output was, in many ways, a product of the early film era: They could be kind of stodgy (especially the early ones) and were often filmed like plays, utilizing a few cheap sets and the same stock of actors. Little violence or gore was shown, and what was considered shocking to audiences back in the 1930s could probably play for little kids now without causing much of a problem (I was little when I first saw them). And almost all their horror and sci-fi titles were filmed in black and white.

That's where Hammer came in. 

In the latter half of the 1950s, a struggling British studio scored with two sci-fi outings that utilized some of the elements of horror: These were the famous The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and its sequel, Quatermass 2 (1957), featuring Brian Donlevy as a scientist battling alien infestations. Execs at the company, Hammer Studios, then decided to revive the Frankenstein monster (which was in the public domain) in its own film, taking care to set their story apart from the Universal entry of 26 years earlier.

The result was The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), starring Peter Cushing as Dr. Frankenstein and relatively unknown bit player Christopher Lee as the creature, and with that a second wave of cinematic horror was unleashed upon the world. Hammer's Frankenstein movie was in vivid color, with lots of blood to pop off the screen. The film had a faster pace and was shot much more energetically (by director Terence Fisher), while Cushing and Lee established primal new editions of the long-dormant characters. The movie was a smash.

Following The Curse of Frankenstein in 1958 was the equally bloody and swashbuckling Dracula (known in the U.S. as Horror of Dracula), with Lee as the vampire and Cushing as his nemesis, Van Helsing. It was an even bigger hit than Curse of Frankenstein and paved the way for a third collaboration between the two actors in 1959's The Mummy, which topped the box office of Dracula. The age of Hammer Horror had begun.

Universal may have introduced horror as a serious genre, but Hammer was ahead of its time in its use of gore, its saturated colors and the films' often provocative sexuality (Hammer women were among the hottest of the era). The company had access to the best props and locations in Europe and allowed its directors to push the films in interesting new directions with both style and sophistication that critics at the time ignored.

Like Universal, Hammer flooded the market with its horror output, doing six more Frankenstein films, eight more Dracula outings and two more Mummy pictures, while also getting even bloodier and sexier in movies like The Vampire Lovers (1970), Twins of Evil (1972) and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971). The studio also attempted to bring Gothic characters like Dracula into modern settings in movies like Dracula A.D. 1972, but Hammer had exhausted itself by the late 1970s and released its last picture under the original company ownership in 1979.

Universal is still around, of course, and is one of the biggest movie studios in the world, occasionally trying to revive its classic horror library. Hammer's doors were reopened in 2007 and the studio has produced a handful of pictures, with only The Woman in Black scoring at the box office. During their peak years, however, Universal and Hammer were the DC and Marvel of horror cinema. But which was more vital?

As influential and pioneering as Universal was, and as great and timeless as some of those films remain, I'd give the edge to Hammer. After all, the classic horror genre was basically dead by the mid-'50s -- Universal had turned its iconic monsters into buffoons, and no one else was producing anything of merit. Hammer not only revived the genre but shepherded it into the modern world, electrifying its period pieces with bolder storytelling and those huge, heaping spoonfuls of thick red blood and fetchingly exposed flesh. 

Below are some of the best-known horror icons shared by both studios and how each version matches up ...

Dracula: Bela Lugosi vs. Christopher Lee

Lugosi's elegantly attired Count is probably the one that's most embedded in the cultural zeitgeist, and deservedly so: He originated the role onstage and infused it with an eerie stillness that he never quite recaptured even in great later performances in movies like The Black Cat and Son of Frankenstein. But Lee added a primal, animal-like intensity and sexuality to the role, making him a much more frightening adversary because he was much more threatening to men while hard to resist for the ladies. We cherish them both, but Lee gets the edge. Winner: Lee


The Monster: Boris Karloff vs. Christopher Lee

Lee brought a certain amount of pathos and sadness to his embodiment of Frankenstein's creation (and also had a markedly different and grislier look, especially in full color), but there is no topping the work of the great Karloff. His creature was a bundle of conflicting impulses, from childlike innocence to murderous rage, and the monster's gradual evolution to wounded self-awareness in The Bride of Frankenstein confirms that his portrayal over the course of the two films is one for the ages. He probably should have won an Oscar. Winner: Karloff


Dr. Frankenstein: Colin Clive vs. Peter Cushing 

There's really no contest here. Clive was not a particularly strong leading man, and while his first reaction to the creature ("It's alive!") is the stuff of cinema history, much more of his performances in both the original movie and Bride felt whiny and dissolute. Cushing owned Victor Frankenstein, making him into a cunning, complex and ruthless figure who let nothing stop his experiments, and it's no accident that over the course of six films his creations were mere supporting players to the real monster, the Baron himself. Winner: Cushing


The Wolf Man: Lon Chaney Jr. vs. Oliver Reed

Chaney's furry visage is another pop culture icon, but The Wolf Man (1941) is one of the more dated, talky Universal efforts despite the star's anguished, impressive performance. Much darker and visceral was Hammer's The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), which featured the first credited screen appearance of the late, great Oliver Reed, the fantastic British actor who remains underrated to this day. His performance as Leon is tortured and multi-layered, and as much as we love Chaney we have to give the nod to Reed on this one. Winner: Reed


The Mummy: Boris Karloff vs. Christopher Lee

1932's The Mummy is, despite some lavish set and costume design, one of the slowest-moving of the early Universal classics. But the film is redeemed by Karloff's mesmerizing performance, in which he portrays both the rotting, mummmfied corpse of Imhotep and his reanimated human form, Ardath Bey, whose wizened visage is almost scarier than when he's in full mummy mode. Hammer's The Mummy (1959) featured Lee in impressive makeup as well, but his Kharis was used more as muscle by a villainous Egyptian cult leader (the movie was a loose remake of two of Universal's later Mummy films, The Mummy's Hand and The Mummy's Tomb). Both are fun to unwrap, but ...  Winner: Karloff


The Phantom of the Opera: Lon Chaney vs. Herbert Lom

The Phantom has always been a peripheral horror character -- he's earned his horror cred through his appalling visage and murderous ways. There's no question that Lon Chaney's definitive performance in the 1925 silent classic cemented that reputation, and the great actor's portrayal remains unchallenged to this day. Universal itself remade the film in 1943, putting a little scar on Claude Rains' face and making it a lush pseudo-musical, but Hammer upped the horror quotient with its own 1962 version, starring Herbert Lom as a horribly burned Phantom. Their take was neither tragic nor eerie, though, leaving Chaney as the supreme champion behind the mask.  Winner: Chaney


Satanic Cults: The Black Cat vs. The Devil Rides Out:

The Devil has been the reigning supervillain of horror since the start, so it made sense that both Universal and Hammer would get in on the Satanic game. 1934's The Black Cat, the first of eight movies that paired Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, is remarkably morbid and depraved for its time, with Karloff playing an Aleister Crowley-type character and the film featuring a black mass, human sacrifice, drug use, a person being skinned alive and hints of necrophilia. The Devil Rides Out is also one of Hammer's best, with Christopher Lee in a rare heroic role as he battles a relentless cult led by the creepy Charles Gray (The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Let's just say the Devil made both studios do it, and they did it very, very well.  Winner: A tie!


Creature Features: The Creature from the Black Lagoon vs. The Abominable Snowman

Universal went to the Amazon in search of its monster, a half-fish, half-man, while Hammer journeyed to the Himalayas to prove the existence of the Yeti. Jack Arnold's 1954 Creature From the Black Lagoon was a straight action story featuring a taut script, a beautiful leading lady (Julie Adams) and an original and occasionally scary monster (when you couldn't see the seams on the suit). The Abominable Snowman, from Quatermass writer Nigel Kneale, was more cerebral in nature and put an interesting twist on the concept of the creature, but was a far less exciting film despite its more thoughtful premise. The Creature swims away with this one. Winner: The Creature

That's our tale of the tape for Universal vs. Hammer. Where do you stand?