With a new Halloween making a splash at the box office, we are living in a new golden age of successful horror films. From studio successes like It and A Quiet Place, to smaller yet acclaimed indies like It Follows and Hereditary, there's a new horror film out there for everyone.
But while original (and a remake) horror films are becoming successful, there hasn't been a good film based on the most classic horror characters in decades. To remind us of how good they once were (or to rub salt into the wound caused by The Dark Universe), Universal (which shares a parent company with SYFY) released all 30 of their classic monster films on Blu-ray for the very first time – including all the various sequels and the "monster rallies."
At the dawn of the age of "talkies," Universal Studios co-founder Carl Laemmle made his son Carl Jr. head of studio as a birthday present. Inspired by the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 and The Phantom of the Opera in 1925 (both starring the great Lon Chaney Sr.), Laemmle Jr. decided to look at classic gothic novels, grabbing the rights to Bram Stoker’s chilling novel Dracula. The film, released in February 1931 and starring the now-legendary Bela Lugosi, became an instant success. Laemmle didn't waste a second before announcing plans to make more horror films. First stop? Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Bela Lugosi was originally supposed to play the Monster, but problems with the makeup and the fact that the role was practically non-speaking were a deal breaker for the Hungarian actor. The role then went to then small-time actor Boris Karloff, who delivered an equally terrifying and touching performance. Frankenstein was released not even ten months after Dracula, and like its successor, it was an enormous success.
Universal wasted no time in getting more monster films out there, with The Mummy and The Invisible Man released over the next two years. But, just like Hollywood today, the Classic Monsters showcased the industry's tendency to pump out sequels as long as they kept making money. Each of the monsters got at least two sequels each, except for The Wolf Man. The story goes that screenwriter Curt Siodmak jokingly told producer George Waggner that he had a great title for a new film in the series, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and so the first horror crossover was born.
Quality of the film aside, it's safe to say this was a different kind of crossover. Unlike, say, Freddy vs. Jason, or Alien vs. Predator, Universal did not make a cinematic event. The two aforementioned titles had years of anticipation and fan expectations building up, but Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was just another film featuring these characters. Moreover, it just tried to be both a Frankenstein sequel and a Wolf Man film, splitting the story in half with the monsters barely meeting and finally getting to a fight less than two minutes before the end credits.
With today's studios obsessing over making the next MCU, churning out cookie-cutter films with the specific intent of selling an extended universe, it is fascinating to look back at a time when crossovers were thought of as little more than a gimmick to a dying franchise, just another film in a long series.
By this point, the Universal Classic Monsters turned towards the B-movie territory more and more, choosing fun but silly storylines over the meticulously crafted character-driven stories of the early '30s. The next two crossovers, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), have more in common with The Monster Squad than with The Bride of Frankenstein. Even House of Frankenstein isn't that much of a crossover, as the monsters don't really overlap until the last 15 minutes. The so-called "Monster Rallies" are still just separate stories but in one film, something that would never happen in today's landscape.
The thing about taking completely separate films and connecting them means attempting the monumental task of organizing a continuity around stories that take place in different times, use some of the same landscapes – and also share a lot of the same actors. Even if the monsters met their demises in House of Frankenstein, all three (Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein) return a year later without a scratch on them. There is a charm to such an unapologetically absurd film made for nothing else than audience appeal and money (sure, entertainment, too), even if it makes you wonder how they could have introduced some of the other monsters, as neither the Mummy nor the Invisible Man ever show up.
Just what saved the hypnotic shadows of Browning’s Dracula and the expressionist monsters of Whale’s Frankenstein from being just mere sideshow attractions? Universal caring so little about their once most profitable properties that they gave them to a pair of comedians, of course! Imagine if Marvel grew so tired of The Avengers that they led Key and Peele to suddenly make a film with Hulk and Iron Man, then you'd approach Bud Abbott and Lou Costello's winning formula for a fun and exciting (if absurdly silly) crossover film, 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
The film was a huge hit despite its low budget, launching a series of Abbott and Costello Meet films. They used the monsters as the straight men for the comedic duo, embracing the horror nature of the characters and letting Chaney, Strange and a returning Lugosi to play the characters in the same way they did all those years before, while having Abbott and Costello delivering the punchlines and petrifying screams. The unfortunate side effect of the success of these films is that it finished turning the Universal Monsters into characters for kids.
If it sounds like I'm overly criticizing the crossover films of the very first extended cinematic universe, believe me it's only because of how crazy it sounds nowadays to connect a series of successful films as an afterthought and have them succeed despite giving no thought to continuity or selling a sequel at the end. The main reason cinematic universes fail nowadays is because the first film in the series is only made to sell you on the idea of its sequels.
Think back to Tom Cruise's The Mummy (2017) and how cynical it was in its intentions. There are no stakes in the film as you know everyone will return in the multiple sequels and crossovers, and there are no surprises since they already announced there would be more films. When Nick Fury said to Tony Stark that he was there to talk about "The Avengers Initiative," it was exciting because no one was expecting there to be more than maybe another Iron Man.
By comparison, the Universal Classic Monsters all functioned as standalone films. Even the crossovers and "monster rallies," despite their increasingly convoluted continuity, wrapped up their stories completely. It was up to the next film's writer to find a way to undo the ending of the previous one, as well as do their best to retell the story for those who missed it. You didn't have to watch 18 films as homework in order to just watch the new one; you could just sit down and enjoy the latest meeting between horror legends.
If you are going to do create a shared universe, using your films as teasers for the next one is the absolute worst approach. Universal may have created the first extended universe as an afterthought after following the joke of a screenwriter with no better ideas, but it was only after numerous successful movies that were in no way tarnished by the crossovers. The new Complete Collection serves as a reminder that good foundations are needed to create anything, even if the end result mixes a bunch of scary monsters with Abbott and Costello…