The classics are the classics and they are classics for a reason. The Universal monster movies of the 1930’s-50’s became the original dynasty of horror. They were the first horror movie franchises ever. They started a legacy. Stories that were around for some time before the films will always be remembered for their universal incarnations. Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s Monster, these will always be what comes to mind when people think of these characters.
5. THE MUMMY-
Boris Karloff’s second most-famous horror role was the role of Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy. The image of Karloff all bound up as the newly-awakened mummy is iconic, which is surprising as he is only in the makeup for one very brief scene. The rest of the time, Imhotep poses as a modern-day Egyptian named Ardeth Bay. He was put to death for attempting to resurrect the princess Ankh-es-en-amon, his forbidden lover. But he falls for a woman in the present day, who he believes to be the incarnation of his long-lost lover. While most mummy films following this turned into a traditional stalking bandaged corpse out for revenge story, this original film is more sincere and emotionally complex. Ironically, the plotline has been borrowed for numerous Dracula incarnations since.
Tod Browning’s Dracula is a film that survives because of its actors. It is not a very visual film, except for some amazing production design, and sticks much too close to the play it’s based on. In fact, a filmed play is virtually what it is. The Spanish production, filmed at the same time on the same sets, is in many ways a superior film. But the Spanish film does not have Dwight Frye or Bela Lugosi, and in the end that actually makes a world of difference. Being essentially a filmed play, it’s up to the actors to carry the entire production on their back, and they do. Frye makes an incredible transition from reserved and respectable to unpredictable and totally manic. The insanity in his performance is stunning. Meanwhile, Lugosi became iconic as Dracula and every single actor who has taken the role later on has had to try and shake his image.
Frankenstein remains as incredible now as it was when it was first released, following on the heels of Dracula in 1931. It takes many liberties from the source material, but the core concept is utterly clear. Karloff is tragic and empathetic as the simple, misunderstood creature. Colin Clive is mad, ambitious and just shy of antagonist as he manages to bring humanity into Frankenstein himself. The entire film has a strong sense of direction and there are some scenes that will be classic until the end of time. After everything that can be put on the screen now, the scene by the water with the monster and the little girl is one of the most unsettling sequences in cinema history. And “It’s alive!” is one of film’s most famous lines.
2. THE WOLF MAN-
The Wolf Man succeeds in not only being a suspenseful, scary horror film, but an utterly tragic one. If werewolf movies are inherently about people struggling to control impulses and find balance in their nature, than The Wolf Man will forever be one of the best. The makeup by Jack Pierce is simple compared to what is used today, but Lon Chaney, Jr. completely disappears inside of it. While the world created around him is great, it’s really Chaney’s performance that makes this one a home run and such a well-remembered classic. He is not a great guy at the start, almost a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But then he is bitten, and when he struggles to deal with his condition and the beast that has emerged from inside himself, he becomes utterly sympathetic.
1. THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN-
The Bride of Frankenstein is proof that a sequel can surpass the original. Frankenstein is one of the best of the Universal horror pantheon, but Bride of Frankenstein is the best. It drives the story even closer to the themes of Shelley’s original novel. Clive is more tragic as Frankenstein, Karloff is even more sympathetic as the monster as it learns to speak in this film and begins to understand some of its own nature. Elsa Lanchester gives one of the best horror performances in history, playing not only the titular bride, but Mary Shelley herself in the film’s prologue sequence. She based her performance as the bride on animals and for the four minutes she is on screen it is impossible to look away. This is tragic, gothic horror tinged with smartly placed comedy. Simply put, it is one of the best horror movies ever made.