Longing for Death in Universal's Monster Movies
The great gothic horror films that Universal Studios produced in the 1930s and 40s, especially the ones that spawned series – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man – have a timeless appeal and a thematic depth that warrant better appreciation than what they have received. The myriad of sequels they produced deserve to be reevaluated as a cohesive saga as well, complete with a unifying theme, instead of being seen as progressively worsening attempts to cash in on past successes. Each series attempted to coalesce the strongest themes of each horror character until they all eventually converged into one continuing story.
The legacy began with Dracula in 1931. It was such a sensation that the studio, rescued from bankruptcy, kept the horror stories rolling out until a brief respite in 1936. These included Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Raven (1934), The Black Cat (1934), The Werewolf of London (1935), and several others.
The surprise success of a second Frankenstein sequel, Son of Frankenstein (1939), got the producers brainstorming again and by 1940 they were back on a roll, convinced that plots and characters already at their disposal had limitless potential. Remarkably successful sequels to Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man proceeded for the next several years, accompanied by an unconnected, but extremely popular, Mummy series. It all wrapped up in 1945, which saw the cycle’s last serious incarnations of all four monsters.
There were revivals, of course, most notably by England’s Hammer Studios in the late 50s and 60s. They produced bloody, Technicolor versions of most of Universal’s hits, including series of seven films each for Dracula and Frankenstein. In later American interpretations, however, the emphasis was usually on comedy. The last two films in the Universal series, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), were so laden with camp value that, in a sense, the series could not have kept a straight face much longer. The first and best of the horror-comedies was Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), which is primarily significant because it boasted Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising their trademark roles as Dracula and the Wolf Man, respectively.
In some ways, this film, though a comedy, is really the last of the Universal horror series. The 60s saw such manifestations as The Munsters TV show, and the Rankin & Bass animated kids picture Mad Monster Party (1966), both of which made the most of the idea of combining all of Universal’s monsters into one big extravaganza. Finally, of course, there was Mel Books’ Young Frankenstein (1974), which paid loving homage to the conventions and characters of the old films, even down to utilizing the actual electrical equipment from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Although directors like Tod Browning and James Whale made essential contributions to creating the visual and thematic aesthetic of Universal’s horror pictures, obviously the actors were the most recognizable component of the movies’ success; and not just the stars but the supporting players as well. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were the reigning kings of the horror genre in the 30s. They competed for roles and they competed for screen time in certain films together. Lon Chaney, Jr. bears the distinction of being the only horror star to play all four of the major monsters, in different films of course. Edward van Sloan played Prof. Van Helsing in Dracula and equally authoritative scientists in Frankenstein and The Mummy. Una O’Connor was the amusingly high-strung, and high-pitched, harridan in The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. Foremost among the character actors in these films was the insane Dwight Frye, who played Renfield in Dracula, Fritz in Frankenstein, Karl in Bride of Frankenstein, and – very briefly – wary villagers in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Also memorable were Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy woman Maleva in the first two Wolf Man films, and Lionel Atwill as the constable in several Frankenstein sequels.
Jack Pierce also deserves immense credit for creating the look and feel of the films, single-handedly coming up with the complicated make-up designs and effects for most of them. It was he who made the top of the Frankenstein monster’s head flat and attached the electrodes to the sides of his neck. He made Boris Karloff’s mummy look appropriately aged, shriveled and dust-ridden. He placed that towering bouffant on Elsa Lanchester’s head for The Bride of Frankenstein. Probably his most complex work came with The Wolf Man, in which he enabled Lon Chaney, Jr. to metamorphosize onscreen from a man into a werewolf. This he accomplished by painstakingly adding more and more hair and make-up to Chaney’s face over a series of dissolves, giving the appearance of a seamless transformation taking just a few seconds.
The greatest stories and characters in Universal’s horror films were always concerned with two major issues; first, the victory over death, and then the quest for death. What Count Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster all have in common is that they are immortal as a symptom of suffering from their respective curses. The Frankenstein creature is the victim of scientific tampering with nature, and progressively becomes the tool of successive masters. The Mummy Imhotep survives thanks to religious mysticism, preserving himself deliberately in order to seek vengeance and reclaim his loved one. But in the sequel films, the Mummy Kharis becomes a tool of others as well, who revive him to do their bidding. Dracula and Lawrence Talbot, however, are both victims of paranormal disease – (vampirism and lycanthropy) – and struggle with physical and mental consequences as a result.
Many argue that Christopher Lee was much closer to Bram Stoker’s description of Count Dracula, which is probably true, but Bela Lugosi, being Hungarian, nevertheless exudes the aura of old Europe more than any of the many other actors who interpreted the role. His eyes, accent and theatrical gesticulations are all beautifully exotic to American audiences. The film itself, under Tod Browning’s direction, is incredibly stodgy, even for 1931, but it is also imbued with an otherworldly eccentricity that makes it endlessly pleasing to audiences; (i.e. the inexplicable armadillos in Dracula’s castle, and the wolf darting across the lawn that is never seen, only pointed to).
In this first outing, Dracula as a character is ancient and decadent, with no connection to the modern world, despite his decidedly British evening wear. He is a predator, long removed from human emotion of any kind, except desire. He has neither the nobility of Stoker’s original characterization, nor the animal savagery of Christopher Lee. He is hesitantly charming, (though only as a means of disguise), but also prone to quick outbursts of impatient anger.
The psyche of Dracula here is much less troubled than in later films, comfortable as he is in his role as an aristocratic hunter of humanity, and yet his dialogue is infused with the brooding regret that will boil to the surface in nearly all of the sequels. “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.” “To die, to be truly dead, must be glorious.” He is aware of his curse, but accepting of it, sharing his momentary philosophical episodes with only those he respects – (Mina and Van Helsing).
Capitalizing on the dread of science and the body in revolt is Frankenstein’s (1931) tale of a being pieced together from the remains of unknown donors. The story, here as in Mary Shelley’s novel, is Dr. Frankenstein’s – his moral quandaries, his ambitions, etc. – not his creation’s, but the incredible resonance that audiences felt for the monster quickly shifted focus from the doctor to his project.
In the beginning, the monster is unconscious of his abnormal origins, stumbling about in this strange world looking for someone to love him, but starting with the first sequel, taking place immediately after the events of Frankenstein, he will be painfully aware that he is a living abomination in the eyes of the world. As portrayed by the gaunt Boris Karloff, he conveys with perfect authenticity first the misery and confusion of a baby’s first steps, followed by the adolescent’s rage and contempt for the world upon realizing its imperfections.
Since the monster was not born, he cannot die, though not for lack of trying on his parts and the parts of nearly everyone around him. Over the course of the series, the humanism of Karloff’s interpretation will gradually be eroded into a shambling vacancy in the monster. By the time Glenn Strange takes over the role in House of Frankenstein, he will be restored to the mute mindlessness of his first moments. Or, continuing the lifespan motif, he could be seen to have embraced the apathy of middle-age, obeying without complaint the orders of the parade of mad scientists who revive him time and again.
The Mummy (1932) exploited trendy interest in Egyptology, spawned by the relatively recent discovery of King Tut’s tomb. This time, it is not disease or science that prolongs life, but religion. The ancient priest Imhotep (Karloff again) is condemned to eternal life for the sin of putting love above the dogma of his cult. Like the Frankenstein monster before him, (and after having his tongue cut out), he is rendered a speechless automaton, whose sole function is do his masters’ bidding.
Flash forward to the 1930s and Imhotep’s tomb is disturbed by pesky archaeologists. Waking up swathed in dusty bandages, he punishes those responsible, but also has time to pursue a girl whom he believes to be the reincarnation of his true love, the one he got into hot water for in the first place.
The Mummy is interesting because it contrasts the idea of life preserved unnaturally with the concept of reincarnation. Whether desirable or not, it seems, human spirits are proven to be eternal realities and will come back to a mortal state in one way or another. In the mummy’s case, it is a curse that causes his resurrection, but in his victim’s case, she just happens to have been deposited by destiny into the right place to meet up with her lover from a previous life.
Both scenarios stem from the same fear, of course, the unknown mystery of death. All these horror films attempt to address the dread of mortality by positing that death can be staved off, or that we can be reborn into a succession of identities throughout the eternities.
The Wolf Man (1941) was wonderfully able to amalgamate nearly all of the known werewolf legends into one film, (a feat unmatched by the previous Werewolf of London), but more importantly, it invented a few of its own. These conventions, devised by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, have glued themselves onto werewolf folklore as much as Lugosi’s accent and widow’s peak have shaped the worldwide conception of Dracula.
All the business about silver bullets, wolfbane and pentagrams comes from this film, and Siodmak wrote the famous ditty: “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright,” which is repeated in several films. Since the action of The Wolf Man takes place in present-day England, Siodmak found a way to bring the 19th century Eastern Europe of Dracula and Frankenstein’s worlds into the film with the characters of the gypsies Maleva and Bela (Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi). Not only do they infuse the environment with their superstitions, music, and pagan religion, but they literally bring with them into modern times the curse of the werewolf, as it is the gypsy Bela who infects Talbot with the disease.
Lawrence Talbot, as played by Lon Chaney, Jr., is easily the most sympathetic of all the major Universal monsters. He is the most conscious of his affliction, and the most concerned with alleviating his guilt for the murders he commits. This phenomenon is almost certainly due to the fact that the film was made ten years after Dracula and Frankenstein, in a time when there was a tremendous influence of Freudian psychoanalysis and Brechtian existentialism in the American arts, thanks in large part to the influx into Broadway and Hollywood of German-Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler.
More blatantly than all the previous monsters, The Wolf Man touches on the basic nature of horror; the idea that we all have a savage side that could be brought out under the right circumstances. But unlike in Dr. Jeckyll’s controlled experiments, the victim of lycanthropy can be changed against his will whenever the full moon rises.
By the time The Wolf Man was released, Universal was already steadfastly in sequel mode. By 1940, there had already been one sequel to Dracula, one to The Mummy, and three sequels to Frankenstein. This is where things began to get interesting. The push to merge the series could be seen, with some fairness, as a cynical attempt to cash in on the entire monster stable as quickly as possible. The films work, however, not because of this marketing ploy, but because the themes running beneath the surface of all the aforementioned stories are closely interrelated. They all began with the quest to conquer death and gradually shifted to the quest for death itself.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is at once the first and greatest of all the sequels. In it, the mad Dr. Pretorius turns up to persuade Dr. Frankenstein to resume his research out of a desire to control the world. Meanwhile, the Creature – still alive, after all – demands that Frankenstein build him a mate. When the woman is unveiled, the monster realizes that they both are crimes against God and nature and kills himself, the bride, and Dr. Pretorius for good measure, allowing the good guys to escape. “We belong dead!” he proclaims with all the sincerity of a political revolutionary. For the first and last time, the monster is allowed to express a moral qualm as well as human desires beyond wreaking havoc.
Aided by director James Whale’s sense of humor, the film is acutely aware of the appeal of freakishly extreme characters and situations. It is a sensibility that will appear in many of the sequels, especially in the ones where the creature meets other members of Universal’s monster family. In addition to just the monster, mad doctor, and the crazed assistant, (which were all in the first film), now we get a deranged and completely power-mad and murderous scientist (Pretorius), and a perverse replica of a woman complete with the most recognizably bizarre hairdo in horror movie history. No Frankenstein film would be complete without angry, torch-bearing villagers, and so we get even more of them this time around too.
The film also commenced the never-ending trend of titling films as “Relative of So-and-So”, such as Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, etc., even though only a couple of those titles accurately describe the characters in the films. The “bride” in question in Bride of Frankenstein, for example, is really the creature’s, not Dr. Frankenstein’s intended, and the vampire in Son of Dracula appears to be Dracula himself, not any offspring.
A year after the monster got his bride, it was discovered that Count Dracula had an orphaned daughter. It is never really clarified if this woman is literally his child, or if she is really just a “daughter” in the sense that Dracula made her by turning her into a vampire. Like the Frankenstein sequel, Dracula’s Daughter (1936) begins just moments after the original film left off. Though not a masterpiece, the film is well-remembered to horror aficionados as one of the more mature Universal entries, even down to taboo lesbian overtones between the titular vampire and her female victims. It is also significant because the Countess seeks out help from a scientist to “cure” her, just as the monster in Bride of Frankenstein and the first werewolf in The Werewolf of London did. The film was moderately successful, but unfortunately the character never reappeared in as many films as her late father would.
1939’s Son of Frankenstein featured Basil Rathbone as the actual “son” of the real Dr. Frankenstein, Boris Karloff in the monster role for the last time, and the triumphant return of Bela Lugosi as the demented Ygor, a murderer who escaped the gallows with a broken neck and uses the revived monster to exact his revenge. Here we also see Lionel Atwill for the first time as the voice of reason, a one-armed constable forever mediating between lynch mobs and Frankenstein’s heirs. One of the principal highlights of the film is the deliberately atmospheric direction by Roland V. Lee, clearly inspired by the nightmarish and distorted lighting and set design of German Expressionism. The film’s production design and eccentric characters brought the series even deeper into camp than its Whale-directed predecessor did. In fact, it borders on outright parody more than once. It is also significant in robbing the monster of his sensitivity and relegating him to the role of pawn in the games of others, where he would remain throughout all the rest of the Frankenstein films.
As Universal’s horror films were proudly out-grossing Disney films all around the country, the series continued without Boris Karloff’s contribution. The studio’s new horror king, Lon Chaney, Jr., filled the monster’s oversized boots. In Ghost of Frankenstein (1940), Ygor (Bela Lugosi) pulls the monster from the sulfur pit he was knocked into at the end of Son of Frankenstein and takes him to find Dr. Frankenstein’s other son, Ludwig (Cedric Hardwicke) in order to harness some lightning to strengthen the monster. (In a striking moment, Ygor learns that the monster needs electricity to live when he deliberately stands in the path of a lighting storm and waits to be hit.) While the doctor, like his brother, hopes to restore his family’s good name by transplanting a good brain into the monster’s body, Ygor manages to manipulate things somewhat to get his own brain stuck in there instead. Failing to calculate his mismatching blood type, however, he goes blind soon after awaking from surgery and runs rampant, perishing in the soon-to-be-standard flaming, crumbling building.
After a remarkable break of eight years, Universal chose to breathe life into its Mummy franchise too. Karloff’s Imhotep was allowed to rest in peace, though, and the character Kharis became the antihero in a series of four new films in the 40s. Though technically unrelated to the original Mummy, it is really the later films that create the image of the shuffling, bandage-draped mummy that audiences really associate with the character. (Imhotep himself, remember, was in a more or less human guise throughout most of the first film). The Kharis films also establish the business of the tana leaves being somehow crucial the mummy’s survival.
Although they are probably the weakest of all the Universal sequels, the Mummy cycle nevertheless works as a little epic on its own terms. They are unified by the adamant, and fairly amusing, refusal to explain the particulars of Kharis’ resurrection in each episode, and by the persistent pattern of the titles being named The Mummy’s this-or-that (Hand, Curse, Tomb, etc.).
Western star Tom Tyler played Kharis in The Mummy’s Hand (1940), but Lon Chaney, Jr. was tapped for the role in all three of its sequels. His presence in the role is satisfying and troubling at the same time; satisfying because it allows him to inhabit the makeup of another of Universal’s four major monsters, but troubling because it is virtually pointless for him to be used in the part as he is voiceless and unidentifiable behind the bandages except for his paunch.
The story arch of the Mummy sequels has Kharis being revived in Egypt, much in the same way as his forebear Imhotep, being brought to America, and controlled by one mastermind after another, typically George Zucco or John Carradine. At the end of each film, he is burned to death or otherwise destroyed, only to appear in the next one without the slightest explanation for his restored condition.
By the time of the last installment, The Mummy’s Curse (1944), which, like Son of Dracula, seems to take place in Cajun country for no apparent reason, the cycle had obviously run its course. The lackluster nature of the last Mummy movies, and especially their lack of melodrama, can partially be attributed to the fact that Universal was already preoccupied with the idea of its other three monsters all joining forces. Why the mummy was not included in this merger is unknown. Most likely, the studio had already decided to end the Mummy franchise by the time it was agreed that the “big three” could be brought together.
In 1943, after keeping several pots boiling at once, Universal decided to pour them together into one big stew. The first trial result was Frankenstein Meets with Wolf Man, which was at once a sequel to both Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. Through an excellent strategy dreamt up by screenwriter Curt Siodmak, rather than bringing the Frankenstein monster into the modern world, he symbolically puts Larry Talbot back in time by sending him on a search through old Europe. This is brought about by the gypsy Maleva who volunteers to take Talbot to “someone she knows” who is renowned for his work in mental cases and may be able to help relieve his curse. This is Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (from the previous film), whom they learn is dead when they arrive in her neck of the woods. This is a touching and effective plot point, because Talbot, of course, was the one who killed her son Bela who also suffered from lycanthropy. Having lost her son, and being sympathetic to Talbot’s affliction, she becomes a type of surrogate mother for him by helping him evade the law and seek out a cure.
Since Chaney, who had played the monster in Ghost of Frankenstein had to revert to playing the Wolf Man in this film, the role of the monster was filled by Bela Lugosi, who had famously refused the role in 1931 because it was not glamorous enough and did not require what he considered real acting). The casting seems strangely appropriate since Lugosi had played Ygor in Ghost of Frankenstein, whose brain was placed into the monster’s body at the end of that film. Although the monster’s Lugosi-like appearance is somewhat explained by this, there is no accounting for why the monster, who at the end of the former film could speak but not see, wakes up in this film able to see but speechless. Must be the side effects from so much gratuitous surgery and transplants on the poor guy…
The story also distills a theme that ran through previous films and would become dominating in subsequent ones; the desire for death, or, more accurately, oblivion, which all the monsters associate with peace and conclusiveness. What Dracula, the creature, and the Wolf Man all have in common is the curse of immortality. In progressive films, mostly scripted by Siodmak, these three grow increasingly convinced that any form death is preferable to life without end or purpose.
In this universe, Dr. Frankenstein is the only man in history who has rationally uncovered the secrets of life and death, and so by the end of the horror series, they all have sought out either he or his progeny in attempts to make their next death the one that sticks. This theme itself is a sardonic commentary on two big problems each successive film raises, without fail; 1) how to resurrect the monsters from their deaths in the previous films, and 2) how to kill them off this time.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man also signifies a leap in logic with which the men at Universal must have struggled up to that point. It postulates that the worlds of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man are all the same world, and therefore characters from each story can hear of each other and even meet each other. Whether out of laziness or the acceptance of the inevitable, they took the opportunity in this film to cease pretending that their various ongoing stories were mutually exclusive. After all, if Mr. Lugosi could play Ygor in Son (and Ghost) of Frankenstein, Bela the gypsy in The Wolf Man, and then the monster himself in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, without any concern for continuity, why not any other outrageous combination of the films’ elements? The only problem for the planners, it seems, was determining who would play who in each film, considering their limited number of horror stars. (In one year’s time, for example, the accommodating Lon Chaney, Jr. played the mummy Kharis in The Mummy’s Tomb, Dracula in Son of Dracula, and Larry Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.)
This film also resolved still another problem for the series; namely, what to do without an actual Dr. Frankenstein. Having used up all his offspring and heirs, apparently, Curt Siodmak hit on the idea of making innocent, well-intended scientists (just like the first Dr. Frankenstein) turn up to carry on the work. Aside from being flagrantly hackneyed, this also happens to be effective because it suggests that the curse of Frankenstein is consistent even when the characters are not. The curse is that doctors and scientists, no matter how humanitarian they are, (or claim to be), are nevertheless unfailingly tempted by the prospect of mastering life and death. First, they just want to understand, but before long, they are conducting experiments of their own. Spurred and reassured by the recurring good fortune of stumbling over Frankenstein’s monster and those dusty, resilient notebooks of the old doctor’s, the younger scientists just can’t resist.
Frankenstein Meet the Wolf Man ends with the long-awaited “meeting” of the two monsters. The confrontation is certainly one of the highlights of the entire series, as Chaney and Lugosi hiss, snarl, bite and pretty much bring down the set around them. We are spared having to see a winner and loser in this duel, however, as the angry villagers from the town below break open the dam above the Frankenstein castle and apparently send the Wolf Man and the monster to a watery grave.
Meanwhile at Universal, the remains of Count Dracula were to be dusted off for one more solo outing. Son of Dracula (1943) not only brings the vampire to the U.S. for the first time, but further Americanizes the character by having Lon Chaney, Jr. fill the role. Who exactly the Son of the title is supposed to be is open to debate, as the main character seems to be Dracula himself, not his son; but why focus on technicalities?
Writer Curt Siodmak’s focus on psychology and folklore elevate Son of Dracula above many of its contemporary horror programmers. The woman who invites him to her plantation in the Deep South is obsessed with the occult and the idea of cheating death, all the while Dracula himself is focused on attaining blissful fatality. Popping up in his new home, he introduces himself as Count Alucard, presumably hoping to fool everyone except observant linguists.
The merits of Chaney in the iconic role are still hotly debated. Most consider him too much of an American lug to successfully pull off the aristocratic aura of Transylvania’s most famous expatriate. But, as in all his roles, he remains pleasantly adequate even though he never dazzles.
The follow-up to the huge success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the first of the two House films that concluded the series; House of Frankenstein (1944). While inferior to its predecessor and its sequel, it nevertheless stands as a milestone of shameless mishmashing. For the first time, Universal gives us everything in one film; all the most characteristic elements of all the films that preceded. We get Count Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Wolf Man Lawrence Talbot, a mad scientist, a hunchbacked assistant, angry villagers, sober constables, superstitious gypsies, and so on and so forth.
The film also marks the return of the great Boris Karloff to the Frankenstein series, except now as a new character named Dr. Niemann, a criminal genius who longs to replicate the late Dr. Frankenstein’s work. While searching for the doctor’s notebooks in the ruins of his castle, Niemann happens across the preserved bodies of both the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster.
In a truly bizarre subplot, (completely unrelated to the film’s main story), the remains of Count Dracula are found on display in a traveling freak show, and the vampire is briefly brought to life when a wooden stake is removed from his skeleton’s chest. Niemann blackmails him into not hurting him, but Dracula is not around long enough to do much harm to anyone. After making advances on a local girl and killing her father, the townspeople ride him down in a stagecoach chase straight out of a western. Unable to get into his coffin before dawn, the Count thins out a little when the sun comes up.
This time Dracula is played by legitimate thespian John Carradine, but following the lead set by Lon Chaney, Jr. in Son of Dracula, he makes no effort to perpetuate the Hungarian accent for Dracula established by Bela Lugosi; (although he does retain the famous cape and inexplicable tuxedo). At least Son of Dracula took place in America, and it could be surmised that the vampire was just trying to fit in, but House of Frankenstein is set back in the old country. The monster is played, for the first of three times, by Glenn Strange, a B-actor who probably got the role because of his height and his last name. As in Son of Dracula, the Count uses an alias this time – (a further acknowledgement that he has become quite famous outside of his native land). Here and in the next film, House of Dracula, he goes by “Baron Latos” and in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein as “Dr. Lehos”.
The plot of House of Frankenstein eventually gets quite complex; in fact, almost impenetrably so. It seems that Niemann intends to put the monster’s brain into Larry Talbot’s healthy body in order to keep the murderous mind but dispose of the despised and conspicuous shell. Talbot is persuaded to stay around with the promise that his curse can be lifted and he can die at last. Complicating the situation is Niemann’s hunchbacked assistant Daniel (J. Caroll Naish), who falls in love with a local gypsy girl. He wants Talbot’s body so he can run off with her, but she begins to fall in love with Talbot anyway. Taking out his jealousy on the inert monster, Daniel whips him furiously in a memorable fit of rage. Naturally, when the monster is finally revived in the film’s last moments, his first impulse is to toss the hunchback to his death out of a high window. He then drags Niemann into a swamp of quicksand and they both sink to their deaths.
The following year came House of Dracula, which, thanks to Erle C. Kenton’s flamboyant direction, is the best of the straight-faced attempts to have Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Frankenstein monster all in the same film. This time, Lawrence Talbot comes looking for Dr. Edelman (Onslow Stevens), a good scientist who has a reputation as something of a miracle worker. The doctor’s assistant is another hunchback, though (in a surprise twist) a woman this time. The doctor believes he can cure Talbot of his lycanthropic condition through surgery, but he can’t operate in time for Talbot to change into the Wolf Man again. When he does, Edelman chases him into a deep cave and discovers, believe it or not, the body of the Frankenstein monster embracing the skeleton of the late Dr. Niemann from the previous film. Naturally, Edelman cannot consider just leaving the thing alone an option.
Meanwhile, Count Dracula (John Carradine again) turns up on Edelman’s doorstep looking for help as well. He’s tired of the night life and desires a way to achieve death permanently. How sincere he is seems to be open for some debate, but he appears so until he gets a load of one of Edelman’s nurses. Deciding to stay around for a few last meals, Dracula causes Edelman to pass out during a transfusion and gets up to chase the nurse around. The transfusion scene provides for one of the most giddily perverse images in all the Universal horror films; the sight of Dracula reversing the course of blood through the transfusion tubes and sucking from the end of it like a straw.
Edelman awakens and manages to destroy Dracula one more time by dragging his coffin into the sunlight and opening the lid. Soon thereafter, however, he begins to show some nasty side effects from having Dracula’s blood in him. He does not become a vampire, interestingly, but it does begin to drive him mad, in more of a Jekyll and Hyde manner. In a surrealistic hallucination, he sees himself reviving the Frankenstein monster and sending him to wreak havoc on the local village. He works to bring this vision to pass, but he also takes time to commit a few murders of his own, whose savage nature naturally causes suspicion to fall on poor Larry Talbot, who is still hiding out in Edelman’s home awaiting his cure. Eventually the angry villagers overrun the place and kill Edelman and condemn the hapless Frankenstein monster to yet another fiery fate. Talbot, meanwhile, turns into a werewolf one more time, but is dispatched with a silver bullet by the nurse who loves him.
Thus ends the 80-minute monster extravaganza to end all extravaganzas; House of Dracula. The end of the Wolf Man seems like it could stick since it played by the rules, but the demises of Dracula and the monster are not really any more reliable than they were in previous films. Only in Ghost of Frankenstein was a plausible, and painfully obvious, proposal made on how to permanently dispose of the Frankenstein monster; dismemberment. But, since that would rob the films of their primary anti-hero, it was never mentioned again in subsequent installments.
This was the official end of Universal’s monster series, but there would be one more surprisingly enjoyable and consistent entry; the comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made other films in which they met up with such horror icons as the Mummy and the Invisible Man, but Meet Frankenstein is by far the best of the bunch. Part of the key to its success and popularity is the fact that the three monsters all play it straight. They never crack any jokes and they behave pretty much as they would if they were in just another entry of the defunct series. It also benefits by maintaining continuity though the actors in the monster roles. Glenn Strange, from the two House films, is back as the monster, Lon Chaney, Jr. reprises his signature role of the Wolf Man, and, (in the greatest coup of all), Bela Lugosi is back as Count Dracula for the first time since 1931. His career had suffered greatly in the previous decade, and this would be his last real movie before he descended into the depths of B-movie self-parody and chronic drug abuse. In the 30s, he had refused to play his most famous part again out of fear of typecasting, but by 1948, he was grateful to be offered any work at all.
This time around, Dracula has taken an interest in science and masterminded a scheme to implant a pliable brain into the Frankenstein monster in order to have it do his bidding. In the funniest running gag in the film, it is learned that he has chosen Lou Costello’s brain as a suitably vacant one for the monster to possess. At the same time, Lawrence Talbot is hot on their trail consumed with a personal mission to destroy them both, as well as himself, if possible. In the end, (following the precedent set by the previous two films), the poor monster is revived, tosses someone out a window, and is set ablaze, all while Dracula and the Wolf Man duke it out in a fairly exciting skirmish. Finally, the Wolf Man manages to grab Dracula just after he has turned into a bat and is attempting to escape, and they both plummet into the sea far below.
These so-called “deaths” for all three monsters are the least potentially lasting to date, possibly the result of hoped-for sequels that never materialized. The film ends with one last great joke, as the familiar voice of horror star Vincent Price alerts Bud and Lou that they are not rid of all the villains yet. Price, of course, had played an invisible man in The Invisible Man Returns (1940), a name-only sequel to the original 1933 The Invisible Man.
A variety of causes contributed to the end of the Universal horror series. Lessening revenue was the most obvious one; lessening quality another. The films had been straining to resist parody up through House of Dracula, and once they had crossed over into it with Abbott and Costello, it must have seemed that there was little else to do. Another factor was the aging of the actors playing supposedly immortal characters. Perhaps most importantly, however, there was the mood of the world at the time. It is probably no coincidence that 1945 was the year of the last serious Universal horror film and the year of the end of World War II. How could the classic monsters not seem more comical than frightening in a world familiar with what atomic weapons could do to Japanese cities and what fascist politics could do to the Jews of Europe?
In more ways than the most obvious, 1945’s House of Dracula symbolized the death of the series of which it was part. It signified the transference from the old world into the modern age. By the end of the series, Universal’s monsters were no longer roaming countrysides terrorizing villagers; they were knocking on the doors of doctors and scientists seeking answers to their existential dilemmas. This transition is perhaps best epitomized in this same film by the sight of Dracula drinking blood from a transfusion tube instead of from a victim’s neck.
Furthermore, by their continued ability to bring Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man back to life in film after film, the stories expressed the accepted reality that the legends and “rules” of the old world were not working. By 1945, and through nearly 20 films, these guys had been impaled, burned, drowned, crushed, and shot, and they still kept coming. Since superstitious beliefs never produced results, the characters increasingly turned to science to either help or destroy, (and it must be noted that science rarely succeeded either). Finally, the fact that they gradually progressed from rapacious murderers to tragically suicidal anti-heroes is the clearest signal that they had witnessed the passage from the old world into the modern post-war era.
The Films and their Sequels
The Mummy (1932)
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (1940)
The Wolf Man (1941)
The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
Son of Dracula (1943)
The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
House of Frankenstein (1944)
The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
House of Dracula (1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)