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File:Universal monsters 9849.jpg


Back in the day, Universal Pictures was a minor film studio of modest means, looking to stand out from its competition. Their solution? Create some of the most classic and enduring Horror movie icons in history.

Universal first dabbled in the horror genre with its 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Lon Chaney, but its first true horror movie was its 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, also starring Chaney. It then had a string of successful silent films with German expressionist director Paul Leni and actor Conrad Veidt before it came roaring into the "talkie" era in 1931 with two movies: Frankenstein 1931 and Dracula. These two films were smash hits that laid the foundation for the modern horror genre, helped to establish Universal as a studio to be respected, and made leading men out of their respective stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Universal followed this up with The Mummy in 1932, The Invisible Man in 1933, and a trilogy of movies based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as sequels to Dracula and Frankenstein.

Although Universal took time off from making horror movies in the late 1930s due to financial difficulties, it returned in 1939 with Son of Frankenstein before introducing in 1941 one of its most enduring films: The Wolf Man, starring their new leading man, Lon Chaney Jr. They remade Phantom in 1943 and continued making sequels to their now-classic properties. Eventually, these sequels would start giving way to crossovers featuring all of Universal's monsters, culminating in the 1948 hit Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, an Affectionate Parody of the early horror genre. From here, Universal horror entered a period of dormancy, as the trend in horror movies began to shift toward Science Is Bad gone wrong and alien invaders in the Atomic Age — the only original horror films (not based on existing properties) that Universal made after this point that are still considered to be "Universal horror" were Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and The Mole People in 1956.

An interesting aspect of Universal Horror is that it represents some very early attempts at shared movie universes. Through sequels its Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man movies were established as sharing a (somewhat loose) continuity, effectively creating the Uberwald trope. Via a later Abbott and Costello movie, The Invisible Man was also added to this shared universe (albeit briefly in a cameo, and the Invisible Man movies were actually set in a number of different continuities). Another Abbott and Costello movie added the Mummy to this (the version from The Mummys Hand and its sequels, not from the original The Mummy). In later uses for homage and satire, these five "classic" Universal Monsters became somewhat inseparable, and were also frequently featured with the Creature from the Black Lagoon (although he was never established as having even the remotest of canonical ties to the others, his popularity appears to have gotten him into the club). Eventually, as a way of promoting the movie Van Helsing, Universal gave its official stamp of approval to these six "classic" monsters by releasing six "Legacy" collections, one for each, officially setting them apart from the remainder of Universal Horror (although the Wolf Man collection featured two unrelated films, one of which did not even feature an actual werewolf, to fill space).

However, while production of new horror movies out of Universal came to an end, the monsters were by no means forgotten. Starting in the late 1950s, a British film studio called Hammer Film Productions began remaking many of Universal's classic horror films, in color (often very lurid color). These portrayals of the classic monsters would be distributed by Universal within America, and left their own mark on the popular image of the characters. Decades later, The Monster Squad introduced Universal horror to a new generation of young people, becoming a cult classic in its own right. While it wasn't actually made by Universal (the monster designs were all changed slightly so as not to infringe upon trademarks), it was filmed on their backlots.

Universal itself has also mined its past for ideas. They did a remake of Dracula in 1979 starring Frank Langella and Sir Laurence Olivier, and at the Turn of the Millennium, they remade The Mummy as a series of pulpy, two-fisted action-adventure movies, The Mummy Trilogy. They reunited the Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein's monster for the cheesily good Summer Blockbuster Van Helsing in 2004, and did a remake of The Wolf Man in 2010 starring Benicio Del Toro and Sir Anthony Hopkins. Remakes of Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein are also in the works. Finally, it's perhaps not a coincidence that Universal's theme parks in Orlando and Hollywood are known across America for having some of the biggest Halloween celebrations around.

It goes without saying that any horror fan is expected to have at least a passing familiarity with Universal's classic horror films. Until The Seventies, the Universal monster movie was what most people thought of when they heard the word "horror". A large number of Horror Tropes were made, codified and employed by these movies, particularly those pertaining to the so-called "classic movie monsters" -- vampires, werewolves, mummies, etc. The modern images of said monsters were more or less created by Universal, to the point where deviations from their classic blueprints are still regarded as subversions of the "traditional" rules surrounding them. Also, since the limitations of the Hays Code meant that Universal couldn't rely on graphic violence and sex to frighten and titillate viewers, they remain a great way to introduce younger or more squeamish viewers to horror -- which is exactly what they did once TV stations started using them as late-night movies.


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