Universal Monsters: The Original Cinematic Universe

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In Hollywood, one’s success is another one’s envy. If one idea works, you can almost guarantee that imitators will follow closely behind. With the ongoing success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it comes as no surprise that just about every major film studio is looking to capitalize on the idea of an interconnected series of films. Sure, Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe is a no-brainer, and an expansive Star Wars film series is expected. But a Hasbro Toys universe? A multi-picture Ghostbusters mega-multi-franchise? While it could be argued that studios should focus on getting ONE movie done correctly before deciding if a universe is the right idea, this is an argument for a different post. The reality is that Hollywood, like fashion, runs on trends and everybody wants to wear what’s en vogue this season.

Among the many expanded franchises currently in development is Universal Studios’ revamp of their classic Universal Monsters line-up set to kick off with 2017’s The Mummy. But could Universal Studios be accused of following the latest Hollywood trend or were they, in fact, the original trendsetter?

Now, I won’t go into an entire history lesson on the original slate of Universal Studios monster films from the 1920s to the 1950s. For that, you can check out our very own Christopher Ripley’s book Universal Monsters: Origins. Just know that in the decade between 1931 and 1941, Universal Studios saw great success by developing a variety of well-received monster movies, many of which spawned multiple sequels. Dracula and Frankenstein were both released in 1931, followed closely by The Mummy in 1932, and The Invisible Man in 1933. Then, in 1941, Universal Studios released The Wolf Man. During this decade, each individual monster franchise existed in its own world with its own set of rules, history, and mythology. That is, until 1943, when for the first time ever in film, worlds collided, monsters mashed, and the original cinematic universe was born with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

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Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man plays as both a sequel to 1941’s The Wolf Man, as well as 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein (4th in the Frankenstein series). Lon Chaney Jr. reprises his role as Lawrence Talbot/The Wolf Man, while the Frankenstein Monster is played by, hold your hats, Bela Lugosi. Yes, Count Dracula himself. The film made references to the original Wolf Man film as well as the previous entries in the Frankenstein series, cementing that both franchises occupied the same universe and follow the same history and consequences. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, like Marvel’s The Avengers, upped the budget, expanded the scope of the world, brought popular characters together, and featured….a musical number?

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Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man features a performance of the folk song “Faro-La Faro-Li”. The number is cut short when it is rudely interrupted by a frantic Larry Talbot and a rampaging Frankenstein Monster.

With the success of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal Studios realized they had just struck gold. If Frankenstein and the Wolf Man could occupy the same world, who else can come and play? For the next ten years, Universal would expand on this winning formula with films like House of Frankenstein (1944), which threw Count Dracula into the mix, this time played by John Carradine, followed by House of Dracula (1945). Then, Universal rewrote the rule book once again by crossing over their famous horror monsters with successful comic actors Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein brought together Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and even a cameo by The Invisible Man, all while introducing horror fanatics to two of America’s most popular comedians of the era.

So, in this current climate of expansive film franchises, can you really blame Universal Studios for wanting to go back to the well and revisit the formula they created over 70 years ago? While Disney and Marvel have redefined the idea for the modern age of film, you can’t deny that the universe was created by Universal Studios and the Universal Monsters. Hell, it’s in the name, isn’t it?

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Fun Fact: After the success of Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi was offered the role of the Frankenstein Monster, but reportedly declined the part. Some accounts cite the reasoning as being Lugosi’s interest in playing the role of Dr. Victor Frankenstein instead. Others say Lugosi felt the makeup interfered with his performance. The role eventually went to Boris Karloff, who has defined the look and attitude of the character  for close to a century.

-Freddy