With Universal creating their monster universe, remaking their wonderful old chestnuts in what they have called Dark Universe, we should look back at where it all started and why it ended. The idea of merging the monsters into one film is not a new one, not even an original one because Universal did this very thing in the forties. After the continued success, both at the box office and critically, though the Academy gave the genre no respect, the head honchos at Universal anxious to keep the money train going began to bring their monsters together in Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Dracula (1944) and House of Frankenstein (1944). Little regard was given to timelines, or logic, with creative ways to bring the monsters back from the dead, and of course new ways to destroy them. The production values dropped, as these films became B movies for the studio, dropping a notch or three from their top tier status.
Eventually, running out of ideas they began partnering their monsters with the comedy team of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in a series of films beginning the surprisingly good Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948) which also included Dracula and The Wolf Man, and in a brief cameo by the Invisible Man, who got his own stand alone film with the comics, as did The Mummy. It was clear in the early fifties the monsters had had their day, and were retired. Hammer Films in England began remaking the films in Color and with new titles but eventually fell victim to the barrage of sequels to follow.
This new Dark Universe has major challenges ahead of it. Think about it, in the thirties audience had never before seen anything like these films and were understandably terrified. But today’s audience know the greatest monster on this planet is man, so the films are going to have to be very good to overcome audiences de-sensitized to horror, monsters and mayhem on the screen. Watching these old films brought back many good memories, and were a reminder that horror can be art, and sells, if done even halfway right, always sells. The sad part of that equation is the number of really bad horror films that get made, often by first time directors.
The following ten gave birth to the genre, and remain much loved, however dated works that gave us Chaney, Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney Jr., names synonymous with the early horror genre. Incidentally, just one of them portrayed the Frankenstein monster, Dracula, the Mummy and The Wolf Man through the course of their career. Lon Chaney Jr. a fine character who broke through with a brilliant performance as dim witted powerhouse Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), would at various times portray the four major creatures of the sound era. It was an exceptional time, a time of gods and monsters. With that said, here’s the list of top classic horror films. You can watch some of these best cult classic horror movies on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime. The list includes 60s, 70s and 80s classic horror movies.
1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
The sequel to the landmark first film was like The Godfather Part II (1974) a superior film on every level. Karloff was again superb as the monster, rising from the mill, escaping into the woods where he learns to speak, befriends an old man, and is reminded constantly that he is a monster. He goads his maker into making him a mate, and with the he help of a strange older doctor they do just that, the results not what anyone had hoped. Beautifully directed by James Whale, the film is enriched by the brilliant work of Karloff and Elsa Lancaster as a young Mary Shelly and the hissing bride. Outstanding in every way.
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2. The Mummy (1932)
The gnawing sense of dread that builds through this film is often overwhelming, but the single most frightening scenes remains a young scientist losing his mind watching the centuries dead Imhotep (Karloff) come to life and leave the crypt where he has slept for ages. His shrill scream “he went for a little walk” and the emptiness in his eyes is terrifying. Karloff again is superb as the creature come back from the dead, again proving his extraordinary versatility as an actor, even under layers of make up. The makers of the new film could learn a thing or two from this.
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3. Frankenstein (1931)
“Now I know what it is to be God” screams Dr. Frankenstein as his creation comes to life, stitched together from dead bodies, electricity starting dead heart. The first time we see the monster, portrayed beautifully by Karloff is indeed frightening, and when challenged or pushed he is capable of incredible violence. So how is he different from the rest of us? The genius of the book, and transplanted to this film was that the good doctor never really created life, he merely brought back the dead. Compact, tight, chilling and it holds up remarkably well. Note the absence for long stretches of any musical score. Filmmakers were still learning how to use sound. The imagery, which horror relies on, they had down.
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4. The Invisible Man (1933)
This might cross into science fiction, but the descent into madness of Claude Rains to me is the stuff of horror. A gifted scientist renders himself invisible, but begins to become unhinged, committing murders until finally being found out and flees, invisible and naked. Groundbreaking effects for the time highlight the film, and Rains wonderful voice is a special effect all on its own. Where these early directors had great strength was the sense of impending doom they created in their work something learned from the great German film Nosferatu (1919).
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5. Dracula (1931)
There will forever be an argument as to who is the screens finest Count Dracula? Many feel Gary Oldman nailed it, others that Frank Langella was the best, while still others think Jack Palance was a superb Dracula in a made for TV film. Purists however seem to stick to their guns believing Hungarian born Bela Lagosi was the best Count on film. He certainly had the presence for it. For me Lagosi was too melodramatic to be truly frightening, his hypnotic gaze, coupled with a striking atmosphere made the film work. He makes it work and though not horrific, he brought, again, a sense of growing dread to the screen.
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6. The Wolf Man (1941)
Lon Chaney Jr. found his signature role as Larry Talbot, a decent and good man afflicted with the terrible curse of being a werewolf. Upon each full moon he turns into a werewolf and terrorizes anyone near him, any town he is in, by day searching for a cure or someone who loves him enough to kill him with a silver bullet. The make up was groundbreaking but the transformation sequences for the time were revolutionary for visual effects. Chaney was able to step out of the shadow of his famous father with this role, one that no other actor portrayed until Benecio Del Toro in the remake of the film in 2010.
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7. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
The final time Karloff played the monster was in this, the third film in the franchise that sees Igor (Lagosi) being the keeper of the found creature and urging the son of the doctor to further his fathers work. Once loose all hell breaks loose with creature on a murderous rampage, killing the jurors who sent Igor to hang, which he survived. Lagosi is terrific as Igor though he hated playing a supporting part to Karloff believing himself the greater actor. The actors to follow portraying the creature never found the humanity Karloff worked so hard to bring out, instead played no brutes.
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8. Frankenstein meets the Wolfman (1943)
One of the best of the monsters clashing with Chaney stealing the movie as poor Larry Talbot and is full moon alter ego, the wolf man. With blatant disregard for timelines and logic, the pair meet, and fight, but it seems a sowbuild to the final battle between the pair. Bela Lagosi was cast as the Frankenstein monster, against his wishes, believing the role beneath him, but that did not stop the film from being a good movie, full of chills and a royal battle that ends the movies, and we think the monsters…though they miraculously survived for the next film.
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9. Son of Dracula (1941)
Chaney Jr. gets a shot at the part his father was going to play before throats cancer claimed, Count Dracula, though initially he is Count Alucard. Spell it backwards. Though he might seem to have a bit of extra heft to play a vampire, Chaney was a good enough actor to make it work. Not a classic vampire film by any means, but one of the better monster movies as we moved into the forties and sequels killed the monsters.
10. Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948)
Unsure of where to take the series, Universal paired their beloved monsters with the popular comic team of Abbott and Costello. The theory was the monsters would be played straight, while the comedy team would work their magic, and it turned out far better than expected. Lagosi was back as Dracula, and thrilled to be wearing the cape again, while Chaney was The Wolf Man and Glenn Strange was the monster created by Frankenstein. With chills and laughs he film was a huge success, and several sequels followed with further encounters with monsters.
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