History of Horror

How Universal Studios created movie monsters

What immediate associations pass through your mind when you hear the name Frankenstein? Or Dracula? Is it an image of a flat-headed, neck-bolted green giant? Does Dracula swish around in a cloak and white tie, widow’s peak prominent, speaking in a thick Hungarian accent? Is there a hirsute Wolf Man lurking in the woods? These globally-recognised icons all have something in common — they are creations of one film studio, considered the pioneer of the horror genre: Universal.

But how was it that one studio could single-handedly create, define and own a genre?

Today, Universal is the oldest-surviving film studio in the United States, having been founded by Carl Laemmle in 1912. But Universal was not a big player during Hollywood’s Golden Age — in fact it was one of the ‘Little Three’, alongside Columbia Pictures and United Artists. Once Universal discovered audiences’ appetites for the grotesque and thrilling in the 1920s, the studio began to focus its energies on producing — and pioneering — the horror genre. What linked most of Universal’s classic monsters was their depiction as outsiders, capable of garnering just as much sympathy as they did fear and revulsion. However little of it there was, they had humanity, and were often driven by curiosity and a desire for acceptance (although some were just out-and-out baddies). But just who were these iconic monsters, and when — and how — did they first appear?

“The Man of a Thousand Faces” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Universal’s first step in defining the horror genre, and creating movie magic with its monsters, was collaborating with Lon Chaney on Hunchback. Chaney was “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, owing to his transformative skill with make-up (often beyond the bounds of safety). This was before make-up departments had been properly established in Hollywood, and Chaney was careful to keep his methods secret. Ironically, the actor had been under contract at Universal back in the 1910s, but left in 1917 when a studio executive told him he’d never be worth more than $100 a week.

Chaney had subsequently had success with The Miracle Man (1919) and The Penalty (1920). But Quasimodo would stretch his make-up — and physicality — further than ever before. Chaney worked from the description in Victor Hugo’s novel, using his leather box of tricks to produce a deformed face with grotesquely built-up cheeks and nose, a protruding eye and grisly teeth. He also strapped a plaster hump to his back in a way that impeded free movement and kept him permanently hunched. The film was a smash upon release, grossing $3.5 million and becoming the studio’s most successful silent film. It also elevated Chaney to the status of Hollywood’s first character star.

Unsurprisingly, Universal was keen to repeat this feat, and it continued its gothic horror phase with 1925’s The Phantom of The Opera, also starring Chaney. Again, Chaney worked from the source material of Gaston Leroux’s novel as he set about creating a face like a “living skull”. With wadding, a skullcap to raise his forehead, glued-down ears, false teeth, and careful make-up application, Chaney created what was considered to be the most terrifying character to have ever appeared onscreen. The most unnerving part of Chaney’s make-up was undoubtedly his misshapen nose, distorted by putty and guiding wires into its sharp angle. Cannily, as no photos of Chaney in Phantom make-up were allowed ahead of the film’s release, audiences only got their first proper look at the Phantom when Christine unmasks him herself, causing reports of screaming and fainting fits in cinemas.

Universal never had the chance to make another horror classic with Chaney, following the actor’s untimely death in 1930. However, a guiding principle of the actor’s approach to his characters was adopted by later studio monsters. As Chaney wrote in 1925 for Movie Magazine, “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.” The importance of humanity behind the horror helped colour the studio’s approach to its movie monsters, and was the philosophy that elevated Universal above their rivals in classic horror movie making.

Dracula (1931)

Although continuing to dabble with horror elements for the rest of the ’20s, Universal didn’t begin its definitive, ‘pop culture famous’ run of horror films until 1931: enter Dracula. Carl Laemmle was convinced by son and head of production, Carl Laemmle Jr., to take a punt on Stoker’s vampire novel, following the success of the 1924 stage adaptation. Although it was the first authorised film adaptation of Stoker’s work (F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu infamously was not authorised), Universal’s Dracula is actually based more on Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston’s play — as well as a bit of Nosferatu’s macabre German Expressionism.

It is the play that introduced the idea of a debonair, exotic vampire, and emphasised the sexual side of the creature’s appetite, something which Universal was more than happy to embrace. It is also the play that first cast Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as the Count, although he had to lobby hard for his chance to appear in the film, despite the favourable Broadway reviews. Ironically, before the end of Dracula’s production, Lugosi was already wary of type-casting and would only play the role once more, years later in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Tod Browning directed this first serious, full-length supernatural horror. A gamble for Universal, Dracula ended up its most profitable film of 1931, helping the studio out of a $2.2 million hole, and with further reports of fainting in the aisles.

Although parodied now, Lugosi’s intense and deliberate delivery has ensured his “children of the night” line a place in quotable cinema history, as well as his place in horror as the definitive Dracula — despite tough competition from challengers Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman and, if you noticed, no fangs.

Frankenstein (1931)

Another lesser-known actor began an ascent to stardom — and created the ultimate depiction of a monster — off the back of a 1931 Universal horror picture. Boris Karloff, a lisping Englishman born William Henry Pratt, had toiled away in eighty films before Frankenstein. His willingness to submit to make-up maestro Jack Pierce’s gruelling four-hour transformation process helped clinch him the role, as well as undoubtedly allow for the best version of Pierce’s iconic imagining of the character. Pierce found his niche at Universal following Chaney’s death, and after creating the make-up for The Monkey Talks (1927), which Laemmle admired, The Man Who Laughs and Dracula — which Lugosi rejected. With Karloff a patient collaborator, he would do his finest work.

The Monster’s make-up was carefully thought through, with electrodes on his neck to help revive the body, scars where the brain cavity had been accessed and a sunken cheek where Karloff removed his partial denture. Unlike Chaney, the Monster was entirely a creation of Pierce’s imagination — and months spent researching the techniques of nineteenth-century doctors. It’s also Frankenstein that introduced the crippled, lab assistant “Igor” character stereotype — although here he is called Fritz.

Harking back to Chaney’s ability to conjure pathos, Karloff’s Monster was also a misunderstood outsider — the scene where he interacts with Maria by the lake shows all he yearns for is friendship, but even that innocent playtime has tragic consequences.

Such was Frankenstein’s success that Universal resurrected the Monster from his seemingly-permanent grave for multiple sequels over the years, realising as early as 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man that producing movies with an ensemble of its popular monsters all-but guaranteed a good performance at the box office.

The Mummy (1932)

Inspired by the 1920s craze for all things Egyptian after Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, The Mummy was a rare original character in Universal’s monster pantheon.

Karloff returned to collaborate again with Jack Pierce, and although Karloff spends most of his screen time… unrolled, the film’s poster has imprinted his mummified make-up on everyone’s mind. Despite audiences only ever seeing his face and hands, Pierce made up Karloff from head to toe for those opening scenes, based upon the mummies of Seti I and Ramesses III, in an eight-hour process. For the rest of the film, Karloff (billed as Karloff the Uncanny) wore lighter make-up in his role of the resurrected Imhotep, searching for a way to bring his forbidden love, Princess Anck-su-namun (Zita Johann), back to life.

This was the only time Karloff would play Imhotep on screen. While The Mummy was a reasonable success, Universal had other films in the works for its horror stars Karloff and Lugosi, such as The Black Cat (1934) and The Raven (1935). The studio would return to its Mummy villain in subsequent films, but none were official sequels with the same storyline.

The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man presented a fascinating character, unlike any other in Universal’s horror canon. Based on the H.G. Wells novel, Universal cranked up the crazy to make its most human horror character one of the most dangerous and destructive.

After chemist Dr. Jack Griffin accidentally discovers the secret of invisibility while conducting lab tests, he is pushed over the edge of sanity by his newfound power. Griffin is one of the most deadly Universal “monsters”, deliberately harming and killing over a hundred innocent bystanders. However, being a Universal horror lead, he is still given a modicum of sympathy, as it’s explained his madness is a symptom of the invisibility serum, and his desperation to prove himself to his fiancée, Flora (Gloria Stuart).

English actor Claude Rains made his American screen debut in the role of Griffin, allegedly after his unique voice was overheard in a screen test for another movie. Ironically, Rains’ speaking voice was entirely of his own devising, appropriated early on in his stage career to distance himself from the grinding London poverty into which he was born.

The special effects for The Invisible Man, created by John P. Fulton, were ground-breaking — and yet ingeniously simple. When he was partially clothed or undressing, Rains had his ‘invisible’ body parts covered in black velvet and shot against a black velvet background. This shot was then combined with a shot of the regular set, leading to an impressive illusion of invisibility. Fulton even managed to maintain this invisibility effect for a scene in which Griffin unwraps himself in front of the mirror, using the same process and parts of four different shots that had to be painstakingly overlaid.

Despite its popularity, Wells was apparently not a fan of the film adaptation, accusing Universal of turning his scientist into a “lunatic”. Rains’ screeching laugh probably didn’t help.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

In a sequel considered superior to the classic original, Karloff returned to the character of Frankenstein’s Monster in order to meet his Bride (Elsa Lanchester). Director James Whale was also coaxed back, and numerous story ideas rejected from as early as 1932. The treatment eventually chosen (or rather, mashed together from three separate drafts) was partially based upon Shelley’s novel again, specifically the part where the Creature demands a mate from Frankenstein. In the novel, she is never brought to life, but it was a perfect spark for a film.

Whale, who was certain the first film could not be topped, nevertheless kept his strict standards, as well as adding dollops more of his trademark flamboyance, encouraging many plausible queer readings of the film. Whale’s insistence on having Lanchester also portray Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue was to underline how horror springs from the darker recesses of human imagination.

The Bride was perhaps Jack Pierce’s most towering achievement. Although Elsa Lanchester did not care much for either the man or his process, Pierce gave her a stunning look, combining the best parts of horror and glamour make-ups, with a stitched chin sitting alongside deep lipstick and Marcel waves. The Nefertiti-shaped, lightning bolt hair remains a huge piece of horror history to this day. Karloff’s Monster make-up was also developed to better reflect the trials he has “re-lived” through, as well as to suggest a healing process throughout the film.

Aside from Lanchester’s look, the other addition Bride of Frankenstein was best known for, much to Karloff’s chagrin, was the Monster’s ability to speak. Karloff felt the first movie gave the Monster a sense of inarticulate impact and charm, and he was sure speech would damage this. Suffice to say, history has proved him wrong.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Although not the first werewolf movie Universal made — that was 1935’s Werewolf of LondonThe Wolf Man is certainly the one most deserving of praise. Its prestige was clear with another startling make-up by Jack Pierce, refined from his 1935 version. Its storyline also acted as a blueprint for the rest of the wolfpack, plus screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s oft-repeated, legendary verse: “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

But The Wolf Man’s trump card was the actor in the lead role of Larry Talbot — none other than Lon Chaney Jr. Chaney never wanted his son to follow in his footsteps, but following his father’s death, Chaney Jr. pursued a Hollywood career, at first billed under his real name of Creighton Chaney. He soon changed it, to build upon his father’s legacy. Universal couldn’t resist the associations, and as Chaney Jr. went on to play more of the studio’s lead iconic horror creations than any other actor, they quietly dropped the “Jr.” in publicity materials. In just a few short years, Chaney Jr. appeared as Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Mummy multiple times, as well as reprising his original role of Talbot in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

Although make-up methods had evolved, Jack Pierce was reluctant to rely on newer materials like foam latex, preferring his own signature painstaking methods, which took more time and therefore cost more money. He worked closely with Chaney Jr. on many pictures, although their relationship was reportedly fractious, apparently stemming from Chaney Jr.’s allergic reaction to his Wolf Man make-up of glued-on yak hair, and an unfortunate burning incident with a pair of tongs.

Regardless of whether this in particular is true, Pierce had developed a bit of a reputation for being difficult to work with — a combination of fastidiousness and ego. It’s likely Pierce knew how instrumental he was in Universal’s success with horror but, nevertheless, in 1946, Pierce, the man who never received onscreen credit for his stunningly original monster make-ups, was unceremoniously fired by Universal. By the time he died in 1968, his contribution to horror was largely forgotten — as was he.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Over a decade passed between Universal’s previous major horror creature and its last. The studio, however, was unbothered, finding in the meantime a run of hits with comic double act Abbott and Costello, who were set up in all sorts of popular comic capers opposite Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man. But the studio had one iconic monster left to add to its roster.

By the 1950s, 3D was all the rage, as was sci-fi, with the success of films like It Came from Outer Space. A new type of setting was necessary for a more modern type of monster, and so it was that Creature from the Black Lagoon took Universal off the lot and across to Florida, to film in — or rather, under — its crystal-clear waters.

Although it was an original story about a research trip to the Amazon that uncovers fossilised evidence of a direct link between land and sea animals (as well as the real thing), at its heart the film drew upon the Beauty and the Beast story for inspiration. Scientist Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) is the object of the Creature’s (also known as Gill-man) intense interest, and, just as with Dracula over twenty years before, there is a less-than-subtle sexual undertone to the mirrored choreography of their swimming scenes. Again, as with many of Universal’s monsters, Gill-man is ultimately misunderstood, hunted, and killed for his curiosity and loneliness (although not dead enough to prevent two sequels, including the final “official” Universal horror, The Creature Walks Among Us). As with previous horrors, neither actor portraying Gill-man (Ben Chapman on land, Ricou Browning underwater) received credit for fear of spoiling the illusion. In the absence of Jack Pierce, Gill-man’s look was a collaborative effort between designer Milicent Patrick, make-up artist Bud Westmore, bodysuit creator Jack Kevan, and Chris Mueller Jr. who sculpted the head.

Creature from the Black Lagoon refuelled the public’s appetite for Universal’s older horrors, spawning a whole new generation of fans, who were keen to watch them first in theatrical double-bills and then on television. Hammer Horror’s heyday from the mid-fifties to the early seventies also fanned the flames of interest.

Although Creature from the Black Lagoon is considered the final chapter in Universal’s creation of horror icons, the studio has continued to produce thrillers that — directly or indirectly — hark back to these classics. Films like Psycho, Jaws, An American Werewolf in London, The Thing and Jurassic Park have enthralled audiences throughout the decades, just as their inspirations had — and continue to do so.

Universal’s success with horror remains unmatched, and audiences continue to refer and return to these classic films time and again. Feeding an audience’s appetite for thrills and chills from as early as 1923, and remaining a cultural touchstone of horror nearly 100 years later, is an astonishing achievement.

Breathing humanity into inhuman creations is a major reason for Universal’s top position in the hierarchy of horror, as is its horror films’ timeless and iconic design. But there was also star power, creative prowess, an element of luck and timing — and of course, a healthy dose of movie-making magic.

This article was written by Tori Brazier as part of our partnership with the film critics at One Room With A View. As a vital part of the creative feedback loop and artistic interpretation in the film industry, we’re proud to support their community of writers.

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