Long before Jigsaw and Annabelle, Ghostface and Samara—going back to even before Freddy and Jason—there were the Universal Monsters. These were the creatures and character designs who were so iconic that they defined what the horror genre was to most moviegoers during the earliest decades of talking pictures. Primarily released in two film cycles by Universal Pictures across the 1930s and ‘40s (plus a few outliers on both sides of this), the legacy of these films and the people who made them endures still. It echoes in Halloween costumes and TV specials, merchandise toys and candies, it’s even informing recent Blumhouse films and Netflix’s Wednesday. Right now, you can go to any Universal theme park and meet the Monsters as un-goodwill ambassadors at “Halloween Horror Nights.”
Yet to return to the original movement of films which were so frightening in their day that they essentially invented the horror genre in the U.S., we are left with a collection of classic chillers… and a lot of sequels that are sometimes still a lot of fun. But which are the best and which are best left to molder in their cobwebbed crypts? We’ve gone back and revisited all of the mainline Universal Monsters films* to figure that out for your shrieking pleasure.
*Editor’s Note: We’ve reduced this list to only include the classic Monsters as generally defined by Universal itself. In other words, if the source of the horror did not appear in this glorious VHS commercial from 1999, we’ve left it off. Apologies to fans of The Raven, The Black Cat, The Old Dark House, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the like.
31. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
Six years before Abbott and Costello, and 31 years before Mel Brooks, Universal made a laughing stock out of Frankenstein’s Monster all on its own. It happened when The Ghost of Frankenstein ended on the Monster (blandly played by Lon Chaney Jr.) ranting with Bela Lugosi’s accent about his dreams of immortality. A talking monster of course can work, see Mary Shelley or just The Bride of Frankenstein, but the problem with Ghost is how phoned in the formula had gotten by the World War II years—to the point where the filmmakers unintentionally made a joke out of the Monster speaking with a badly dubbed (and directed) Hungarian accent. If more people knew about it, it might be a midnight madness classic.
30. Invisible Agent (1942)
More of a cultural curio from the Second World War than a fully realized film, The Invisible Agent ignores the canon of the previous Invisible Man movies in order to provide some flag-waving propaganda where the eponymous character is actually a hero instead of a madman. That hero’s real name is Frank Griffin (Jon Hall), the grandson of the original Invisible Man. Now in the 1940s, he decides to use the family’s secret serum to fight the Nazis after German and Japanese spies (including Peter Lorre in yellowface) attempt to torture him into giving the formula to the Axis Powers. It all sounds more exciting than it is, but every bit as uncomfortable to the modern eye. Worst of all, though, is that it’s surprisingly boring.
29. The Mummy’s Curse (1944)
As the second Mummy movie starring Lon Chaney Jr. released inside of a year, The Mummy’s Curse reeks a bit of desperation by Universal to squeeze out the last dollar from an oversaturated brand before the war ended. As such, the fourth and final “serious” Mummy movie goes through what had become the familiar beats of each installment featuring the mummy Kharis (Chaney), an undead guardian who ostensibly wants to protect the corpse of his great love, but is mostly the attack dog for interchangeable Egyptian cultists to sic on all-American heroes in the heartland. Curse offers an interesting new element by making the reincarnated revenant of Kharis’ love, Princess Ananka (Virginia Christine), a major character. However, the film is in too much of a hurry to get to the same scares as last time, so it doesn’t really do anything with her.
28. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944)
We promise we actually like Lon Chaney Jr. when he’s in the right role (as you’ll see later), and his portrayal of Kharis is perfectly adequate as a lumbering 3,000-year-old zombie, but most of the mummy sequels stink, and The Mummy’s Ghost is no exception. The first film to actually introduce the concept of Princess Ananka being reincarnated (played here by Ramsay Ames), the film’s setup is a refreshing change of pace, even if the film inexplicably (and amusingly) moves the location of Kharis’ American adventures from New England to New Orleans and hopes no one will notice. Sadly, however, just when the movie gets going, and Ames’ Amina starts turning into her ancient self, the film runs out of steam or budget, and abruptly ends. After 3,000 years of waiting to make an entrance, she (and the film) tripped while climbing out of the sarcophagus.
27. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
Universal’s final Mummy movie before Brendan Fraser also marked the studio’s last picture with the legendary comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. We wish they all went out on a better note, but Bud and Lou were clearly in their declining years, with the pair not even bothering to learn their character names in this sendup of the Mummy movies (they’d make only one more picture together afterward). They’re just Abbott and Costello, lost in Egypt and forced to contend with a living mummy (this one renamed Klaris and played by Eddie Parker), as well as ostensibly Egyptian cultists praying to Amun-Ra. A few gags early on work, but before the credits rolled, it was already a museum piece.
26. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
There’s an interesting metaphor to the third and final Creature movie. After two films about trying to poach or study Gil-Man, the dull-as-dishwater American men of science attempt to cure the green guy in The Creature Walks Among Us. They give him lungs, biceps, and the frame of a linebacker when an operation causes him to mysteriously gain six inches in height and a hundred pounds in muscle mass. Yet it’s all a deceptively well-meaning attempt to oppress nature; to subjugate the divine mysteries to humanity’s ego, which in this case amounts to an aquatic man-servant who through it all keeps his eye for leggy brunettes. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take its metaphor to its obvious endpoint, leaving the dramatic substance of the idea to be exhumed by Guillermo del Toro half a century later. Otherwise, Walks Among Us devolves into a staid domestic drama about an unhappy marriage and non-amphibious home wreckers. How ‘50s.
25. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
The most entertaining thing about The Invisible Man’s Revenge is not the new invisible guy, but the scientist of questionable ethics who convinces a small-time hood he should get extra clear of his crimes. Played with actual mustache-twirling by John Carradine, Dr. Drury isn’t exactly mad, but he seems a little too happy with having an invisible dog in his house. Actually, that dog is pretty great too, chasing the new Invisible Man (Jon Hall in no relation to his role as the titular Invisible Agent) like the Grim Reaper. The Invisible Man may be able to hide from the law, but from the blood scent of an aggrieved hound, he’s just another chew toy with a cute gimmick.
24. Revenge of the Creature (1955)
For his second rampage across movie screens, Gil-Man’s storyline got a makeover. If the first film was about the humans discovering a “missing link” in the Amazon, teasing out problematic but pulpy fantasies of yesteryear, Revenge of the Creature is basically King Kong with a lot less majesty. Captured early in the movie by scientists, Gil-Man is taken to an American aquarium where he is put on display for tourists… until he escapes and attempts to kidnap the one blonde woman who was kind to him. The movie also has the novelty of featuring Clint Eastwood in one of his earliest roles.
23. The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
The first Mummy movie made after the Boris Karloff masterpiece eight years earlier, it’s interesting that The Mummy’s Hand essentially chooses not to desecrate the tomb of the original. Or, more precisely, Universal realized it’s easier to make a long-running franchise if the Mummy isn’t a tragic, damned lover, but a guy in bandages who can be easily recast. Consider this is the one and only time that Tom Tyler plays Kharis, a mummy revived to do the bidding of the High Priest in a cult of Amun-Ra (Eduardo Ciannelli). The cult intends to punish a couple of all-American fortune seekers for grave-robbing. It’s the most quintessential Mummy movie setup and is honestly only this far down the list because it takes too long, even at 67 minutes, to get to the bits of the Mummy chasing the archaeologists. Nonetheless, character actors Dick Foran and Wallace Ford provide good buddy-comedy chemistry as the hapless heroes.
22. The Invisible Woman (1940)
More of a screwball comedy than an actual horror movie, The Invisible Woman dispenses with H.G. Wells’ source material about a scientist driven mad by his invisibility formula to instead tell of a whacky meet-cute between an adventurous young woman (Virginia Bruce), who answers a Classified ad in the paper asking if she’d like to be invisible, and the wealthy patron (John Howard) who makes the miracle happen. Additionally, their cupid is John Barrymore in one of his final performances as an eccentric but sweet professor who invented an invisibility ray.
He wants to use it to prove he’s a genius, Bruce’s Kitty agrees to get zapped by it so she can torment her misogynistic boss at the department store she works at, and Howard’s Richard… just wants to know what the rest of that frame looks like when the invisible Kitty puts on nylon stockings to tease her figure. It’s not exactly progressive—and a third act involving bumbling gangsters overstays its welcome—but it’s harmless enough fun.
21. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942)
Is The Mummy’s Tomb a good movie? Not at all. Is it a fun movie? I’d argue yes. This is where the list starts becoming at least a campy pleasure. Despite being a brisk 61 minutes—about six of which is recycled footage from the last Mummy flick—The Mummy’s Tomb has got it all: mummies, curses, WWII propaganda, and a breathless pace as Kharis (Lon Chaney Jr. in Jack Pierce’s best take on the Kharis makeup) is transported to New England in order to stalk and hunt the heroes from the last movie for desecrating his tomb. No, really, the two guys we followed around in The Mummy’s Hand are aged up in gray makeup to suggest about 20 years have passed, and then get butchered by their old friend from Egypt. It’s so against contemporary Hollywood formula that it’s delicious. Get ‘em, Mummy, get ‘em! There is also a new generation of hero (John Hubbard) and love interest (Elyse Knox), who fight the good fight and get married just in the nick of time before he ships off to serve his draft notice. America!
20. House of Dracula (1945)
In what amounted as the grand finale for the “serious” variations on Universal’s three most popular monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man—House of Dracula was essentially a redo of the previous year’s House of Frankenstein, with not even the flimsiest explanation offered for how these guys rose from their graves yet again. This House is also probably the more original of the two since Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot makes for a surprise hero after he is cured of werewolfism by a nice doctor. Yes, Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) is nice! Madness comes later… and after he’s forced to drink the blood of Dracula (John Carradine), who happened to show up to the doc’s laboratory castle on the same day as the Wolf Man. Both claim they want a cure, but Drac really just wants the lab assistant Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll).
It’s a shame so much time is wasted on that since the more interesting plot line is how, after seeing his blood contaminated, Dr. Edlemann becomes obsessed with his hunchbacked female assistant Nina (Jane Adams), and his desire to “cure” her is not altogether professional. Alas, the film falls apart in an ending where it becomes about getting the Monster (Glenn Strange) to strut his stuff around yet another lab. Making the Wolf Man the romantic hero gives it a novelty factor, but (as you’ll see) House of Frankenstein plays the hits a little more satisfyingly.
19. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951)
Abbott and Costello return to the well with amusing if not sensational results. The idea for this movie was suggested three years earlier as the final punchline in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, with the pair discovering they’re sharing a rowboat with the Invisible Man, voiced once again by Vincent Price. One cannot help wondering how much better this movie would’ve been if Price had reprised his role as the see-through dude. The film that finally got made is essentially a remake of Price’s The Invisible Man Returns. Unfortunately, Arthur Franz is below adequate as the final Invisible Man here.
Luckily, the movie doesn’t need him to work. Instead it’s got jokes, with the comedy duo bouncing off a non-existent third banana. And plenty work, such as scenes where Costello begs for Abbott to understand he isn’t the one kicking him in the pants, as well as the bit where Costello himself goes ever-clear, only to regain visibility while walking in an elevator filled with nurses. The reason the movie is memorable though is the climax where Costello tricks the world into believing he’s a heavyweight prizefighter (the invisible Tommy is literally fighting his fights for him). High-brow, this is not, but we laughed.
18. Son of Dracula (1943)
The interesting thing about Son of Dracula is that it’s as much a film noir as it is a monster flick. That subtle novelty is a credit to Curt Sidomak, who could be a clever screenwriter when given the chance. It also makes up for the fact that Lon Chaney Jr. does not have the oomph needed to play the most seductive of vampires. But then perhaps that’s why the film’s real villain, femme fatale Katherine Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), never falls under his spell. Her New Orleans Southern belle becomes his bride, but only because after she’s a vampire, she can attempt to seduce her childhood sweetheart-turned-fall guy, Frank (Robert Paige), into joining the ranks of the undead.
Unfortunately, complications arise when Dracula frames Frank for Katherine’s murder, and he cannot help but be drawn to Katherine’s “good girl” sister (Evelyn Ankers). It’s the blending of ‘40s formulas and a particularly cruel final scene that makes Son a strange but memorable gumbo recipe.
17. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
We are aware that Dracula’s Daughter has many admirers that would place it higher on this list, and we admit as an early text in (heavily coded) LGBTQ cinema, it’s somewhat sacred. However, we cannot help but be left disappointed by what a missed opportunity the picture is given what truly scandalous and transgressive ideas director James Whale had for the title before fear of censorship took him off the project. The actual film, by contrast, is far more conservative and fairly homophobic as it follows Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) on her quest to seduce young women (plus a few obligatory men) across London. It’s an important movie in LGBTQ film history, but a frustrating one.
16. House of Frankenstein (1944)
The original monster mash film, which likely inspired the Bobby Pickett song you hear every October, House of Frankenstein is good, clean trashy fun. Yes, that’s a contradiction, but so is a movie with Dracula (John Carradine), the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.), and Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange). In spite of that, the main character is Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff). He’s a mad scientist, obviously, who after escaping prison with his hunchbacked assistant (J. Carrol Naish) attempts to murder all his old enemies and revive the monsters he meets along the way.
The most coherent portion of the movie is Niemann resuscitating Dracula and sending him after the always welcome Lionel Atwill and Sig Ruman, but the most fun is an interlude where it turns into a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, only Daniel loses cute gypsy girl Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) to the Wolf Man! It’s nonsense, but the flick features Jack Pierce’s makeup designs at the top of their craft, as well as a satisfyingly bitter ending.
15. The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
One of the last monster movies to get something at least approximating the A-budget treatment by Universal, The Invisible Man Returns does its best to revisit a James Whale classic from seven years earlier. It’s of course difficult to replace even just the voice of an actor as gifted as Claude Rains, but Vincent Price is always a good place to start. In one of his earliest film roles, Price plays Geoffrey Radcliffe, a man wrongfully accused of murder. So in a last desperate attempt to avoid the hangman’s noose, he partners with the brother of the original invisible man to take the same dangerous serum that makes him transparent… but also slowly drives him insane. Told with a surprising amount of empathy for Geoffrey’s plight, as well as featuring still amusing special effects as bodiless pants chortle with Price’s distinctive laughter, The Invisible Man Returns is a charming retread which is at its best when a dying Geoffrey reminisces with a scarecrow he finds in a field during some lonely final moments.
14. The Phantom of the Opera (1943)
Universal’s lavish technicolor musical remake of one of their greatest silent films is a sumptuous spectacle. The luscious colors still pop, and several of the original pieces of music written for the film, including the Phantom of the Opera’s weeping lullaby, can nestle into your ear. The choice of casting Claude Rains as the Phantom was also wise, as the irreplaceable character actor is rarely not the best thing in whichever film he appears, including this. However, abandoning author Gaston Leroux’s novel for a fairly pedestrian story about a creepy old man obsessed with an ingénue singer (Susanna Foster)—here even before he is disfigured early in the movie by acid—robs the story of its fairytale-tinge of sadness. Also the love triangle between Foster’s Christine and two suitors played by Nelson Eddy and Edgar Barrier falls flat.
13. Spanish Drácula (1931)
A curious relic from the early talkie days of Hollywood Babylon, Drácula (also often referred to as Spanish Dracula) was the other Dracula movie Universal produced in 1931 when adapting John L. Balderston’s rather bad theatrical reimagining of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. This is because in the early days of talkies, studios remained skeptical about subtitles, so they simply filmed alternative versions of the same movie for key markets, which in this case was Latin America.
Hence why director George Melford worked with Spanish-speaking actors like Carlos Villarías and Lupita Tovar at night on the same sets where Tod Browning directed Belga Lugosi during the day. Candidly speaking, Melford made a technically more accomplished film too, particularly in the second half of the story which spends far too much time inside of drawing rooms once Dracula arrives in London. Melford films those scenes with more urgency, and his vampire attacks have a stronger suggestion of carnal menace. Unfortunately, Villarías is no Bela Lugosi, nor is Pablo Álvarez Rubio a remotely passable substitute for Dwight Frye in the role of Renfield. The result is an interesting and in some ways superior movie, but one where the magic of a star-making turn is absent.
12. Werewolf of London (1935)
The oft-forgotten werewolf picture Universal made before The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London is intriguing because it suggests how little of what we consider to be werewolf lore was settled before 1941. In this film, a rather remote and unlikable scientist named Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) travels to Tibet in search of a rare flower that only blossoms in moonlight. Unfortunately, the flower can also keep werewolf transformations at bay, making it a prized item for a monster that badly bites Glendon. Once back in London, Glendon has days until the next full moon to realize he too is cursed, and that in this world, being a werewolf makes you something closer to a serial killer.
With rather restrained werewolf makeup—especially when compared to what Jack Pierce would come up with later—modern masters of the field like Rick Baker have called the film’s titular creature “the Elvis werewolf.” The design also belies how this is more of a Mr. Hyde-inspired creation, a creature that thinks and stalks its prey as if it were Jack the Ripper (a figure who wasn’t quite lost to living memory by 1935).
11. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
The first crossover in cinematic history, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was pitched by screenwriter Curt Siodmak because he wanted a new car. Empires have started from less. What’s surprising about watching the film today is discovering how well it works, at least as a Wolf Man sequel. Indeed, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot is the central protagonist of the film with his baleful eyes making a tragic center as Larry is resurrected from the dead nearly a decade later to discover he’s still cursed and nearly everyone he knew is gone.
Between Chaney and the truly great Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the “old gypsy woman,” the film has enough emotional heart that it would make sense for the pair to seek out Dr. Frankenstein to discover the secrets of life and death for a poor werewolf. Alas, all they find is Frankenstein’s Monster played at his most incoherent by Bela Lugosi. (In Lugosi’s defense, his performance was heavily edited to erase his voice and the plot point that the Monster is now blind.) The third act descends into hamminess, but delightfully so as the Monster and Wolf Man snarl and fight, and Ilona Massey and Chaney stop to enjoy an old-timey Bauvarian musical number in provincial Switzerland. Also look out for a young Martha Vickers as one of the werewolf’s victims.
10. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Probably better remembered today as the inspiration for Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s ingenious spoof, Son of Frankenstein is a fine film in its own right. The last of the Frankenstein pictures to star Boris Karloff as the Monster, the film unfortunately began the trend of just treating the monster as a dimwitted dullard. Luckily, Son makes up for it with three scenery-chewing performances that get a lot more screen time: Basil Rathbone as Henry Frankenstein’s adult son who decades later has returned to his father’s castle to investigate the family legacy, Bela Lugosi as the crazed hunchback Ygore (look at those fangs!), and Lionel Atwill as a one-armed inspector so absurd that Kenneth Mars barely had to change a thing 35 years later.
Why the film winds up on the higher end of the list is the production design that director Rowland V. Lee pursued. Generally abandoning the decadent Gothic style James Whale employed on the first two Frankenstein movies, Son of Frankenstein’s elaborate sets and shadow-lit stairwells are an American riff on German Expressionism from a decade earlier. A dark and stormy night never looked so evocative in a Universal movie than right here.
9. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
When Creature from the Black Lagoon hit theaters in the mid-1950s, the idea of monster movies as Universal knew them was largely finished. All the icons of the ‘30s and ‘40s were now punchlines for Abbott and Costello, and kids today were far more frightened (or amused) by stories of aliens and nuclear-irradiated ants. Hence Jack Arnold’s movie about an aquatic Gil-Man living in the Amazon felt both like a throwback and a concession to the times. Crumbling castles were out, and “science” fiction was in (the Creature is dubiously claimed to be a missing link in human evolution).
Still, that’s all background noise for the allure of the film, which is best visualized by Julie Adams swimming serenely at the surface of an inky lagoon, oblivious that a fishy Romeo is mimicking her backstroke a few feet below in the deep. There’s a thinly veiled primal fear and fantasy about the imagery, one that Guillermo del Toro would win an Oscar for making explicit sometime later. This holds especially true since Adams has far better chemistry with the guy in a rubber suit (which varied by the scene) than she did with the film’s square-jawed, bland post-WWII heroes.
8. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Either the movie that created the horror-comedy or “ruined” the Universal Monsters cycle of films, depending on who you ask, Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein nonetheless remains the most entertaining “monster mash” film of the bunch. This is helped indubitably by the fact that it finally pairs Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi in their most iconic roles, that of the Wolf Man and Dracula (Lugosi only regained the role by agreeing to a huge pay cut in what turned out to be his final studio picture). It’s a shame they couldn’t get Boris back in the Monster makeup too, but maybe it’s best Glenn Strange reprised that role since Frankie was the least important, in spite of the title.
Of course the stars of the film are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who have a blast sending up their studio’s bread-and-butter recipe from the war years. Whether it’s Costello reading a candlelight account of vampires as Dracula rises from his coffin, or the same portly comedian hearing Larry Talbot lament “when the moon rises, I’ll turn into a wolf” and quipping, “You and 20 million other guys,” many of the jokes still land. And the third act finale where the buffoons evade all three monsters, plus a vampire bride, is the stuff of classic comedy.
7. The Mummy (1932)
One of the secrets of The Mummy’s success is that Universal hired John L. Balderston to write and rewrite it. While Balderston’s Dracula play leaves something to be desired, the scribe was also once a journalist who reported from the Valley of the Kings when Howard Carter entered the tomb of King Tutankhamun in 1922. The later headlines which suggested a supposed “curse” on the discovery would inspire Universal to make this movie, and Balderston brought an authentic (if colonialist) perspective to the proceedings. When you couple that with cinematographer Karl Freund stepping into the director’s chair, you’re left with one of the most unique and visually dynamic pictures in the Universal Monsters canon.
Unlike all the loose sequels the studio would make in the ‘40s, The Mummy is a shadowy romance between an undead being who’s waited 3,000 years to be reunited with the reincarnation of his beloved, and a woman who at least initially isn’t against the proposition. As a quasi-antihero, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep is compelling, creating his own version of Lugosi’s vampiric stare that Freund captures in startling extreme close-up. Karloff’s only in the bandages for one scene (and it’s the best in the movie), otherwise he attempts to pass himself off as a modern Egyptian. Zita Johann as the reincarnation of Anck-es-en-Amon is also compelling in one of her few screen roles—as well as the last time for about 30 years Universal took advantage of a pre-Code, pre-censorship Hollywood in the costume department. Johann also gets to vanquish the Mummy herself… with a little help from the goddess Isis.
6. Dracula (1931)
If this list was weighted purely on performance and iconography, it’d be hard to not put Tod Browning’s Dracula at the very top. To this day, pop culture’s idea of what a vampire is supposed to be remains haunted by Bela Lugosi’s piercing and pitiless stare, and the way he seems to float through his own castle. Even the Hungarian actor’s halting English adds to the eerie effect. And those early scenes set in Transylvania are a masterclass in art direction and production design. However, according to cinematographer Karl Freund, it was also the section of the movie he was able to ghost direct.
As per Hollywood legend, director Browning was so bereft he could not make the movie with his friend and muse Lon Chaney Sr. (who died the year before) that he was out to lunch while filming this one. It’s believable because once the film settles into Balderston’s dry drawing room mystery sequences in London—which comprise more than half the picture—the film is likewise drained of life. Ironically, it takes the vampire, or at least his demented manservant Renfield (a sublime Dwight Frye), to regularly inject fresh blood into the film. It’s a classic, and there are flashes of true insidiousness, such as when Lugosi silently creeps into the bedroom of a sleeping young woman, but the film lacks the bite enjoyed by some of the best Dracula films, including Nosferatu from nine years earlier.
5. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The one silent film on this list, The Phantom of the Opera is a bit of a precursor to the iconic Universal Monsters pantheon, with the 1920s chillers starring Lon Chaney Sr. being what inspired the studio to invest in supernatural horror a decade later. Nevertheless, the Phantom is counted among the Monsters stable, and there is no finer Phantom of the Opera movie than this 1925 original. As the film that popularized Gaston Leroux’s 1909 French novel with the English-speaking world, Phantom of the Opera ’25 is a star vehicle for Lon Chaney, the Man of a Thousand Faces.
And the face he personally created in the makeup chair is quite the sight, with the visage not accidentally resembling a bald, angry phallus with teeth and maniacal eyes. The film is also largely faithful to the novel, recounting how a disfigured genius named Erik became obsessed with the young soprano Christine Daée (Mary Philbin). Initially he poses as her dead father to tutor her, but when she learns of his true nature, and appearance, she struggles to let him down gently. The one major flaw of the film is Universal insisted on abandoning the book’s conclusion, which was apparently filmed before a reshoot. Instead of Christine giving Erik a kiss of compassion, unlocking his empathy and causing him to let her go and accept he will die alone, the film ends with a Parisian mob hunting the Phantom down and beating him to death. On the flip-side, this creative misstep gave Andrew Lloyd Webber room 60 years later to turn that moment into billions of dollars in Broadway and West End ticket sales.
4. The Invisible Man (1933)
Despite the recent 2020 remake reminding audiences why this concept is so scary, the Invisible Man is generally overlooked by horror fans when juxtaposed with his more visually striking Universal stablemates. But there’s a reason that other than Frankenstein’s Monster, he got the most number of sequels and spinoffs back in the day: The original 1933 film directed by James Whale is absolutely bananas! With Whale slowly unfurling his darkly comedic sensibility that would inform his ultimate masterpiece a few years later, The Invisible Man is an alternatively cruel and campy spectacle that basks in the wickedness of its eponymous character, who is brought to vocal life with a joie de vivre by Claude Rains in his first Hollywood film.
Faithfully adapting H.G. Wells’ Victorian tale of a scientist who turns himself invisible but cannot figure out how to reverse the experiment before losing his mind, The Invisible Man was a special effects revelation in its time, with audiences astounded by the image of Rains removing the bandages around his face, only to reveal cold air beneath. While those effects are a lot quainter to the modern eye, they haven’t totally lost their charm. Yet it’s how sadistic Rains’ Jack Griffin is during the film’s second half, and how transparently Whale seems to savor in his sadism as Griffin explains to a snitch (William Harrigan) how first his arms and then his neck will snap in the trap Griffin’s concocted, which makes this a perverse joy. With a nastiness sneaked in just under the lockdown of the Hays censorship code, The Invisible Man is a last hurrah for mean-spirited good times at the movies.
3. The Wolf Man (1941)
As Universal’s second stab at an original werewolf yarn, The Wolf Man would come to be as influential to our modern idea of lycanthropes as the novel Dracula was to vampires. There are a few reasons The Wolf Man works better than Werewolf of London, and the first is just how sympathetic, yet pathetic, Lon Chaney Jr.’s Lawrence is. Poor Larry Talbot is estranged from his lordly father (Claude Rains) and their Welsh ancestral home. It goes a long way to explain why the son’s so Americanized but also underscores his feelings of isolation, even before he is cursed with a furry vice.
Chaney is good at playing the doomed hero, but director George Waggner intelligently chooses to populate the supporting cast with some of the best character actors in the business at the time. Only a year before Casablanca, Rains brings reserved gravitas as the judgmental but ultimately grief-stricken father. Meanwhile Russian-born Maria Ouspenskaya was one of the first thespians to carry “the method” to American shores, and she casts an even longer shadow of forlorn sorrow across the picture. Finally, Jack Pierce’s makeup design for the Wolf Man (which uses Yak hair!) is still a treasure, even if we look at it today more with affection than shivers. When all these elements converge on a climactic sequence where a father must kill the son, the movie achieves the grace of Greek tragedy.
2. Frankenstein (1931)
James Whale’s first swing at Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel was the biggest hit of its year and a blockbuster on the scale of Star Wars or Marvel. That’s all the more impressive when you consider how macabre the material seemed to audiences, with multiple churches and Christian associations protesting the film, and the movie beginning with a disclaimer where actor Edward Van Sloan warns audiences with delicate constitutions not to “subject your nerves” to the story that is about to unfold.
That story has never been more effectively rendered on the big screen either, even with the film’s massive liberties with the source material. The most earnest and ominous of Whale’s horror movies, Frankenstein embraces the defiant blasphemy of protagonist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) declaring, “Oh, in the name of God, I know what it feels like to be God!” (That line was cut by censors in the 1937 rerelease). Still, its heart remains with the Monster, brought to fragile life by Boris Karloff. With sunken cheeks, a bolted neck, and a flattened cranium, his countenance, courtesy of makeup artist Jack Pierce, remains the stuff of unsettling nightmares in the original film. But the sweet and innocent performance Karloff is able to project through the prosthetics and the moralizing screenplay that labels him an abomination is what makes the movie so heartbreaking.
1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
James Whale did not want to do The Bride of Frankenstein. Thank goodness. His reluctance forced the Laemmle family which ran Universal to give the idiosyncratic director full creative control at a time when such a thing was unheard of. The result is a film that is as much a subversive comedy as it is a straight-ahead horror movie. After being the ostensible hero last time, Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein is a pathetic wreck of a man in the sequel, which makes him easy to push around and push over by the film’s Whale stand-in, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), a gay-coded happy devil who seduces Henry to stop playing house with his new wife (Valerie Hobson), and instead make a child without the aid of a woman.
That child is the titular Bride, who is played beautifully and all too briefly by Elsa Lanchester as if she were a hissing black swan. Yet the true protagonist of this film is none of the above; it’s Karloff’s Monster, who is drolly and ironically likened to Christ by Whale’s direction with how the villagers persecute and abuse him simply for being born different. There’s humor here, but also a wistful determination to celebrate the Other in a less tolerant age. The scene of the Monster learning to speak while having dinner with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie) plays without a trace of irony and achieves a grace even Mel Brooks couldn’t fully undermine. This is Whale’s masterpiece and remains one of the best sequels ever made nearly a hundred years later.