For more than 30 years, Universal Pictures defined the American horror movie—how it looked, how it sounded, and how it felt. From the early 1920s through the late 1950s, the studio unleashed a series of monster megahits, like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Phantom of the Opera. Those black-and-white chillers still resonate today, even with some of them pushing 100 years old. Whether you’re a lifelong fan or a newcomer to the Universal Monsters universe, here are 11 things every cinephile should know about these classic monster movies.
1. German Expressionism had a big influence on Universal’s Monster Movies.
After World War I, Germany developed a taste for movies that looked unrealistic on purpose. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and other German horror flicks made during the Weimar Republic had ultra-stylized costumes, sets, and lighting schemes that didn’t resemble anything you’d see in real life—which was the point. These films were part of the broader German Expressionist art movement, whose disciples used visual “creative distortion” to invoke strong emotions or states of mind.
A masterpiece of German Expressionism is the 1927 silent sci-fi film Metropolis. Its cinematographer, Karl Freund, later went stateside and lent his services to Universal’s Dracula (the Bela Lugosi version). He then directed The Mummy (a Boris Karloff vehicle) for the studio. Critics have noted the expressionist undertones of both movies; like their German predecessors, they use deep shadows to help set the mood.
2. Lon Chaney, Sr. designed his own makeup for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and The Phantom Of The Opera.
One of the first true horror stars, Chaney put his body on the line for Universal. The actor strapped on an enormous plaster hump to play Quasimodo in their 1923 blockbuster, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. When he played the disfigured villain of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), some audience members literally fainted. In each of these films, Chaney wore elaborate makeup and prosthetics he’d designed himself.
“To create the iconic Phantom makeup, Lon pulled up the tip of his nose with wire and pinned it in place, painted his nostrils black and wore a jagged set of fake teeth,” writes Mallory O’Meara in her 2019 book, The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.
3. In 1931, Universal Made a Spanish-language Dracula movie—while the English version was still being shot.
Lugosi got his big break with the nationwide release of Dracula on Valentine’s Day 1931. That same year, Universal let loose another Dracula movie—one filmed entirely in Spanish. Directed by George Melford, it had a completely different cast and crew (Carlos Villarías played the evil Count). Yet both films used the same sets; Lugosi and his English-speaking cohorts used them by day and then the Spanish-language team would come over to shoot their own scenes at night.
Melford’s movie is a full 29 minutes longer than its better-known counterpart. Though it had a much smaller budget, many critics say the film compares favorably to the Lugosi version.
4. The most famous line in the original Frankenstein was cut short to appease the censors.
“It’s alive! It’s alive!” That’s what a certain mad scientist (played by Colin Clive) cries out when he successfully reanimates his monster in the 1931 Universal classic, Frankenstein. The line’s been parodied a thousand times over; it also made the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotes in the history of U.S. cinema.
So you might be surprised to learn that’s not the full quote. When Frankenstein was originally shot, the line was, “It’s alive! It’s alive! In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to BE God!”
That last bit proved controversial.
Before Frankenstein was rereleased in 1938, Universal ran the movie by the PCA, a powerful censorship organization. At their insistence, the statement “In the name of God, now I know what it feels like to BE God!” was deleted from the movie. Universal covered up this little tweak by adding a thunderclap sound effect to the audio. The censored, PCA-approved version of Frankenstein was rebroadcast on television for decades. But fortunately, the cut of the film now available on DVD and Blu-Ray reinstates the original, unaltered line.
5. Imhotep, the antagonist of The Mummy, was named after a real person.
Imhotep, who was brought to life (undeath?) by the one and only Boris Karloff, is a lovelorn high priest in the classic 1932 Mummy movie. The real-life Imhotep lived in the 27th century BCE and was the chief architect of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Djoser. His name was once again recycled by Universal for the 1999 Brendan Fraser remake of The Mummy. In that movie—and its 2001 sequel, The Mummy Returns—Imhotep was played by Arnold Vosloo.
6. Black velvet was used to make Claude Rains disappear in The Invisible Man.
“No actor has ever made his first appearance on the screen under quite as peculiar circumstances as Claude Rains does in the picturization of H.G. Wells’s novel The Invisible Man," wrote Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times.
The Invisible Man (1933) marked the actor’s American film debut. Rains was cast in the lead role of Jack Griffin, a chemist who becomes transparent and goes on a killing spree. Due to the nature of that plot, audiences didn’t get to see Rains’s face until the very end of the movie.
Rendering him invisible for the rest of it was quite a challenge. Some of the trickiest scenes involved Griffin taking his clothes off. To sell the illusion, Rains had to wear black velvet underneath his costumes. He was also made to stand in front of an all-black background. When this footage was combined with a separate reel of film, it looked as though Griffin’s garments were spookily floating around through apartments, hotel rooms, and other sets.
7. Universal's Frankenstein—not Mary Shelley's novel—brought Igor into existence.
Bringing stolen corpses to life is a one-man job in Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, the landmark 1818 science fiction text written by Mary Shelley. In that story, Victor Frankenstein works alone when he creates a monster. Universal’s Frankenstein took more than a few liberties with the source material. For one thing, it changed Victor’s first name to Henry. The movie also gives him a hunchbacked assistant named Fritz, who was played by Dwight Frye.
For the film’s second sequel, Son of Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi was cast as Ygor, yet another new character. A criminal with a twisted neck, he’s shown using the Frankenstein monster to kill off his own enemies one by one. Ygor went on to reappear in the series’ fourth installment, The Ghost of Frankenstein.
Ever since the 1930s, it’s become standard practice for filmmakers to give Dr. Frankenstein a hunching lab assistant who usually goes by Igor. Iterations of this stock character have turned up in Van Helsing, Young Frankenstein, and 2015’s Victor Frankenstein, among plenty of other movies.
8. Lon Chaney Jr. became the only actor in the franchise to play Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, and a mummy.
His birthname was actually Creighton Tull Chaney. But because he just so happened to be the son of Phantom and Hunchback star Lon Chaney, this performer adopted the stage name “Lon Chaney Jr.”
A legend in his own right, he wowed horror fans as the good guy-turned-werewolf Larry Talbot in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Lon Chaney Jr. went on to reprise that role several times over the years. Also, he got to portray Count Dracula in Son of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the murderous mummy “Kharis” in three different films, beginning with The Mummy’s Tomb in 1942. What a run!
9. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man arguably invented the idea of a “cinematic universe.”
You might say the Universal Monsters walked so that the Avengers could run. Long, long before Marvel Studios created a shared cinema universe for its ever-popular superheroes, screenwriter Curt Siodmak played around with the same basic concept. The early 1940s saw the dawn of crossover storylines in comic books. Siodmak applied this idea to the silver screen when he pitched 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
Conceived as a sequel to both The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein, it picks up where those two movies left off—with Frankenstein’s monster trapped and poor Larry Talbot seemingly dead and buried. The public loved it; Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a box office triumph. In its wake, Universal released a slew of other monstrous crossovers, like The House of Frankenstein, The House of Dracula, and the beloved horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
10. A sea turtle bit off part of the monster costume while Revenge Of The Creature was being shot.
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced one of Universal’s most enduring creations: The Gillman, a humanoid fish who is amphibious and amorous. While the original Creature movie was set in the Amazon River, its first sequel, Revenge of the Creature, took the action to a Florida aquarium.
While Tom Hennesy played the eponymous monster on dry land, Ricou Browning took over the role for sequences filmed underwater—and the job had its perils. A few scenes were shot inside a saltwater tank in Marineland, Florida. This put Browning in close proximity to the exhibit’s resident sharks and barracudas, along with one very troublesome reptile.
One day, while taking an underwater break in full monster regalia, Browning had an unexpected encounter. “I felt something tugging on my foot,” the actor later recalled in a DVD documentary titled Back to the Black Lagoon. “And I looked down and it was a ... big sea turtle. He took a bite out of the heel of the creature’s foot.” Immediately, crew members dove in to recover the missing body part, which was then reattached to Browning’s suit.
11. BELA LUGOSI WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.
Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.