Monsters are usually antagonistic villains with a fantastical or sci-fi origin, but act as metaphors for human dilemmas or follies. Early examples of monster films tended to be based on gothic tales of horror before the creature features of the 1950s, inspired by Japanese kaiju tales, emerged.
The Universal Classic Monsters are a cinematic universe of popular monster films produced by Universal Pictures between the 1930s-1950s. The most famous adaptations of the characters featured in this franchise have gone on to become the pop culture standards for those characterisations. Starting in 1931 with Dracula and Frankenstein, the series included a total of 31 canonical entries and is the inspiration for the many monster films which came afterwards.
Read on below for links to watch these films online, as well as films which imitated and were inspired by the Classic Monster Universe.
1. Dracula (1931) PG
The movie that started it all with the legendary Bela Lugosi in the titular role. Universal would never have become synonymous with monster movies were it not for Dracula, which brought Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel to the screen by way of a hit play, which became a hit movie.
You can view Dracula here with an unoriginal film score. The first film with an original score and soundtrack was King Kong in 1933. Prior to this in-house cinema pianists played their own accompaniments to film.
2. Nosferatu (1922) PG
Before Dracula there was this 1922 silent classic of German Expressionism. Nosferatu was the first adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel and his widow sued this production and ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed. Universal learned from the mistake of Nosferatu and purchased the rights for $40,000.
A few prints of this film survived, and you can watch it here.
3. The Phantom of the Opera (1925) PG
Prior to Universal creating their monster oeuvre, a great number of monster films were created for the silent screen. The Phantom of the Opera features the incomparable Lon Chaney and inspired the later canonical production with the same title. Lon Chaney famously created his own make-up for the role.
The Phantom of the Opera is in the public domain and you can watch it here.
4. Frankenstein (1931) PG
It’s Alive! Probably the most regarded of the Universal Monster films, Frankenstein introduces audiences to the familiar version of the monster. Green skin, bolts to the neck, flat top head and a scar on the forehead are now copyrighted features of Boris Karloff’s famous creation. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) followed up the success of this characterisation and launched its own icon, The Monster’s Bride.
You can catch Frankenstein here with an unoriginal score.
5. The Mummy (1932) PG
The Mummy was made after the financial success of the two other Universal monster films mentioned earlier. It features Boris Karloff again and heavily plays on the Egyptomania brought about by the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The film was reimagined by later Universal monster film The Mummy’s Hand and its sequels.
6. The Wolf Man (1941) PG
Lon Chaney Jr stars as The Wolf Man in Universal’s second attempt at a werewolf film. This version was a success and held much acclaim for its high level of production. To create the creature, the production used a design created for, but unused in their previous attempt. It’s a half-human, half-lupine look that perfectly suits a monster who is as pitiful as he is frightening.
Catch an online copy of the film here.
7. The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959) PG
Heavily influenced by Universal’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon, this film features a prehistoric sea creature thirsty for blood. Some the film’s production staff were the same who worked on Universal’s Creature film and so the props have a familiar feel. However, this film is a poor substitute for that work. Several scenes in the film broke new ground for onscreen shock and gore but would be seen as tame and amateurish by today’s standards.
You can watch The Monster of Piedras Blancas in full for free here.
8. The She Beast (1966) M
Universal’s enduring character legacy was being milked as late as 1966 with the film The She Beast. The poster for the film exclaims “Deadlier than Dracula! Wilder than the Werewolf! More frightening than Frankenstein!” yet the film is about Van Helsing and an ancient possessive witch. Whilst definitely a B-grade film, there is lots to like, and the acting is quite good.
Watch The She Beast online here.
9. Night of the Living Dead (1968) MA
After the introduction of Japanese Kaiju films, monster films of the late 50s and early 60s had become schlocky affairs far removed from Universal’s earlier efforts. Night of the Living Dead is a turning point for monster films and is the foundational modern zombie film. Every film since owes at least something to it and a copyright error caused it to be put in the public domain from day one.
The plot of the movie is straightforward fare. The recently dead begin to rise and commit grizzly acts of murder on the living. A small group of survivors must set aside their differences and work together to survive the night in the old farmhouse they took shelter in.
It’s a classic horror movie that holds up very well today and you can watch it here.
10. Creature (1985) MA
Sometimes described as an Aliens rip-off, this film centres around a crew of scientists trapped in space with a creature of extra-terrestrial origin. The film was nominated for a Saturn award for its special effects, which are great examples of what was produced prior to computer-based effects. Creature is a little gory so it may be one best to avoid if you don’t like blood.
The film entered the public domain sometime after release and is the most modern monster film in our list, however the links to Universal’s Creature from the Black Lagoon are noticeable.
Image courtesy 'FilmAffinity'
You can watch Creature here.