As part of their Centennial celebration, Universal Pictures has unleashed a new Blu-ray collection featuring eight of their most beloved monster movie classics. (Well, seven classics and that awful Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera.) Their impact on filmmaking – and pop culture in general – cannot be estimated, as anyone who’s ever hung up a Halloween decoration or poured themselves a bowl of Count Chocula can attest. As a way of celebrating, we’ve gathered some odd and interesting facts about these horror titans, which we now share for your edification and amusement. Enjoy!
As iconic as they are, both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff were almost shunted aside by another horror icon. The great Lon Chaney, the silent horror star who made The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame so memorable, was set to star as Dracula. He’d worked with director Tod Browning multiple in the past and remained Browning’s first choice to play the vampire count. Unfortunately, Chaney died an untimely death in 1930, forcing Browning to recast the part. After the success of the film, Lugosi was offered the part of the Monster in Frankenstein, which he declined. It’s logical to assume that Chaney would have been offered it had he lived… meaning that all those Halloween costumes and decorations featuring Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster might have had a very different face attached to them.
As iconic as they were, Universal’s monsters often proved arduous for the actors who portrayed them. Lugosi only played Dracula twice – in the original film and in the 1948 spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Karloff played the Monster only three times – in Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein – which made for a very strange casting decision in 1944’s House of Frankenstein. Karloff stars in the film, but he played an evil scientist, while Glenn Strange played the Monster. (It’s like casting Robert Downey, Jr. as a SHIELD agent in The Avengers while somebody else plays Iron Man.)
For various reasons, both actors turned down other prominent parts in Universal’s horror line. Lugosi was originally asked to play Frankenstein’s Monster; he refused on the grounds that he couldn’t speak, which opened the door for Karloff. Karloff, for his part, turned down the monster roles in The Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, which ultimately went to Claude Rains and Lon Chaney, Jr., respectively. (Chaney had no compunctions about his role, and played the Wolf Man five times across Universal’s horror line.)
One of the most notable scenes in The Bride of Frankenstein involves Doctor Pretorius’s (Ernest Thesieger) “homunculi”: tiny creatures living in bottles. Some of the actors playing the homunculi have a fascinating history. The baby in the high chair was a three-year-old Billy Barty, the famous dwarf actor who appeared in everything from Legend to Sigmund and the Sea Monsters. The mermaid was played by swimmer Josephine McKim, who won the gold medal as part of the 4x100 m relay team at the 1932 Olympics. (She also bronzed in the 400 m freestyle in 1928.) The devil is perhaps the most wickedly fitting choice: he’s played by Peter Shaw, who eventually became a casting agent and producer. (He also married actress Angela Lansbury and produced her show Murder, She Wrote: they stayed together for over 50 years until his death in 2003.)
It’s also worth noting that there are seven homunculi, matching Pretorius’s first name, Septimus. It’s likely a nod to the seven deadly sins, though the homunculi don’t quite match up.
Most of the monsters owe their iconic faces to make-up artist Jack Pierce, who created the look for Frankenstein’s Monster, the Bride, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the Mummy. He had a little help from strange sources and, in one case at least, had to postpone one of his most memorable transformations. The best known assist came from Karloff, who removed his bridgework during the filming of Frankenstein to give the Monster sunken, corpse-like cheeks. The bridgework came back for The Bride of Frankenstein since the Monster had dialogue in that film, and you can see the difference in the character’s face. A slightly different challenge came with Elsa Lanchester, who stood only 5-foot-4 and couldn’t match Karloff’s towering height on her own. She wore stilts to help raise her height and her infamous hairdo likely arose as a way to make her appear taller.
Finally, while the Wolf Man make-up is perhaps Pierce’s most spectacular work, it had to wait a while before he could unleash it on the world. He originally developed it for 1935’s Werewolf of London, but actor Henry Hull wasn’t interested in undergoing the time-consuming process to apply it. Pierce developed a less arduous (read: lamer) look for Hull, and his real masterpiece had to wait for six more years until The Wolf Man.
Modern werewolf conventions owe a lot to both Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man. Before they arrived, lycanthropy was often associated with witchcraft and sorcery. Practitioners of black magic could turn into wolves, and often did so willingly. The moon was heavily associated with werewolves – connected from time immemorial to madness and magic – but it rarely triggered a transformation the way it does in contemporary stories. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London fronted the notion of lycanthropy as a curse, arising when a wolf (or werewolf) bites a hapless victim. The films also added vulnerability to silver and the closer ties to the moon… tropes that remain with werewolf stories to this day.
Oh, and that wonderful gypsy poem that starts with “Even a man who is pure of heart…?” It has nothing to do with gypsies at all. It was solely the creation of Wolf Man screenwriter Curt Siodmak.
One of the best scenes in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood involves Lugosi’s rant about “that Limey cocksucker” Boris Karloff. It’s a wonderful, funny moment. It’s also complete bullshit. Karloff and Lugosi apparently had very cordial professional relations, though they didn’t fraternize away from work. The same couldn’t be said of Lon Chaney, Jr., who co-starred with Lugosi in The Wolf Man and reportedly took the title role away from Lugosi. The two hated each other, and their feud spilled over into three additional Universal monster movies they made together. Lugosi and Charles Laughton also developed an infamous feud on 1932’s Island of Lost Souls. (Laughton played Dr. Moreau, Lugosi the Sayer of the Law.) Of his costar, Lugosi reportedly claimed, “I thought I was an arrogant guy until I met him.”
Universal’s heyday for monsters movies was the 1930s and 1940s, and the farcical Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 1948 basically served as their death knell. So why, then, is 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon included in the mix? The Creature was a throwback to the older period of monsters in a time when alien invaders and atomic mutations were all the rage. It doesn’t grow to giant size, it doesn’t arise as a result of nuclear tests, and it retains an air of tragic sympathy far more in keeping with Dracula and the Monster than the faceless aliens and giant bugs of its era. It did, however, have one feature in common with other 1950s monster movies: Universal released it in 3-D.