Over-shadowed Universal Monster Movies

The core Universal monster movies are, of course, the original Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), along with a few others such as Lon Chaney as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).  These are all classics in their own way, but they unfortunately over-shadow many of their sequels.

I think the following films deserve more recognition.  They certainly didn't originate any famous monsters, but they were entertaining for various reasons.  For one thing, many of them were able to balance humor with horror, whereas levity was almost completely absent from most of the classics mentioned above.  This ability to jump between these two emotions is thought to be a more post-modern trait only found in later films, but these early attempts are successful in their own ways.  Here are four that I especially enjoyed:

Dracula's Daughter (1936) - Although you can certainly nit-pick about the continuity problems from the first movie, this is a very credible sequel just on the basis of picking up immediately where the original film left off and having Edward Van Sloan reprise is role as Van Helsing (though he's inexplicably credited as Von Helsing).  Add to that a very effective Gloria Holden in the title role along with lots of sexuality (including some strongly-implied lesbianism) and Thin Man-esque repartee between the film's hero and heroine.  It balances the humor against the horror better than any movie I've ever seen in that the contrasting tones never overlap nor clash with one another.

Son of Frankenstein (1939) - The third in the series and the last to feature Karloff in the role.  It's overshadowed by the first two films, both of which are admittedly very good.  But in addition to Karloff this one also includes Basil Rathbone as Dr. Frankenstein and introduces Bela Lugosi as the character Ygor (which everyone incorrectly assumes was Dwight Frye's character's name in the first film!).  What's especially noteworthy is the use of German Expressionism.  It's not so overwhelming as in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Here every wide shot is a beautifully-staged painting of light and shadow that add up to an amazingly oppressive gothic setting.

The Invisible Woman (1940) - This one's just a silly comedy with none of the gravitas of The Invisible Man (1933).  I understand why it has been forgotten, but just because it's fluff doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable.

The Mummy's Hand (1940) - I prefer this over even than the original film (1932) which I find too slow and drawn out.  The original has passion but not enough action and is completely humorless.  Like Dracula's Daughter, this one finds the appropriate balance between comedy and horror.  In particular, the characters are likable and even more memorable than any other film in this series.  The '90s Mummy movies were likely more influenced by this film than even the original.

Revenge of the Creature (1955) - Unlike The Mummy's Hand, I don't think this surpasses the original, but I believe the angle is more genuine.  Creature from the Black Lagoon was about humans going into the wilderness.  This film reverses that premise and brings the Creature into our realm, adding a pathos right out of the original Frankenstein films.  Revenge was also made in 3D, and I remember watching this as a kid where many shots took full advantage of that more than the original (e.g., the underwater divers thrusting the electro prods right at the viewer).  It's a fun mix that is great for monster fans of any age, while at the same time supplying depth that adult viewers would appreciate.

I would never make the claim that any of these films surpass the core body of classic Universal monster movies, but these should not be overlooked either.  They benefit from working with established characters, so they have the freedom to explore new territory rather than being bogged down in introductions or exposition.  That freedom translated to the aforementioned experiments with humor as well as better character development than some of the technically superior films that often delivered spectacle at the expense of character or variety of mood.  In some ways, these films have more character in both senses of the word.  Be sure to give them a shot!


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