Universal Studios' monsters have set the ghoul standard in Hollywood since before movies had sound. Eighty years after they first began appearing on the silver screen, the company's most famous creations -- Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolf Man -- remain pop culture icons.
Those characters -- which made household names of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr.-- and their spooky brethren would be in dozens of films from the 1930s through the 1950s. The earliest ones defined the horror-suspense genre. Many of the films' breakthroughs in makeup and special effects, plot conventions and characterizations are still influential today.
The new Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection (1931-1954, Universal, not rated; Blu-ray, $159) brings together eight of the most memorable tales of terror digitally restored in high-definition picture and sound. It's comprised of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera and Creature From the Black Lagoon. The set comes with a 48-page book with behind-the-scenes photographs and original posters. Each film comes with its own bonus material including documentaries, interviews, trailers and photo galleries.
Universal's lavish silent productions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera starring Lon Chaney in the 1920s whetted the appetites of audiences who would embrace the talkies that would come in the next decade. Chaney, whose makeup wizardry allowed him to transform into grotesque characters, was producer Carl Laemmle Jr.'s first choice to play Dracula in an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. But Chaney died of throat cancer in 1928, and with the onset of the Great Depression the studio couldn't afford an extravagant production.
By the time Dracula (1931) was being made, the Gothic novel had been adapted into a hit Broadway play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in his first English-speaking role. Producer Laemmle and director Tod Browning considered several established Hollywood actors before finally settling on Lugosi as the Transylvanian count. The actor's chilling portrayal of the fiendish vampire became a blueprint for those that would follow. Among the bonus features is a Spanish version that was filmed simultaneous with the English one.
Dracula scared the beejeebers out audiences when it was released in February 1931 and nine months later, Frankenstein -- based on Mary Shelley's novel -- drew even larger crowds. Scientist Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) cobbles together a human body from various lifeless parts and then brings it to life using electricity. Boris Karloff's tragic monster and its theme of the consequences of man playing God made this one of the most emotionally powerful horror films ever made.
Karloff created another legendary character in 1932 in The Mummy. British archeologists accidentally awaken the ancient Egyptian high priest Imhotep, who terrorizes Cairo in search of a lost love. Claude Rains made his screen debut in 1933's The Invisible Man. In this adaptation of an H.G.Wells novel, a doctor discovers a serum that makes him invisible, but also affects his sanity. He is seen only when swathed in bandages and goggles. Undetected, he embarks on a reign of terror (punctuated by a maniacal laugh) before he is finally stopped.
Karloff returned in 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. His lonely monster -- who along with the good doctor survived the burning windmill set by the angry throng in the original -- longs for a mate. Dr. Frankenstein (Clive) is coerced by his old mentor into making a new monster (Elsa Lanchester), but there's no fairy tale ending in the offing.
The Wolf Man was introduced in 1941 with Lon Chaney Jr., starring as the accursed Larry Talbot, who transforms into a werewolf when the moon is full. Two years later, Rains played the crazed and vengeful masked composer in Phantom of the Opera, which was based on Gaston Leroux's novel. The Gill-man, who terrorizes a group of scientists trying to capture it in the Amazon in 1954's The Creature From the Black Lagoon, is the last of Universal's great monsters.
All of them were involved in numerous sequels and parodies, including a popular series of Abbott and Costello Meets … comedies starting with 1948's … Frankenstein, which also featured Dracula and the Wolf Man.