The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
Premise: The owner of a coal mining operation, falsely imprisoned for fratricide, takes a drug to make him invisible, despite its side effect: gradual madness.
Nine years after Dr. John Griffin’s invisible rampage depicted in 1933’s The Invisible Man, his brother, Dr. Frank Griffin (John Sutton), helps his friend escape the gallows with an experimental drug that turns him invisible. Once Geoffrey Radcliffe (Vincent Price) escapes, he sets off to find the person who murdered his brother while he waits for Frank to develop an antidote for the invisibility. The Invisible Man Returns is noteworthy for the improvements to the visual effects that nine years afforded the production.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Premise: One of the sons of Frankenstein finds his father’s monster in a coma and revives him, only to find out he is controlled by Ygor who is bent on revenge.
Son of Frankenstein finds Baron Wolf Von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) traveling to the village in which his father’s monster wreaked havoc many years after the tragic events transpired. The young baron brings his bride Elsa (Josephine Hutchinson) and son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) to the Frankenstein castle where Wolf is set to collect his inheritance. In the village, the Frankensteins are met with hostility while, in the castle, the Frankenstein patriarch faces off with the heavy shadow of his father’s legacy.
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Premise: Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska seeks the aid of a noted psychiatrist, hoping to free herself of a mysterious evil influence.
The Universal Monsters’ second direct sequel, 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, takes a different approach than Bride of Frankenstein before it. Like Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter begins immediately after the events of its predecessor. However, there is no retconning to be found here. Dracula is dead. Long live Dracula. This sequel examines the fallout of the events of the first film through Van Helsing’s (Edward Van Sloan) interactions with the law and the introduction of Hungarian countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is seemingly possessed by the re-deceased Dracula.
Werewolf of London (1935)
Premise: The juice of a rare Tibetan flower is the only thing that keeps Dr. Glendon from turning into a werewolf during a full moon.
Though it underperformed commercially compared to the success of The Wolf Man six years later, 1935’s Werewolf of London has the distinction of helping to create much of the mythology that is still associated with werewolves today. Prior to the film, transforming into a werewolf involved witchcraft, did not involve a full moon, and bites were not transformative to humans. Thus the legacy of Werewolf of London is indelible even if the film itself is slightly uneven and muddled with too many protagonists.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Premise: Mary Shelley reveals the main characters of her novel survived: Dr. Frankenstein, goaded by an even madder scientist, builds his monster a mate.
The first direct sequel in the Universal Classic Monsters chronology is also the final one to be helmed by James Whale (after Frankenstein and The Invisible Man). Bride of Frankenstein is replete with themes of creation and destruction amidst subtext involving identity politics, nature vs nurture, and a healthy of dose of homosexual undercurrents thrown in for good measure. The film builds upon what was previously established in Frankenstein by introducing a more menacing mad scientist character and further humanizing Boris Karloff’s monster. It also pays homage to the woman who created the monster and brings some light religious commentary to the forefront as well.
The Invisible Man (1933)
Premise: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.
A man enters an inn, demands privacy, and works tirelessly at mysterious experiments. He’s isolated, agitated, and slowly growing more and more insane. Also, he’s invisible. The Invisible Man is the mind-blowing journey of a man overcome with the conflicting feelings of the power he has gained and the longing to come back to the one he loves. It’s a mad scientist motif that drives a narrative more and more toward an ending that may not be as redemptive or emotionally satisfying as one might expect. With a powerful lead performance by Claude Rains and spectacular visual effects, The Invisible Man leans into its mad scientist’s descent as it leads to a thrilling conclusion.
The Mummy (1932)
Premise: A resurrected Egyptian mummy stalks a beautiful woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his lover and bride.
A year after making his mark as the monster in Frankenstein, Boris Karloff cemented his icon status with his portrayal of Imhotep in 1932’s The Mummy. Despite having a plot that is heavily borrowed from Dracula, The Mummy showcases Karloff’s strength and range as an actor behind it. The film also features an exotic Egyptian locale and set design that is noticeably different from the Gothic horror of Dracula or the villages of Frankenstein. More importantly, The Mummy has tense atmosphere and a sense of grandeur to its monster that keeps it from simply being a rip-off of Dracula.
Premise: An obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.
James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was released in the same calendar year as Dracula. Together, the two films kicked off the Universal Monsters’ reign in cinemas. While both are similar in their Gothic horror aesthetics, Frankenstein infuses its monster with a science fiction hue to great effect. The scientific and moral concepts at the heart of Frankenstein help enhance the wonderful characterization and tragedy-laden arc of the film’s titular character and his complicated monster.
Premise: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.
1931’s Dracula, the beginning of the Universal Classic Monster films, is a work of stunning beauty and dread from the outset. The detail in the backdrops of the opening scenes is awe-inspiring and lends to an impressive scale and cinematography that has aged extremely well. Within the first few moments, we’re introduced to Count Dracula and his castle. Giant interior scenes are filled with broken staircases and cobwebs. The set design goes a long way in establishing tone and a sense of danger for every character who crosses Dracula’s path. Continue reading