When looking at the history of the horror movie, it is clear that certain companies can dominate at different times. For instance, throughout the 1960s and early ’70s, Hammer Studios was bringing nightmares thanks to its reinventions of classic horror stories mixed with evocative violence. These days, Blumhouse Productions is the big name in horror, with its low-budget approach allowing for room to gamble on plenty of movies like Insidious, The Purge, and Get Out. However, the original name when it came to horror was Universal Studios. Its classic horror movies and roster of monsters came to lay down an iconic view on popular horror characters. That said, the studio seems lost these days as to what to do with its iconic pool of monsters. Recently, the studio attempted to relaunch them with a shared universe of action movies labeled as “Dark Universe”, the first entry of this plan being an action movie remake of The Mummy starring Tom Cruise. However, the hamfisted attempt to create this universe in a single film and propping it up with generic action movie antics has already put the plan on a shaky foundation. What can be done to bring back the thrill of these classic horror movies for a modern audience? First, let us look a little into their history.
Universal Studios was first formed back in 1912, brought together from a group of nickelodeon (an early version of the movie theater) owners led by Carl Laemmle. In the silent era, the studio had a few horror movies, but not many. Most prominent of their silent era horror films was The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. It was not until the “talkies” that Universal would cement its name in horror, thanks to the year 1931. That was the year that Universal released two movies that would carve their niche: Dracula and Frankenstein. These two movies, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff respectively, feature a Gothic atmosphere and memorable performances that put Universal on the map. From there, the studio committed to bringing terror to the big screen throughout the ’30s and ’40s, making such films as The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man. They even made sequels to their hits, the most notable of them being Bride of Frankenstein. As the 1950s rolled in, the tide of horror shifted away from the Gothic towards science fiction nightmares, pulling away Universal’s stronghold with it. However, the studio still managed to make one more hit from that time which would come to be associated with the idea of “Universal Horror”: Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Now, these particular horror films might not quite have the same punch for today’s audiences as they did when they first came out. The scares might not land the same chill for a modern audience, considering the advancement in cinematic techniques and technical effects. Still, there is something that is memorable with these movies: the monsters. Not only are most of them based around classic literary characters or familiar monster archetypes, but the performances help to captivate audiences. For instance, Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula shines with a charming charisma mixed with a stilted nature that lends him a disconnect from humanity. Likewise, Boris Karloff’s turn as Frankenstein’s Monster offers a creature whose lumbering movements are tempered by a soulfulness in the eyes, communicating sadness and rage at his state. These movies work because their central monsters are so fascinating to watch. Whether sympathetic like Lawrence Talbot from The Wolf Man or more overtly villainous like the Invisible Man, there is still power to these classic movie monsters. What can be done with such classic figures? Well, the idea of a shared universe is not a bad idea. However, the execution of this idea should remain in these horror roots.
Believe it or not, those original films actually shared the same universe together. The sequels presented a loose continuity that existed involving these various monsters, along with crossover films both serious or comedic. This shared universe of monster movies can still happen, but not as some generic action movie collage. Instead, they should remain as horror movies. They may take place in different places and times, best fitting the subject and characters. They may unfold in the darkness of light, or bring terror to the light of day. In any case, what is most fruitful is the core idea of it: that our world is filled with nightmares. Most horror movies tend to have a single tale to tell, bringing one monstrosity into regular existence. They are isolated incidents. This shared “Universal Horror” universe could instead paint a world where the nightmares lurk all over. They may be steeped in legend, like Dracula or the Wolf Man. They might be the product of science gone wrong, like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Invisible Man. They may even be things we never knew existed, like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Together, they offer a world in which terror can come from any corner of the globe, and there can be something chilling about the idea if executed right.
Though their original films might not be so terrifying to modern audiences, the monsters that make up “Universal Horror” are still iconic horror figures for a reason. Their power can still be tapped for modern audiences in a shared cinematic universe, if used to bring together horror films into a united tapestry of terrors.