The Best Classic Universal Horror Movies

Dracula. Frankenstein. Lugosi. Karloff. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. The classic run of Universal Studios’ monsters (of somewhat dubious dating, but roughly from 1925’s Phantom to 1954’s Creature) has left an indelible mark on Halloween, pop culture, and the fabric of American cinematic history.

Each October I make a point of trying to watch as many of these on DVD and streaming (I subscribe to Peacock one month a year) as I can. I don’t expect this will be an activity for everyone, particularly others my age. Dracula and Frankenstein are two of the oldest sound films I’ve ever seen, and there are certainly many aspects in which these films have aged poorly – the earliest ones don’t have a musical score, so they tend to feel exceedingly slow, and I think virtually every single one of these films is guilty of moving far too quickly in their abrupt endings.

Yet these movies are required viewing for me every Halloween, and perhaps it comes down to personal preference. Some people are most attracted to slasher movies, or haunted houses and ghosts. I guess I’m just an old school monster guy, at least when it comes to Halloween, a holiday that I associate with as many wonderful childhood memories as any other. When it comes down to it, most of these movies make me feel like a kid, and that’s despite not having seen most of them until I was an adult.

I am herein going to attempt to rank not them all – that would be an impossible task – but some of the ones I consider the best, and I’ll do my best to explain why. If you haven’t seen these movies and have a passing interest in film history or the horror genre, I’d recommend looking into these options.

Before I rank them, I suppose I have to establish what films I’m looking at. You’ll notice that the article title does not refer to these as “Universal Monster Films,” and that is because while Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man may be this original cinematic universe’s most endearing legacy, some of the best that Universal had to offer in this period are not truly monster films, but they are so good that I simply cannot leave them off any kind of definitive list. It’s also debatable as to who can be considered a Universal Monster. Norman Bates of Psycho has sort of been rebranded as one, even though Psycho was originally produced by Paramount and only later acquired by Universal. I think I will draw the line at Gill-Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, as his 1954-56 trilogy is often considered the last of these films.

But where should I start? I think this cycle truly started with 1931’s Dracula, but I am perfectly fine with Lon Chaney, Sr. being the retroactive patriarch, so I will consider all of his extant horror films.

Any good list these days has an honorable mentions section, so here goes:

Freaks (1932)

Freaks isn’t even a Universal release, so why is it here? Well, when I first saw it, I certainly thought it was a Universal film, particularly because it’s directed by Dracula‘s own Tod Browning, and it’s so wonderful that no deep dive into classic horror of the ’30s can be complete without it. Were this film actually eligible, I’d probably have it as high as #2 or 3.

I’d also like to offer a special shoutout to two more non-Universal films: 1932’s White Zombie and Island of Lost Souls, both starring Bela Lugosi. The latter was even marketed as a Universal monster film, making it into their VHS collection in the ’90s. Neither are Universal, though both would be good enough to make this list.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

The all-star monster lineups of the ’40s don’t tend to be the best Universal had to offer, but there’s still a lot to like here, including a love triangle involving the Wolf Man and a hunchback, an incredible defenestration stunt, and Boris Karloff getting to flex his acting muscles and play the mad scientist rather than the Monster. Sure, he did that plenty of times, but only once in the Frankenstein series.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)

I usually like that these movies are short, but the 61-minute runtime makes this story feel too rushed. But Bela Lugosi is pretty good in his first mad scientist role, and its creepy implications are great.

17. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

The latest film on this list is probably the closest thing I have to a guilty pleasure out of all of these movies. It’s kind of a bad horror/monster movie, as all the scenes with Gill-Man seem to be going through the motions, but this is a somewhat compelling domestic drama and love triangle, with ’50s sci-fi icon Jeff Morrow (This Island Earth, The Giant Claw) playing an insanely jealous and controlling husband who eventually tries to frame the creature for murder. It may only be worth watching for the last ten minutes, but the last ten minutes are exhilarating.

16. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)

If you were to tell me this movie was a waste of time before the last act battle between the two monsters, I don’t think I’d say you’re wrong, as the climax is certainly the highlight. But this is a surprisingly good sequel to The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney, Jr. continuing to lend a great deal of humanity to the role. On the other hand, the film is a terrible sequel to The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Lugosi’s turn as the monster is a major disappointment, though I don’t know how much of that is his fault. The Ghost of Frankenstein leaves the character (played by Chaney) as having Lugosi’s voice, though being blind, and these are two things that were more or less scrapped once test audiences had seen this sequel. An eagle-eyed viewer may notice a few moments where the Monster is definitely talking, but his dialogue is all cut out, as is any explanation of him being blind.

This film may not have been ruined by studio meddling, but the interference didn’t help, and as a result it’s a solid Wolf Man sequel with a spectacular five minute climax, and not much more.

15. Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Universal’s technicolor remake of its own silent classic takes plenty of liberties – both from the original film and from the Gaston Leroux novel. The differences start right away, with the Phantom starting out as a perfectly sane and non-deformed individual, who is driven to madness after losing his job, believing his work is stolen, and getting acid poured on his face. The most disappointing aspect is the Phantom’s appearance once he takes on a villainous role. However disappointing he may be as the monster, though, Claude Rains is full of life and demands sympathy in the first act before everything goes down.

The color is gorgeous, though, as are the sets and costumes. It may be a better costume drama than horror film.

14. The Mummy (1932)

It almost seems like the fine folks at Universal just took the Dracula script and changed the monster and the setting, and that’s the main reason why The Mummy isn’t higher on this list. Karloff is solid as Imhotep, the Mummy, though he spends most of the movie outside of his bandages. Yet Jack Pierce’s makeup still shines in both versions of the character.

13. Dracula (both versions, 1931)

If you didn’t know, there were actually two versions of the film that started it all shot simultaneously. While Tod Browning’s version, in English, is an undisputed classic that gave us the signature depiction of the titular character, the Spanish version, directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarias rather than Bela Lugosi, is in some ways better.

Browning’s Dracula feels somewhat primitive in a lot of ways, lacking score and camera movement, but it stands out due to signature performances from not only Lugosi, but character actor Dwight Frye, whose Renfield remains arguably the film’s greatest feature. Melford’s film feels more alive and has more visual flair, despite using the same sets. But I still can’t say it’s much better if even at all, because Lugosi and Frye are so iconic.

12. The Old Dark House (1932)

Of course all four James Whale films made this list, and the fact that this isn’t ranked higher should not be mistaken for a negative reflection of this film, which is an incredibly effective story about a couple of travelers who seek shelter from a storm in a home that has more going on than meets the eye. The performances are great, though it’s disappointing to see Karloff typecast in another mute brute role following the success of Frankenstein.

11. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Abbott and Costello may have made better monster movies (their meeting with the Invisible Man is probably better, but I couldn’t in my right mind consider it a horror movie, so it’s not here), but this movie is pretty consistently funny. I like that the monsters are just themselves, and all the humor comes from the two comedians. It’s only Lugosi’s second time appearing on screen as Dracula, and the Monster has a very small role, but the Wolf Man is the highlight as far as the monsters are concerned.

10. The Black Cat (1934)

This is where we start getting really good. The rest of the films on this list are absolute must-watches for any movie fan.

While other actors made their impact on these films, Lugosi and Karloff were certainly the biggest stars, and their collaborations were not as frequent as you might expect. Often times when both actors were featured, one would have a small role, but here, both are the stars, and both truly shine.

It’s a revenge film that pits two incredible villains – the insane Dr. Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi) and satanic murderer Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) – against each other. Unlike in most of their collaborations, we for the most part sympathize with Lugosi, as Karloff plays one of the truly great irredeemable villains of the period. Both actors are incredible, of course, and the film is perhaps Universal’s most shocking of the era.

9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Like the Claude Rains Phantom, this movie is certainly more drama than horror, but Lon Chaney’s makeup and snarling face may still make its way into your nightmares. It’s not a great adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, as Jehan – a minor character in the book – is the main villain here, and his brother, Frollo, remains faultless. And even though it’s established in the opening crawl that Quasimodo is deaf just like he is in the book, the film doesn’t seem to be consistent with that, though the viewer won’t hear a thing watching this silent movie, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

While the film has impressive production values, Chaney’s performance is the main reason to see this one. He’s as expressive as can be, but his physical acting is far from limited to his facial reactions. He performs plenty of impressive stunts, climbing and swinging around all over the place.

It should also be noted that apparently no complete version of this film exists, as apparently 14 minutes are missing. Though the story remains coherent, this is noticeable, especially in the last act, where some shots seem to start, and then abruptly cut. So if we had the full version, perhaps it’d be even higher.

8. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

For all intents and purposes, the Universal Monsters were dead by the time the 1950s came around. If they appeared in movies at all, they were in Abbott and Costello films, but the actors who made their living off of playing these characters were growing old (Lon Chaney, Jr. had made the switch to character actor status with a memorable supporting performance in 1952’s High Noon, and Lugosi was on his last legs, appearing in Ed Wood films).

But then this little film comes out in the midst of the post-war sci-fi boom, and Gill-Man becomes Universal’s ’50s Frankenstein or Dracula for a new generation. While the earlier monsters primarily had makeup artist Jack Pierce to thank for their iconic looks, Gill-Man has Milicent Patrick responsible for the design, though she sadly did not get much credit for this in her lifetime. But it remains probably my favorite monster design.

The movie may be pretty simple, but it’s a well told beauty and beast story, and features some incredible underwater cinematography. Though I’ll also add that this movie may have my least favorite musical score of all time, which singlehandedly keeps the film out of my top 7.

7. Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Long overlooked, it seems now that Son is finally getting the respect it deserves, with many even arguing it’s the best Frankenstein film. I don’t think it’s quite that, but it is fantastic.

The first three Frankenstein films all excel in their characterization, though that honor is unfortunately not given to the Monster in this film. Karloff takes a backseat, but Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone are excellent in their roles as Inspector Krogh and the new Baron Frankenstein, respectively. Truly stealing the show, however, is Bela Lugosi as Ygor. I’d put this right up there with the next film in this list with Lugosi’s best role. He excelled at playing monsters and madmen, and the hunchback Ygor is the best of both worlds. He’s simply an incredible villain.

6. The Raven (1935)

Probably the darkest of the classic Universal horror pictures, The Raven is a perfect showcase of Bela Lugosi’s ability to stretch beyond the Dracula character. While I don’t know if I’d call him a great actor, he was ahead of his time playing eccentric characters, and with the right script such as this very loose Edgar Allan Poe adaptation, I’ll even say I prefer him here than to his iconic Dracula turn.

The Raven has all the crazy darkness of the best Pre-Code horror efforts, with Lugosi playing a brilliant surgeon who saves a young woman’s life only to become obsessed with her, and feel that she belongs to him. It’s a story that feels like it could be written today, and it ushers in some incredibly disturbing implications. And for the most part, the movie keeps these as implications, just like The Black Cat. In some ways it feels as modern as a Saw movie, but still has that classic old school Gothic feel in spades.

5. The Invisible Man (1933)

The Invisible Man is hilarious. This is the best version of James Whale’s camp horror-comedy sensibility, and I don’t think it’s close. Claude Rains is fantastic in his first American and first talkie performance as Jack Griffin, a brilliant scientist whose experimentation with invisibility drugs has driven him not just to the point of insanity, but to that of supervillainy. This movie is such a delight to watch, and its special effects still dazzle to this day.

4. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

1935: The monster, played by Boris Karloff (1887 – 1969), believes he has found his true mate in ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, directed by James Whale. The would-be bride is played by English actress Elsa Lanchester (1902 – 1986). (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

I did not like this film much at all the first time I saw it, but I think it may be the one of these movies that most consistently gets better on rewatches. It starts super awkward, with Mary Shelley speaking to her husband and Lord Byron, telling them that what happens in this movie is what happened after her novel concluded (which is odd, considering her novel ends completely differently than the first film, though I will give this movie credit as being more accurate overall to the novel than the ’31 film). Following that, we are introduced to the film’s strong (though unpolished) comedic sensibility, with actress Una O’Connor, whose theatrical acting style works better in The Invisible Man.

After the rough first five or ten minutes, however, Bride is incredible. Karloff’s Monster is a fully fleshed out character here, and is one of several, as Ernest Thesiger shines as one of the great movie mad scientists in Dr. Pretorius, the man who reignites Frankenstein’s hope that the Monster can be redeemed in the eyes of science and God, though he has some ulterior motives.

Given how iconic an image she is, you might be surprised to learn that the Bride isn’t a big part of the movie, though she is a part of one of my two favorite moments in the series, the spectacular (if a bit rushed) conclusion.

Many would have this as their number one, but there are still a few films I prefer.

3. The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

This was the biggest winner of my rewatches this month. It has to be one of the greatest silent films in American cinema, and Lon Chaney is simply fantastic as Erik, the Phantom. He also designed his own monster makeup, which is at least equal in quality to anything Jack Pierce did across all of his credits. The scene where his mask is removed and we first see his true face is still phenomenal to this day, even if it won’t cause you to faint as it reportedly did for many in attendance back in 1925. This film is also a visual marvel, with fantastic sets and shadowy cinematography, and if you ask me, I think many of the silent films tend to have aged better than a lot of the super early talkies.

2. The Wolf Man (1941)

I talk a lot about some of the fantastic performances in these movies (almost exclusively from the leads, as the supporting players often feel far too theatrical), but I think if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lawrence Talbot and the titular Wolf Man. His greatness spanned multiple films, but this is of course the best, for a number of reasons. I’d say of all the films in this cycle, this probably has aged the best. Chaney is sad and sympathetic as Talbot, and he’s truly menacing and inhuman as the Wolf Man.

The score by Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner, and Charles Previn truly highlights what had been missing in some of the earlier films. This movie also has my other favorite moment among these films, when Talbot picks up a BB gun at a fair to shoot at a bunch of animal targets only to freeze in a combination of terror and sadness when he sees the wolf target. And on top of all this, it’s a truly gorgeous movie to look at, excelling in its production design and cinematography.

  1. Frankenstein (1931)

Frankenstein is the gold standard for me. While many would say it’s surpassed by its immediate sequel, and some would argue Son as well, I just find this movie so intensely satisfying. In the role that made him a star, Boris Karloff provides the definitive portrayal of the Frankenstein’s Monster character. He may be given more to do in Bride, but the subtleties he brings are best exemplified here. Despite straying quite a bit from Mary Shelley’s novel, director James Whale manages to tell such a compelling story of a man who dared to play God and had to suffer the drastic consequences. It’s dated, but there are only a handful of things I’d change about it, and it’s significantly more watchable than the same year’s Dracula. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

Leave a Reply