Sometimes it pays to be first. Back in the 1920s, Universal Studios was the smallest of the big Hollywood studios in desperate search for a defining niche to distinguish them from the pack. And so in a stroke of brilliance, Carl Laemmle Jr. decided to turn to classic horror literature and mined its monsters to turn them into cinematic gold. Being the first studio to really do this meant that Universal had the first real stab at defining these characters in film.
They did such a great job at this task that they effectively created our cultural defaults when imagining these characters. Just for fun, ask a kid to walk like Frankenstein’s monster. Nine times out of ten that kid is going to walk like Boris Karloff did, even if they’ve never heard of Karloff or seen the movie. Similarly, ask that kid to speak like Dracula and they will probably do their best Bela Lugosi impression. So large is the imprint Universal studios left on the horror genre that every movie and adaptation of these monsters that followed basically had to be compared to Universal’s interpretations of the characters. In some cases (with Frankenstein’s monster in particular), their interpretation of the character even surpasses the source material as the default interpretation in our public consciousness.
And so on this Halloween, I decided just for fun to celebrate these iconic creations of Universal Studios the only way I know how: by arbitrarily ranking them. A couple of caveats before I jump into the list:
- Let’s acknowledge first of all that there are no worst monsters on this list. The monsters at the bottom are still really great and this list is mostly about ranking the degree of greatness these monsters possess.
- In order to keep this project manageable, I’m only considering the original movies in which they appear and the original actor to play them.
Let’s get on with it then:
SPECIAL MENTION: THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
The power of the Bride is clearly seen in the fact that she barely has ten minutes of screen-time ever and yet she has managed to climb the echelon as one of the great horror monsters. Unfortunately it is precisely because her appearance amounts to nothing more than a cameo appearance that I can’t bring myself to usurp any of the monsters on this list. But make no mistake: the lady is iconic.
8. THE HUNCHBACK
Bringing up the rear is Lon Chaney’s masterful depiction of Quasimodo in the silent film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The movie owes much of its success to Chaney’s makeup, which he created himself, and sheer commitment to the physicality of the performance, as he contorts his body (to the point of rumoured injury) in order to convincingly portray the Quasimodo’s physical deformities. Ultimately though, Quasimodo falls to this bottom rung on the list for two reasons. First, the movie was a one-off for Universal, spawning no sequels, and thus has no real lasting legacy in our public consciousness. But the second reason is that on closer examination, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not really a horror movie, and Quasimodo’s monstrousness really only runs skin deep as his actions are ultimately motivated by love and not malevolence (which is more than can be said for the monstrousness of some of the other humans in this movie).
7. THE MUMMY
Besides the problematic racial dynamics inherently at play with the Mummy (the exotically foreign monster that is based on Western myths about a non-Western culture), the monster is ultimately not as compelling as the others on this list. Partly this is because for almost the entire runtime of this movie the resurrected high priest Imhotep (Boris Karloff) looks like a regular human and not like the wrapped up body that we stereotypically associate this monster with. While Karloff commendably gives the Mummy gravitas and elegance, it still feels like a rehash of other monster tropes with all its distinctiveness coming from questionable racial origins rather than an original concept on its own.
6. THE WOLF MAN
If I allowed myself to take into account the sequels to this monster movie, the Wolf Man would show up much higher on this list. That’s because unlike all the monsters on this list, the Wolf Man has the rare distinction of being played by only one actor namely Lon Chaney Jr. And in subsequent movies, Chaney really makes the character Larry Talbot his own, building up a sympathetic portrayal of a man who tries to live with the unlucky curse that has been laid upon him as he tries to protect himself and those around him from his monstrous alter-ego. But since the original movie is an origin story, it lacks that nuance as it rushes to get Talbot from rich aristocratic son to beast. It is also at this juncture that I should remind the reader that this list is not from worst to best, but from really good to perfect. So keep that in mind.
Look I get it. As I said earlier, Bela Lugosi’s performance as Count Dracula is iconic. So there might be some outrage that he ends up this far down the list. But unfortunately in my book, Lugosi’s performance veers slightly (and only slightly!) into the overrated category. Coming at the weird transition between silent movies and the talkies, it’s clear that all involved including Lugosi were trying to figure out how to work in this new medium and the result is a performance where the acting seems to borrow more cues from the silent period but comes across as stilted and restrictive in the age of sound. Of all the performances on this list it is the one that threatens the most to descend into self-parody. In addition unlike most of the monsters on this list there is arguably a better portrayal of Dracula in the series of Hammer Films helmed by Christopher Lee. So for those reasons, he falls to the fifth spot.
4. THE INVISIBLE MAN
The effectiveness of this portrayal of the Invisible Man owes a huge chunk of its success to the performance of the great character actor Claude Rains. In his first role on camera he is stripped of his ability to emote with his face (due to said invisibility) and still pulls out a passionate and unhinged performance that gives the movie a frenetic and sinister quality to it. But the other aspect that makes this role work is that somehow (in ways that have been explained to me but I still can’t understand) the filmmakers pulled off the astonishing magic trick of making a person be physically present but completely invisible. These two things combined truly make The Invisible Man the underrated hit of the Universal canon.
3. THE PHANTOM
Lon Chaney strikes again. Once again the physicality of his acting sells the performance. Once again the makeup work is exemplary. But the grand difference between this monster and Quasimodo is that the Phantom is truly terrifying. In a clear case of overachieving, the Phantom manages not one, but two horrific looks with one being his default look in the picture above and the second being his eerie “Red Death” get-up at the masquerade ball. And unlike Dracula, Chaney’s portrayal of the Phantom has only grown in stature in the intervening years as more and more adaptations have tried (and mostly failed) to translate the novel to the silver screen.
2. THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
The Creature is the only truly original creation in Universal’s pantheon of monsters, and it is truly a winner. Easily the most athletic and visually dynamic monster on the list, we spend much of our time viewing him underwater as he attacks divers, stalks boats, and in quieter scenes, appears to almost be dancing as it swims. But as the least human-looking of the monsters, the Creature has the added benefit of possessing that glacial and spectral quality that renders him a creepy and unstoppable killing machine (an effect that Halloween would perfect with Mike Myers). While other monsters have decidedly human motivations and emotions, the Creature is simply an animalistic force of nature who sees us an unwanted intruders to be eliminated. It is that chilling simplicity of motive that makes the Creature almost the best monster on the list.
1. FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER
Take some of the best qualities of the other monsters on this list, whether it is the chilling pull of Dracula and the Mummy, the monstrousness of the Creature or the Phantom, or the pitiful nature of the Wolf Man or Quasimodo. All of those qualities will be found in the gigantic and misunderstand monster created by Frankenstein. Part of the appeal of Frankenstein’s monster (yes, I am THAT person who will remind you that the monster is not actually called Frankenstein) is that his monstrousness is entirely derived out of misunderstanding. He destroys and kills because he is confused about his own existence. He lashes out in anger because he is abused, mistreated, and feared immensely. And in the hands of Boris Karloff, the dangerous monster becomes also someone who inspires great pathos. If the appeal of horror is that it is something that is simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by, then the epitome of that dynamic is found in Frankenstein’s monster.