Ranking the Classic Universal Movie Monsters
Movie monsters are what every great horror film is made of. Think about it, whatever your definition of “monster,” it undoubtedly includes something to the effect of inhuman (or once human/human-like) beasts who kill mindlessly and have no soul, or something like that. See? That pretty much includes just about ever killer, slasher, and murderer, not to mention everything from Godzilla to the Cloverfield monster in every horror movie ever. But they all had to start somewhere. All famous movie monsters have their own legends. And we have Universal Studios to thank for their initial release, and most of the literature on which said monsters are based.
So, that brings us to the big question: who/what stands out as the greatest Universal Movie Monster of all time? Definitely a big question with quite likely a hundred very reasonable answers, but this is our list, so it’s up to us to decide the greatest. In this case there are nine, each of which — save for The Creature From The Black Lagoon — were released pre-1950 and are considered the original and greatest run of the Universal Monsters. The Creature would come later and be largely responsible for the monster’s resurgence in popularity. So let’s take a look at the list and see who stands as the scariest, most evil, most mindless… and coolest of all the monsters.
- Phantom of the Opera
Level of Evil: In all actuality, Eric the Phantom (Eric?) was far more misunderstood than really evil. He was a mischief-maker and a nuisance and did have that little problem with kidnapping Christine, drowning Philip, and being a colossal nut job, but evil is a little harsh. A bad guy? Yeah, probably. All the traps and such in the Opera House were his to command, so he could do his nasty, haunting deeds on his own schedule, but it's still a far reach from being truly evil.
Level of Coolness: Incredible. First of all, he was portrayed by Lon Chaney, one of the early masters of makeup and costumes. Secondly, he was a scarred freak who looked like a really cool skull-headed creep. And lastly, he could pretty much do whatever he wanted and was seemingly immortal.
Success as a Monster: Not bad. Though his threats remained in-house, as it were, he was frightening enough to strike fear in the craw of everyone involved with the theater from the actors to the management. Granted, his monstrous powers were relatively limited, he still used what he had to the fullest extent.
- The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Level of Evil: Much like Eric the Phantom, Quasimodo is more mislabeled as a monster than he actually is one. Considering the time this movie is supposed to have taken place (15th Century Paris) and the time of its release (1923), one can really see why the deformed and twisted mess that the Hunchback was could be evil. Sadly, the truth is, much like any human who suffers the same infliction, he was used and abused. So no, not evil.
Level of Coolness: Lon Chaney makes his first appearance in full-on monster makeup in this film. Though it was released right around the same time as The Phantom of the Opera, this one was made first and really showcases Chaney's ability to completely become the character. He looks incredibly cool underneath all the growths and masking and really displays an air of the classic Universal Movie Monster.
Success as a Monster: Universal hadn't quite fallen into their Movie Monsters role yet with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but they were definitely on their way. Quasimodo is creepy and definitely uncomfortable to look at, but there is a hidden innocence that you can find deep in the monster's eyes... an innocence that Lon Chaney perfected later in his career. As a monster, he fits the definition to a T, but there is humanity there too.
- The Invisible Man
Level of Evil: Blame it on the 'monocane'? Maybe. Blame it on the severe insanity and psychopathic tendencies of a mad doctor? Probably. Ultimately, for his place on this list, Dr. Jack Griffin is likely the most truly evil monster so far. What makes matters worse is Dr. Griffin's involvement with his tormented friend, Dr. Kemp. He uses his friend as the 'visible' half of his crime wave that begins with murder and escalates from there. So, yeah. Evil.
Level of Coolness: Quite likely one of the coolest Universal Movie Monsters of all time because you never actually see his face until his death. He, like a mummy, is all wraps (at least as far as the head goes) and goggles until he wants to commit his crimes then.. nothing! Talk about awesome. All you need to worry about is doing your dirty deeds in the snow (which ended up being the Doctor's ultimate downfall) and not talking. Other than that, epic levels of coolness.
Success as a Monster: He may not be toothy, hairy, or particularly monstrous, but what he lacks in visual aesthetics he more than makes up for in physical strength and psychological warfare. I mean, think about it, you never know he's there! He has nearly all the aspects of a ghost without actually having to be dead. If you don't expect him and never know he's there, it's lights out. An amazing monster.
- The Bride of Frankenstein
Level of Evil: Well, frankly, there is none. In fact, as the only woman on this list (and probably the only real female on the classic Universal Movie Monster lineup), The Bride is nearly innocent of all charges. In this case the blame for her re-animation sits squarely on the shoulders of Dr. Frankenstein and Pretorius. At this point though, the twisted minds of the doctors have harnessed the ability to create life, they still haven't mastered how to make their creations truly live, and this is seen immediately when the bride stands completely oblivious in front of The Monster. But, it's still a stretch to call her evil.
Level of Coolness: Again, since she is the only woman on this list, her level of coolness is ratcheted up to staggering numbers. Her soulless eyes, rigid gait, and frazzled hair are absolute iconic pieces of imagery that everyone can immediately associate with the character of The Bride. For my money, there are no other female horror characters (aside from maybe The Exorcist's Reagan) to command such a huge chunk of horror history. And to think, her appearance in the move is literally minutes. Cool and classic.
Success as a Monster: Brief, but unforgettable. She is only a monster because that is what her creators made her. Just as with Frankenstein's original monster, she is reanimated flesh, and little more. There is no humanity, no soul, and nothing attaching her to her formal, mortal self. So, yes... she is a monster. But, though the image is timeless, her new life was tragically short.
- Frankenstein’s Monster
Level of Evil: As is the case with so many of the original Universal Movie Monsters, the one known as Frankenstein's Monster is only evil as a product of his unfortunate environment. Brought to life by a mad doctor attempting to play God, the Monster is terrifying and sadly childlike. It's even impossible to say he means well, since he has no meaning at all. What we can directly assume is that because of those who are frightened of a beast brought to a horrific life -- due to those very people who use torch and pitchfork to jab at the creature -- his natural reactions can easily be misconstrued as evil, even if they aren't.
Level of Coolness: As what might be considered the 'face' of the Universal Movie Monster franchise, Frankenstein's visage is what everyone immediately thinks of when they think of Frankenstein. No doubt. Bolts in the neck, stitched skull, sunken eyes, deathly pallor, and the stomping gait... that's Frankenstein no matter how you rearrange it. It might not have been a perfect imagining of what Shelley wrote, but it's the image we've all come to know and love. Epic.
Success as a Monster: Nearly perfect. Though the definition of a monster is slightly out-of-the-box with the Monster since he is still barely, human. But as a monster... as a marauding, brutal, unstoppable machine that is as confused and frightened as those he destroys, Frankenstein's Monster is spot on.
- The Mummy
Level of Evil: Pretty bad, actually. Aimless and brutal like Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy will destroy anything in its path to reach its goal. His evil only survives as a pure, self-absorbed desire to find his one love and turn her into a mummy, thereby making her his queen.
Level of Coolness: Boris Karloff once again supplies his towering physique and ability to perform a shuffling, lifeless creature in his turn as The Mummy. And he's pretty cool when he does it, too. Back in the days when computer animation sequences weren't even dreams yet, creative makeup artists devised Karloff's look that would go on to be how monster movies perceived mummies from then on: wrapped, gnarly, and halting in their movements. Karloff once again made the walking dead really cool.
Success as a Monster: Pretty damn effective, I'd say. We're now getting to the true meat of what a monster really is. Imhotep was once human, but as an ancient Egyptian he was mummified and then, thanks to a careless reading of some ill-placed hieroglyphs, brought back to life to prowl the streets of Cairo. If it weren't for his singular obsession, The Mummy might have been a virtually unstoppable killing machine. But, just as it is with many monsters, love eventually conquers all... even in death.
- The Wolf Man
Level of Evil: Evil is exactly what the werewolf is. Once bitten and afflicted with lycanthropy (the ability to shape-shift into a wolfman), only a mere shadow of his human self remains and he kills with no mercy or pretense. Lon Chaney, Jr. dons the guise in this role and truly gives the monstrous creature the sinister viciousness he needs to really become a half man, half beast.
Level of Coolness: High. As it seems, all good future incarnations of a given monster stem back to the Universal treatments. As it seems, every wolfman or werewolf from this point on will owe a great deal of gratitude to Chaney, Jr. and his amazing makeup. Though it might be considered tame and slightly lackluster by today's more advanced standards, the way Chaney, Jr. was able to make himself appear to transform and become the beast was (and in my opinion, still is) breathtaking. Very, very cool.
Success as a Monster: Nearly spot on. Though the silver bullet mythos didn't begin with this picture, he was still beaten to death by a walking stick featuring the silver bust of a wolf on its end. So, there wasn't the worry of having to watch out for silver bullet-bearing hunters, which made the wolfman in this movie just a bit more successful... temporarily. In all future incarnations as the monster, Lon Chaney, Jr. reprised the role though he technically became a member of the undead with the subsequent movie because he was resurrected during a full moon and rose from the grave. I guess he's double the monster!
Level of Evil: Dracula is pretty much pure, unadulterated evil. Despite what watered-down, goofy, kid-friendly, modern-day vampires might have you believe, Dracula is a monster and a master of evil. Speaking of which, 'master of evil' reminds me of his influence on other genres of cinema. You can plainly see his visage at work (as well as the obvious Frankenstein's) in such sci-fi heavies as Darth Vader: long cloak, master of his surroundings, commander of those who would do his bidding. It's all horror influence, and Dracula's reign of evil has deep flowing veins... if you'll pardon the word play.
Level of Coolness: Almost to excess. Vampires in and of themselves are replete with coolness, oozing with sexiness and an air of suave perfection. Dracula was dark and sinister, to be sure, but he was smooth and calculating with the ladies like no monster before him. He both demanded and commanded respect, and he even looked the part. His castle was a haven for hedonism, especially with his lady vampire whores, and his affectations spread country-wide. He was a cool as they come.
Success as a Monster: Very. Thanks to Universal's design of the "modern" vampire, Dracula's success continues even today. No other vampire (especially not that twinkling, morose, Twilight bullshit) stands the test of time like Bela Lugosi's Dracula. Okay, so maybe the fangs didn't really come into play until Hammer's take with Christopher Lee, but the seeds were planted and every vampire since owes a huge nod to Universal's perfect nightmare.
- The Creature From the Black Lagoon
Level of Evil: Pretty stinking evil. In fact, as kill counts go that aren't purely unintentional and mere collateral damage, the Gill-Man's success is pretty spectacular. And we're just talking about the first movie. There were two slightly less successful sequels (Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us) where his spree only increases. I suppose one might argue that he is merely a product of his surroundings, since the lone remnant from the Devonian period was provoked by the scientists. But is that really a reason to try to kill everyone just to get to the girl? Maybe. My history is a bit shaky on prehistoric fish men. Evil, I tell you!
Level of Coolness: For my buck, there is no cooler monster from the Universal era. Why? Look at him! He's a fish man! His costume and makeup are phenomenal and top-notch. He just barely misses the goofy sci-fi nuclear fallout alien creatures that Universal would roll out in the late '50s and '60s, and still remains freaky and fantastic. Also, I can only imagine the amount of time holding his breath the actor portraying him had to spend. That alone ups the coolness factor to astronomical levels.
Success as a Monster: Perfect. The Gill-Man is a monster through and through. He is said in the film's lore to be the link between the Devonian Period creatures and mammals, so he's kind of like a sea-bound Bigfoot. He's pretty hideous to look at, and just gets more monstrous the more you do. And there has never been a ridiculous attempt at a remake where the design has been tinkered with a screwed up. In fact, the only other real movie appearance Gill-Man makes outside of his own series was in The Monster Squad, and even his look there is nearly a dead ringer. This, kids, is monster perfection.