Universal Monsters ranking
After getting my hands on the full Universal Monsters set, a watchthrough of the entire deal was in order. My favourite stayed the same, but there were loads of pleasant surprises in here. I would say the top 22 here are at least worth a watch, whilst the top 11 are highly recommended classical goodness.
31. The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), Harold Young– The Mummy’s Hand set the template for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like. This film perfects that formula. It uses more than a sixth of the running time excerpting and rehashing the previous film to kick things off. The whole thing is bog standard and goes through the motions blandly. And the performances and the look of the Mummy are worse than the earlier films. Whatever the opposite of electric storytelling is, this is that.
30. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), Ford Beebe – Bloody rough. Lacks the high concept of the couple that come before it in this series and geez it shows. A bland outing that feels like the laziest possible take on this character. The one saving grace – no surprises it’s a visual thing – is a very cool and creepy shot of him splashing water on his face.
29. Revenge of the Creature (1955), Jack Arnold – A very very flat experience and the only low point in the Creature films. The standard trope of the creature grabbing a random woman again plays here. But for whatever reason it really bothered me this time out. And there is not enough of the action and underwater choreography that are such a highlight of the other two ‘Creature’ films. A very poor script, even by the standards of this franchise.
28. The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Joe May – The first one is not a film that lends itself to a follow up and that shows here. Retains the original’s real-to-life vibes but this is really quite bleak. Amazing effects but used to a flat overall effect. There’s a descent into madness that just feels tired here. A super uninteresting story.
27. Dracula (1931), Enrique Tovar Avalos & George Melford – The Spanish version, shot on the same sets as the ‘western’ one is an interesting curiosity, but probably more worthwhile in that sense than as a piece of entertainment. Shares a lot of the same craft as Browning’s film, but also lacks a lot of the pop. Particularly the performances – old mate looks like a home-brand Lugosi and that comment goes for the performance too. He doesn’t have the presence. It’s a bloated, wooden and flat film. Rarely criticisms associated with this franchise, even the lesser entries.
26. Son of Frankenstein (1939), Rowland V. Lee – This is one of the few sequels with much of a reputation, but this was really disappointing and kicks off a duo of crappy Frankenstein entries. Opens atmospherically, with Basil Rathbone doing the fish out of water thing nicely. But that character grows into something blander that we’ve seen before and whilst the atmosphere endures and the film looks amazing (one of the best visual experiences of the franchise), there’s little else to recommend it. The usually excellent Lugosi is bad here and it too often feels like a poor pastiche of the first film. But with added bummer of the monster being uninteresting and only a minor focus.
25. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), Roy William Neill – The most promising title in the whole franchise fails to deliver. Which sucks even more given it has the spookiest opening in the franchise when some dudes decide to rob the Wolf Man’s grave. But after that barely anything happens. Chaney is the best actor in the franchise but he’s not great here, particularly the weird pantomime movement he has as the Wolf Man for some reason. The monster emerging from the ice is another cool moment. Lugosi plays the monster here and he looks utterly ridiculous and moves that way too. A shallowness to the characters cruels this one.
24. The Mummy’s Hand (1940), Christy Cabanne – This is not a great sequel. There are some nice elements to grab a hold of – the set design is rad, Eduardo Ciannelli gives an excellent performance and the reworked mummy design is super creepy at times. But outside of that, this sets the tone for what a crappy Mummy sequel looks like – the plot is an almost comical rehash of the first, the comedy writing is tiresome and most egregiously of all there’s too much time spent on annoying Americans rather than cool mummy shit.
23. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1952), Charles Lamont – Definitely the weakest of the Abbott and Costello Universal entries. Starts nicely with them graduating detective school. But the way the Invisible Man character is incorporated feels flimsy and a bit of a waste. Whilst the leads are good, the material is just not there. Really drags despite the occasional funny visual gag.
22. Phantom of the Opera (1943), Arthur Lubin – Always been difficult to see why they include this. In colour, WTF! But it’s solid. Looks stunning for its age – genuinely looks as if it was made 20 or so years later. Thematic tension between a life of artistry and one of ‘normalcy’ is nicely drawn. I’m no fan of opera but the music is pretty good here. The comedy is a bit shit and the all important reveal scene is a dud. But despite those drawbacks and it being an ill-fit in the franchise, this is entertaining enough.
21. She-Wolf of London (1946), Jean Yarbrough – Quite a measured film. Turn of the century London, vaguely commenting on class and status. It’s an interesting approach but not exactly why you watch a werewolf film. Good sense of mystery though around who the werewolf is. There’s some interesting twists and machinations, just wish they were popping up in a better film.
20. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Erle C. Kenton – This one is passable – mainly due to some fun creepy moments with the monster. Loved when it emerged from the sulphur pit in particular. Yet another son of Dr Frankenstein feels pretty tired by this point. But other elements of the plotting are stronger. Some of the broad paranoia from the village about being cursed by the family is astutely done and the general ups and downs of where this goes are fun too.
19. The Mummy’s Curse (1944), Leslie Goodwin – Apparently 1944 was a good year for Mummy sequels. This is pretty atmospheric, especially early on. The barroom chat about bayous, swamps and missing mummies early on really resonates. And the flashbacks that have been pretty crappy throughout the series are really nicely done and creatively edited with the main film. There’s a suitably overacted Egyptian priest character that actually adds a decent amount to the plotting. Some great shots, not least of which is Princess Ananka rising from the ground. It’s a great physical performance from Virginia Christine. Though one downside to this one is that the mummy looks super crappy.
18. Werewolf of London (1935), Stuart Walker – Almost sits a little outside the Universal Monsters house style. Which is not altogether a bad thing. Fun and quirky opening set in the Himalayas. In many ways feels like a proto-Monsters film. The science, costuming and themes are all there, but it’s a little raw and lacks the distinctive character. Looks different with some lovely on location shooting. Quite dark and grounded too.
17. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955), Charles Lamont – As with the work a lot of very old school comedians, takes a while to really get used to the comedic sensibility. But after the first, hilarious interaction with the Mummy, this is pretty funny and rather charming. Obviously it’s hard to compare to the more straight horror films here. But the settings, atmosphere and characters are all analogous and add a little something. Needed more Mummy though.
16. The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), Reginald Le Borg – the first couple of Mummy sequels are dire. Thankfully this is an acceptable romp. It’s a simple story of seeking to resurrect the Mummy’s girlfriend. Which is at least a little different to the earlier films. It’s a touch light on incidence, but this time around the obvious beats feel comforting rather than grating. There’s a good, early John Carradine performance too. This closes with a hell of a shocking ending that came totally as a surprise and that I really dug.
15. Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale – Much like Whale’s first film in this series, when this is good it’s wonderfully inspired – the framing device featuring Mary Shelley and another poignant scene that mirrors the one in the original (in this case with a blind character). Plus the Bride is one of the greatest looking characters ever rendered onscreen. But she is only in the film for about four minutes (literally). The characters, both human and monster, don’t ring true – either simply in the world of this film or in comparison to where they ended up in the first. It gets interestingly very dark and the notion of a corrupted science partnership feels super modern. But it’s all just fine.
14. House of Dracula (1945), Erle C. Kenton – This one feels like a really key tipping point in the franchise’s growing obsession with immortality as a thematic concern. This has some wonderful music and the setup of all these monsters rocking up at the same place for treatment is delightfully quaint. The storytelling is a little unclear and the ending is pretty unsatisfying. Which is a shame because there’s some really good stuff here, it looks sharp full of shadows & moonlight, and the hunchback woman character feels unique and provides the heart of the film.
13. Invisible Agent (1942), Edwin L. Marin – Quite good, though one can’t help wonder what could have been done with such a stunning central idea – Invisible Man deployed in war. The wartime spy vibe is fab and it’s really well performed. A youngish Peter Lorre even shows up giving a deliciously sneering performance, tough unfortunately as a Japanese man. That wartime spy vibe is where most of the richness originates. Even though it could have done more with that, it’s still a thrilling atmosphere to be relatively immersed in.
12. Frankenstein (1931), James Whale – When this is good, it’s really fucking good. There are a couple of sequences in this film as good as anything else in the entire franchise – the entire “it’s alive!!!” bit as the storm rages outside; and the monster’s interaction with the little girl. There’s a reasonable amount of filler throughout the rest of the film though, and it often clunks, which makes this middling as far as the classic originals go.
11. The Invisible Man (1933), James Whale – Whale gives us a different feel here to the other corners of the Universal Monsters world. This is grounded and real to life with a meaner streak than we’re used to. The character design is still some of the best in the franchise (the initial reveal remains jaw dropping) and the entire opening third is atmospheric as shit. It’s an effects masterpiece. Where it falls down a little is in the plotting. Feels that Whale was so busy thinking of the atmospheric and visual possibilities he neglected to create something above average on the story front.
10. The Invisible Woman (1940), A. Edward Sutherland – The best of the ‘invisible’ films also has the most sense of fun. It’s a tricky tonal balance to pull off, but Sutherland is really assured here. Even weaves in a mobster subplot without losing his handle on things. Wonderful design and keeps the themes interesting despite the lighter vibe overall. The effects are stunning, they get better with every one of these films.
9. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Charles Barton – Bloody hell this is fun. And good. This one taught me that it’s not just slapstick with Abbott and Costello. So much of the humour comes from the quieter moments, the dialogue and wordplay. Great to see Lugosi back as Dracula here, clearly having loads of fun. It’s a brilliant comedic script that weaves in the horror stuff really nicely. Plus, there’s also some delightful adventure beats and it’s fun to see Chaney Jr’s Lawrence Talbot almost in the heroic lead role in those sequences.
8. The Mummy (1932), Karl Freund – This is one of the original batch of classics that fits into the really good rather than all-time classic category. The main reason to catch this one is Karloff, who gives a performance as good as any of his here. It’s quite subtle work from him too with his physicality straddling that line between human and non-human. There’s also some quite modern and creative shooting of the scares – your eye is drawn to the Mummy in the background, waiting for the movement. However, it’s let down by some of the story beats being not just over-familiar, but better done elsewhere.
7. Dracula’s Daughter (1936), Lambert Hillyer – A good example of a sequel in a super mainstream series that does just the right amount of things differently. Edward Van Sloan’s Van Helsing provides some continuity. But this is very much the story of the titular daughter, or more accurately the Countess Marya Zaleska. Absolutely the woman wielding the most power up until this point in the franchise (and probably just overall). The script stands out amongst these films – it’s cerebral and interested in the world and people. Really great characters too, both new and returning.
6. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), John Sherwood – A lovely surprise after the bloody dire first sequel to The Creature From The Black Lagoon. Early on builds tension in really creative ways. There’s an extended sonar sequence that feels super innovative. Has a super strong second half driven by some more sci-fi feeling plot beats that see the creature evolving into something more human. Even the philosophical scripting and relationship angles work well. The action and underwater sequences are tops as well. A really wacky sequel that also functions as a meditation on the shittiness of man (as all good monster flicks should).
5. Son of Dracula (1943), Robert Siodmak – One key takeaway from this experience – the Dracula series of films is the standout. And if you wanted to tackle a smaller version of my undertaking, I’d work through those. This film is a big reason why. There’s something super charming about it – cobwebs being wiped away to reveal the title, Count Alucard being Dracula backwards. Super atmospheric and leans into the mystical more than most of these films. Actually gives something to consider on a thematic level. And the performance from Lon Chaney Jr is as good as any he gives in the entire franchise – super smarmy and creepy. Amazing effects, particular the ones involving the bat transformations. It’s probably the film here that looks the most modern and cool overall actually.
4. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Jack Arnold – Probably the most underrated of the main classics. Perhaps cause of how late it came. The design of the creature still stands up and is probably the design pinnacle of the series. There’s a nice mix of high concept and pulp storytelling here. But where it really shines (and again outshines any other film listed) is in the action, particularly the underwater shooting, choreography and use of space.
3. House of Frankenstein (1944), Erle C. Kenton – A fantastic monster mashup (it has quicksand and everything!). The find of this whole experience and one I think I’ll return to often. Brilliant effects in the service of character and atmosphere. Really creepy and dark in places, John Carradine is really impactful in that regard. Plays almost like an anthology, crossing tones and vibes throughout but somehow feeling both ramshackle and cohesive.
2. Dracula (1931), Tod Browning – To me this is sublime classic Hollywood storytelling. Really bloody artful and atmospheric. And Browning elicits the best ensemble of performances of any film on this list. Lugosi is rightfully iconic. His schtick is simultaneously rigid and incredibly menacing. While Edward Van Sloan’s Professor Van Helsing is a cerebral hero and it’s a wonderful performance. This film is also plot and incident heavy throughout, not a slow build like some of the others.
1. The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner – This is an utterly charming experience. Opens with a close up of the dictionary definition of lycanthropy and then jumps to a very fake castle. But somehow that functions as an immersive start. There’s a poignancy to the familial relationship as well as in Lawrence Talbot’s plight (which would carry through a lot of later films, mainly thanks to Lon Chaney Jr’s excellent performances). There’s a denseness to the plotting and characters here that sets it apart. As well as the wonderful effect of the werewolf transformation that is still a marvel of filmmaking trickery. The eventual costume feels more lo-fi than a lot of the franchise, but again, it’s charming. Leans into the mystery genre in a really fun way too.
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I like giallo films, but also don’t watch them that often. It’s just not something I feel in the mood for very much. So when I was searching for a horror 1001 film to review alongside the Universal list, I jumped on the only Mario Bava film on the list. As I mentioned I haven’t watched loads of giallo. But of the big names, it’s Bava’s films that I gave been most taken with.
The entry in the ‘1001 Movies to See Before You Die’ book for Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1960) notes: ‘The plot is the usual mix of secret passages, family curses, and sudden deaths, but Bava crams every frame with fascinating, horrid detail.’ The usual mix referred to there is one of the film’s predominant attractions. Even though this is a horror film, there’s comfort to be taken in some of these locations and storylines being brought to life by such a fantastic filmmaker, albeit one at the start of their career (and that youthfulness probably shows). The sets are reminiscent of the Universal Monsters films (or perhaps I just have them on my mind) and the makeup is bloody excellent. But as for every frame being filled with fascinating, horrid detail, it is more like 40% of frames. Those that are certainly are memorable – see the gnarly opening with a witch having a mask of nails hammered onto her face. In fact the opening period of the film promises a much more interesting experience than what follows. Grounded in traditional Christian stuff like Satan, hell and witches, a mythic feeling thread that could have been kept at the forefront more. Certainly the film lacks narrative drive throughout and having something like that to lean into a little more could have compensated for that.
Black Sunday does suffer coming to it as a fan of Bava’s other work. Nothing really sets this apart. Not the electric proto-slasher energy of Bay of Blood (1971) or the eye popping bold creativity of Blood and Black Lace (1964) or even just the charming tweaking of genre tropes in Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970). There is no similar achievement for this one which is best described as gothic solidity. It’s not a film that really holds the viewer’s interest. Perhaps because outside of the few high points that are shocking for a film of this age, it all feels too familiar. There’s no intrigue about what is happening here. The creepy imagery is perhaps what possibly sets it apart from those superior films mentioned above. And it is enhanced beautifully by the black and white shooting – it is a stunning looking film. Particularly at the start and when Asa awakes, her face pock-marked from the execution. There are also moments of style and imagery throughout that take you aback and snap attention back to the screen. Unfortunately the narrative is not there to maintain attention in between those arresting visual moments.
Verdict: There’s no denying the artistry here. But this feels too low key throughout and is pretty dated. The visuals are definitely noteworthy but it’s only a firm recommendation for those intrigued by the gothic or big Bava fans. Stubby of Reschs
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