Everyone who is anyone who likes horror films will know that 2012 marks Universal Studios’ 100 year celebration. For the past year the studio has been re-releasing some its most classic films both to DVD and BD and some for the very first time on either or both. It has been a banner year for the studio and for horror fans in general as Universal Studios has been responsible for some of the most influential and classic horror films of any other studio in history. They got their first renaissance in the ‘20s and ‘30s with the original Classic Monster films (i.e. their version of Dracula, the mummy, invisible man, Frankenstein’s monster, etc.) and moved into more mainstream films such as Jaws, the Child’s Play franchise, Jurassic Park, An American Werewolf in London, and many many more. With their recent remake of the classic Wolf Man (2010) and the prequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing (2011) and an all new version of The Mummy on the horizon there does not seem to be any plans of the studio not continuing to bring audiences more horror films for years to come.
I’ve decided to stop and take a look at some of my favorite Universal Studios horror films. Now this list will in no way touch upon all of the contributions that the studio has made to the genre but I wanted to pick a few from each decade to show you how far the studio has come and where it might go in the future.
The ‘20s & ‘30s.
The ‘20s and the ‘30s were the decades in which the studio excelled at producing horror films. Many of the films from this decade are now classics and continue to entertain audiences even to this day. Some of my favorites are The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) both of which have been remade countless times but these two continue to be the quintessential example of the classic Universal Studio horror film. Also included in this bunch are Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Mummy (1932), and The Old Dark House (1932) all of which are at the top of my list for best Universal horror film. The ‘20s and ‘30s were a time when the horror film was first being discovered and Universal was throwing everything at audiences to see what worked so these two decades marked a growth in the genre. There are tons more films the studio produced during these two decades but these are my favorites that I continue to go back to time and time again.
The ‘40s & ‘50s.
The ‘40s was a decade that was filled with sequels to past successes as well as remakes such as The Wolf Man (1941) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943), which are among my favorites. I’m a huge fan of the Phantom of the Opera story so I always look forward to another adaptation of the classic novel.
The ‘50s brought to audiences The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the science fiction horrors of Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). In this decade what terrified audiences wasn’t storybook monsters but science and the unknown and so Universal’s horror film output shifted to science fiction horror and fears of the atom bomb made most famous from the Japanese import Gojira (aka Godzilla 1954). This would shift the focus of Universal’s “need” and “want” for horror over the next couple decades.
The ‘60s & ‘70s.
I must say that these decades represent the decline of horror at Universal Studios as the company shifted its focus to more real life horror or films that few would even consider true horror films. The most notable exception would be the summer blockbuster that is Jaws (1975) which was a huge cash cow for the studio (and for which generated 3 subsequent sequels). Some people who don’t like horror films deny that this is one (simply so they don’t have to admit they like a horror film) and thus horror films became taboo during this period in the studio’s history. The studio did continue to delve into fantasy films in a big way such as Battlestar Galactica (1978) (because of the success of Star Wars) but that’s for another article at another time.
The ‘80s & ‘90s.
Universal would step back into the horror genre full force not only because horror films began to be popular with mainstream audiences but also because of home video and the straight to video boom on the ‘90s. Universal would produce and distribute tons of horror films original, sequels, or simple acquisitions. The success of An American Werewolf in London (1981) helped change the face of the modern horror film by putting humor in it (which is not to be confused with making funny horror films like the Albert & Costello Meet franchise of films) while still taking the film seriously. They also perfected the nihilistic horror film with John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and the dark fantasy film with Legend (1985). Universal was at the top of its game once again. The ‘90s brought action to the Universal horror film with Darkman (1990), Army of Darkness (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and The Mummy (1999) and led the studio to one of its most profitable decades (when you add in all the revenue from the straight to video films where many of their films grew bigger audiences).
The ‘00s & ‘10s.
Let’s just say that the 21st century of horror has been dominated by the gore film and the funny horror film of which the later is where the Universal films lay the most. With Shaun of the Dead (2004), Drag Me To Hell (2009), and Wolf Man (2010) the studio relies on some biting humor in their films with a mean streak of gore. Horror films have also been dominated by a younger audience which strives for these conventions which is why tastes have shifted so often and so fast.
Universal Studios has had a varied and wonderful 100 years and brought audiences all types of films to both enjoy and cherish. Some of these films have transcended generations and newer generations discover the older films every day. This is a testament to the growing influence that their films have had and will continue to have for generations to come. I suggest that if you’ve never heard of or seen some of the films mentioned in this article that you try and seek them out. These are some of my all time favorites that should be added to any horror fans collection.