Top Ten, Universal Monsters

The Universal Classic Monsters: The Definitive Ranking

The Universal Monster boxset that covers the highlights (and some of the lowlights) from Universals horror output from 1931 through 1956 was indeed a quality addition to the collection. I didn’t love everything, and I disliked its fair share, but there were enough nice, little surprises along the way that I feel confident in keeping the entire boxset on my shelf.

My favorite concept was in The Invisible Man. It had the most narrative malleability to tell different kinds of stories, but the studio ended up returning more than necessary to a revenge plot. It started out kind of great, though. The worst franchise was easily The Mummy. The first film had an amorphous source of terror that never gelled, and the sequels were the wastelands of secondary talents given little money while using large chunks from previous films. That Abbott and Costello made the best Mummy movie of this era is kind of depressing. My favorite franchise overall was easily Frankenstein, though. Visually and narratively, Universal going back to that well was more rewarding than any of the others on average.

Carl Laemmle Jr. knew what he was doing when he latched onto James Whale early, getting him to make three of the first five films in the franchise. Because of the intelligence and entertainment value Whale managed to conjure through Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and Bride of Frankenstein, Laemmle was able to build the foundations required to rest a franchise that lasted a couple of decades (it actually continued on as Universal made several more movies starring the core monsters through the 70s, and, of course, there is the small revival that happened because of Stephen Sommers in the late 90s). But even beyond the heights, movies like Son of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man surprised me with entertainments that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

So, overall, it was okay. The highs were quite high, but the lows were pretty low (The Creature Walks Among Us angered me a bit, even).

Anyway, here it is, all thirty-one films from the Universal Classic Monster boxset ranked. And do check out the other rankings to bask in the definitiveness.

31. The Creature Walks Among Us

“This movie is awful. It is probably the worst movie in the entirety of the Universal Monster collection. It has nothing to recommend it with one exception. The underwater filming is excellent, probably the best of the three Creature from the Black Lagoon films. It’s just too bad that the movie abandons it for the dull out of water stuff that follows.”

30. The Mummy’s Ghost

“Well, at least it only lasted for sixty minutes. Any longer, and it would have turned painful. Director Reginald Le Borg brings nothing to the table save some bare competence, but this needed far more than a barely competent director. It needed someone who could look at a substandard script and find magic.”

29. She-Wolf of London

“The veil around Martha robs the story of the real drama. Yarbrough can’t build tension to save his life here. Performances largely don’t matter, though they are capable. It’s just that there’s nothing to really grasp onto. I can see why horror aficionados would be disappointed, but I don’t mind where the film goes. I just mind how it gets there.”

28. The Mummy’s Curse

“It’s not as insulting as The Mummy’s Ghost, and there are enough individual moments that I get through without wanting to turn off the movie. It’s not the worst, but there’s really not much to recommend it either. The setting is decent. The acting is passable. Chaney was drunk. The story is a mess.”

27. The Ghost of Frankenstein

“This movie is dumb. It’s probably the worst of the Universal Horror franchise up to this point. This is Universal brainlessly chasing dollars by continuing a story that hasn’t needed continuing since the first entry. The problem isn’t the continuation, but the brainlessness of it. Flatly directly by Erle Kenton and really poorly written by W. Scott Darling from a story by Eric Taylor, The Ghost of Frankenstein is just dull and awful.”

26. The Mummy’s Tomb

“Anyway, aside from a couple of small things, this is a real drag. It’s always interesting when hour long films feel so long, but The Mummy’s Tomb is just dull, uninteresting, and boring monster action done cheap.”

25. House of Dracula

“Anyway, this seems to prove that the qualities of House of Frankenstein were flukes that Erle Kenton could not replicate in House of Dracula. Instead, he reached back and recollected the dreariness of his earlier The Ghost of Frankenstein for another unsuccessful entry in the whole Universal monster cinematic universe.”

24. The Invisible Man’s Revenge

“I think the Universal Monster franchise has reached a new low in The Invisible Man’s Revenge. There have been lazy films, but this might be the most simply inept film put out by Universal about one of its monsters.”

23. Werewolf of London

“There’s no real surprise in discovering that Werewolf of London is largely ignored in the whole Wolf Man side of the Universal Horror franchise. It’s dull and not very interesting.”

22. Revenge of the Creature

“What I got was a more standard monster movie with more boring characters, more implausible coincidences, and a title that doesn’t really match the story. I mean, it’s somewhat competent at what it does, but what it does just isn’t that interesting.”

21. The Mummy’s Hand

“The two-act structure works against the film. It was cheaply produced. It just kind of ends real quick despite introducing a bunch of stuff in its final moments. And yet, the stuff between Babe and Sullivan is great, and the monster looks pretty awesome. It’s largely functional, the sort of product one expects from the assembly line production methods of a studio trying to make product as fast as possible to make as much money as possible. I’ve seen worse.”

20. The Invisible Man Returns

“It’s not good, and it’s a disappointment as a sequel to what is probably the best movie in the entire franchise. However, it sort of works in the most formulaic of ways.”

19. The Mummy

“Still, it’s functional. The nascent romance between Frank and Helen is there. The romantic angle to Imhotep’s motive is actually kind of interesting. It’s not scary at all since the mummy himself isn’t a threat, though. I don’t think it really works, but it’s far from the worst thing I’ve seen.”

18. Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

“Eh. It’s a mix.”

17. Son of Dracula

“Does the whole of the film work? Not really. Chaney’s miscast and there’s too much exposition. However, it does do well with its setting and its ending. That’s not enough to make the whole film worthwhile, but it’s enough to keep it from being a complete waste.”

16. House of Frankenstein

“It doesn’t work overall, but there’s real narrative meat on the bone, even if the whole thing is somewhat malformed.”

15. The Invisible Woman

“Narratively, use of gangsters is so out there it feels like it should be borderline surreal in its inclusion, but it’s so low stakes (they couldn’t have a great plan to rob a bank, or something, that required invisibility?) that I question its inclusion at all. The romance is thin and unbelievable, as well. However, it’s nice. It’s quick at only 72-minutes long, and it’s pretty consistently amusing. It’s okay.”

14. Creature from the Black Lagoon

“If the humans weren’t so boring and there was a clearer idea about what the Gill Man was, I’d embrace the film much more than I currently do. As it is, the conflicting elements undermine the movie while the technical aspects of the production do their best to maintain interest.

It’s not the worst monster movie ever, but it’s no King Kong.”

13. Drácula

“I can see why some people who hold up this version as the superior one, and I was leaning that way for the first twenty minutes or so. However, I think it ends up faltering just enough to bring it down below the English version.”

12. Dracula’s Daughter

“It’s deep enough to interest, fun enough to entertain, and brief enough to not overstay its welcome. I think the only way to really improve it would be to make it longer which would require a fair reworking of stuff to give a hypothetical extra twenty minutes the right kind of space to work. Still, it’s surprisingly solid for what it sets out to do. It’s also nice to see the most ornate of the Dracula sets come out of mothballs and put right back into giant spider webs once again.”

11. Invisible Agent

“Still, as an overall package, Invisible Agent works through a light and cluttered opening to deliver some pretty solid spy stuff later that fully utilizes the concept of an invisible man as well as delivering some quality special effects.”

10. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy

“I still prefer their monster mash up against Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man, but this is a much better vehicle for the comic duo’s comedy stylings than their team up with the Invisible Man. It’s funny, light, and madcap. It’s hard to imagine what else you could want from something like this.”

9. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

“In the middle of it all is Lon Chaney Junior giving the performance of his career. He would never have been considered for an Oscar for it, not just because it’s in a silly horror movie, but because he rises to a solidly good performance in a film that ends up feeling like it doesn’t really deserve it. Still, that’s a key to how well the first two-thirds works. The ending doesn’t live up to the promise of what came before, but it doesn’t completely diminish the whole.”

8. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

“Is it great art? No. Is it consistently entertaining in a couple of different ways? Very much so. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein may not be the height of the whole franchise, but it’s an entertaining direction to take a moribund series that had descended into repetition in the hands of lesser talents over the previous decade.”

7. The Wolf Man

“I think it works equally as well as the psychological study of a man thinking he’s going mad as well as a straight monster movie. They clash, with elements of the former not really having been smoothed out to fit the latter, and I think that the movie could have been more with a greater focus on one or the other.”

6. Phantom of the Opera

“It really pushes the film out of the horror genre almost completely but for the mere presence of the Phantom himself. I was engaged through it all, though. It’s pretty with very good music and a nice sense of character around this grand stage.”

5. Dracula

Dracula is a fun start to the classic Universal horror monsters. It’s not deep or really scary, but it has a surprise focus on Renfield that works and a wonderful visual sense. Browning had been making movies since the 1910s, and his visual experience is well used to give this cinematic adaptation of the Stoker novel real style.”

4. Son of Frankenstein

“So, it doesn’t really have the narrative ambition of the earlier Frankenstein films, but it does tell a rather straightforward monster story well. I really enjoy Basil Rathbone’s borderline sarcastic performance a good bit. Atwill gives Krogh some surprising pathos, especially since Kenneth Mars made the character a joke in Young Frankenstein. I can see why Karloff would swear off the monster after this, though. He’s degraded from a thinking thing with real emotion hidden behind his muteness to glorified killing machine. He’s better than that role.”

3. Bride of Frankenstein

Bride of Frankenstein is often called the best of the Universal Horror films. I think it’s near the top, but not quite there. It’s fun and thoughtful, but I just can’t quite get into the comedic camp that dominates the early parts of the film.”

2. Frankenstein

“The movie really belongs to Karloff, though. He’d go on to show he was more than just a mute monster in films by Ford (The Lost Patrol) and Hawks (The Criminal Code), but he imbues the monster here with real humanity that turns the story tragic in ways that Dracula simply didn’t try.”

1. The Invisible Man

“Amusing, funny, and exciting, The Invisible Man is James Whale righting the ship of the Universal monster franchise after the stumble that was The Mummy. Told with confidence and style, it’s one of the heights of the whole franchise.”

37 thoughts on “The Universal Classic Monsters: The Definitive Ranking”

  1. It’s a shame it’s missing some of the other ‘Abbot and Costello Meets…’ titles (though there are some stinkers in there too) as I tend to enjoy those the most.

    It’s amusing how many times you say ‘a new low’ or ‘the worst so far’ in these summaries.

    Interesting that you have Dracula below ‘Son of Frankenstein’. I’d put it in the top two or three.

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    1. It just kept going lower!

      There’s lots of love for Dracula out there, but I admire it more than I like it.

      Son of Frankenstein just has Basil Rathbone not giving a shit, and it’s wildly entertaining.

      Like

    1. A great example is Dracula.

      In the book, Dracula walks around during the day. It’s the movies (really Nosferatu, but the Universal movies continued it with the first Dracula) that created the whole, “daylight kills vampires” thing.

      The biggest example is werewolves, though. Werewolves were demonic in nature before Werewolf in London, dealing with pacts with the devil and not being tied to the full moon. Werewolf in London got rid of all of that, made it, essentially, a disease transmitted through biting, and tied to the full moon. There was a slight return to the demonic parts with The Wolf Man where the pentagram became important, but it was quickly dropped.

      Huge cultural impact these films had.

      Like

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