A Spy without Form

Invisible Agent is a mandatory war picture that Universal monster movies couldn’t ignore. Much like the presumably non-canon The Invisible Woman, Invisible Agent also experiments with genres. It’s the standard invisible man formula given to an agent in World War II. I never knew the film existed since it’s so far removed from the rest of the franchise. Even though it follows Frank Griffin Jr. under the assumed name Frank Raymond. His father’s invisibility serum is sought by both the Allied Forces and the Axis Powers.

Since an invisible agent spying on enemies could be enough to win the war. Jon Hall is a relatively charismatic invisible lead. Frank only agrees to help the Allies under the condition that he carries out the mission himself. The special effects will always be impressive no matter how repetitive they get. Frank’s visible look uses cold cream instead of bandages. Cedric Hardwicke and the always creepy Peter Lorre elevate their standard roles as Nazi general Conrad Stauffer and Japanese Baron Ikito respectively.

Other Nazis like J. Edward Bromberg’s Karl Heiser are appropriately made to look like fools. Though the wartime action doesn’t always blend with the humorous tone. Although she hated the part, Ilona Massey isn’t the usual screaming damsel. Maria Sorenson is a German double agent that Frank falls for. Actual German Albert Bassermann is another ally who assists Frank in his mission. Frank never goes insane and saves the American people without being seen. Invisible Agent delivers what it promises.

19. Invisible Agent

The Invisible Agent battles the Nazis

Preceded by: The Invisible Woman & Followed by: The Invisible Man’s Revenge

The Monster and Ygor

The Ghost of Frankenstein officially ran out of ideas for the long running Universal monster franchise. Although some consider Son of Frankenstein to be as good as the first 2 films, I wasn’t a fan of the new direction. I could’ve watched The Ghost of Frankenstein on my DVD box set, but I didn’t want to risk being disappointed. The fourth installment closely follows the plot of the third. Ygor is somehow still alive with Bela Lugosi reprising the role that he popularized. Boris Karloff was officially done with the Monster.

So the Wolf Man himself, Lon Chaney Jr. wore the makeup instead. His Monster retains the same iconic look, but you can tell Chaney is underneath. Villagers are fed up with the curse of Frankenstein (a decidedly better title), so they rally together to burn down his castle. The Monster somehow survived a sulfur pit thanks to his superhuman body. Ygor takes his friend to a small village to find yet another son of Frankenstein. Cedric Hardwicke is the far less insane brain surgeon Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein.

The title refers to one moment where Ludwig sees ghostly visions of his father telling him to finish his work. Chaney’s Wolf Man co-star Evelyn Ankers now plays Ludwig’s well meaning daughter Elsa Frankenstein. The Monster is still mostly mindless, but an adorable relationship with a little girl softens him a bit. He’s also sent to trial where Ralph Bellamy examines him as prosecutor Erik Ernst. Ygor isn’t as actively sinister as he was before, but he does convince Ludwig’s assistant to place his brain in the body of the Monster. Hearing Lugosi’s voice come out of the Monster is as ridiculous as it sounds. The Ghost of Frankenstein lost its spark.

18. The Ghost of Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster in chains

Preceded by: Son of Frankenstein & Followed by: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Bitten by a Werewolf

The Wolf Man (1941) is the definitive take on a man cursed to become a werewolf. All it took was 6 years after Werewolf of London failed to make an impression. Despite releasing a decade later, The Wolf Man is a Universal monster movie on par with Dracula or Frankenstein. They’re the big three that every horror fan should watch. Similar to The Mummy, The Wolf Man is an original story based in folklore. It was a good change of pace for the studio after so many sequels.

Much like vampires, I’ve always considered myself to be a werewolf expert as well. Once bitten by a werewolf, an individual will be cursed to transform by the light of a full moon. The Wolf Man is exclusive to Universal, but his story has inspired countless werewolf movies, TV shows, and novels. My mom is a big Wolf Man fan who encouraged my brother and I to watch the 1941 classic when we were kids. The Wolf Man has been my second favorite Universal monster movie ever since…

16. The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941) understands the tragic supernatural nature of lycanthropy better than any werewolf movie. Werewolf of London was too scientific and didn’t give its protagonist enough bite. Lon Chaney Jr. follows in his father’s paw prints to create the most sympathetic werewolf victim of all time. Larry Talbot is an everyday man with a wealthy background. The prodigal son returns to his home in Wales after the death of his brother. The Invisible Man himself Claude Rains plays Larry’s estranged father Sir John Talbot. They attempt to reconcile their relationship throughout the movie. A mutual interest in astronomy leads Larry to spy on a beautiful shop girl. Larry drops by her antique store just to talk to her. Evelyn Ankers is much more well rounded as love interest Gwen Conliffe. Like everyone else in town, Gwen knows everything there is to know about werewolves.

The Wolf Man is fully steeped in the legend from beginning to end. Many characters recite the fictional poem: “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfsbanes blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” The movie establishes a connection to wolfsbane, but it isn’t an explicit weakness. The only werewolf weakness is silver. Larry purchases a neat looking walking cane with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf. Pentagrams are also a symbol for werewolves that foretell their next victim. Despite having a fiancée, Gwen agrees to go out with Larry and her friend Jenny. Director George Waggner takes full advantage of the black & white setting. The forest filled with fog is just as iconic as the spooky castles from Dracula and Frankenstein.

They visit a band of gypsies to get their fortunes told. Bela Lugosi need only use his first name as the gypsy Bela. After Count Dracula and Ygor, Lugosi became the werewolf who bites Larry after attacking Jenny. Larry is accused of murder and insanity when the police start an investigation. Even his own father starts to doubt him. Warren William evaluates Larry as Dr. Lloyd and Gwen’s fiancée Paul played by Ralph Bellamy leads a hunt. The only person who can help Larry is old Romani gypsy woman Maleva. Maria Ouspenskaya makes the strongest impression by reciting a blessing that eases a werewolves suffering. She tries to help by giving Larry a protective charm, but it’s not enough to stop the full moon.

The Wolf Man’s transformation into a werewolf is far more iconic with makeup that artist Jack Pierce intended for Werewolf of London. Larry is both man and wolf with a body covered in yak hair, sharp teeth, and a small snout. His primary outfit is a dark jumpsuit. Chaney fully commits to the animalistic monster by walking on his hind legs. As the Wolf Man strikes, Larry becomes consumed with guilt. Villagers hunt the werewolf while Larry attempts to keep himself from hurting what he loves most. Gwen is his next victim, but Larry manages to reconcile with his father who reluctantly uses his son’s cane against him. Maleva eases Larry’s suffering just as she did with her own son. It’s a tragic ending, but one that most werewolves desire. The Wolf Man effectively bridged the gap between man and monster.

17. The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man caught in a trap

Followed by: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man

Unseen and Loving it

The Invisible Woman has nothing to do with the Fantastic Four. It’s actually a straightforward comedy that gave a woman a shot at invisibility. Although the movie is part of the Invisible Man collection, it has nothing to do with horror. The Invisible Woman isn’t a Universal monster, because most female led projects weren’t taken seriously back then. Dracula’s Daughter being a rare exception. The Invisible Woman makes its comedic tone clear at the very beginning with a series of gags, pratfalls, and overacting.

Griffin is replaced by the friendly, yet sexist Professor Gibbs played by the legendary John Barrymore near the end of his career. Post-Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton plays his underappreciated maid Mrs. Jackson. Gibbs uses an invisibility machine that can only temporarily make someone disappear. John Howard plays the wealthy playboy Richard Russell who reluctantly funds his invention. Character actor Charlie Ruggles is the most overtly comedic as his butler. A test subject is found through a personal ad and the titular Invisible Woman ends up being model Kitty Carroll.

Virginia Bruce shows her face, but she has the right screwball charm when only using her voice. The effects are on par with the previous movies. Having her be naked is common for Invisible movies, but it’s still scandalous for 1940. Insanity is replaced by impulsiveness since her greatest threat is a sexist boss. Until a band of cartoony gangsters including nobodies favorite Stooge (Shemp Howard) try to steal the machine. Kitty falls for Richard, gets drunk, and uses her wit to outsmart the criminals. The Invisible Woman is amusing when you accept the lack of horror.

15. The Invisible Woman

Professor Gibbs and the Invisible Woman

Preceded by: The Invisible Man Returns & Followed by: Invisible Agent

Back from Slumber

The Mummy’s Hand is one of many Mummy movie sequels. Following the success of The Invisible Man Returns, Universal returned to their least popular monster. The Mummy is a classic in its own right, but they don’t even bother to acknowledge the events of the first film. The Mummy’s Hand was made cheap by reusing footage for Ancient Egyptian flashbacks, sets from other Universal pictures, and most of the score from Son of Frankenstein. At least The Mummy’s Hand is a quick watch that put more emphasis on mummies as mindless, slow moving, and wrapped in bandages.

Kharis is the new Mummy with the exact same backstory as Imhotep. Tom Tyler is all wrapped up since no personality is needed. George Zucco plays Professor Andoheb tasked by the High Priest to protect the tomb of Princess Ananka. Until a group of archeologists foolishly disturb the crypt. Dick Foran and Wallace Ford’s Steve Banning and Babe Jenson are practically an Abbott and Costello type duo. Steve is the straight man, while Babe is the big buffoon.

They finance an expedition by getting money from Cecil Kellaway as friendly magician “The Great Solvani.” His feisty daughter Marta played by Peggy Moran tags along as well. It’s a lot to sit through before the Mummy awakens. Although Kharis can easily be outrun, he manages to claim multiple victims. Like a werewolf, a full moon accompanied by howling jackals brings about his curse. A fluid of tana leaves keeps him immortal, but not for long. The Mummy’s Hand had a hand in making mummies what they are today.

14. The Mummy's Hand

Kharis carries Marta

Preceded by: The Mummy & Followed by: The Mummy’s Tomb

The Price of Invisibility

The Invisible Man Returns gave Vincent Price his horror debut without even showing his face. Price doesn’t always need to be seen to make an impression. After Son of Frankenstein proved a successful comeback, Universal continued to make monster movies in the 1940’s. Although The Invisible Man ended with the death of Jack Griffin, anyone can take the serum and disappear. The Invisible Man Returns is now a murder mystery that follows the wrongly convicted Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe. There is a Dr. Frank Griffin played by John Sutton, but he only gives Radcliffe the invisibility serum.

Most of Griffin’s time is spent finding an antidote that he tests on invisible guinea pigs. Meanwhile, Radcliffe attempts to clear his name by finding his brother’s actual killer. Radcliffe mimics Jack Griffin by wearing goggles and bandages for his concerned lover Helen, played by Nana Grey in a less revealing performance. Cedric Hardwicke is given top billing despite only playing the true culprit Richard Cobb. Radcliffe wants to avoid going insane, but Price eventually gets to show off his trademark evil laugh.

Radcliffe only torments those who deserve it. The police hunt him like the original, but they use their past experience in order to find him better. The Invisible Man Returns is one of the better Universal sequels since the special effects hold up just as well. Using the same black velvet technique, Radcliffe moves more objects, wears more clothing, and his silhouette can even be seen in smoke or rain. Since Radcliffe isn’t really a monster, he’s given a happier ending. The Invisible Man Returns is a good continuation that proves the formula can work on anyone.

13. The Invisible Man Returns

The Invisible Man comforts Helen

Preceded by: The Invisible Man & Followed by: The Invisible Woman

Madness is Genetic

Son of Frankenstein is a well produced step backwards for the franchise. After the failure of Dracula’s Daughter, Universal monster movies took a 2 year break. The success of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein made a third installment the best possible comeback. I was such a big fan that my parents got me a 5 movie Frankenstein box set when I was kid. My brother and I made the mistake of watching beyond the first 2 classics. Son of Frankenstein isn’t a bad sequel, but it did hurt my perception of the Monster I sympathized with. As the title suggests, the legendary Basil Rathbone plays Henry’s son Baron Wolf von Frankenstein.

Wolf moves his family to Frankenstein’s castle where the village immediately shuns them. Josephine Hutchinson plays his concerned wife Elsa and pre-Bambi Donnie Dunagan plays their precocious son Peter. Like the real world, the name Frankenstein has become synonymous with horror. The only person who befriends the family is an inspector played by Lionel Atwill whose arm was torn off by the Monster. Frankenstein’s quest for acceptance is intriguing, but the movie is an hour and 39 minutes too long for 1939. Boris Karloff’s final time as the Monster is severely reduced in comparison. Wolf shows some of his father’s madness when Ygor convinces him to bring his father’s creation out of a coma.

The first official appearance of Ygor sees an unrecognizable Bela Lugosi steal the show as a hairy criminal with a broken neck caused by an unsuccessful hanging. The Monster loses all of his character development from Bride of Frankenstein. Now he’s a grunting killing machine with a furry vest that does Ygor’s bidding. His innocence comes out when sparing Peter’s life, but he still dies a monster. Apart from the good performances, it’s the massive production value that saves the movie. James Whale may not have directed, but at least it retains the black & white atmosphere that came before. Son of Frankenstein gave the Monster some dignity before the quality suffered.

12. Son of Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster approaches

Preceded by: Bride of Frankenstein & Followed by: The Ghost of Frankenstein

Her Eternal Thirst

Dracula’s Daughter is the original lesbian vampire movie. After the success of Bride of Frankenstein, Universal intended to give Dracula the same high quality sequel treatment. Although its rushed production was out of their control due to MGM attempting to purchase the rights to a potential sequel. Dracula’s Daughter is based on Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” Even though it has more in common with an early 1872 lesbian vampire novel titled Carmilla. I never attempted to watch Dracula’s Daughter before since it’s not the classic it hoped to be. The only similarity to Bride of Frankenstein is taking place immediately after Dracula.

Edward Van Sloan returns as a renamed Professor Von Helsing who just finished driving a stake through Dracula’s heart. Renfield’s body is discovered by the police, but John or Mina Harker are nowhere to be seen. Most of Von Helsing’s time is spent being questioned for murder by Scotland Yard. Otto Kruger takes over as psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth who makes the movie very talk heavy with his slightly comedic relationship with Janet played by Marguerite Churchill. Most of the gothic atmosphere is seen with Countess Marya Zaleska’s sudden appearance.

As the first female Universal monster given a central role, Dracula’s daughter can’t compare to her father. She initially wears a black burca and a hypnotic ring, but most of the time her appearance is ordinary. Gloria Holden plays more of a reluctant vampire who seeks a cure, yet cannot deny her urges. Irving Pichel also stands out as a loyal human assistant who finds fresh victims. The lesbian undertones are undenyable and kind of shocking for 1936. Zaleska having a woman undress before biting her is surprisingly risque. Zaleska takes Janet back home to Transylvania where she hovers over her lips for a long time. But it’s still Garth that she wants in the end. Though she meets the same fate as her father, Dracula’s Daughter can only go so far without the original Count Dracula.

11. Dracula's Daughter

Countess Marya Zaleska lays Dracula to rest

Preceded by: Dracula & Followed by: Son of Dracula

Half Human-Half Beast

Werewolf of London is Universal’s forgotten first attempt at werewolves. Making it the first werewolf movie ever made in Hollywood. Although it predates The Wolf Man by 6 years, Werewolf of London is something I never knew existed. Not until I saw it featured in a Universal monsters box set. An American Werewolf in London isn’t a remake, but it was inspired by the 1935 film. Unlike The Wolf Man, Werewolf of London feels too complicated by a large cast and less tragic with an unlikeable werewolf victim as the lead.

Henry Hull plays the stiff aristocratic botanist Wilfred Glendon. He finds a special flower in Tibet where a werewolf bites him. Glendon is mostly unlikeable for mistreating his wife Lisa played by Valerie Hobson in her second role as a scientist’s love interest. Lester Matthews more often keeps her company as a former lover named Paul. Asian passing Swedish actor Warner Oland plays Dr. Yogami. A mysterious fellow botanist who tells Glendon the flower is the only known antidote for Lycanthropy.

Glendon’s werewolf transformation is well shot, but his simplistic wolf makeup isn’t enough to create an icon. London attacks sound gruesome even though the movie retains a sense of humor. It’s only after those attacks that Glendon feels a bit more sympathetic. He’s most remorseful when a bullet puts an end to his uncontrollable reign of terror. Werewolf of London is an acceptable early werewolf movie that walked so that The Wolf Man could run.

10. Werewolf of London

The Werewolf of London

She Hate Me

Bride of Frankenstein is the first sequel to be just as good, if not better than the original. It’s easily one of the greatest sequels ever made. I’d even go so far as to call it the best Universal monster movie. Bride of Frankenstein is the only sequel that belongs with the rest of the classics. A big reason being the returning director, cast, and creative team. The idea for a follow up came as early as before Frankenstein was even released. Despite his reservations, James Whale proved himself too capable as a director for scientific men meddling with nature.

Bride of Frankenstein is undoubtedly Whale’s magnum opus. Even compared to already perfect horror films like Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. The idea for Bride of Frankenstein actually originates from Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates, then destroys a mate for the Monster that he never brings to life. A lot of the sequel deals with unexplored aspects of the book that are reworked to create Universal’s first female monster. Bride of Frankenstein is another childhood favorite that made me appreciate the Monster even more…

8. The Bride of Frankenstein

Frankenstein’s Monster meets his Bride

Bride of Frankenstein does what any great sequel should do. It deepens the story, adds depth to established characters, does something new, and pays homage without repeating itself. Whale’s direction is pushed even further with haunting black & white cinematography that maintains the grand scale that came before. The first Frankenstein only credited author Mary Shelley as the wife of romantic poet Percy B. Shelley. Bride of Frankenstein gives Shelley far more appreciation with a dramatic recreation of the dark and stormy night where Mary, Percy, and Lord Byron held a competition to see who told the better scary story. Frankenstein is cleverly recapped with her fellow author’s recounting events, but Mary Shelley isn’t quite finished telling her story.

Frankenstein’s Monster is presumed to have died in the burning windmill. Henry Frankenstein is taken away, but some villagers aren’t entirely sure the Monster is dead. E. E. Clive and Una O’Connor essentially play the same high ranking authority figure and overly excitable woman they respectively played in The Invisible Man. Giving Bride of Frankenstein mild comic relief that thankfully doesn’t distract from the horror. The Monster kills the rest of Maria’s family in a fit of anger, but this is actually the most sympathetic he’ll ever be. The Monster’s child-like innocence is explored in great detail. All he wants is a friend, but the villagers continue to fear and chase after him until he’s captured. The sequel puts more emphasis on religious allegory that the newly established Hays Code heavily censored.

Despite worsening alcoholism that would soon claim his life, Colin Clive gives even more depth to Dr. Frankenstein. He becomes a Baron and chooses not to continue his work. Valerie Hobson replaces the original Elizabeth, but manages to give her more confidence when defending her fiancée. Ernest Thesiger plays new character Dr. Pretorius with a tinge of flamboyance that some believe is gay subtext. Pretorius is an even madder scientist who toasts to a new world of gods and monsters. Pretorius also meddles with nature by creating truly bizarre miniature humans in glass jars. Frankenstein refuses to create a Bride for his Monster until Pretorius gives him no other choice. The Monster makes his only real friend when drawn to the music of a blind hermit. It’s a beautiful sequence where the hermit thanks God for his new friend and helps the Monster to speak.

Hearing the Monster speak is another reason to love the sequel, but Boris Karloff was initially against it. After his brief turn as the Mummy, Karloff returned to the bolts and flat top that made him famous. The Monster continues to grunt, but he’s also given the limited vocabulary of a child. The hermit teaches him the difference between good and bad. He even learns to embrace fire when the hermit tells him smoking is good. Unfortunately this brief moment of happiness is short-lived when villagers discover the Monster. The Monster seeks comfort in a crypt where he ends up crossing paths with Pretorius. He manipulates the Monster by promising him a friend and having him kidnap Elizabeth to force Frankenstein’s assistance. Dr. Frankenstein is joined by Dwight Frye as another hunched over assistant who isn’t Igor. Pretorius crosses the line by having Karl kill a young woman to give the Monster’s mate a fresh heart.

The laboratory is much more elaborate with greater detail given to the scientific process for creating life. The Bride of Frankenstein makes her debut at the very end, but her limited screen time is worth the wait. The lovely Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley and the Bride in order to bring things full circle. The Bride is just as iconic with bandaged arms, a large white dress, and tall black hair with a white lightning streak. She’s the original female monster if you don’t count Dracula’s unnamed brides. The Monster thinks he finally found someone like him, but all she does is scream in terror. Her rejection is the final nail in the coffin that forces the Monster to accept that they’re better off dead. Concluding with the destruction of Frankenstein’s laboratory that should’ve been the perfect ending. Bride of Frankenstein brings much needed humanity to horror.

9. The Bride of Frankenstein

The Monster fears the fire of the blind man

Preceded by: Frankenstein & Followed by: Son of Frankenstein