The Horror, the Horror

Monster-movie sequels from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s vary widely in tone and quality, but echo the insecurities of today.

Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi in ‘Son of Frankenstein’ (1939).
Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi in ‘Son of Frankenstein’ (1939). The Kobal Collection / Universal

Like the monsters at the black heart of Universal’s storied horror franchises, the sequels spawned by “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” et al. will not die.  “Dracula Untold,” currently in theaters, is just the latest resurrection—very much in the vein of “The Wolfman,” a recent reboot starring Benicio Del Toro, and the trilogy of Mummy films with Brendan Fraser that began 15 years ago.  But such latter-day iterations are merely the most recent examples of a phenomenon that began shortly after these characters first appeared on screen in Universal pictures of the 1930s.

That legacy has been richly honored in the DVD era, but never more so than now—with the release of “Universal Classic Monsters,” a boxed set of 30 films made between 1931 and 1956.  (The collection of 21 discs lists for $200 but is readily available for less than half that online.  And it should not be confused with similarly titled, but less inclusive, sets released previously.)

Though some movie lovers might be tempted to regard such an amalgamation as too much of a bad thing, interesting parallels and divergences are revealed when these films are considered in toto.  Naturally, principal characters recur (though the actors beneath the heavy makeup differ), and broad plot arcs tend to repeat themselves—the citizens of Frankenstein Village and Vasaria frequently form torch-bearing mobs not long before the credits roll—but the tone of these films varies widely.  Some, including “Werewolf of London” (1935) and “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936), unfold with deadly, often numbing, earnestness.  Others are played primarily for laughs, like “The Invisible Woman” (1940)—starring a deliciously ripe John Barrymore not long before his death—or the “Abbott and Costello Meet . . .” films, made from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.  Yet others merge genres so clumsily that all value is lost—“The Mummy’s Hand” (1940), addled with shtick, being the worst offender.

Conversely, “Invisible Agent” (1942) effectively melds elements of H.G. Wells’s “The Invisible Man” with wartime espionage, reflecting the concerns of its era while capitalizing on the studio’s patrimony.  It opens with Frank Raymond (John Hall), a grandson of the inventor of the invisibility serum, repulsing an ambush by Axis agents (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Peter Lorre, no less) intent on gaining the formula.  He later seeks them out in Europe, where invisibility aids his efforts on behalf of the Allies.  A few too many comic turns (in the manner of a low-rent “To Be or Not to Be”) muddy the suspense, but a surfeit of double-crosses keeps us guessing about which, if any, Europeans can be trusted.

A decidedly different twist on the standard formula comes from “Son of Dracula” (1943), which blends elements of European folklore with Southern gothic traditions long before Anne Rice ever did.  Directed by Robert Siodmak from a story by his brother, Curt—both refugees from Nazism—this iteration finds Dracula (here known as Count Alucard; spell it backward) played by the least gifted but most versatile of horror actors, Lon Chaney Jr.  Having been lured to the New World by a neurotic heiress (Louise Albritton), the count sets down stakes at Dark Oaks, a plantation deep in the bayou, where the town physician and a visiting scholar of Carpathian culture (character actors Frank Craven and J. Edward Bromberg) unexpectedly defeat the Transylvanian interloper.  Several other surprises (among them a good number of still-effective frights) further enhance the film, as does the novelty of the mise-en-scène.

Most of the sequels in this set, though, stick closer to their origin stories.  And the best of them (excepting 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein,” so esteemed it requires no further mention) is “Son of Frankenstein” (1939), a film that marked Boris Karloff’s third and final foray as the Monster—and much later proved the primary inspiration for “Young Frankenstein,” Mel Brooks’s priceless parody of the genre.  Given how underused Karloff is here, it’s understandable he opted to break with the role.  Instead, the film’s attention is almost equally divided among three well-drawn characters portrayed by three actors who immeasurably enriched Hollywood movies during these years:  Basil Rathbone, sympathetic and vulnerable as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein; Bela Lugosi, at once compelling and repugnant as Ygor (a role he reprises in “The Ghost of Frankenstein” three years later); and Lionel Atwill (a frequent presence in these pictures), beetle-browed and crafty as Inspector Krogh.  Their work, combined with Jack Otterson’s eye-popping art direction (a low bow to German Expressionist films of the 1920s), makes riveting viewing even now.

And fans of such fare are likely eager to follow the roundelay of actors inhabiting these celebrated monsters.  See Frankenstein’s creature morph from Karloff to Chaney to Lugosi (awful in the part) to Glenn Strange.  Or watch Dracula transform from Lugosi to Chaney to John Carradine and back to Lugosi.  The Mummy, too, undergoes similar changes: from Karloff to Tom Tyler to Chaney to Eddie Parker.  Only Lawrence Talbot, aka the Wolf Man, was immune; Chaney played him four more times after creating the part in 1941.

All these films can be enjoyed passively, even on nights when trick-or-treaters aren’t interrupting.  But something more than entertainment connects them to us.  Though they were made across a quarter century, those years were a period of insecurity abroad and scientific and technical progress at home.  Is it too much to suggest that our own times parallel them in ways both unsettling and familiar?

Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film, television and classical music.