Universal Monsters: How The Wolf Man Created The First Cinematic Universe

Marvel and DC are two of the most popular cinematic universes, but Universal’s Wolf Man started it all.

by David Crow, Den of Geek


One only needs to peruse the headlines of the last few years to realize that Hollywood’s big budget franchises have graduated to the even bigger realm of “universes.” Marvel may have been the first to popularize it with the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but shared brand synergy is underway at nearly every studio at the moment. Warner Bros. has their own superhero stable, as does 20th Century Fox, and Paramount is even trying to find a path toward unifying their Hasbro titles. But while everyone else is looking forward, Universal is glancing back. And why not? After all, Universal Pictures is responsible for the first shared cinematic universe.

Over 80 years since it began, the Universal Monster legacy continues to stretch into a new century, spreading its celluloid immortality like a juicy Transylvanian kiss. The Universal Monsters did it first, and in many ways, their blunt directness has a special charm that is sorely lacking in the self-seriousness currently masquerading in their bloodless, caped descendents. And it really all goes back to one monster in particular: Lon Chaney Jr.’s eternally unblessed Wolf Man.

Chaney’s unforgettable plea for audience mercy and understanding in 1941’s The Wolf Man, as well as make-up artist Jack Pierce’s notoriety for the best use of Yak fur in movie history, is generally considered the marker for Universal’s final “A-list” monster picture. But it also signified a change of thinking at the studio, inadvertently inviting a literary concept as abstract as “universe-building” in through the backlot’s sidedoor. And with those eventual follow-up sequels, there came a new type of monster movie.

In the decade preceding The Wolf Man, Universal horror began its high pedigree breeding when Carl Laemmle Jr. had successfully won over his father to pursue the relatively untapped genre. Carl Laemmle Sr., a co-founder of Universal, saw little initial appeal in the supernatural stories of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley. But the success of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent films eventually led to the advent of Tod Browning’s Dracula (which Chaney the elder was originally set to star in before his death) and James Whale’s Frankenstein, both of which were released in 1931. In purely geeky terminology, Bela Lugosi’s vampire was Tony Stark, but Boris Karloff was Robert Downey Jr. since he benefitted the most from these two Universal chillers.

Despite being the first (official) silver screen realization of Dracula, and the first talkie iteration of Dr. Frankenstein’s arrogance, neither of these films were “small,” much less the B-movies that would later be invented for the slums of horror cinema and those characters in particular.

Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr., as the head of production, treated all of their horror films with the same kind of reverence that MGM would come to shower upon the musical. Maverick filmmaker and human being James Whale, who amongst other things was an openly gay man living proudly in the early 20th century, was given special leeway by the Laemmle family that tended to recognize a brilliance most of the industry would ignore in his lifetime.

Pictures like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) were allowed near carte blanche for Whale to introduce his acidic sense of humor, lacing the scares with just as many laughs. Indeed, the studio bent over backwards to lure him for the first major horror sequel ever made, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is widely considered by film historians to be the crown jewel in Universal’s legacy, as well as possibly the horror genre as a whole. It is certainly difficult to top for pure emotional catharsis the sequence where Karloff’s monster stumbles upon a blind man’s shack (though Mel Brooks tried his damnedest in 1974).

However, just as Whale was attempting to stretch out to more “respected” fare like Show Boat (1936) and the ill-fated All Quiet on the Western Front sequel, The Road Back (1937), it seems the studio stretched too far. Despite the success of Showboat and almost all of their monster movies, the rest of Laemmle Jr.’s gambles had gone bust by 1935. That year, John Cheever Cowdin’s Standard Capital began the process of buying out the Laemmles share of Universal Pictures. In 1936, the father and son were pushed out, and Universal became a very different company—one that wouldn’t necessarily make a horror sequel the centerpiece of its expensive production year (or keep an openly gay director in its favor).

The era that kicked off the Universal Monsters Universe, including celluloid joys like The Mummy (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), came to an end. But the monsters as always proved impossible to stay dead. In fact, soon their forces would merge for unprecedented movie history.

As, in many ways, the transition film between Universal’s “A-picture” horror and what would become the cash-in monster mashes to come, The Wolf Man (1941) still stands underrated in its own right as a masterpiece of the style. Produced and directed by George Waggner, the movie was a commercial effort to tap into werewolf mythology better than Universal’s less successful (and highly undervalued) preceding lycanthrope adventure, The Werewolf of London (1935). The far greater success of The Wolf Man was due to a number of reasons, but one especially unique contribution was that of Curt Siodmak.

A German Jew with secular leanings, he already had begun pursuing creative writing and script doctoring when he immigrated first to England and then Hollywood in 1937 following the rise of the Nazi Party. Siodmak was a mercurial figure who had seen firsthand neighbors turn into monsters before his eyes, so he had little trouble in envisioning a good man that could turn into a murderous beast with the right encouragement. It also allowed him to write “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.” Perfection.

Factor in an all-star cast that included Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot, the Welsh lord and father of the ludicrously American Larry Talbot (Chaney), and supporting work from Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, and Bela Lugosi, and most of the movie’s budget was literally up on screen in the cast listing. And while Waggner’s straightforward direction lacked some of the atmosphere of what Browning did for Transylvania or Whales did for Castle Frankenstein, the lush wooded soundstages dripping with fog machines in The Wolf Man present a classically irresistible charm, most notably when Talbot’s hairy alter-ego comes out to play.

As the U.S. entered World War II, Hollywood was tasked with coming up with quick, efficient, and cheap entertainment. Suddenly, Universal needed to find a way to churn out its decade-long monster stable in a fantastic fashion. Thus enters again Curt Siodmak.

As Siodmak told it, he desperately wanted a new car, so he joked to George Waggner at the Universal commissary during lunch that he had the perfect idea for a new movie: “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” Later that afternoon, Waggner called Siodmak to his office and told him to buy the car, because he had a script to write. Despite Universal already churning out monster movies like they were B-24s, such as The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), both of which starred Lon Chaney Jr. in excessive amounts of make-up, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the studio’s relatively delayed follow-up on their last pre-war classic. And it seems Siodmak found the best way to continue the sad sack tale of the doomed Larry Talbot, who tragically died in the last picture at the hands of his father, was for Larry to wake up and commence biblical combat with the Frankenstein Monster.

In essence, Siodmak inadvertently made his creation the lynchpin of cinema’s first shared universe. Despite the Universal library already brimming with fangs and teeth, the only one that had really continued as a series beyond a spare sequel was “Frankenstein” (now simply signifying the Monster since the last “Dr. Frankenstein” in the series appeared in The Ghost of Frankenstein). And all of these works were standalone, taking place in a twinkling Neverland of automobiles and horse drawn carriages. The Wolf Man is even one of the few that appeared to take place in modern times (WWII notwithstanding), as Larry Talbot was exceedingly a mid-20th century American with a background in electrical engineering when he returns home to Wales for the first time in 20 years. The only horse drawn carriages are from the backwards-looking gypsies, beautifully personified by Maleva (the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya).

With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the film’s brisk 74 minutes are literally cut in near symmetrical half when the film begins as a direct continuation of the 1941 film—Larry Talbot is conveniently awakened by two dimwitted grave robbers who sneak into his crypt and remove his death shroud of wolfsbane on the night of a full moon—and abruptly enters the twinkling fantasy of the Frankenstein franchise, which began with Whale’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Lesser directors on the other hand had continued it with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost, unaware that they were emulating a sly comedy. When Larry Talbot crosses the English Channel to continental Europe in his search for a permanent death at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein, he is crossing over from his own mythology into another from the Universal canon, thereby stitching them together like the good doctor himself.

In short, this is the moment where the Wolf Man became the Agent Coulson of 1940s cinema.

The second half of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is decidedly less interesting than the first. While it still has the strength of Chaney and Ouspenskaya’s returning Maleva, not to mention the sparkling charms of Ilona Massey slumming it in her one and only horror movie as Elsa Frankenstein, the daughter of Ghost’s most recent mad scientist, the latter portion is a bit of a mish-mash. When Chaney is interacting with Massey or the superstitious folks of Vasaria, the movie tends to work, jarring anti-Nazi imagery and hilarious 19th century German and Swiss stereotypes notwithstanding. There’s even a genuinely creepy moment when Larry locks eyes with a teenage girl in a small tavern, allowing both parties an implicit acknowledgement of pre-destined ravishment and doom, as he will soon devour her later that night.

However, the actual “Frankenstein” of the film, the Monster now played by Bela Lugosi since Chaney could only be in one place at a time, feels like an afterthought. Lugosi is widely criticized as the worst onscreen depiction of Universal’s Frankenstein Monster, yet it is not entirely the acting legend’s fault. The then-60-year-old Lugosi was given the unenviable burden of continuing a lousy subplot from Ghost of Frankenstein where the creature was awarded Ygor’s brain (also played by Lugosi) but had gone blind as a result. So, Lugosi was forced to stumble around the set as a blind Monster while speaking with a Hungarian accent. The effect…was apparently not good, and Universal executives in post had all of Lugosi’s speaking lines cut, rendering the performance even more incomprehensible.

Luckily, the aftermath was Siodmak and Chaney’s creation taking an even more central focus as the star of the movie, and soon the Universal Shared Cinematic Universe. And no matter what, there’s also not a person alive who cannot grin at Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’s grand finale when these mutual masters of malevolence have their much hyped Combat in the Castle—throwing lab equipment and each other around like a prophecy of WWE shenanigans to come. For matching the sheer gonzo joy of this epic brawl, the ball is in your court, Zack Snyder.

Very quickly, Universal realized there were far greater rewards with keeping their most popular monsters together than having them stay apart. The same year of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the studio also released the overlooked vampire gem Son of Dracula. In spite of its title, and Lon Chaney’s miscalculated pity pleas as the dark count, this is most definitely a story about the original Count Dracula (at least according to the film’s characters) coming to the shores of New Orleans. Long before Anne Rice married the vampire to voodoo, Son of Dracula did just that when a 20th century girl with a taste for the occult ends up getting more than that when she invites “Count Alucard” (get it?) home, becoming his bride.

However, the following year saw what was most certainly meant to be the original Universal Dracula make his first official showing without qualifiers since the original 1931 film. Played by John Carradine with a wispy moustache, this Dracula was angry after having a wooden stake pulled from his heart—he also was not alone in a movie that also featured the Frankenstein Monster, a mad scientist, a hunchback (the horror!), and of course the Wolf Man.

House of Frankenstein (1944) solidified Universal’s Cinematic Universe when wacky Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff) escapes with a hunchback assistant (J. Carrol Nash) from prison to wreak havoc and revenge on the men who imprisoned Niemann 15 years prior for trying to reanimate the dead. First, Niemann enlists Dracula into his plan by removing the stake from his heart (the count’s corpse had become part of a traveling freak show), and then he finds Larry Talbot and the Frankenstein Monster encased in frozen ice from their last encounter. Soon, all of them, plus a lovely gypsy girl (Elena Verdugo) are attempting to play God over Frankenstein’s creation.

It’s a nutty movie with production values occasionally as flimsy as its plot, but there is an undeniable appeal with the film as well.

Attempting to organize a chronology around most of the Universal’s Monster catalogue is a fool’s errand since they all take place in anachronistic landscapes and misty soundstages, often populated by the same folks with murky origins. For example, Lionel Atwill appears as a small town constable in House of Frankenstein, even though he was the Mayor of Vasaria in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In the earlier picture, he hits it off well with Elsa Frankenstein, which shouldn’t be a surprise since he played her father, Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein, in Ghost—however she was played by Evelyn Ankers in that picture (who perhaps did not return for the crossover since she already was a Wolf Man love interest in the 1941 film).

Even the geography is a muddle since the Monster resides in the vaguely Swiss village of Vasaria in both Ghost and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. And yet, when Dr. Niemann thaws him out ostensibly “six years later” in House of Frankenstein, the village is now titled “Village Frankenstein,” while Niemann seeks to take Larry, the Monster, and the whole brood to his old lab…in Vasaria.

As these movies were released annually in the days before television (never mind Blu-ray or digital download), the filmmakers could play fast and loose with the material. But also, there is something to be said with the freedom to do whatever they want with the material.

While it is reassuring that shared franchises have master plans and are building to something presumably epic today, during the Second World War, people already had enough “world-building” in their real lives. Nobody had time or the inclination to worry about continuity, canon, and other buzzwords when they went to the movies, especially franchise films that were far more unapologetic in their cash grabs than they are today. If director Erle C. Kenton wanted another monster mash with Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and now a lady hunchback(!) in 1945’s House of Dracula, then he’ll have it! How did they all meet up when they each bought the big silver one in House of Frankenstein? Does it really matter? Apparently not to screenwriter Edward T. Lowe Jr.!

House of Dracula followed up on the previous House party by more or less ignoring it. In fact, this is at first glance the story of a not-yet crazy scientist trying to cure an inexplicably still-alive Dracula of vampirism until the Wolf Man barges in again to make it all about him and his sorrow. Talbot even discovers the Frankenstein Monster for the maddening scientist. At the very least, Lowe and Kenton seemed considerate enough to give Larry a happy ending for once when he becomes the real hero by getting cured and saving the girl from the doc and monster.

It is all so unapologetically absurd in its quest for audience appeal and entertainment (and money) that it’s a wonder the crossovers only were relegated to Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. Strangely, the Mummy never showed up in these pictures, nor the Invisible Man. Purportedly, the Invisible Man and the Ape Woman were set to appear in House of Frankenstein when it was originally entitled The Devil’s Brood, however it seems that even in 1943, there were concerns with overstuffing a film with too many characters. Perhaps Marvel should take notes after that second Avengers.

Around the time that WWII ended, so too did the public’s appetite for Universal’s imaginary monsters. The three ghouls only teamed up one last time, including Chaney as Larry and Lugosi’s first-and-only filmic reprise of the Dracula role, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Even the Invisible Man got the ’48 equivalent to a “post-credits” stinger in it too.

Whether this could be seen as a harbinger of the dangers of oversaturation, or merely a generational distancing from the visages of death in strange European lands, is still debatable. Nonetheless, for a brief time during the World War II era, Universal’s biggest monsters—Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man—all shared the same screen universe for four pictures. And by extension, so too do the rest of the Universal Monsters interconnect due to Larry Talbot’s best intentions to do what is right. Like the story of his life, it ended in a bloodbath, but at least it continues to leave Universal fans howling.