Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man didn’t originate in movies; they first appeared in folk tales and literature. But for nearly 100 years, the looks and behaviors of these classic monsters have followed the model set by Universal Pictures, the studio that enjoyed two decades of hits about these ghostly creatures. Thanks to massive talents such as actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and directors such as James Whale and Jack Arnold, the Universal Monsters have become Halloween standards year after year.
This list of 25 covers the best Universal monster movies of the studio’s classic era, from well-known hits to oft-overlooked gems.
1. Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
Want to know a secret? Universal monster movies transcend horror movies about freaks and bloodsuckers. They often tell romantic stories, with tragic heroes at their core. No film exemplifies this more than Bride of Frankenstein, written by William Hurlbut and directed by James Whale, returning to the franchise for its first sequel. Hurlbut and Whale adhere more to Mary Shelly’s novel for the sequel, as Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) tampers again in God's domain when rival Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) forces him to make a Bride (Elsa Lanchester) for the monster (Boris Karloff). At times scary, funny, and always romantic, Bride of Frankenstein representsUniversal Horror at its best.
2. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
Horror comedy is one of the hardest genres to get right, and yet Universal nailed it on their first try. In an impressive shared universe crossover film, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein stars the titular comedy duo as two baggage claim workers who get roped into Dracula’s (Bela Lugosi) plan to revive Frankenstein’s Monster (Glenn Strange) with the help of a mad scientist (Lenore Aubert), against the will of the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.). Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein works as the duo’s best comedy because it never skimps on the scary stuff.
3. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Creature from the Black Lagoon arrived late in the classic period of Universal Monsters, but it proves the formula still remains strong. Directed by Jack Arnold from a screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross, Creature from the Black Lagoon features another romantic creature (portrayed by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman) who falls for a beautiful woman, Kay Lawrence (Julia Adams). But the secret to Creature’s success came in the form of underwater sequences that captured both Kay’s vulnerability and the Gill-man’s longing.
4. Frankenstein (1931)
It testifies to the power of Bride of Frankenstein that it outdoes its predecessor, the excellent Frankenstein. The script, credited to Garrett Fort and Francis Edward Faragoh, veers far from the original Shelly novel while retaining the tragic plot line. Whale achieves that feat by casting Boris Karloff as the monster, allowing the actor to play the sadness of a thing brought to life against his will. Karloff puts in a soulful performance under his makeup and heavy costuming, balancing Colin Clive’s over-the-top take as Doctor Henry Frankenstein.
5. Dracula (1931)
No, the fifth-best Universal Monster movie isn’t the 1931 Dracula movie directed by Tod Browning. Rather, it’s the other Dracula from that year, directed by George Melford and starring Carlos Villarías as Conde Drácula. Filmed at the same time and on the same sets as its English-language counterpart, the Spanish-language Dracula outdoes the more famous version thanks to its better costumes and more explicit take on the material. Many even argue that Villarías gives the definitive take on the infamous bloodsucker.
6. The Invisible Man (1933)
Despite an excellent 2020 remake from Saw co-creator Leigh Whannell, The Invisible Man still doesn’t enjoy the same popularity as its Universal brethren. Whether the problem stems from a lack of iconography (when not invisible, mad scientist Griffin sports a bandaged look that The Mummy claimed a year earlier) or the lack of sympathy the monster invites, the Invisible Man gets overlooked in favor of Dracula or the Wolf Man. But once again, director James Whale crafts an excellent film, thanks to scene-chewing from Claude Rains as a man driven insane with power.
7. The Mummy (1932)
Where Frankenstein showed how much Boris Karloff can do with so many of his talents limited, The Mummy finds the legend at the height of his powers. Sure, the screenplay by John L. Balderston and direction from Karl Fruend begins with Karloff’s Imhotep in his signature bandages, but he soon takes on full human form as the dashing and frightening Ardath Bey. As a monster living in (then) modern society, Karloff exudes subtle menace to those who would stand against him in his quest to reunite with Princess Ankh-es-en-amun, who happens to look a lot like local resident Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann).
8. Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
Once again, poor Bela Lugosi gets beat out by another less-famous vampire, this time Gloria Holden as Countess Marya Zaleska, the daughter of Count Dracula. Directed by Lambert Hillyer (who took over from James Whale) and based on a script by Garrett Fort, Dracula’s Daughter takes place after the death of the infamous Count in the 1931 film. It retains Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing (or Von Helsing, as he’s billed here), but otherwise departs from the previous movie’s tone, taking more of a revenge plot. Between its lesbian subtext and a towering take from Holden, Dracula’s Daughter earns its place as the best English-language Universal Monster movie.
9. The Last Performance (1929)
When moviegoers saw The Last Performance in 1929, they had two options. They could watch a silent version of the Conrad Veidt film, about a murderous love triangle involving a stage magician. Or they could watch a version with some sound, including music and dialogue. Today’s viewers can still watch the sound version, which the Criterion Collection restored for the release of director Paul Fejos’s previous film Lonesome. But the silent version best showcases Veidt’s talents as the sinister and smirking magician Erik the Great.
10. Dracula (1931)
The first Universal version of Dracula draws less from the novel by Bram Stoker and more from a stage adaptation by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. In Dracula’s weakest moments, director Tod Browning follows suit, resulting in an inert, even airless film. But that doesn’t prevent Bela Lugosi from giving a chilling turn as Count Dracula, especially when beams of light fall across his face, giving his eyes a sinister glow.
11. The Wolf Man (1941)
Universal got into the lycan game with 1935’s Werewolf of London, but they didn’t get a hirsute hit until Lon Chaney Jr. stepped into the main role in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Director George Waggner embraces the foggy possibilities of the Welsh setting, capturing Larry Talbot’s beast as he stalks the country marshes. Lon Chaney Jr. lacks the versatility of his chameleon-like father, but he brings a certain pathos to his arrogant American stricken by a curse. Thanks to The Wolf Man, Universal got its third icon, a character who would stand side-by-side with Dracula and Frankenstein.
12. The Phantom Of The Opera (1925)
When Universal acknowledges the Phantom as one of their monsters, they include Claude Rains from the 1943 Technicolor The Phantom of the Opera directed by Arthur Lubin. But that dull and overstuffed film has nothing on Universal’s first crack at Gaston Leroux’s novel, released in 1925. The secret to the success of the earlier The Phantom of the Opera? Star Lon Chaney, a master of disguise, keeps the Phantom both shocking and sympathetic, a task made easier through the striking direction credited to Rupert Julian.
13. The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
The original The Invisible Man gave us one of Universal’s least redeemable monsters in Dr. Jack Griffin. For the first sequel in the franchise, director Joe May plays with the audience’s expectations by choosing a convicted murderer as the protagonist of The Invisible Man Returns. Vincent Price plays Sir Geoffrey Radcliffe, an inmate who insists upon his innocence and begs Jack’s brother Frank (John Sutton) to share the invisibility serum. From that setup, screenwriters Lester K. Cole and Curt Siodmak explore the franchise’s themes from a new angle, highlighting the thin line between the respectable and the condemned.
14. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1923)
The earliest movie on this list, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, may have established the Universal monster model. Protagonist Quasimodo may appear as a monster to those who see him, but he’s actually a sweet man who gets persecuted for his physical appearance. Director Wallace Worsley and screenwriters Edward T. Lowe Jr. and Perley Poore Sheehan make their adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel thanks in large part to Lon Chaney in the lead. The pounds of makeup do not prevent Chaney from finding the soul of Quasimodo, setting the standard for all of the romantic monsters that follow.
15. Revenge of the Creature (1955)
On the surface (pun intended), Revenge of the Creature follows the same beats as not only its predecessor Creature from the Black Lagoon, but also most Universal horror films. It has a misunderstood monster (the Gill-man, portrayed by Tom Hennesy and Ricou Browning), a bland hero (John Agar), a cruel human (John Bromfield), and a damsel in distress (Lori Nelson). But journeyman director Jack Arnold and screenwriter Martin Berkeley reinvigorate the plot by setting it at a Florida Oceanaream. By taking the Gill-man from his home lagoon, Revenge of the Creature builds sympathy for the monster, even as he begins slaughtering those who stand between him and the object of his affection.
16. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Most moviegoers haven’t seen Son of Frankenstein, the third sequel in the Frankenstein franchise, but they might know of it. After all, that’s where the scientist Baron Wolf von Frankenstein (son of Henry, played by Basil Rathbone) meets Ygor (Lugosi), who gains the ability to control the Monster (Karloff, returning to the role). Director Rowland V. Lee can’t quite fill the shoes left by James Whale, but between this cast and the screenplay by Willis Cooper, Son of Frankenstein proves to be a worthy entry in the vaunted series.
17. Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955)
The Mummy missed out on Abbott and Costello’s first Monster Mash, but he gets the spotlight here. The last of the duo’s films for Universal, Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy does suffer from a bit of weariness, to the point that writer John Grant doesn’t bother to give names to the main characters and just asks them to play themselves. But Abbott and Costello still have fine-tuned comic chemistry with each other and veteran director Charles Lamont knows how to serve their style. Eddie Parker does a passable job as the Mummy Klaris, but Marie Windsor steals the show as the duplicitous Madame Rontru.
18. Werewolf of London (1935)
Universal’s first Wolfman movie may have overshadowed by its follow-up, but Werewolf of London still has its charms. The screenplay by John Colton tries for a classier investigative approach, as botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) gets bit by a wolfman while searching for a rare flower. Director Stuart Walker devotes much of the film’s first half to researching the plant’s effects, relegating the horror to background implications. This approach disappointed Werewolf of London’s first viewers, but it holds a unique charm today.
19. House of Frankenstein (1944)
A few years before Abbott and Costello's dropped by, Universal tried its first crossover with House of Frankenstein. Despite its name, House of Frankenstein involves no Frankensteins save the monster, now portrayed by Glenn Strange. Instead, Boris Karloff plays mad scientist Gustav Niemann, whose plan to make a body for his assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) brings him into contact with the Wolf Man Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) and Dracula (John Carradine). No one can deny the fun of seeing all the monsters together, but director Erle C. Kenton and screenwriter Edward T. Lowe can’t give the characters anything interesting to do, trapping them in endless conversations instead.
20. House of Dracula (1945)
Despite the disappointment of House of Frankenstein, the same cast and crew got a second chance with House of Dracula the following year. In place of the absent Karloff, Onslow Stevens plays Dr. Edelmann, a scientist charged by Dracula (Carradine) to discover a cure for vampirism. Somehow, this search draws the attention of the Wolf Man (Chaney) and the Monster (Strange), who meet again to talk and sometimes fight. Despite the loss of Karloff’s titanic talent, House of Dracula still gets a charge from the monster team-up, despite the lackluster work from director Kenton and screenwriter Lowe.
21. The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
The last of the Creature from the Black Lagoon sequels, The Creature Walks Among Us loses director Jack Arnold, replaced by his assistant director John Sherwood, but gains an early score by Henry Mancini. By now, all dignity has faded from the Gill-man (played by Don Megowan and Ricou Browning), and screenwriter Arthur A. Ross treats him like a standard monster. Still, Sherwood does craft some effective scare sequences, and the underwater photography still impresses, even if the effects in The Creature Walks Among Us do not.
22. The Mummy’s Hand (1940)
In the original Mummy, Boris Karloff played a man whose love could not be contained by death. For the sequel The Mummy’s Hand, director Christy Cabanne and screenwriters Griffin Jay and Maxwell Shane take a more conventional approach. Steve Banning stars as a struggling archeologist who, along with his bumbling sidekick Babe Jensen (Wallace Ford), frees the mummy Kharis (Tom Taylor). Jay and Shane do squeeze a lost love plot into Kharis’s backstory, but not enough to elevate The Mummy’s Hand beyond a functional, if unimaginative, thriller.
23. The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944)
John Carradine struggled to replace Lugosi as Dracula in the two House of movies, but he finds his footing as Peter Drury, the scientist who invents an invisibility serum The Invisible Man’s Revenge. Rather than try it on himself, Drury uses the formula on a vengeful convict (John Hall), leading to a murderous rampage. The screenplay by Bertram Millhauser doesn’t find any new takes on the franchise’s themes, but Ford Beebe provides able direction. Even better, Hall makes for a fun madman, at times rivaling Rains’s deranged take in the original.
24. This Island Earth (1955)
By the mid-1950s, the gothic terrors of the original Universal Monsters gave way to the paranoid sci-fi of the nuclear age. While the studio had less of a distinctive look at the time, it still put out quality work, such as This Island Earth. Directed by Jack Arnold and Joseph P. Newman and written by Franklin Coen and Edward G. O’Callaghan, This Island Earth tells a sci-fi tale about scientists summoned to a distant planet. The movie doesn’t have that many horror elements until its final reel when the heroes meet a menacing mutant, but it does feature excellent effects and vibrant colors.
25. The Black Cat (1941)
With a cast that includes Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi and a classic Edgar Allen Poe story to adapt, one might think The Black Cat would be an instant classic. However, critics of the 1940s considered the finished product unworthy of the source material. In the years since, later audiences have come to appreciate what director Albert S. Rogell and his team of screenwriters — Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo, Eric Taylor, and Robert Neville — had in mind. Less a gothic horror piece, Rogell and Co. crafted a goofy comedy with horror elements, one that plays up the sillier elements of Poe’s story.