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7 Early Movie Monsters

Horrors! Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and a Big Ape


The action may move slowly, the special effects may be crude - yet there's reason to watch the early classic movie monsters. They established enduring legends with great black-and-white camera work. Instead of sophisticated special effects, many had terrific performances by actors under layers of makeup. Some can still cause a chill, and some can make you laugh out loud. Either way, these are the big, bad boys who provided the DNA for all the great movie monsters who followed.

1. 'Frankenstein' - 1931

Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster
Universal Pictures
Not the first Frankenstein film, but the first full-on Hollywood treatment of Mary Shelley's classic book. Brilliantly directed by James Whale, Frankenstein is in fact the name of the mad scientist and monster-maker. Then unknown, Boris Karloff plays the nameless monster, who manages to evoke sympathy from the audience despite his grotesque form, hideous face and shocking violence. Watch the original and its fabulous sequel, and then watch the inspired Mel Brooks spoof, Young Frankenstein.

2. 'The Bride of Frankenstein' - 1935

Elsa Lanchester is the Bride of the Frankenstein monster
Universal Pictures
This amazing sequel is campy as they come, and actually a little better than the first film. James Whale directs Karloff again, anticipating all the spoofs that were to come with this bizarre, weirdly comic film. Elsa Lanchester plays Mary Shelley in the prologue, and also the nameless Bride of the Monster. Here again, the title is meant to refer to the bride of the scientist, but Lanchester's electric bouffant from hell made her The Bride of Frankenstein forevermore. Her shriek when she sees her intended is one of the great movie screams of all time.

3. 'Dracula' - 1931

Bela Lugosi as Dracula
Universal Pictures
Okay, this was a hit back in the day, but it really drags compared to many of the terrific Dracula films that were to come. Nevertheless, it launched Bela Lugosi as the first American movie version of the hypnotic, undead count and his blood-drinking ways, and established the character in movie mythology. Lugosi is fun in the role, and the film has some lovely cinematography, but he's just not as sexy as many of the screen Draculas who came later. Let's face it, vampires are supposed to be hot. Lugosi, not so much anymore.

4. 'King Kong' - 1933

The Big Ape Takes Manhattan
RKO Radio Pictures
Still good fun, this rip-roaring, low-budget old film swings from the forests of Skull Island to the canyons of Manhattan. King Kong was the first of the great big beasties to grace the big screen, fighting with pterodactyls and giant snakes on his home turf. He is eventually undone by the modern world and his erotic fascination with the "Queen of Screams," Fay Wray. A monster hit, its stop-action silliness was revolutionary at the time, and King Kong has been remade again and again. Make sure you get the restored version, where Kong picks off Fay's diaphanous clothing with his enormous fingers, the big ape.

5. 'The Mummy' - 1932

Boris Karloff Under Wraps
Universal Pictures
Moody, atmospheric and restrained, this is more of a dark love story than a real chiller. Boris Karloff is The Mummy, dry as dust, searching over the centuries for his long-lost love. German expressionist director Karl Freund keeps the monster under wraps (sorry) for most of the movie, and the scene where the mummy first awakens and opens his eye under a linen strap is unforgettable. Karloff was the king of the early movie monsters, and he rules here, allowing the essential humanity of his supernatural character to somehow seep out from under the costume and the makeup.

6. 'The Invisible Man' - 1933

Claude Rains, Unseen
Universal Pictures
Another entry in the mad scientist run amok genre, the special effects in The Invisible Man hold up pretty well - a tribute to James Whale's expert direction. A very young Claude Rains stars as the hero who is in fact unseen for most of the film, causing mayhem among the villagers, laughing insanely and plotting world domination. It's got Whale's touches of dark humor throughout, but a cackling performance by Una O'Connor as a terrorized innkeeper gets awfully old. Still, one of the best of the old black and whites.

7. 'The Wolf Man' - 1941

Lon Chaney Jr.'s First
Universal Pictures
One of Hollywood's original classic monsters, The Wolf Man was not a literary character like Frankenstein or Dracula, but a myth made for the silver screen. Lon Chaney, Jr., whose famous father had played in the early, silent versions of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, gives his best performance here (the many sequels in which he appeared are pretty lame.) The film is chiefly notable for the stop-motion scenes of the wolf's transformation, achieved with a rubbery snoot and yak hair. Not too scary, I'm afraid, but it established another enduring legend for remakes, parodies and retellings.
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