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September 30, 2011

It began in 1931 with the release of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) as the magnetic monster with a blood fetish. Universal had an enormous hit with the film version of Hamilton Deane's stage play based on Bram Stoker's novel. Originally intended for Lon Chaney (1883-1930), the film went to Lugosi after Chaney's death. Frankenstein followed that same year, directed by James Whale and featuring the macabre mastery of Boris Karloff (1887-1969) acting under heavy makeup designed by Jack Pierce. From these two films would spring an entire franchise of horror heroes who would reshape pop culture and make being scared something fun and exciting for generations of wide-eyed viewers.

As conflict around the globe escalated and America came closer to entering World War II, audiences turned increasingly to escapist fantasy in the theaters to embody and then vanquish their worst fears, and the Universal monsters were there to provide the catharsis. Universal launched a series based on The Mummy (again played by Karloff in its original appearance), blending Egyptian lore with fictional material. In 1941, Lon Chaney Jr. (1906-1973) portrayed the last of the major Universal monsters to be introduced, The Wolf Man. Universal then teamed these characters up in later installments to keep the excitement at a fever pitch and movie-goers in the theaters. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) brought Lugosi (now reduced to playing Frankenstein's monster after originally refusing the role) and Chaney Jr. together, and the final films in the Universal monster movie canon, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), brought together all the major monsters and even resolved the Wolf Man's long-standing curse, allowing him to walk away with the girl at the end.

By the end of the 1940s, Universal Studios had established an extensive universe of scary stars who dominated the matinees and sparked a fan following that would ensure their immortality in the years to come (through the later publication of magazines like Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland). Even when played for laughs, in movies like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) (with Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man, also featuring Vincent Price in a closing Invisible Man cameo voice-over), or on television in guest appearances and parodies, the essential power of these characters did not diminish, and new generations of fans continued to discover the films.

By the 1950s, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man gave way to the Cold War and aliens from afar (none too subtle Communist metaphors invoked in many sci-fi and horror films). The era of the Universal monster appeared to be over, but Universal had a few more tricks up their sleeve with the release of the classic sci-fi film, This Island Earth (1954), featuring the Metaluna Mutant. Creature From the Black Lagoon (also 1954) brought us face to face with the misunderstood Gill-Man, an evolutionary throwback discovered in the Amazon and brought back in two sequels.

Decades later, countless reruns of all the old films on local television have made all the Universal monsters into cultural icons that remain potent and entertaining to this day. In the last few years, Sideshow Toys has sparked a renewal of collector interest in the venerable stars of the silver scream with an extensive line of merchandise, from action figures to polystone sculptures. Most items are copyright Universal Studios. The Universal Studios theme parks in North Hollywood, CA and Orlando, Florida help keep the thrills alive.

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