The Universal Backlot: Horror’s Petri Dish

Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute… Lisa honey, are you saying you are never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No!
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No!
Homer: Pork Chops!?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal!
Homer: Yeah right Lisa, a wonderful “magical” animal.

When I first saw the list of classic, iconic horror films that were filmed at Universal, I had the same reaction as Homer. “Right. All filmed by a wonderful, ‘magical’ studio.” But it’s true. An impressive and influential list of American horror films all came from that same wonderful, magical studio. As if that wasn’t enough, they were all filmed to varying degrees on Universal’s backlot.

These guys were all born on Universal’s backlot.

Before proceeding, let’s establish the groundwork. Here’s a list of classic Hollywood horror films that were made on Universal’s backlot: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Phantom of the Opera (1925), Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931),  The Mummy (1932), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and The Birds (1963). Even the crumbling and creepy house from Psycho (1960) rests on the Universal backlot, despite the fact that it was originally a Paramount film. It’s as if the horror Gods looked upon Psycho and said “Paramount? Nah. It belongs with Universal.” For good measure, even Gremlins (1984) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) were filmed there, neither classic horrors but both worthy entries in the genre (or comedy-horror genre in Abbott and Costello’s case).

To say the least, that’s a jaw-dropping list of horror classics. Four of those films are on the AFI 100 Thrills list- five depending on whether or not you want to count Psycho. Lon Chaney, Sr. is the godfather of American horror actors, and his two most prominent movies were made on the backlot. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man are the holy trinity of American horror and each used the Universal backlot as a springboard to an introduction to wider American audiences. Every October, those monsters litter the landscape thanks to the Universal films. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and the two Chaneys are the Mount Rushmore of American horror, all thanks to their work on the Universal backlot. The so-called Master of Macabre, Alfred Hitchcock, banged out two and a half films on the Universal backlot. The impact is truly breathtaking.

This quaint little fixer-upper rests on the Universal backlot. Beware the owner.

It’s where Hollywood figuratively took the baton from German Expressionism and started crafting their own terrifying tales. It was a petri dish of sorts (forgive the multiple metaphors), where Hollywood could test out new ideas and find new ways to draw audiences to the theater, develop new icons, find new stars, and enhance film techniques when the medium was still young. Those backlot horrors are the missing link between early European film and American film noir.

It’s quite a legacy that Universal crafted in the early days of cinema, one worth a great deal of reverence. This October, you will invariably stumble upon one of these films. When it happens, raise a glass to horror’s petri dish- the Universal backlot.

This article is part of the Journeys in Classic Film Universal Backlot Blogathon, a series of articles about the Universal backlot on Journeys in Classic Film that appeared between 9/14 and 9/16. Go check them out- the backlot is a really cool place, not just for horror.


Filed under Movies

9 responses to “The Universal Backlot: Horror’s Petri Dish

  1. surroundedbyimbeciles

    When I was a kid, we toured the backlot. I’m not sure if it is still open for that. My biggest memory is seeing the Psycho hotel on a hill with a neighborhood underneath it. That neighborhood had the house from Harvey which was also the home of The Munster’s.

    • I came so close to mentioning the Munsters because they’re basically the sitcom version of the classic Universal horrors.

      I know there have been a lot of fires on the backlot, including one relatively recently. I don’t know if that shut them down temporarily, permanently, or not at all.

  2. I still get a kick out of the old Universal horrors. I think it falls more in the camp category but my favorite will always be Bride of Frankenstein.

    • I think I’ve said it to you before, and even if I have it bears repeating… the pacing of the heart in the Bride finale is amazing, one of my all-time favorite horror scenes.

  3. I love this line: “It’s as if the horror Gods looked upon Psycho and said ‘Paramount? Nah. It belongs with Universal.'”

    I’m just wondering, have you ever seen the Spanish-language DRACULA (also 1931)? It too was a bit of an experiment, and I actually believe it to be superior in many respects to the Lugosi version. My contribution for the Universal blogathon is a review of it. (in case you are curious )

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