Chances are when you were a kid, you still picked out your movies based on the plastic VHS covers in your local video rental store. And if you were like me, I bet you loved those old monster movies. Commonly, these films are known as the “Universal Monsters,” because from the 1930s through roughly the 1950s, they were put out by Universal Pictures. These monsters are the monsters who comprise all the members of the “The Monster Mash,” not to mention every single off-the-rack go-to Halloween costume since our parents were kids.
We’re talking about The Mummy, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and the guy who is probably most famous for being parodied by the Count on Sesame Street: Dracula. So, what’s the deal? Should you let your kids watch these cheesy old black-and-white movies around Halloween? The answer is an emphatic “yes.” If the kiddos are under five, use your best judgment; but if they’re older than six and want to explore the OG Universal Monsters, they have one huge parenting benefit going for them: these movies are largely bloodless. The chills and thrills mostly come from the mood rather than anything grotesque.
But which films are essential viewing this Halloween season? Here are our five favorites to revisit with your family.
5. The Mummy (1932)
1932’s The Mummy stars Boris Karloff in the titular role. At that point, he was already famous for playing Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 version of Frankenstein. (Yeah, you think Marvel movies come out a lot these days? These old monster movies happened right on top of each other! Dracula came out THE SAME YEAR as Frankenstein!)
Anyway, The Mummy will not teach your kids anything about real Egyptian history, and, unlike some of the other classic monsters, it wasn’t derived from a novel. But, in some ways, it’s the creepiest film on this list, mostly because the notion of camping out and getting stalked by a spirit/zombie is totally awesome.
4. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943)
Monster nerds love to remind the lay people that the creature in the Mary Shelley novel Frankenstein is not named “Frankenstein,” that’s just the name of the mad scientist who created the monster. And yet, calling this famous version of Frankenstein’s Monster just “Frankenstein” is understandable because of all the old black-and-white mashup movies in which the monster was just called “Frankenstein” and was forced to deal with another monster. You’ve probably heard of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but kids don’t really care about Abbott and Costello. This is why of all the monster-on-monster classic movies, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf-Man is better. All the reviews will tell you this movie is horrible and makes no sense. They are wrong.
Doubly exciting (and weird) is that Bela Lugosi (famous for Dracula) plays the monster in this one, NOT Boris Karloff. This is a fun game for a certain kind of kid: can you spot the monster actor, suddenly in a different monster role?
3.The Wolf-Man (1941)
The Wolf-Man is perhaps the greatest of the original monster concepts insofar as, unlike all the other monsters, he’s not a full-time monster. In fact, he just wants to be normal and live in a new town and walk around with a spiffy cane and not be annoying. But, sadly, Bela Lugosi BITES HIM and he becomes The Wolf-Man. This movie came out ten years after Dracula, and Lugosi kind of passed the monster torch to Lon Chaney. As a film, The Wolf-Man is slightly more sophisticated than pretty much all the other movies on this list if only because its themes are more interesting. Don’t we all have a monster inside of us?
The Wolf-Man is streaming on Peacock.
2. Frankenstein (1931)
This movie is weird. And yes, it is a little scary. And yeah, it’s heavily implied that the monster kills a little girl when she’s picking flowers. (This is nuts too, because, in the book, he does the opposite, but whatever.) Visually, though, this movie is PURE HALLOWEEN. The lightning storm that creates Dr. Frankenstein’s creature is worth the whole movie. Plus, believe it or not, this movie actually has a happy ending. (Just not for the monster!)
Boris Karloff is perfect as the creature, and those bolts on his neck feel legitimately awesome, unlike every version of the character you’ve seen after that.
1. Dracula (1931)
Film snobs think the 1922 movie Nosferatu is the best “adaptation” of Bram Stoker’s famous novel Dracula. The thing is, the Bela Lugosi version is way more influential, and basically, all-around better. Not only is his castle freaking amazing, but Lugosi also gives the performance of a lifetime, a performance by the way, which defined Halloween for the rest of time. The Dracula voice is parodied and borrowed so often, it’s hard to remember it actually originated with one guy who happened to just have that accent because he was Hungarian. (In fact, Lugosi was something of a heartthrob in silent movies before he became Dracula. Ever wonder where the idea of a “hot vampire” came from? Yep! This guy!)
But, the best part about watching the 1931 Dracula with a kid is simple. Not once, ever, do you see those famous vampire fangs in the whole movie! Really! The movie is so good it doesn’t even need fangs to be scary.
Dracula is streaming for free on Tubi.
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