Collecting Vintage Universal Monster Toys
From the mountains of Transylvania to the depths of the Black Lagoon, Universal's classic monsters have inspired horror fans and collectors for generations.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, Universal Studios created a series of movie monsters so iconic that they remain popular almost a century later.
Some were based on existing literary creations, whilst others were dreamt up by scriptwriters and studio heads, but in each case the resulting monsters captured the public's imagination like never before.
To this day, the studio's versions of Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera and the Creature from the Black Lagoon are instantly recognized as the definitive versions of the characters.
The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera is viewed as the first true film in Universal's series of classic horror pictures. After the box-office success of the 1923 historical drama The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which starred Lon Chaney as the disfigured title character, the studio purchased the rights to Gaston Leroux's 1909 novel as a vehicle for the character actor.
Known as 'The Man of a Thousand Faces', Chaney's ability to transform his appearance through make-up and performance became legendary. He created his own look for the Phantom, using face paint, false teeth and a wire to pin his nose back. The results were startling for audiences in 1923, with viewers screaming and fainting when his monstrous face is first revealed in the film.
Universal later remade the silent film as a lavish musical drama in 1943, with Claude Rains in the lead role. Despite the success of the new version, it is Chaney's remarkable self-created appearance that remains the iconic version of the Phantom for many horror fans.
Top left to right: Dracula Glow Putty (Larami, 1979); Mad Monsters Dracula action figure (Mego, 1974); Classic Movie Monster Dracula action figure (Imperial, 1986)
Bottom left to right: Dracula model kit (Aurora, 1962); Dracula picture puzzle (Jaymar, 1963); Whistling Dracula Teeth (Travellers, 1982)
Dracula first appeared on the pages of Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel, before transferring to the stage and screen. The first film to officially feature the character, as endorsed by Bram Stoker's estate, was the 1931 Universal version directed by Todd Browning and starring Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi had played Dracula is the highly successful Broadway stage version, but had to lobby hard for the same role on screen and won the part largely due to his acceptance of a very low fee. The movie was an instant box-office hit, with reports of audience members fainting in shock, and the success led Universal to begin its series of horror pictures in earnest.
Lugosi became a world famous star, although sadly typecast in horror pictures and forever tied to his iconic portrayal of the Count. He played the character just once more in 1948, in his final 'A' picture 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein'.
The film is now regarded as a true horror classic, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the US Library of Congress in 2000.
Top left to right: Frankenstein’s Monster Bike Buddy (Tico Toys, 1965); Monster-Nik Frankenstein Troll Doll ((M&W Industries, 1960s); Universal Monsters Frankenstein action figure (Remco, 1980)
Bottom left to right: Frankenstein figural water gun (AHI,1977); The Munsters Herman Munster hand puppet (Ideal, 1964); Frankenstein Soaky Bubble bath bottle (Colgate-Palmolive, 1960s)
Doctor Frankenstein's unnamed monster first appeared in Mary Shelley's 1818 novel 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus'. Although many began erroneously referring to the creature itself as Frankenstein during the 19th century, the name really stuck following the monster's appearance in the classic 1931 Universal film.
Directed by James Whale and adapted from the play by Peggy Webling, the film starred Boris Karloff, who replaced Lugosi as the monster during pre-production.
This iconic version of Frankenstein, complete with pale green skin and a flat-top head, was designed by the celebrated Hollywood make-up artist Jack Pierce. By working with Karloff, who removed a dental plate to create a natural indentation on one side of his face, they created a version of the monster which remains universally recognized today.
Karloff again played the character in the even-more acclaimed 'Bride of Frankenstein' (1935) and 'Son of Frankenstein' (1939), before Lon Chaney Jr. took over the role for 'The Ghost of Frankenstein' (1942). The monster appeared twice more in Universal films – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) – both times played by former vampire Bela Lugosi.
After the success of Frankenstein, Universal chose Boris Karloff for an equally iconic role as the ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, revived as a murderous mummy by an archaeological dig.
Inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922, and the alleged curse that followed, the studio hired John L. Balderston to write a script based on a story by Richard Shayer and Nina Wilcox Putnam. The result was the 1932 film 'The Mummy', in which Karloff's heavily-bandaged Imhotep only appeared on screen for a few minutes in his full make-up.
The film was a hit, but unlike other Universal horrors it was never given a sequel. Instead, the film was partially remade in 1940 as The Mummy's Hand, featuring Tom Tyler as the mummy Kharis. This new mummy then appeared in three further sequels, The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944), The Mummy's Curse (1944), each time played by Lon Chaney Jr.
Both Imhotep and Kharis have been used as the basis for countless movie mummies, although the iconic version of the stumbling, bandaged monster owes a far greater debt to the latter.
The Wolf Man
Top left to right: Famous Monsters Wolfman plaster casting kit (Rapco, 1974); Wolfman rubber jiggler (AHI, 1973); Classic Movie Monster Wolfman action figure (Imperial, 1986)
Bottom left to right: Wolfman Soaky Bubble bath bottle (Colgate-Palmolive, 1960s); World Famous Super Monsters Wolfman action figure (AHI, 1973); Universal Monsters Wolfman action figure (Remco, 1980); Wolfman model kit (Aurora, 1962)
In 1935 Universal produced its first film to feature a lycanthrope, Werewolf of London. Starring Henry Hull, the film once again featured the make-up work of Frankenstein creator Jack Pierce who designed a unique look for the monster. However, Hull was unwilling to spend hours in make-up and the design was rejected in favour of one which didn't obscure the actor's features.
The film was a box-office flop, but in 1941 the studio tried again with The Wolf man featuring the newly-crowned horror star Lon Chaney Jr. This time Pierce's design was used, and the transformation scenes involved six laborious set-ups as each different stage of Chaney's change from man to wolf was filmed using time-lapse photography.
Chaney made the Wolf Man his own, and was the only actor to play the character throughout the 1940s. He appeared as the monster four more times, in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Top left to right: Universal Monsters Creature action figure (Remco, 1980); The Creature Soaky Bubble bath bottle (Colgate-Palmolive, 1960s); Creature From The Black Lagoon Monster Playset figure (Marx, 1963)
Bottom left to right: The Creature model kit (Aurora, 1963); The Creature rubber jiggler (AHI, 1973); Mani-Yack The Creature T-shirt transfer (Kaumagraph, 1964)
Despite horror movies being downgraded to strictly B pictures by the 1950s, Universal still managed to create one further timeless monster. After being inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and the legend of half-man half-fish creatures in the Amazon River, producer William Alland came up with the idea of the Creature.
The iconic design of the 'Gill Man' was created by Disney animator Millicent Patrick and make-up artist Bud Westmore, and the monster was played (beneath the rubber suit) by Ben Chapman. He made his screen debut on television, promoting the forthcoming film on The Colgate Comedy Hour with Abbott and Costello, before hitting movie theatres in glorious black-and-white 3D in 1954.
The monster appeared in two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955), and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), before becoming an established member of Universal's classic 'Monster Club'.
Monsters invading homes across the nation!
The first true Universal horror films appeared as silent pictures in the 1920s, and were followed in the 1930s and 1940s by big budget 'A' pictures which brought box-office success. As the arrival of television in the 1950s eroded movie audience figures, horror films were relegated to 'B' pictures and produced far quicker and cheaper than before.
But in 1956, a new generation became obsessed with the Universal monsters when the original films were broadcast of local TV stations for the first time.
What followed was a wave of monster-mania, with everything from magazines and model kits to toys, games and novelty records hitting the market in the early 1960s. This popularity continued into the 1970s, with countless companies producing action figures both officially and unofficially based on the Universal monsters.
For collectors today, vintage Monster toys based on the Universal creations are highly sought-after and often highly valuable. Here's a quick guide to some of the more popular vintage toy lines to feature the creatures...
Aurora model kits
From 1961 until 1966, Aurora produced a range of classic Universal monster model kits and followed up with further horrifying figures and scenes up until 1977. The original series featured Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy, The Creature, The Phantom of the Opera, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dr. Jekyll as Mr. Hyde, King Kong, Godzilla, the Salem Witch, The Bride of Frankenstein and The Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Maré.
Original Aurora kits are now highly collectible, particularly sealed versions with unused pieces and their plastic sprues intact. As with most vintage toys the box condition is crucial, as many collectors prize the amazing James Bama artwork on each kit above the actual models themselves.
Collectors should also look out for Canadian and British variants, the glow-in-the-dark versions issued in the late 1960s, and rare factory-built kits used for store displays which sometimes include custom cardboard backgrounds.
AHI World Famous Super Monsters
In 1974, toy manufacturer AHI beat Mego in a bidding war for the license to produce Universal Monster action figures. The result was a series of 8" figures which were cheaply made, but that captured the likenesses of the original actors.
The line included five characters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, the Mummy and the Creature, and was followed up by a set of rubber 'Bend-Ems' figures that also included King Kong. Next in 1976 was another line of rubber figures called 'Jigglers' which came in two sizes but didn't include Dracula, and three novelty water squirt guns based on the heads of King Kong, Frankenstein and the Creature.
Mego Mad Monsters
Although AHI beat them to the official license, Mego were still free to produce their own monster figures. As many of the characters were 19th and early 20th century literary creations, they existed in the public domain and the company didn't need permission from Universal. However, they had to make sure the figures didn't resemble the iconic versions seen in the films.
The line featured four 8” monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. But the early versions of both Dracula and Frankenstein were seen as too close to the Universal versions, and quickly re-designed.
The first Dracula figures had slicked-back hair similar to Bela Lugosi, so the company painted their hair red to escape copyright infringement until they could resculpt them. The Frankenstein figures had a similar problem, with their flat-top heads identical to that of Boris Karloff, so these were released with blue hair. Both these early versions are now highly rare and collectible.
Mego changed the figures and gave them more sculpted hairstyles, ensuring there were no similarities for Universal to complain about. They also released a cardboard Mad Monster Castle play-set, featuring four attachable turrets and an operating table.
In the mid-1970s, Lincoln International released its own unlicensed line of monster figures. However, as the Creature from the Black Lagoon was an original monster created by Universal, it wasn't in the public domain and didn't feature in the series.
The line included Dracula, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy and Frankenstein. None of the monsters look like their on-screen Universal versions, with the exception of the Phantom – which looks as close to Lon Chaney as the company could go without breaking the copyright.
Tomland Famous Monsters of Legend
The late 1970s saw the UK toy company Tomland use Lincoln molds to produce their own series of 8” movie monsters. However, the first series took the unique step of featuring creatures not made by other companies and featured the Fly, the Abominable Snowman, the Morlock (from The Time Machine) and the Cyclops (from the 7th Voyage of Sinbad).
The second series, released in 1981, featured four of the classic monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Wolfman. The company then released a line of smaller PVC figures called 'Mosners of Legend' and known as mini-monsters, which featured these four classic monsters along with the Hunchback and the Phantom.
Remco Universal Monsters
In 1980 Remco, which had been acquired by AHI in 1974, began making new Universal monster figures using the license of its parent company. The 9” figures were of higher quality than the earlier AHI versions, and featured a 'monster crush action' which made them reach out and grab their victims via a button on their backs.
The first wave featured four characters, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and Frankenstein, along with a now hard-to-find accessory called 'The Monsterizer' (based on the table in Doctor Frankenstein's laboratory). In 1981 the company added two more figures to the 9” line – the Creature and the Phantom – as well as a line of 3 ¾” figures featuring all six characters. These were later re-released as glow-in-the-dark versions.
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