Last weekend saw the release of Universal Picture’s new remake/reboot of The Mummy franchise, which features Kingsman and Atomic Blonde supporting player Sofia Boutella as the ancient Egyptian villainess of the title. Trying to stop the undead monster’s rise to power is unscrupulous soldier Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), who finds himself thrown into a supernatural world policed by a organization called Prodigium and its leader, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).
The film is actually meant to be the launching point not only for more Mummy movies, but also for “The Dark Universe” – a slate of prospectively-interconnected blockbusters loosely-inspired by the studio’s back catalog of horror films and thrillers from the mid-20s to the late-50s. Whether this plan will come to full fruition remains to be seen (The Mummy is facing dire reviews and is bombing at the domestic box-office, while an earlier “soft launch” of the megafranchise via Dracula: Untold also fell apart,) but thus far the slate is expected to include new incarnations of The Invisible Man and Frankenstein’s Monster portrayed by Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem respectively; which future plans including Dracula, The Wolf-Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Phantom of The Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But what if Universal plans for the Dark Universe to grow beyond that? Well, the original Universal Monsters franchise actually feature a much greater variety of films and characters than just the best-known handful. Here are 20 lesser-known Universal Monsters who could (conceivably) become part of the new Dark Universe.
THE MOLE PEOPLE
Like a surprising number of C-list creature feature icons, The Mole People are surprisingly incidental to the plot of the film that’s ostensibly named for them. It’s actually more of a “lost civilization” adventure movie in the vein of Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom (or, more contemporarily, H. Rider Haggard’s Alan Quatermain stories) in which a group of explorers find themselves taken prisoner by an underground-dwelling civilization of sunlight-averse Ancient Sumerians who use the titular “Mole People” (a subhumanoid race of burrowing reptile-like creatures) as slave labor. They don’t really do much in the film until a workers-uprising unfolds as part of the heroes scheme to escape to the surface in Act III, but they’ve got a memorable look and they’d probably make decent henchmen should the Dark Universe ever produce a villain in need of foot soldiers.
THE LEECH WOMAN
Creepy title aside, The Leech Woman is another late-period Universal horror offering that grafts a “monstered-up” title onto what’s more like a “classy” Golden Age supernatural thriller. It’s not one of the great entries, but it’s garnered a reputation as a rare classic horror film to ground itself in specifically female-centric fears of aging and societal beauty standards. The plot concerns a “primitive” jungle tribe whose secret of temporarily restoring youth to old women – intended for use as part of a religious ceremony – is stolen by an American scientist’s wife, who uses it to masquerade as her own niece and kill young men in order to extract more of the tribal Potion’s vital ingredient from their pineal glands. So, yes, another vampire riff; but one begging to be tweaked into something more visceral (maybe by doubling down on the central “what society pushes women to become by worshiping youth” metaphor?)
THE DEADLY MANTIS
Born in the mystery/thriller craze of the ’20s and sputtering to the finish just as Atomic Age fears were taking over in the ’50s, Universal was mostly content to leave giant-scale monsters to other studios. Their most noteworthy attempt was this somewhat forgettable giant bug entry, which compares unfavorably to classics like Them! or Tarantula (see below) but is not without its charms – particularly the big-scale paper-mache creature effects used to actually realize the title monster. The beginning and end of the appeal are pretty much summed up as “giant praying-mantis,” but big critters seem to be back in fashion for the moment and with Universal having already signed a deal for their top-prospect in that genre (King Kong) to be part of Warner Bros’ Godzilla-centric “Monsterverse” franchise this is at least one way to get the Dark Universe a piece of that pie.
GWYNPLAINE (“THE MAN WHO LAUGHS”)
To get it out of the way: Yes, you’ve heard of The Man Who Laughs because actor Conrad Veidt’s iconic look was the original reference point for the design of The Joker. And indeed, Gwynplaine’s appearance really did horrify silent movie audiences back in the day (produced during the tail end of the Silent era, the film uses intertitles for dialogue but features a recorded musical score and limited sound effects), but both in execution and action he’s essentially the hero of the story. The Man Who Laughs is a noble heir who, as a child, is facially-disfigured into sporting a permanent exaggerated “smile” and sold into slavery as a carnival attraction; who eventually fights his way back to humanity in the manner of a romantic swashbuckler. If the Dark Universe really is looking more to Marvel than Todd Browning for it’s inspiration, this fellow would seem like a pretty fair bet.
THE MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS
The discovery in (1938) that The Coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs, had actually survived into modernity was a huge deal to mainstream science but also to cryptozoology (which saw it as strengthening the case for hypothetical beasts like Bigfoot or The Loch Ness Monster) and to science fiction. Case in point, this evolution-themed werewolf riff about a College professor who cuts his hand on a Coelacanth and finds himself infected by prehistoric microbes that cause him to regress back into an ape-like pre-human creature that terrorized the youngsters on the campus. If remembered at all today, it’s typically as the movie from where early Marvel Comics’ writers may have cribbed “Dr. Donald Blake” as the name of Thor’s alter-ego, but it’s a not half-bad mash-up of The Wolf-Man and Doctor Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; and a murderous Neanderthal would certainly stand out.
THE MONOLITH MONSTERS
This is widely considered one of the more original “B-movies” of the 1950s, a sci-fi disaster movie wherein the “monsters” are rapid-growing meteor-spawned rock formations that shoot up to skyscraper size when exposed to water and then spread (and repeat) the same cycle when they crumble or fall over – threatening to overwhelm the whole planet if a solution isn’t found. Non-sentient villainy is sometimes a tough sell, but if nothing else the Monoliths (which also have the effect of turning humans who get too close into stone) could become an impressive blockbuster visual for a franchise that’s clearly aiming more for thrills than outright scares. We still don’t know what sort of “event” the Dark Universe plans to bring its various heroes and villains together for, but this would certainly be an original one.
THE CREEPER/THE BRUTE MAN
Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are likely familiar with the brief career of Rondo Hatton, a U.S. military veteran and journalist who became a prized B-movie character actor late in life owing to his size and unusual facial deformities. The latter were caused by acromegaly, the gigantism-causing disorder of the pituitary gland that also famously afflicted Tony Robbins, Richard Kiel and professional wrestlers like Andre The Giant, Paul “Big Show” Wight and The Great Khali.
After a career of mostly playing henchmen and thugs in supporting roles, Universal tapped Hatton to become one of the Universal Monsters in a quasi-recurring role as “The Creeper” after he played a character with that name in one of their popular Sherlock Holmes features – reasoning (rather unfortunately) that an actor who already “looked like a monster” would be a money-saving alternative to stars like Boris Karloff and Lugosi. Unfortunately, Hatton died from complications arising from the disease (which was largely untreatable in the 1940s) only two years into his contract; but The Creeper (also known as “The Brute Man” after the best-remembered of the three features) has remained iconic in pop-culture – an actor even donned Hatton-esque prostheses to play a Creeper-esque henchman in The Rocketeer.
THE MAN-MADE MONSTER
Best remembered as Lon Chaney Jr’s first horror film, Man-Made Monster is a mad scientist feature that’s been cited as a possible influence on various comic book superhero (and supervillain) characters over the years – though never definitively. It’s easy to see where that idea comes from, however: Chaney plays a seemingly ordinary man who is discovered to be immune to electricity after a power-line accident kills everyone near the scene except for him. He becomes part of a carnival act as “Dynamo Dan: The Electric Man,” but also falls under the influence of a mad doctor who wants to study him in order to create electrical super-soldiers; ultimately being manipulated into an electric chair death-sentence which turns him into an electricity-blasting superhuman who goes on a rampage. Perhaps not the most original of the cycle, but an electrical-powered superhuman feels like a pretty evergreen concept.
PAULA, THE APE-WOMAN
Among the more curiously forgotten Universal Monsters features is the trilogy built around the character of Paula Dupree, a seemingly human woman who is in reality a gorilla that has been forcibly-evolved into humanoid form by a mad scientist. Though possessing human-like emotions and desires (particularly sexual, because of course), she often reverts to animal-like behavior and is in constant danger of regressing back fully to her ape form and/or “savage nature” – particularly when a “normal” human woman rivals her for a man’s affections.
At the time, the films were mainly popular because Paula was played (in the first two, Captive Wild Woman and Jungle Woman) by Aquanetta, a model/actress whose fame centered on her “exotic” beauty. Her real name and origins are still unknown, but she claimed for most of her life to be an Arapaho Native American, though she was also widely believed by many celebrity gossip journalists of the day to actually be a light-skinned Black woman (or a dark-skinned White woman, or of mixed-racial background) – all of which casts the Ape-Woman films in a somewhat uncomfortable light i.e. conflating her racial-ambiguity with Paula’s “secretly an animal” origins. But if the Dark Universe is hurting for female leads, a modernized Ape-Woman might be just what they’re looking for.
THE PHANTOM (“HORROR ISLAND”)
There are at least three separate Universal Horrors villains named “The Phantom” – most famously Lon Chaney as the “Of the Opera” variation (who has already been named as a future Dark Universe participant.) Horror Island introduced the archetype of the second more-popular “Phantom,” a mystery-man disguised by a long black cloak and wide-brim hat who stalks a group of folks stuck in an old island castle riddled with secret passageways and traps. Enormously popular and frequently imitated in its day (this and The Cat & The Canary are effectively responsible for inspiring at least half of the vintage Scooby-Doo catalog), this particular Phantom character is the sort of figure that could be reworked in any number of ways (hero? Villain? Henchman? None of the above?) for modern audiences, since the requirements are really only a basic outfit and propensity for sneaking – though one imagines the Dark Universe would ignore the fact that his real name turns out to be “Panama Pete.”
The best and best-known of Universal’s surprisingly rare forays into giant monster territory, this classic from Creature From The Black Lagoon director Jack Arnold (who memorably said of the project “We decided to do this film because, generally, people are very afraid of spiders”) used advanced compositing techniques in order to depict the title monster (an escapee from an experimental laboratory) by blowing a real tarantula up to giant-size. Perhaps today best known for the trivia of featuring a very early appearance by a very young Clint Eastwood as an Air Force pilot, the fact remains that giant spiders are a consistently striking visual image and blockbuster audiences have lately demonstrated a fondness for big stompy monsters that had been presumed absent for far too long. Plus, modern visual effects could be deployed to create a Tarantula that displayed a certain degree of character in itself (whereas live spiders tend to have difficulty “emoting” in a manner perceptible to humans…)
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN
“Your very own Ant-Man, and Marvel can’t sue because this technically came first!” would likely be the pitch for a Dark Universe character based on this film. The original, though, would be fairly difficult to top. Considered one of the great sci-fi thrillers of the 1950s, it starts out almost like a comedy as the hero negotiates finding himself shrunk down to the size of a little person, then an adventure film as he navigates ordinary surroundings at doll size and finally something like an existential horror movie as he finds himself tiny enough to be chased by spiders in his own basement and contemplating the prospect of eventually being reduced down to microscopic size. A modern variation would be unlikely to follow that sort of philosophical track (“thoughtful” does not thus far appear to be part of the Dark Universe repertoire if The Mummy is any indication), but at least it’s a lot easier to shrink people with special-effects than it used to be.
THE COBRA WOMAN
She’s a woman… who is also a cobra. Not all of these things are especially complicated. The film she originates in, Cult of The Cobra, is a pretty standard evil-curse movie wherein a group of U.S. soldiers on leave in The Far East get into a scuffle while peeping on the occult rites of a snake-worshipping Lamian cult and find themselves stalked by an (unseen) spectral serpent which may or may not also be incarnated as a sly seductress played by Faith Domergue. Like The Ape-Woman, this is a character (or, rather, the idea of a character; since we never see Domergue morph into a cobra – though the Lamian temple dancer cavorts in a “snake-woman” skin-suit that scandalized audiences of the day) who would probably need significant revision to be part of a modern-day Cinematic Universe, but it’s unlikely that someone building a cross-franchise brand around movie-monsters would consider “too many shape-shifting creatures” to be an insurmountable problem.
Officially, what exactly the Dark Universe plans to do about Count Dracula isn’t known. For a while, the plan was to use a present-day teaser gag tacked onto the end of the unrelated Dracula: Untold origin feature as a way to “grandfather” that Luke Evans star-vehicle into the Dark Universe menagerie after the fact, should it prove to be successful. However, when the vampire action extravaganza failed at the box-office (in October, no less!) those plans were scrapped and the character now remains in limbo; trapped by the fact that the character has been done to death at this point.
One way around that issue might be to instead first draft the Universal-originating character of The Count’s daughter, Marya, who made her first and only appearance in the 1936 sequel to the original Dracula. A morally conflicted character who travels from Transylvania to London seeking a cure for her own vampirism, she finds herself none the less driven to seduce victims just like her old man. Today the film is best remembered for its (now impossible to miss) lesbian subtext, with Marya mainly seducing female victims (“Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!!!” shouted the lurid marketing campaign) and her cure-seeking storyline being seen as an (unfortunate) metaphor for self-hating homosexuality.
THE CAT (“THE CAT AND THE CANARY”)
“Oh, so that’s where that’s from!” tends to be the modern reaction to viewings of The Cat and the Canary, a 1927 silent adaptation of a Broadway horror-mystery-comedy production that’s been so influential on popular culture the original model has been somewhat absorbed by its own reputation. The premise: A group of people, most of whom don’t care for each other, are gathered in the mansion of a deceased eccentric millionaire awaiting their expected inheritances. Instead, ostensibly not-dying people begin to disappear and/or turn up dead, and it’s revealed that the house is filled with secret passages that may or may not have been infiltrated by “The Cat,” an escaped lunatic and murderer so named because he apparently believes himself to be a cat and “tears at his victims like they were canaries!” If you’ve seen the scratchy black-and-white clip of a monstrous hand reaching out of a secret panel above a bed to menace the sleeping woman below, this is where that’s from. Like many early shockers, there turns out to be a more mundane explanation for what’s going on, but nothing says that it can’t be reworked for today.
DRAKE ROBLES (“CURSE OF THE UNDEAD”)
Curse of The Undead was one of the last entries in what’s considered the “official” Universal Horror cycle, mostly overlooked as being too old-fashioned in its day and nowhere near being among the more popular of its ilk. But it’s an unusual enough as a concept that it later gained a following thanks to television reruns. Ostensibly, it’s a horror-western where the archetypal “mystery man” who wanders into a small frontier town and causes trouble is actually a vampire – though, interestingly, his behavior conforms more to the traditional European folklore version of the lore rather than the rules and style Universal had mostly made up for Dracula and its subsequent sequels and spin-offs. Apart from the setting its otherwise a typical vampire story, but one has to imagine that the two-word summary of “Vampire Cowboy” would be quite at home in the action/horror hybrid genre the Dark Universe is thus far leaning into.
THE SHE-WOLF OF LONDON
To get it out of the way upfront: There is no “She-Wolf” in The She-Wolf of London. The title is designed to evoke memories of Werewolf of London (the first Hollywood movie about werewolves, a box-office disappointment that predated the better-received Wolf-Man), but the actual story is a “gaslighting” thriller about a young woman who is being manipulated into believing that she is a lycanthrope (in the “realistic” sense of having an animalistic alternate-personality that carries out murders she later awakes unaware of) in order to have her committed and steal her property. This was a storyline that a lot of horror films of the early to mid 20th Century were based around, as it used to be terrifyingly easy to have women committed to asylums and thus it used to happen with alarming frequency. The Dark Universe would more likely want to aim for a more expected female analog to The Wolf-Man, which if nothing else doesn’t sound like the worst idea.
DOCTOR VOLLIN (“THE RAVEN”)
Given that they often mainly involve the horror that exists in a main character (or narrator’s) mind, the works of Edgar Allen Poe have proven difficult to turn into narrative feature films – not that Hollywood ever stopped trying. The Raven was, for a time, the template for such attempts, with its main conceit being that Bela Lugosi’s villainous Doctor Vollin is a madman who is obsessed with Poe’s work and has recreated torture devices described in the author’s work for his own amusement in his basement. Vollin is one of the creepiest of Lugosi’s horror performances (he disfigures a criminal played by Boris Karloff who comes to him seeking plastic surgery into a “monster,” and won’t repair the damage until he helps him abduct and torture the men keeping him from stalking a young woman he’s obsessed with). The film was considered so controversial that it led England to briefly ban the entire horror genre from screens – a development that nearly crippled Lugosi’s career at the time.
THE MUTANT (“THIS ISLAND EARTH”)
The Mutant is a minor presence in This Island Earth, an otherwise more cerebrally-minded space-voyage sci-fi flick that featured the creature (described in the film as a genetically-engineered humanoid insect used for labor on the planet Metaluna) prominently in its advertising during the monster craze of the 50s. But its design was so iconic that, up until the film was revived as the subject of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, “The Mutant” was easily This Island Earth’s most prominent lasting impact on popular culture. It’s doubtful that The Dark Universe will be looking to remake this particular film outright, but if the franchise is looking for an alien menace to add to a menagerie that thus far mainly features Earthly monsters something at least based on this design would be a likely place to start looking – although the association with a film today best known for being parodied may make it a tough sell at the producer level.
THE THING THAT COULDN’T DIE
It’s a head in a box, in case you were wondering – more specifically, the head of a man executed for sorcery 400 years ago discovered miraculously intact (apart from having been severed from its body, of course) by a ranch owning family who believe they can sell it as an artifact. Unfortunately, the head itself is still very much alive and uses psychic influence to convince anyone within its reach to help it find and reunite with its body, which would be bad since clearly just the guy’s head is dangerous enough on its own. Not necessarily the most iconic monster (or most iconic “Thing”), but a disembodied head is a pretty memorable image and memorable images seem to be what the Dark Universe franchise is looking for above all else in terms of salable properties. Given that so far its two confirmed monsters (Sofia Boutella’s Mummy and Russell Crowe’s Doctor Jekyll) are both radical departures from their original incarnations, there’s nothing saying they couldn’t also turn this guy into a modernized character.