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31 Days of Halloween: Universal vs. Hammer – Which Classic Horror Studio Reigns Supreme?



Horror movies have been around almost as long as cinema itself, but it was largely through the efforts of two studios — one American and one British — that horror became a cinema staple, with both companies advancing the genre, celebrating its many elements and making it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those two businesses were Universal Pictures and Hammer Studios, and the question is, which was the most important to the horror film as a whole?

The mid-1920s also saw one American company — Universal Pictures — become the first Hollywood studio to embrace the genre, starting off with silents like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Man Who Laughs (1929). The talkie era heralded the true launch of what is now known as Universal Horror. Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and many others not only cemented horror as a potent box-office and artistic force but made legends out of actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, along with directors like James Whale and even groundbreaking makeup artist Jack Pierce.

The Universal films (as many as 74 between 1931 and 1960) ran the gamut in quality but established so much. The films introduced archetypal versions of monsters from both supernatural literature and folklore — many ingrained in pop culture to this day — and also visualized the Gothic trappings, haunted castles, European hamlets, misty graveyards and dank dungeons that were key genre components for years. They also arguably introduced ideas like that of a sequel continuing the story from the original (The Bride of Frankenstein), the shared universe (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) and even the horror/sci-fi crossover (The Invisible Man).

At the same time, Universal’s output was, in many ways, a product of the early film era: They could be kind of stodgy (especially the early ones) and were often filmed like plays, utilizing a few cheap sets and the same stock of actors. Little violence or gore was shown, and what was considered shocking to audiences back in the 1930s could probably play for little kids now without causing much of a problem (I was little when I first saw them). And almost all their horror and sci-fi titles were filmed in black and white.

That’s where Hammer came in.

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