They Came from the Crypt: Universal Monsters Toys and Collectibles

While many of the Universal Studios monsters first debuted on screens in the 1940s or earlier, they didn’t reach toy and hobby store shelves until the 1960s. Regardless of the era in which they were produced, Universal Monsters-themed toys are now highly collectible.

Walk into any toy or comic shop nowadays and chances are you’ll find a wide array of monster and horror-themed collectibles for purchase, from bobble-head statues depicting the ravenous zombies of TV’s “The Walking Dead” to “Monster High” fashion dolls to cuddly plush versions of Jason Voorhess and Freddy Krueger from the “Friday the 13th” and “Nightmare on Elm Street” film series. There’s no shortage of horror collectibles currently haunting store shelves.

But lurking alongside the pint-size ghouls and maniacal madmen, you’ll likely find some classic movie monsters collectibles on display as well. Whether it’s Count Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster and his bride, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man or the Creature from the Black Lagoon, these creepy characters have transcended time to remain as popular now as when they began scaring audiences more than 80 years ago.

Portrayed by such genre luminaries as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester, Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., Glenn Strange and Ben Chapman, these classic movie monsters all appeared in films produced by iconic Hollywood studio, Universal. First founded in 1912 by an ambitious German-Jewish émigré named Carl Laemmle, Universal initially made its mark as a prolific producer of low-budget comedies and westerns. However, the studio would occasionally craft more prestigious, bigger-budget fare, and it was with two such productions, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925)—both of which starred Chaney Sr., who was not only an actor, but a master of makeup as well—that Universal would first experience how popular films with a macabre subject matter would be with audiences.

When Laemmle’s son, Carl Laemmle Jr., took over the reins at Universal in 1929, one project he wished to get off the ground was an adaptation of the classic 1897 novel, “Dracula,” by Bram Stoker. Laemmle Jr. wanted Chaney to portray the story’s titular bloodsucker, but the actor’s imminent death left the role open for a Hungarian stage performer who had already played the part on Broadway—Bela Lugosi. With his hypnotic stare, unusual hand gestures and deep, heavy accent, Lugosi helped to make “Dracula” one of the biggest box office hits of 1931, and the actor would forever be associated with the role of the urbane Transylvanian count.

With the huge success of “Dracula,” plans were made to adapt another classic of horror literature: Mary Shelley’s 1818 tale, “Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus.” Starring Boris Karloff as the nameless creation (the character has long been incorrectly referred to by the public as “Frankenstein”) stitched together from various body parts and brought to life by electricity, and Colin Clive as the scientist who creates him, “Frankenstein” (which was also released in 1931) is regarded as one of the best horror films ever made; and the creature—with its flat head, scars, neck electrodes and sickly pallor—is widely considered to be both cinema’s greatest monster character and Universal makeup artist Jack Pierce’s crowning achievement.

Following the even greater financial success of “Frankenstein,” Universal would set to work on numerous other horror films in the 1930s, releasing such classics as “The Mummy” (1932), starring Karloff as Imhotep the Mummy; and “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), which sees an evil scientist named Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) force Henry Frankenstein (Clive) into making a female counterpart (Elsa Lanchester) for Karloff’s Monster. In 1941, the studio created a popular, and tragic new monster character when they released “The Wolf Man,” featuring Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot, who after being attacked by a werewolf, transforms into a half-man, half-wolf creature whenever the moon is full. Throughout the 1940s, Universal would release numerous sequels and “monster rally” films like “House of Frankenstein” (1944), whereby several monster characters would appear together; and the creepy creatures would also appear alongside comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in comedy-horror flicks like “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.”

Perhaps the studio’s last great classic monster character was the Gill Man (portrayed by Ben Chapman on land, and Ricou Browning in water), who appeared in “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) and its follow-ups, “Revenge of the Creature” (1955) and “The Creature Walks Among Us” (1956).

The Appearance of Monster Toys
Unlike western, science-fiction and superhero characters toys, which had all been available since the 1930s, monster-themed collectibles were not produced to coincide with the release of Universal’s horror films. In fact, monster-related toys did not exist until the early 1960s. Some horror-themed comics like “Tales from the Crypt” and “The Vault of Horror,” had been published in the early to mid-1950s, but these were to soon cease publication after a 1954 book titled “Seduction of the Innocent,” by psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, claimed that the comics were a major cause of juvenile delinquency.

At the time, horror films were deemed suitable only for adults, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s when television stations began broadcasting Universal’s monster films (oftentimes introduced by local horror hosts) that a number of children were able to see these films for the first time. Spurred on by the interest generated with the TV airings, publications such as “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and “Castle of Frankenstein” began to arrive on the scene, and it wasn’t long before Universal’s creepy crew of creatures would be merchandised as toys, posters for kids’ bedrooms, spoken-word record LPs, rubber masks, Halloween costumes and more.

In 1961, Aurora began marketing model kits of Universal’s monster characters. Incredibly popular with fans, the kits would be reissued several times over the years.

One of the first Universal Monsters items to be marketed was a 9-inch-tall plastic figural model kit of the Frankenstein Monster, released in 1961. Manufactured by hobby company Aurora Plastics Corporation, the highly detailed kit closely resembled Boris Karloff (as he appeared in “The Bride of Frankenstein”) and came complete with a base and tombstone accessory. Packaged inside a colorful, beautifully illustrated box (with artwork by James Bama), the model would become a bestseller for the company. Interestingly, legend has it that prior to manufacturing the kit, Aurora’s Marketing Director Bill Silverstein had approached psychologists to inquire whether children would suffer any psychological harm from assembling the model.

Aurora’s “Dracula’s Dragster.” This is the Polar Lights reproduction from 1997.

Aurora’s “Wolfman’s Wagon.” This is the Polar Lights reproduction from 1997.

Aurora’s “Frankenstein’s Flivver.” This is the Polar Lights reproduction from 1997.

Following up the success of the Frankenstein Monster kit, Aurora would produce models for the Wolf Man and Dracula in 1962. Over the next few years, various others kits would be released, including the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, Bride of Frankenstein (featuring an elaborate laboratory table base), the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as non-Universal characters like King Kong and Godzilla. A large scale model of the Frankenstein Monster called “Gigantic Frankenstein” was also released by the company, as was a line of highly stylized hot rod vehicles such as “Dracula’s Dragster,” “Wolfman’s Wagon” and “Frankenstein’s Flivver.”

In 1969, Aurora would market its line of figural kits with glow-in the-dark parts. In addition to being in stores, all of the kits were advertised for sale within the pages of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and other monster magazines. When Aurora went out of business in the late 1970s, the kits’ molds were sold off to another model company, Monogram, which would re-release the models several times throughout the 1980s and ’90s. In 1999, Polar Lights reissued several kits in retro-styled 1960s boxes. Original, vintage-era Aurora kits can fetch hundreds of dollars apiece when found in boxed, unbuilt condition, while the latest re-releases can be had for around $25 or so each.

In the early ’60s, spoken-word record LP albums—which were akin to listening to old time radio programs—were gaining in popularity, and in 1963, Wonderland/ AA Records released an LP titled “Famous Monsters Speak!” Comprised of two tales—one about Dracula and the other about Frankenstein’s Monster—the album showcased the voice talents of actor Gabriel Dell (“The Dead End Kids” and “The Bowery Boys” series), along with such creepy sound effects as creaking doors, sinister footsteps and flapping bat wings, and was the perfect record to play with the lights turned off. Featuring striking album jacket artwork of the Count, Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, Mummy and Creature from the Black Lagoon, the LP usually fetches between $20 to $25 today.

This spoken word album, “Famous Monsters Speak!” features stories about Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and was released by Wonderland-AA Records in 1963. Value-$20-$25.

That same year, toy manufacturer Louis Marx and Company, known for its wind-up toys and western, farm and prehistoric animals playsets, released a set of approximately 6-inch tall Universal Monsters figurines. Characters included Frankenstein’s Monster (in the image of Glenn Strange), the Phantom of the Opera, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Wolf Man, Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Mummy. Non-posable, the hard plastic toys included bases with nameplates and were molded in two colors: orange and teal blue, which left some kids painting them as they would model kits.

This hard plastic figurine of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera was released by Louis Marx in 1963.

Also released in 1963 were a series of six Universal Monsters-inspired board games by famed toy manufacturer Hasbro. Called “Monster Mystery” games, there were ones produced for Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Though the games themselves were pretty standard, the game boards and packaging employed gorgeous classic movie monster artwork, which make them highly desirable with fans. When found in complete, near mint condition, the games can command a couple hundred dollars or more apiece.

Other items to be released in 1963 included a set of four puzzles (for the Mummy, Wolf Man, Dracula and Frankenstein Monster) by Jaymar Specialty Company; and a set of four bubble soap dispensers called “Soakys,” from toothpaste and soap manufacturer Colgate-Palmolive. Featuring colorfully gruesomely artwork and sporting names like “Coffin Tomb,” “Midnight Prowl,” “Vampire’s Nest” and “Revenge,” the Jaymar puzzles are now of great interest to collectors and can sell for close to $100 each. The Monster Soaky containers (consisting of the Frankenstein Monster, Mummy, Wolf Man and Creature from the Black Lagoon) were 10-inch-tall hollow plastic figures with heads that could be unscrewed to pour out liquid bath soap. Also desirable with collectors, undamaged containers can sell upwards of $70 apiece; while still-packaged specimens can sell for a couple hundred dollars each. 

In the mid-1960s, mask manufacturer Don Post Studios issued a line of Universal Monsters rubber masks. This vintage ad comes from a 1965 issue of “Monster World” magazine.

In the mid-1960s, Universal’s monsters were the subject of a line of highly detailed rubber masks from Don Post Studios, a popular manufacturer of masks and costumes. Featuring excellent likenesses of Chaney Jr., Karloff, Lugosi, et al., offerings included the Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Mummy, Dracula, the Phantom of the Opera, Mr. Hyde and Creature from the Black Lagoon, as well as such lesser-known Universal science-fiction film characters as a Metaluna Mutant (from “This Island Earth”) and Mole Man (from “The Mole People”). Rubber Wolf Man, Creature and Frankenstein Monster hands (gloves) were also made available. With a price tag of $34 apiece for the masks and $17.50 for the rubber hands, the items were likely far too expensive for the average fan to purchase at the time. Those who were unable to afford the masks, however, were able to gaze upon colorful photos of them in a calendar that was printed by Prestige Publications in 1966.

Come the 1970s, companies like Mego, Azrak-Hamway International, Inc. (AHI) and Lincoln International were all putting out highly detailed 8-inch tall monster action figures with cloth outfits. In 1974, Mego released its “Mad Monster Series” line, featuring figures of Dracula, a werewolf, mummy and Frankenstein monster. But the toys were not based on the Universal designs, and were given vastly different appearances. Lincoln International’s output, which consisted of Dracula, Wolfman, Frankenstein’s Monster, Mummy, Hunchback and Phantom figures, more closely resembled their silver screen counterparts.

Of the three manufacturers, however, only AHI had officially licensed the rights to the characters from Universal. As a result, the company’s “Official World Famous Super Monsters!” line (comprised of Frankenstein’s Monster, Wolf Man, Mummy, Dracula and two different Creature from the Black Lagoon figures) was the closest to how the creatures looked in the films. In addition to the figures, AHI also released a number of nicely sculpted rubber figurines. Of the three lines, the Lincoln International figures are the hardest to find and still-carded specimens can command hundreds, if not thousands of dollars apiece. AHI’s Creature figures are also exceptionally rare and can fetch several hundred dollars each when found in good condition.

In 1975, Aurora released a new series of monster-themed model kits called “Monsters of the Movies,” including this Dracula kit.

In 1975, Aurora released a new series of monster-themed model kits called “Monsters of the Movies.” Comprised of the Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, Creature and Dracula, the kits were smaller in size than the models introduced a decade earlier, and also featured moveable heads and arms. Despite the added bonus of movement, the sculpts on the models were not as nice as previous Aurora offerings and the bases paled in comparison to the earlier kits as well. In addition to the Universal creatures, the company also manufactured models for characters like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Japanese movie monsters Rodan and Ghidrah.

In 1980, Remco released its 3 ¾-inch ‘Mini Monster’ figure line, which featured glow-in-the-dark parts. The set also included the Mummy.

In 1980, Remco Toys marketed a line of 9-inch-tall “Official Universal Studios” monster figures with fabric costumes and glow-in-the-dark hands and faces. Comprised of the usual suspects: Dracula (whose packaging curiously featured an illustration of “Count Yorga” star, Robert Quarry), the Frankenstein Monster, Creature, Mummy, Wolf Man and Phantom, the figures came with a “Monster Crush Grabbing Action” feature. In addition to these, Remco also released a set of finger puppets, as well as a smaller 3 ¾ inch line of action figures in both glow-in-the-dark and non-glow versions. The company also sold a “Monsterizer” lab table and a haunted house playset/carry case to house the action figures.

Other items to be produced during the 1980s included a set of four 8-inch-tall vinyl figures (of Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster. Mummy and Wolf Man) released by Imperial Toy Corporation in 1986; and large sized battery-operated animated Halloween figures of the Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein Monster and Dracula by Telco Creations in 1987.

These Frankenstein Monster and Dracula frame-tray puzzles were released by Western Publishing Co. (under the “Golden” name) in 1991. They were also available in boxed versions.

For the 60th anniversary of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” a slew of new collectibles hit the market in 1991. These included frame-tray puzzles and a coloring book from Golden/Western Publishing Co.; a set of four 10-inch-tall action figures from Placo Toys; several bendable rubber figures from JustToys; and numerous Halloween party favors and decorations, courtesy of Unique Industries Inc.

In 1997, the United States Postal Service issued a series of beautiful looking 32¢ postage stamps of Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in their signature roles.

In 1997, the United States Postal Service issued a series of beautiful looking 32¢ postage stamps of Lon Chaney Sr. and Jr., Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff in their signature roles as the Phantom, Wolf Man, Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy. That same year, Hasbro produced a series of nicely detailed 12-inch-tall figures, complete with fabric clothing, and Burger King restaurants even offered figures of Frankenstein Monster, Wolf Man, Dracula and a water-spewing Creature with their meals.

Since 2000, companies like Sideshow Collectibles, Funko, NECA and Diamond Select have put out a plethora of Universal Monsters-inspired merchandise. Sideshow was one of the first companies to offer discerning fans incredibly detailed, movie accurate figures in 8- and 12-inch sizes, and many of these items are now highly coveted by collectors. In addition to popular mainstays like Dracula and the Wolf Man, the company would also issue figures of characters who had never appeared in toy form before, including actor Henry Hull’s wolf man from “Werewolf of London,” Lon Chaney Jr.’s Larry Talbot and one of the titular creatures from “The Mole People.” Funko would release numerous toys through the years, including bobble-heads, plush doll and hand puppets, and NECA would also produce its own line of highly detailed bobble-head statues. Most recently, Diamond Select has released a number of figures, coin banks and even a line of Mego-styled 8-inch dolls (co-produced with Emcee Toys).

Sideshow Collectibles has released some of the nicest Universal Monsters merchandise ever produced. These highly-detailed Frankenstein Monster and Dracula 12-inch figures were released in 2000 and 2001.

Though the actors who played these memorable characters have all since left us (the exception being “Creature from the Black Lagoon” star Ricou Browning, who is the last surviving monster performer), their creepy creations live on—in films, books, comics and toys. For more than 80 years, the Universal Monsters have thrilled us, and it’s likely they’ll do so for another 80 more.

For, as any horror fan knows, the classic monsters can never die.

James Burrell writes about film, pop culture and collectibles for a variety of publications and online sites, including Rue Morgue and Canuxploitation! A life-long collector of vintage science-fiction, fantasy and monster-themed toys and movie memorabilia, he resides in Toronto, Canada.

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