The Universal Monsters have enjoyed a very interesting history. Debuting in the 1930’s and concluding its run in the 1950’s, the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man saw a resurgence of interest during the 60’s. But it wouldn’t be for another 30 years that they’d be reintroduced after interest died out sometime after the first attempts to revive interest in them.
If it wasn’t for Universal and the numerous marketing attempts to re-brand and reintroduce the Universal Monsters to audiences old and new, it’s very possible that many of the great films that starred Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff would have been forgotten over time. If it wasn’t for the great pioneering efforts of people like Forrest J Ackerman, the editor of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”, the Universal Monsters may not have had as prolific an impact on pop-culture, along with being as socially relevant as they were and still are. We love the Universal Monsters here at UMU; that goes without saying, and it’s fascinating to look at the three particular periods that they existed in – The 60’s, The 90’s, and The 2010’s+. We’ve previously written about the 60’s in our look at the Aurora models*, but we’ve yet to take a look at the 90’s. This was a very interesting time as it was also, personally, my entry point into this wonderful and fantastical universe that had existed in cinema nearly 60 years before I was born. This is UMU’s look at the 90’s resurgence of Universal Monsters!
The early 90’s saw the Universal Monsters return in a big way. After being in hibernation after interest declined in them as the baby boomers generation grew older, monsters seemed fit to make a comeback with a new generation growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The 90’s were a time that some debate was when toys and collectibles were at an all time high in regards to variety being offered to appeal to all interests, whereas others believe the 90’s were just about “recycling and re-inventing everything that has already come and gone before.” Despite the cynicism of toy merchandising at the time, it was my generation that was introduced to the Universal Monsters through this resurgence and at a perfect age, no less. Also for those that had previously grown past the Universal Monsters, it was now a perfect age for them as it was pure nostalgia and a reminder of the very icons they once loved.
It was in the early 90’s that Universal began releasing their classic monsters on VHS. It was MCA Universal that released all of the classics and with their engaging box art, these films were soon welcomed into the homes of new fans and of those that grew up with them. It was soon after the release of the Universal Monsters on video that the “merchandising frenzy” for the characters like Dracula and Frankenstein began.
It’s difficult to say what exactly came first as I seem to recall the Universal Monsters just already being there in retail shops all over; thanks to a terrific entry at 90’s Wing, we have a better idea as to the time frame of merchandise being released and when.
One of the first moments for the Universal Monsters in the 90’s was a generic set of toys by Placo. Similar to what Imperial produced in the 90’s, Placo’s line of toys could hardly be considered just that as they were more collectible based well ahead of the sincere collecting craze. There were only four figures made – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, and The Mummy; these were available in 1991. They don’t sell for all that much now, but are pretty rare as with many of the niche items that released at this time
Following Placo’s “Universal Studios Monsters,” a small company named Telco started making their own Universal Monsters based toys in 1993 and 1994. Creating a series of large motion-ettes, Telco released six monsters.
- Dracula (1993)
- The Wolf Man (1993)
- Creature from the Black Lagoon (1993)
- Frankenstein (1994)
- Bride of Frankenstein (1994)
- The Mummy (1994)
There were 17″ and 21″ inch versions, with all of them being considered “Halloween Display Figures” as opposed to toys/action figures. Motion-operated, Telco’s Universal Monsters featured flashing eyes, double arm movement, a turning head, and “horror sound.”
There were several other oddities during the early 90’s, but my favorites easily were the Universal Monsters tie-ins with soda, cookies, and chips.
It was the mid 90’s that saw the Universal Monsters adorn Pepsi products, Nabisco cookies, and Doritos. It was the presentation of the Universal Monsters in a more fun way that I remember catching my attention. The Monster Cookies were my favorite and the artwork for the monsters at this time have become almost as iconic as the classic imagery used to promote them.
According to the blog, Middle Earth Collectibles:
The early 90s Universal Monster merchandise wasn’t a complete failure, though it was far from a success. It’s best to view the early 90s attempts as a testing ground for some of the far better products that Universal released in the late 90s.
A major highlight for Universal Monsters fans in the 90’s was most certainly when Sideshow began releasing highly detailed and authentic collectibles based off of the films in 1999. Sometime before 1999 was, perhaps, the most iconic and exciting moment in Universal Monsters history – the 1997 issued U.S.A. postal stamps.
The postal stamps for the Universal Monsters made their first debut at an event in Universal Studios Hollywood. After that, they had their proper launch on October 30th. Featuring Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. these “classic movie monsters” stamps were a major hit. Artist Thomas Blackshear was the painter behind each monster stamp and these have become quite the collectible to own. There were also eleven trading cards released in conjunction with the stamps to promote not only the actors, but their respective characters as well.
The 90’s were a fun time for the Universal Monsters and it really was the last era where the likes of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and others were so “universal.” This was a great time for fans old and new. When The Mummy releases June 2017, it will have been nearly 30 years from this time in Universal Monsters history. Is it possible we’ll see the monsters return in as big a way? Make sure to let us know your comments below and stay tuned for more on the Universal Monsters merchandise.
*For more on the Universal Monsters in the 60’s, particularly the Aurora models, you could check out “How To Make A Monster” right here on UMU.
We did not forget about some of the other great 90’s monsters memorabilia like Monster Pogs and the Burger King toys. Stay tuned for Rob of Alternative Mindz article on that here at Universal Monsters Universe.
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)