Batman, Superman and Captain America were among the superheroes that made their screen debuts in film serials. The superhero serials borrowed heavily from pulp stories, radio shows and comic magazines, and in turn helped lay many of the foundations for future SF movies. Here we take a look at the origins and history of the most influential superhero serials of the thirties and forties.
Universal’s House of Frankenstein sees Boris Karloff as a mad scientist hiring Dracula as a hit man, attempting to cure the Wolf Man and restart the Frankenstein monster. All while J. Carrol Naish’s hunchback is trying to bonk a gypsy girl who’s in love with the werewolf. While the nutty story can be entertaining, this 1944 film’s downfall is its contrived plot and structure. 4/10
Universal’s first monster mashup, made in 1943, is an audience divider. Some enjoy it as a brainless schlockfest, while others find the denigration of the Frankenstein franchise painful to watch. Arguably miscast from the start as the Frankenstein monster, Bela Lugosi saw all his lines cut in the editing room. 4/10
The magic is all but gone from the fourth Universal Frankenstein picture, made in 1942. Although well-paced and entertaining, the film stumbles on a ridiculous, self-contradictory script, a low budget and a Lon Chaney Jr. who isn’t up to the task of replacing Boris Karloff as the monster. 5/10
Lionel Atwill and his hardy troop of bit-part players and slumming has-beens bravely fight their way through an inane and disjointed script on a shoestring budget. Director Joseph H. Lewis adds touches of class to this odd mad scientist/South Seas adventure horror screwball comedy. 3/10
A quick Universal cheapo from 1941, this was the first of Lon Chaney Jr.’s monster movies, and one of his best. Lionel Atwill shines as the mad doctor who pumps Chaney full of electricity, until he becomes a mindless, glow-in-the-dark monster who kills with a touch. 6/10
Basil Rathbone is the son of Frankenstein who moves back to his father’s castle, only to find Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi hiding in the basement. The latter gives what is perhaps the performance of his lifetime in this visually stunning movie, which unfortunately treats Karloff’s classic monster with little respect. 7/10