For centuries, mankind has been fascinated by monsters.
Mysterious, menacing, and more than a little misunderstood, these cryptic creatures continue to capture the imagination hundreds of years after Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker first birthed them to the printed page. This obsession has permanently affixed itself within popular culture, including bringing thrills and chills into toy stores.
From the superbly designed Aurora model kits of the 1960s to the highly collectible Bullmark vinyl kaiju figures of the 1970s, monster-based toys have delighted both kids and collectors for decades. Of all the classic monster toys to terrorize retailers over the last 60 years, perhaps none are as well-known, or as sought after, as those created by Remco in the early 1980s.
I bid you welcome for a look back at the Universal Monsters…
Following the success of its 1970s Energized Superheroes line, Remco entered the next decade looking to capitalize on the popularity of the famed monsters of filmland. Thus, in 1980, the first of its Universal Monsters figures appeared on shelves. Sculpted by frequent Mego collaborator, Ken Sheller, each of the four monsters came packaged in a nice window box adorned with beautiful art courtesy of the talented Chronister. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman made up this initial assortment, each standing 9-inches tall and dressed in cloth clothing.
The figures featured glow-in-the-dark components, as well as an action feature that allowed each of the monsters to grab hold of unsuspecting victims. Looking to further differentiate the line from the more generic offerings available at the time, Remco successfully obtained licensing rights from Universal Pictures. Thus, each figure utilized the classic designs seen in the pre-code black-and-white movies of the ’30s and ’40s. The sole exception was Dracula, whose likeness was tied up at the time in ongoing litigation between both Universal Pictures and the Lugosi estate.
Rounding out the 1980 offering was The Monsterizer. This coveted playset was an ingenious recreation of Frankenstein’s lab table that allowed kids to quickly charge up the monsters’ glow-in-the-dark abilities. Not only was this a terrific item that upped the playability of the line tenfold, but it’s easily one of the coolest playsets of the era. Looking like it was taken out of James Whale’s 1931 masterpiece, The Monsterizer is now the most desirable piece of the original Universal Monsters assortment–with a price tag to match!
The line was a hit and in 1981, two more monsters joined the line in both The Phantom Of The Opera and, my personal favourite, Creature From The Black Lagoon. Produced in much smaller numbers than the first wave of characters, both featured the same action features and cloth costumes as their contemporaries. Their likenesses were once again based on their big-screen counterparts.
Remco offered other surprises that year. These included both the quirky Monsters At Home puppets and the very cool Mini Monsters. As the name suggests, this sublime little series gave us 3.75-inch versions of all the larger-scale monsters in the line. Clearly taking some inspiration from what Kenner was doing with its action figures at the time, Remco’s Mini Monsters featured five points of articulation, while Dracula and The Phantom Of The Opera sported similar vinyl capes to those found on Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, respectively. Shortly after this initial release, Remco upgraded the Mini Monsters with glow-in-the-dark paint. Because these versions didn’t receive as wide a release as their non-glowing counterparts, they are now some of the most desirable Mini Monsters among collectors. A scaled-down version of The Monsterizer was also released. Like its larger sibling, this tiny charging station has become extremely popular with collectors and is now considered to be the rarest piece of the Mini Monsters line.
Completing the assortment was the Mini Monster Play Case — a cardboard playset wrapped in plastic that encapsulates everything that was great about being a kid in the ’80s. With a detailed interior made mostly of vacuform plastic, it featured a number of cardboard doors and hatches that resembled everything from The Mummy’s tomb to Frankenstein’s lab slab. It was one of the more fragile pieces to grace shelf space, but Remco did a great job creating a cost-effective environment meant to further immerse kids within the wondrous world of the Universal Monsters. In fact, the play case was so well received that Remco would repurpose it as part of its Sgt. Rock line the following year.
By 1982, Remco ended the Universal Monsters line and began focusing attention on such intellectual properties as Crystar, The Karate Kid, and Zybots. Still, the Universal Monsters would become some of the most collectible figures of the time. Nowadays, boxed examples of the original 9-inch monsters are fetching upwards of $275 USD on the secondary market, and that’s excluding the much rarer Creature and Phantom figures. Meanwhile, carded examples of the Mini Monsters will set you back close to $180 USD. Oh, and if you’re fortunate enough to track down a Monsterizer or the Mini Monster Play Case, don’t expect to pay less than $350 USD.
Yes, these numbers may be more than a little frightening, but that’s fitting given what they represent: true titans of terror whose legacy is unmatched all these decades later.