Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Universal's "Dark Universe" - A Future for Classic Monsters?

If there is one thing which I have come to learn about the film industry as an interested observer, it’s that movies are constantly – constantly – looking at what’s popular and trying to capitalize off of that. Movies are a reflection of culture, and the period in which they were made. Take, for example, the James Bond franchise which has probably changed its tone more than any other franchise in film. The series started out as taut, spy thrillers; series entries like From Russia From Love and the criminally underrated Thunderball owing something to slick spy thrillers like North By Northwest and Charade. By the ‘70s, the series was trying to find new footing and drew upon the Blaxploitation movement for Live and Let Die, and kung-fu films for The Man With the Golden Gun. Later in the decade, after the success of Star Wars, Bond went to space in Moonraker.

That is not to say that the Bond films should be faulted for this – each one has a special place in my heart – and they all managed to be entertaining and exciting on their own. But, the trend has certainly continued today. Movie executives are continuing to follow the money towards box office success and, what has cornered the market today? Superhero films.

Well, to be more precise, Marvel superhero films.

I should say upfront that I am not a big fan of the Marvel franchise. I have seen only a handful of them, to be honest – Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy (Volumes 1 and 2), and Doctor Strange, to be exact – and while each stands on their own as decent (and sometimes above average) films, I have never felt myself compelled to seek out the missing links which forge the epic chain that makes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Today those two words “Cinematic Universe” seem to loom like a great 2001: A Space Odyssey monolith in the public consciousness; films which inhabit the same shared space with characters who can easily meet and interact with each other across movies. It is an interesting and profitable idea, which every major studio in Hollywood is now attempting to cash-in on.  

Curiously, the idea of a shared universe of films is not a new concept. Director Quentin Tarantino has asserted for years that his films exist in two worlds of interconnected characters and histories. But, before him, Universal Studios, producing horror films in the Golden Age of Hollywood, more-or-less created the cinematic universe. Their monsters – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and assorted others – all, it transpired, lived in the same world and, as the studio continued to churn out monster sequel after monster sequel, it became inevitable that their paths would cross. Now, with word that Universal is officially rebooting their monster series to contend with Marvel and DC, I am forced to ask myself two questions: 1) How do I feel about this, and 2) Can this work?

Following an admittedly pretty epic-looking launch trailer (see below), I decided to take to Microsoft Word in an effort to ruminate on those two questions and work some things out for myself. It’ll prove to be a journey for sure, but a fascinating one as we prepare to enter a new world of gods and monsters.


Part 1: How Do I Feel About This?

When two movies buffs are in a room together, the topic of conversation is inevitable. Some time ago, I found myself discussing movies with a friend of mine and the question was posed to me, “What is your favorite film genre?” I cheated and responded, “Thrillers.” But the more I thought about it, and the more that we discussed film together, I discovered that I am the foremost champion of horror films I know. I suppose, in retrospect, this is not a surprising fact. As I have written elsewhere on this blog, at the age of six I was taken to see the 1931 Dracula and that got me interested in not only Universal Monster Movies, but eventually classic film, which broadened my horizons to the medium on a whole. While I am perfectly content to discuss the merits of a drama, a comedy, or (once in a blue moon) a romance, I will find myself in my proper atmosphere when it comes to films which deal with all things that go bump in the night.

So, I have a deep-seeded love for horror films – the Universal movies, especially. Though, today, I am more inclined to revisit and sing the praises of Hammer Studio’s run of horror classics from the ‘50s through the mid-‘70s, the Universal films will also be something very special to me. I can still think back on the thrill which ran through me when I first borrowed House of Frankenstein from the local library on VHS, the excitement which came with watching Son of Dracula for the first time after years of only hearing about the sequel, and how I felt like I had gotten away with something by watching The Black Cat (1934) during a road trip; the plot summary on the box of the VHS told of its climax featuring a black mass and how Boris Karloff had chosen Jaqueline Wells to be the Devil’s bride and my Mother wisely refused to allow me to borrow that one.

When word came that Universal was going to reboot their monster franchise, I think to call my reaction a hesitant one would be most apt. Surely, I thought, this is simply a cash-grab in an effort to copy every other Hollywood studio that are pushing for cinematic universes in the style of Marvel Studios (now owned by media juggernaut Disney). And, following the release of the initial trailer for The Mummy (2017) – which opens on June 9 and will be the first installment in the franchise – I found myself suppressing an audible groan. The trailer had fallen into the mire which seems to be consuming nearly every movie trailer these days: giving away too much of your plot and/or giving away your film’s biggest set-piece, and I was left unimpressed.

But, then something weird happened. The second Mummy trailer was released and, because I have too much of a vested interest in the old Monster movies to not watch, I pulled it up on IMDb and watched as an augmented version of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” began to play over sepia-toned images of an archaeological excavation. And, I actually got excited. Legitimately excited. By the time that I went with my friends to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in theaters and saw that same Mummy trailer play before the film, I actually leaned over to one of them and said, “This looks pretty good.”

Maybe, I figured, I too had fallen under the ancient pharaoh’s curse. More likely, the marketing campaign managed to do its job and win over this stubborn fan. (The inclusion of classic rock in any film trailer cannot hurt my chances of going to see a movie; the first trailer for Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok also played before Guardians and its use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” got me very excited.) But, now, at the time of this writing a little more than two weeks out from The Mummy’s opening, I’m actually looking forward to it.

So, in an attempt to answer the question above: I’ve come to terms with the idea of a “Dark Universe.” It, at least, gives the Universal Monsters a future again; something I daresay that they haven’t really had since the late 1930s. And, the star caliber behind the series so far – Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Javier Bardem – is nothing to sneeze at either. However, the real question is: can the monsters still survive today?

Stakes and sunlight haven’t vanquished Dracula yet and fire, sulfur, floods, and quicksand have yet to destroy the Frankenstein Monster, but can audience’s tastes finally lay the monsters to rest for good?


Part 2: Can This Work?

What differentiates the Marvel Cinematics Universe and the burgeoning DC Cinematic Universe from Universal’s “Dark Universe” is its very subject matter. For all of their tonal differences, both Marvel and DC are making superhero films. While a film like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is worlds away from Guardians of the Galaxy, both films are – at their heart – action-adventure films featuring powerful, heroic characters. The keyword here, I think, is the word heroic. It’s easy to rally beyond the central characters of these cinematic universes because we inherently want to see good triumph over evil when it comes to the kind of popcorn entertainment that these movies are.

By contrast, the Universal Monsters are not heroic. They have taken on the sort of status that heroic characters tend to get and are beloved by fans of all ages, but we cannot forget that the Monsters are, well, Monsters. Dracula drains the blood of his victims to extend his eternal life. Frankenstein’s Monster corners his creator atop a rickety windmill to exact his revenge. The Wolf Man tears out the throats of the unsuspecting townspeople. Luckily, from what we can judge from The Mummy trailers, the Mummy does not appear to be a heroic figure. If anything, she seems like the gold, old-fashioned, bloodthirsty piece-of-work that makes for the best kind of blockbuster movie villains.

The new faces of your nightmares?

This isn’t really a point of concern for me as a Monster movie fan, but it will be something to keep in mind as Universal progresses with this franchise. If horror movie sequels are anything to base a supposition on, then there is nothing to fear for audiences seem to like seeing the same monster/killer/thing return again and again to off as new cast of characters.

What is a point of concern is the tone that these films will adopt. Back when the rumors began to circulate that Universal had intentions of rebooting their Monster franchise, it was said from the get-go that the films would be more “action-adventure based than horror.” It is true: the Universal Monster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s no-longer have the ability to scare audiences today, but reimagining them as adventure stories seems a little wrong. Universal has already seen what an action-adventure take on their films can emerge as: Van Helsing, directed by Stephen Sommers, may have been a nice homage in places to the old Monsters, but its presentation seemed to please no-one (aside from maybe myself: I liked it as a kid and it’s still kind of a guilty pleasure film for me). Van Helsing (2004) currently holds a 23% on Rotten Tomatoes and features such glowing praise as: “There isn’t a single nourishing, non-synthetic sequence in the entire movie. Not a scene. Not a line. Not a look,” “This moronic abomination is not a movie,” and “This is one of the dopiest movies of the year.”

But, maybe Universal has learned from their past mistakes. Dracula Untold (2014) was originally conceived as the jumping-off point for the franchise, but its critical and box office failure scrapped those plans. Perhaps, Universal saw what their first attempt at an action-adventure film based around one of their most famous properties produced and have altered course accordingly. However, even if that is the case, there is one thing which is troublesome about the franchise: forward-thinking.

Usually, I am all for preplanning (when it comes to anything, really), but as it stands, Universal has officially announced five further films to follow 2017’s Mummy movie. The next is a reimaging of Bride of Frankenstein (starring Javier Bardem as the Monster) to be released in 2019 followed by a Creature from the Black Lagoon film, an Invisible Man film (starring Johnny Depp), a Van Helsing film (possibly starring Tom Cruise again), and then a Wolf Man film. While I don’t want to doom the franchise, I feel as if this is a textbook case of putting the wagon in front of the horse.

Part of what made the Marvel universe work was the time it took in crafting each film before culminating in each thread of their superhero tapestry being woven together in The Avengers (2012). When DC tried to copy the Marvel formula for success, they skipped that time ingredient and jumped straight into Batman v. Superman which tried to set up the culminating story all too quickly. They only shot themselves in the foot with Suicide Squad (2016), and I believe have done themselves no favors by slating their Justice League film for November of 2017. I have spent more time than I’d probably care to admit in the past year discussing how DC could have handled their cinematic universe or how they should handle it in the future. (DC people, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and I’d be happy to pass along a few ideas.)

While Universal doesn’t seem intent on trying to get to that culminating film yet – back in the ‘40s they were the “Monster Rally” films of Frankenstein meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula, all of which saw one or more of the studio’s monsters battling it out come the final reel – but the forward planning seems a bit presumptuous. Giving them the benefit of the doubt like I suggested above and thinking that Universal has been fixing their mistakes from the past, the tight schedule which they have given themselves with these releases doesn’t really give them the time to do that sort of thing anymore. For all of the flack I may give Marvel, they do have some sense of story in mind, and they’re not simply rushing ahead churning out movie after movie with little idea where they intend to go.

I’m not afraid to cheer on team Universal though. As I said, I am genuinely looking forward to The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein – oftentimes considered to be the studio’s best Monster movie – seems to be in good hands; director Bill Condon helmed the 1998 biopic Gods and Monsters about Frankenstein director, James Whale (Condon was also that film’s screenwriter and won an Oscar) which suggests that he’s an obvious fan of the material, and his work on other films, particularly Mr. Holmes (2015) is evocative, striking, and moving.

I am left to wonder, though, if these new “Dark Universe” films will have the staying power of their originals. Will some young fan many years down the line be borrowing them from the local library and reveling in them the way I did with the originals so many moons ago?


The original 1932 The Mummy features a striking scene in which Boris Karloff’s Imhotep leads Zita Johann’s Helen to a reflecting pool which swirls with white vapor. Peering into the pool, Imhotep is able to reverse the sands of time and show Helen her past, proving she is the reincarnation of his lost love, Ankh-es-en-Amon.

Oh, how I wish I had a pool such as his now, only one which worked in the opposite direction. One which, when peering through the swirling white vapor shows visions of the future. Though I would want to check out a few other things about my immediate future, if there was time, I’d like to see just how well the “Dark Universe” franchise fares. I wish it only the best.

Hopefully, it will introduce a new audience to not only a new world of gods and monsters, the original one as well. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Best Dracula of Them All?

I submit this piece as an early celebration of International Dracula Day “celebrated” by all those with a predilection for the creepy on May 26 – the publication date of Bram Stoker’s immortal original classic.


I met Dracula when I was six years old.

According to Hollywood lore, before shooting began each day for Universal’s Dracula (1931), Bela Lugosi, who was playing the Count, would stand in front of a full-length mirror (for a vampire uncharacteristically casting a reflection), throw his cape over his shoulder, and bellow at the mirror: “I AM Dracula” in an effort to hypnotize himself into delivering the perfect performance as the vampire. While co-star David Manners attests to this, the story may very well be apocryphal, though mention of it is made in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Whether it’s true or not, Lugosi’s performance as Dracula is one for the ages. Today, it’s impossible not to imagine a tall, dark, Hungarian man in evening wear when one thinks of Dracula. Or simply vampires for that matter.

And, even if Lugosi did not succeed in casting a spell over himself, then certainly on his audiences. Purportedly when the star took the stage in the late 1920s playing the Count for the first time, women swooned and fainted. Nurses were on call armed with smelling salts to attend to those audience members with nervous dispositions, and in doing so; Dracula became a fixture of Broadway in the early days of the Great Depression. A film version was inevitable. Universal Studios – who had made a profit hand-over-fist in the 1920s with their adaptations of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera – bought the rights to both Bram Stoker’s novel and the successful play with the intent of casting “The Man of a Thousand Faces” himself, Lon Chaney, as the eponymous vampire. Chaney died before production could begin and Bela Lugosi stepped in front of the film camera to extend his spell over a whole new audience…

…Myself included. At the age of six, my Mother and I went to a screening of the 1931 classic at the local library as the Halloween season swiftly came upon us. Though I cannot remember every detail of that evening, I’m told many years later that I was enraptured by the film. Dracula (1931) may not hold up today as one of the greatest horror films of all time, but its influence cannot be overestimated. Without it – it is easy to argue – the modern horror film would not exist. Dracula proved to Universal that horror films were truly profitable and soon the Count gave way to Frankenstein’s Monster (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and a myriad of others.

Today, 120 years since the initial publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula continues to have a hold on popular culture. In the wake of Bela Lugosi, countless other Draculas have graced the screen both big and small: Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Louis Jourdan, Gary Oldman, and George Hamilton to name just a few. However, I believe that the finest Dracula film is the oftentimes overlooked 1979 Universal remake starring Frank Langella as Dracula. It is a film version which I believe does not receive the praise it truly deserves, as it may well be the Count’s finest hour on film. I suggest that we take a closer look.


Like Lugosi before him, Frank Langella began the role of Dracula on the stage. The production was a revival of the play from the ‘20s which had been penned by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. Deane’s original, which had opened in England, had enough cheese to fill a French fromagerie - complete with thunder and lightning cues and bats dangling on the ends of fishing poles - but its success was enough to make it cross the pond and, after being polished up by writer and former journalist Balderston, proved to be just as commercially successful in the states.

Langella's Dracula surrounded by Gothic sets designed by
illustrator Edward Gorey

Langella’s performance in the revival was lauded widely at the time. His performance was nominated for a Tony and writer Gregory William Mank writes on his website reflecting on the experience of seeing Langella on Broadway in 1978: “It was amazing to watch Langella’s Count, capering before the Edward Gorey sets, skillfully playing Act I for comedy (to bait the audience), Act II as a mix of comedy and drama (to keep the audience guessing), and Act III as raw, red meat melodrama (which had the audience in near-hysteria).”

The success of the Dracula revival was surely enough to spawn a remake – or, perhaps, a reimagining – of the 1931 classic. I use the word reimagining as the 1979 film has little in common with the Bela Lugosi original or the Deane/Balderston play. True, there are scenes which are lifted from both sources (the confrontation between Dracula and Laurence Olivier’s Van Helsing being the most obvious example and one of the film’s genuine highlights), but for much its run, 1979’s Dracula feels very much like its own entity. Its plot feels original and unpredictable, partially down to the reshuffling of the cast of characters. Lucy is the central figure of this drama. As most ardent Dracula fans now, it was Lucy in the novel and most adaptations who is victimized by Dracula first and turned into a vampire. However, herein it is Mina who befalls that fate. And, to top it all off, Mina is now the daughter of Professor Van Helsing which adds extra gravitas to the vampire hunter’s hunt for the vampire.

To a Dracula purist, one may balk at all these changes. Furthermore, knowing that the plot never sets foot outside of England (Dracula was originally a sweeping novel beginning and ending in continental Europe), is set nearly a decade into the twentieth century, and knowing that the film features a sub-title proclaiming it to be a love story may very well put fans of the Count off of this film. However, for all its cosmetic changes to the plot and characters of the original, Dracula remains a fascinating film to watch. The very nature of its reorganized cast of characters and storyline lends the film an air of unpredictability which even some of the other finest Dracula films cannot avoid. Hammer’s 1958 Dracula starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee may have dispensed with its source material almost from the word go, but throughout the film one never doubts the idea that good will triumph over evil and Dracula will be vanquished. Dracula ’79 casts doubt upon the very essence of the story; something which cannot be said for many adaptations of the generations-old tale.

And, to address that point about the film being a love story, it’s hardly true. Though it’s obvious that Kate Nelligan’s Lucy is slowly falling for Langella’s Dracula, it is hard to sympathize with the Count. He never becomes a pathetic, sad figure in a way which robs him of his inherent scariness and evil. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for all its amazing in-camera special effects, costumes, and occasional bits of inspired acting, is guilty of this for sure; Dracula is supposed to be scary and by turning him into a romantic figure, he is robbed of what makes him so terrifying. Langella’s Dracula is quietly evil and, to be frank, his performance is liable to send a shiver or two up and down your spine.

Laurence Olivier as Prof. Van Helsing

The supporting cast helps to round out the film in no small measure and support Langella all the way through. Of special note is Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Though I am biased by my admiration for all things even tangentially-related to Peter Cushing, I assert it as a fact that Cushing’s Van Helsing is the finest ever committed to screen. But, Olivier puts his own fascinating spin on the character. His sensitive, sad nature is at times quite brilliant, and the scene in which he is confronted by his vampirized daughter is both heartbreaking and scary all-at-once.

To provide some comic relief is Donald Pleasance as a sweets-chewing Dr. Seward, but Pleasance – the brilliant actor that he is – never allows his comic bits of business to overwhelm his character. As mentioned above, Kate Nelligan shines as Lucy. Her close-up in the film’s final shot is chilling in its ambiguity. (Oh, and eagle-eyed Doctor Who fans will spot Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy as the asylum attendant, Walter.)

The cast on a whole does a brilliant job of elevating the story from what – at its heart, like the original Deane play, is a rather cheesy story – to being something with some depth and intrigue. As mentioned above, the scene of the vampire Mina is genuinely frightening even today, and the film’s finale is shocking in both its bold plot decisions, but for the open-ended nature of the conclusion. I would be doing anyone who has not seen the film a disservice by speaking about it more.

And, like any film which is scored by John Williams, the film’s score is fantastic. Its central theme is surely one of Williams’ most underrated compositions.


Even today, opinion is still divided on 1979’s Dracula. Roger Ebert spoke to the film’s elegance and how it “restores the character to the purity of its first film appearances,” but many have written the film off for some of its more dated aspects (and it is true – though it objectively looks good, there is little use in defending the “vampire wedding” scene as designed by James Bond title-sequence guru, Maurice Binder), and for Langella’s subtle Dracula.

While I think that the film on a whole is perhaps not the classical milestone of the Hammer Dracula film, or perhaps even Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is an underrated gem to be sure. It’s a Dracula film which is interested in more than just fangs, stakes, and garlic wreaths. It’s a Dracula film with a brain and a heart.

It’s a film which proves that Dracula shall continue to be able to cast a spell over me. 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

300 Words on "The Player" (1992)

There have been many movies which have satirized the oftentimes corrupt and corporate nature of Hollywood. Yet, few have done so with the same pitch-black, bone-dry comedy as 1992’s The Player; part The Big Sleep, part Sunset Boulevard, the result is a film which is fascinating to watch. The Player, though advertised as a comedy, is not a laugh-out-loud movie experience. Its comedy is subtle and not always broadly spelled out. The film’s funniest moments come in the scenes where outrageously bad movie pitches are being sold to executives with the straightest of faces by movie writers. These vignettes are truly the heart of The Player and, curiously, I found myself more interested in the film’s depiction of the studio-system movie-making machine than I was in the movie’s central mystery.

The Player is able to pull this off by being so extremely self-aware. Its final minutes border on the meta and, throughout, it feels as though everyone involved had their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks. The movie opens, too, with one of the most beautifully-executed long-takes I have ever seen; complete with references to Rope (1948) and Orson Welles’ similar long take in Touch of Evil. The Player, at once, paints a picture of nearly everything that is great about movies, and nearly everything that is bad about movies.

Today, it seems that the message of The Player is more relevant than ever before, and the moment in which Tim Robbin’s movie exec off-handedly proposes remaking the Italian arthouse film, The Bicycle Thief, feels so incredibly real, it hurts. The Player is a cautionary tale about the nature of artistic integrity and inspiration; a movie which is not afraid to both pay homage to and poke fun at the institution of film. It’s a strange little movie, but it got me thinking, which surely separates The Player from the type of film which it fantastically parodies. 

Monday, 15 May 2017

300 Words on "Panic Room" (2002)

If there is one type of movie which I really enjoy it’s the “claustrophobic thriller.” From Hitchcock’s Rope to Wait Until Dark to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, each film is wildly different, but are similarly marked by their small casts and confined settings. Each film sucks me into the tension and palpable suspense and make for edge-of-your-seat viewing. David Fincher’s 2002 Panic Room is a film of this distinctive sub-genre and surely ranks as one of the best.

Panic Room takes the idea of this kind of thriller and beautifully executes it in a stylish, thoroughly modern way. The cinematography is, at times, simply breathtaking; panning through the walls and floorboards of the New York City brownstone which serves as the film’s main setting. This kind of opulence makes Panic Room feel rich and different; a film which uses the technology at its disposal to only heighten the tension and suspense and, for that, the movie should be applauded.

If it were only for its ingenious use of the camera, Panic Room could be put down as a triumph of style over substance, but its cast – headed by Jodi Foster, Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto, and Kristen Stewart (showing more emotion on screen than ever)  - add to the film in no small measure. It’s the engaging performances from Foster and Stewart which help us to identify with their characters and make clear just what a truly terrifying situation they are in and help make Panic Room’s arguably over-the-top final act a bit easier to swallow.

While, to me, Wait Until Dark will forever be the finest example of this type of thriller, Panic Room comes close in achieving the same sense of claustrophobia and sheer terror which the 1967 film reached, and there were times when it felt as if Panic Room was deliberately paying homage to its predecessor. For edge-of-your-seat entertainment, Panic Room is surely a fine example. 

Friday, 12 May 2017

300 Words on "Halloween: H2O" (1998)

As I have made clear elsewhere, Halloween is, I believe, one of the finest – if not the best – horror films ever made. Its string of sequels started out as complimentary to the original, but soon found themselves muddled with plotless plot threads which did nothing but distance themselves from the original masterpiece. Twenty years after the release of the franchise’s first installment, Halloween: H2O did much to bring the series back to what made it so fundamentally good.

To call Halloween H2O a film which is on par with the original is a wild overstatement, but the movie should be lauded for the obvious care and attention which went into both paying homage to and building upon the original Halloween. Jamie Lee Curtis is back in the central role of Laurie Strode and her performance is excellent. In fact, a large percentage of the film is devoted to her alone as she copes with the trauma which she has been living with for so many years.

The callbacks to the first Halloween also help enliven the film too. To my mind, however, the film’s best self-aware bit is the cameo by Janet Leigh as Norma, Laurie’s secretary, in a scene which pays homage to Psycho as much as it does John Carpenter’s slasher. But, beyond simply putting a new spin on elements of the first movie, Halloween H2O feels more like the original; the suspense and tension are palpable and some of the set-pieces are able to conjure up the same terror which the first movie generated effortlessly.

Halloween H2O is no masterpiece of horror cinema; it is still a flawed film, to be sure, but the obvious attention to detail and love for the source material which went into making the movie should most certainly be applauded. In the legacy of Halloween films, Halloween H2O is the definitive final chapter.