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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.


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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?

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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?

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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. 

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