Please Don’t Turn the Universal Monsters Into Superheroes
Few cinematic legacies are as strong as that of the Universal Monsters, whose films have spent the past 80 years aging from B-movies into genre masterpieces. It's a testament to everyone who had a hand in 'Dracula' and 'Fankenstein' that the common perception of these characters comes not from their original literary origins, but from the iconic performances of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The cultural permeation of films like 'The Wolf Man' and 'The Mummy' cannot be overstated. These aren't just movies; they're the foundation of an entire genre, the roots of an entire cinematic language. These aren't just great movies -- they're vital components of human culture, touchstones whose reverberations can still be felt today.
And Universal has no idea what to do with them.
To their credit, Universal has tried to honor this legacy. They're aware that their studio was built on the success of their horror productions from the '30s and '40s and they're aware that movie fans have strong, passionate feelings about these movies and these characters. Universal's dedication to these characters is admirable. They've bent over backwards to honor them, culminating in an truly exceptional Blu-ray box set released in 2012. More than most movie studios, Universal has expressed a keen awareness of their history and they have fought to preserve it.
That had to be said first because things are about to get negative and this isn't a "Let's Bash Universal!" thing. This is a "Let's Hope Universal Knows What the Hell They're Doing" thing. Because right now, their plan to revive their monsters seems scary in all of the wrong ways.
Like every studio in Hollywood, Universal is watching the success of Marvel and wondering how to make that expanded-universe model work for them. Their solution: build a monsters movie universe, where the likes of Frankenstein's monster, Dracula and the Wolf Man have their own movies, but have the chance to bump into each other. On the surface, it's a concept that doesn't fly in the face of these characters. After all, Universal wasn't shy about pitting these guys against each other in sequels. After all, who doesn't want to see who will be victorious in a battle to the death between two horror icons? Hell, they weren't afraid to toss a whole bunch of their most famous characters into a slapstick comedy like 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.' The monsters are malleable enough to bounce between various tones with ease.
But here's the thing about a goofy comedy like 'Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein': it still treats these characters with utmost respect and lets them be genuinely threatening toward the bumbling heroes. Frankenstein's monster emerges from the film as an actual menace who actually puts Abbott and Costello in danger. The comedy comes from the goofballs reacting to something that wants to kill them.
That brings us to 'Dracula Untold,' which has been positioned as a prologue of sorts to the studio's new monster movies and it fails that 'Abbott and Costello' test. Rather than stay true to the core of fiction's most famous vampire, the film twists him into something unrecognizable. It makes him a good guy cursed with unimaginable powers who uses his new abilities to save his family and kill the bad guys. In other words, he's a superhero. There's a reason 'Dracula Untold' mimicked the marketing for 'Batman Begins' -- it's literally 'Dracula Begins,' following every beat of Christopher Nolan's first comic book movie without the same sense of skill or craft.
It's a shame because the dashing-but-menacing Luke Evans would make a great Dracula in the proper context. And by proper context, I mean "horror movie." If 'Dracula Untold' is any indication of what Universal is doing with their monsters, prepare to see them exit the horror genre altogether and leap into the realm of CGI-fueled superhero spectacles. Take a moment to imagine an Universal Monsters 'Avengers,' where the Wolf Man and Frankenstein's monster and the rest have a team up to fight a bigger villain. Try not to barf too much.
On paper, this is a course that makes financial sense to Universal. After all, Joe Johnston's remake of 'The Wolf Man' went out of its way to stay true to the tone and ideas of the original film and look how that turned out. Never mind the legendarily troubled production and last-minute director change. In the mind of the people with the money, the films was a flop, period. Similarly, look at the long slow death of the revived 'Mummy' franchise. Sure, those movies were blockbuster extravaganzas chock-full of action and mayhem, but they weren't afraid to treat the title character as a monster and villain. The action was still built around a horror core.
Attempting to honor the monsters in a modern context has backfired before. 'Van Helsing' was created with the best of intentions and marketed as a pulpy adventure that honors the Universal legacy and we all know how that turned out. That's why it's understandable that Universal wants to resurrect these characters in a manner that's already proven wildly popular. We get it.
But man, it's enough to get any movie fan nervous. For all we know, Alex Kurtzman's upcoming reboot of 'The Mummy' will steer as far away from the tone of 'Dracula Untold' as humanly possible and treat the title character as a tragic monster in the most traditional way. For all we know, Universal is actually planning to put hundreds of millions of dollars into a series of actual horror movies, where the main characters aren't one step away from wearing capes. Lavish, handsomely produced horror movies are a rarity these days. In the age of low-budget productions filmed with consumer cameras and released as found footage, Universal has the chance to remind us that movies like 'The Shining' and 'The Birds' used to get made. Horror can be produced on a grand scale. Horror can be classy!
The original Universal Monster movies weren't produced on a grand scale. They were small, cheapie films produced in a hurry. And yet, they're perfect for this kind of revival. These aren't just monsters, but actual characters. The monsters are at their best not when they're racking up body counts, but when they're struggling with their identities and their actions. Frankenstein's monster is burnt into our memory because he's a tragic figure who stumbles into violence and cruelty. The Wolf Man is so powerful because he so desperately wants to not be a killer. Dracula is compelling because he's as charming as he is dangerous. These are characters with depth who are rich in history. They can easily shoulder a $100 million movie.
That is, as long as the people involved understand them and right now, that's the big concern. 'Dracula Untold' is a lot of things, but frightening and tragic (the two words most associated with Universal horror) are not among them. Alex Kurtzman has plenty of experience writing and producing popular films and TV shows, but his particular brand of action-packed bombast doesn't feel right for a proper horror take on 'The Mummy.' So yeah, fans have a reason to be wary of whatever Universal is cooking up.
A few weeks ago, Universal announced that a mystery monster movie will arrive in 2017, hot on the heels of 2016's 'The Mummy.' They're doubling down on this shared universe and it wouldn't be surprising to see them ape the Marvel model in every possible way, announcing films years in advance and filling each of them with references to the others. Hopefully, the only thing they won't borrow from Marvel is their tone. For that, they should look to their past.