Dracula. Frankenstein. The Wolf Man.
From 1931 to 1945 these names struck fear into the hearts of moviegoers. Through fourteen years and eleven movies, this Triumvirate of Terror, and the artists that brought them to life, created some of the most lasting moments and iconic images in cinematic history. Throw in some wonderful supporting franchises in the forms of The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and you have the most prestigious horror dynasty in the brief history of film and a studio, Universal, unofficially known as “The House That Horror Built”. Now, almost a century after their terrifying visages first graced the silver screen, these monsters are set to be resurrected for a new generation. Universal Studios, the studio that birthed the term “monster movie”, is retooling their favorite ghouls in what will come to be known as the Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe.
If only the studio was giving us a reason to care.
The UMCU kicked off with last years “Dracula Untold”, an epic origin story of the title character and the unofficial leader of the Universal monsters. I can’t judge the film on its merits as I have not seen it. But neither did anyone else, and that says enough. The film came out a year ago and still has yet to break even on its “modest” $70 million dollar budget, which means two things: 1) the sweeping battle scenes and historical leanings indicated by the trailer didn’t appeal to fans of the character and mythos or casual moviegoers, and 2) those that did see it weren’t impressed enough to provide the word of mouth needed for the movie to gain traction. Whether it was one or both of these attributes that led to the film’s lack of success, it is obvious that the studio that first brought the character into the public consciousness missed the mark. Dracula is one of the most recreated characters in the history of film, a household name, and for Universal to drop the ball with arguably their biggest baddie puts them in a position where they have to hit it out of the park from here on out. Sadly, their job is only going to get harder moving forward.
At the dawn of the new millennium Universal successfully rebooted the Mummy franchise, only to watch it disintegrate as it traded in the hypnotic undertones and dark romance of the original for CGI action pieces and a spin-off that confused the mythology to the point that it hit rock bottom ( J ). In 2010 the studio attempted to reboot another franchise with Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, a film that, while visually stunning and faithful to the original, lacked any suspense outside of me worrying that the melodrama I was watching would never end. What would have been a cornerstone of the UMCU and one of its strongest supporting characters are now afflicted with Spiderman Syndrome, in dire need of rebuilding far too soon after their previous outings. Each film begs an additional problematic question: how does the Mummy replicate the success of its 1999 counterpart while getting back to the mythology that makes it so interesting in the first place, and how does the Wolfman stick to the mythology and visual grandeur that was presented by Mr. Johnston and company, but bring back the suspense and romance that make the tragedy of Lawrence Talbot so compelling? The studio has two and four years respectively to answer those questions. I hope to be surprised, but I’m not holding my breath.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle Universal will have to face is the connective tissue to the UMCU: Van Helsing. The very mention of the name chills me to the bone, but only because I remember the abomination that Hugh Jackman allowed himself to be party to and the fear that the UMCU may end up becoming the same hot monster mess which that 2004 film became. (In case you are wondering – yes, Van Helsing was released by Universal Studios.)To further complicate this issue, Van Helsing will likely be the protagonist of these films. Normally this would be fine. However, we are dealing with classic characters that, quite frankly, a lot of horror aficionados like to cheer for. For those of us who still have the memory of Hugh Jackman strolling around Transylvania in a ridiculous coat with ridiculous weapons burned into our brains, the urge to root for the bad guys will be even stronger.
All is not lost, but Universal did not follow Marvel’s formula and start with one of their second tier stars so that they could work their way up the ladder to Captain America. The started with their most recognizable villain, and now they are left with broken franchises to piece together their universe of monsters. If the head honchos at Universal are smart, they will turn to one of their supporting characters next – I’d recommend the Invisible Man – and spend the next three years building up to what will inevitably be the monster mash where all the baddies team up. Or fight each other. Who knows? Let’s just hope it’s a little less Van Helsing and a little more Monster Squad.
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Todd doesn’t like anything and doesn’t care what you think about it.
SPRATTE IS A SPAZ AND LIKES EVERYTHING BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS AWESOOOOME! Spratte also REALLLLY likes coffee. And Mountain Dew. And he mourns for the generations that will never fully understand the experience of watching Saturday morning cartoons.
Aaron has a degree in Theatre Arts from the University of Northern Colorado and likes to spend his free time writing the occasional sad bastard play. Because, like Whedon and Moffet, your tears give him strength.
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