By Alex Secker.
How Universal’s Dark Universe keeps failing and how maybe we can fix it.
Let’s get this out the way first. For all my complaining about the lack of original ideas, the slew of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and all other kinds of “let’s just make the same film over again” excuses, when Universal announced their plans for a Dark Universe based upon the Universal Classic Monsters I was, well, let’s say I was on board. In the age of Marvel, where cinematic universes are the one thing everyone is trying to push, the idea of a traditional style, almost Gothic horror monster movie universe featuring beloved characters as iconic and memorable as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster and Lon Chaney Jr’s The Wolf Man seemed, to me at least, like something the world needed.
I could picture it in my mind. A return to period settings, visual effects that would blow people away and these almost operatic stories being told with the technology and skill available today. And what’s more, because the films are so iconic and so beloved, it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine these new versions being able to attract the height of talent. Oscar winners, both in front of and behind the camera, real artists with a unique vision and a genuine love for the genre. How could this go wrong? Sure, horror isn’t likely to ever win an Oscar these days (not unless it’s about hot button issues anyway – still, I do love Get Out), but that wouldn’t be what this universe is about it.
It would be about frightening people, about engaging with an audience and bringing some of cinemas most important and influential characters to modern audiences. It could be fantastic. It could be brilliant. It could be literally anything.
And then Dracula: Untold happened.
So, Dracula: Untold is abysmal. I don’t like throwing that word around, but it is. The people who made it (I couldn’t even tell you who they were and I’m not going to bother to take the ten seconds out it would take to look it up) either didn’t understand what made the character so good – and so iconic – or they just didn’t like horror. Either way, it was a train wreck. A perfect missed opportunity to kick start something phenomenal. You might like Dracula: Untold, and if you do, I’m sorry, but I don’t. It’s an appallingly written, acted, shot, produced and edited film with little to no care put into and – and this is the biggest sin any movie can commit in my opinion – it’s boring.
My God it’s so bloody boring. Even if for some reason I’d wanted a cinematic universe based on terrifying characters from some of the most important and, yes, scary works of… well, all of history to be a flipping action franchise (and I don’t, to be clear, why would anyone want that? That’s bonkers!) Dracula: Untold certainly wasn’t selling me further adventures in that universe. Honestly, it was a struggle not to fall asleep.
Which is why it made sense when, after the underperformance of that atrocious mess, Universal announced their plans to reboot the franchise. I figured, okay, you’ve learned from your mistake and you’re going to remedy it. Fine. Let’s go for it.
Only… they didn’t, did they?
I don’t know who at Universal watched the poor performance of Dracula: Untold and decided the reason people weren’t connecting with their proposed Classic Monster Universe was because it didn’t have enough Tom Cruise, but that person deserves to be fired… out of a canon… into the sun.
(On a side not here, I actually do know who was responsible for Mummy: Impossible, and it’s Alex Kurtzman. Of course it’s Alex Kurtzman, he’s the man I recognise as “Oh, that guy who has no understanding of any franchise he touches!” He’s the man who took Star Trek, the brilliant space exploration show with deep ideas and thoughtful, diplomatic solutions to problems that served as real world parallels, and turned it into JJ Abrams’ Star Wars demo reel (that one still makes me mad)! Seriously, let’s keep this guy away from beloved franchises, shall we, Hollywood?)
Anyway, needless to say The Mummy, the 2017 outing starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt (haha) basically repeats all of the issues Dracula: Untold had, only now it does it on a bigger scale. And the thing is, I really like the Mission: Impossible films, it’s just I thought movies based on horror concepts were supposed to have… y’know, horror in them. And even if you did enjoy The Mummy for what it is, a cheesy action movie with some really clunky world building and absolutely zero interest in telling a coherent story, it’s a terrible attempt to build an entire cinematic universe anyway!
No! I do not care about Russel Crowe’s weird version of Dr Jekyll and his S.H.I.E.L.D for monsters. I just don’t. Sorry. And why is this present day? It seems so blatantly obvious that these monsters only really work in the period setting that this simple fact infuriates me more than anything else. And what’s worse the movie seems to realise this too, at several points going out of its way to make things look and feel more like a period film. What the hell is going on? Okay, so I’ve ranted enough about the current state of the Dark Universe. It’s future now hangs seemingly in the balance. There’s talk of handing over the rights to the characters to Blumhouse, which could work I suppose, I certainly think they have a more appropriate budget, but I fear they’ll wind up turning them into jump scare ghost train rides, and they’ll probably miss the period bit out as well, and I really feel like that’s important.
But I have another suggestion. One that I feel is far more fitting and hits all the right notes, and it starts way back in 1999 with Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy. Remember that film? Of course you do. It was awesome. A sort of Indiana Jones take on the mythos of the mummy starring Brendan Fraser, Rahcel Weisz and John Hannah, The Mummy 1999 managed to do what very few films have ever managed to do. It managed to take what made the original character work and update it for a modern audience. Sure, it’s got a lot of action, and it’s got a lot of jokes, but it’s also a lot of fun, and I can remember being genuinely frightened by Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep as a kid.
You see, the thing about Sommer’s movie is that it understood that what makes something scary isn’t the thing itself, it’s the characters it threatens. We liked Rick O’Connell and Evelyn Carnahan, we enjoyed spending time with them. We even liked the “bad” characters, like Beni, who, while being a terrible slimeball of a person, was fun to watch. Seeing these guys in peril meant that the more scary scenes became more scary. It meant that the film could be a little bit creepy, or a little bit gory, and it meant that we engaged. The Mummy 1999 was a hit. In fact, it was such a hit it’s spawned two sequels and five (count them, five!) spin-offs. And you know what? Not a single one of them is any good.
As a kid I adored The Mummy Returns, but as an adult I watch it and roll my eyes. Terrible child actor. Check. Appalling CG. Check. Ridiculously bloated and stupid plot? Check. It’s not scary in the slightest, it’s stupid and it’s repetitive. It feels like the very definition of a bigger equals better mentality on sequels, and it’s just not very good. The less we can say about The Scorpion King movies the better, so we’ll try to get this out the way quick. The issue with The Scorpion King movies is easy to explain. The character sucked when he was introduced in Returns, and he was poorly written then. He becomes worse when we realise he’s just a poorly written, generic action hero in his own movie, and the sequels don’t even have the benefit of Dwayne Johnson, so it’s not hard to see what went wrong.
But why did Returns go so bad?
Well, it’s my opinion that a lot of the issues with Returns stem from the “been there, done that” feel of most of the plot. We get a lot of repeat sequences, returning characters and a whole lot of unnecessary back-story. While The Mummy 1999 kept it simple, drawing upon the synopsis we all already know (namely a curse and a mummy’s tomb), the sequel complicates things, tries to be bigger and winds up falling flat. It introduces new elements that the movie really doesn’t need, and it relies heavily on the return of Imhotep as the big bad.
See, what Returns misses is exactly what The Mummy 1999 understood; it was never really about the monster. We all know the monster. We’ve seen it a thousand times before in films and TV shows and books. The monster is of course what we came to see first time round, but we stayed for the characters. We stayed for Rick and Evelyn and Jonathan.
Take a look at any horror franchise. Yeah, people love the monster. People love their Freddie and their Jason. But how often do you hear people get genuinely excited over the prospect of Laurie Strode returning to the Halloween franchise? We come for the monster, we stay for the characters.
And when it comes to The Mummy Returns, we already saw the mummy last time around.
So, here’s my pitch.
Universal, you want to kick start a classic monsters universe? Well, ignoring The Mummy Returns (and definitely ignore Dragon Emperor or whatever it was called) let’s make a sequel to Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy, only this time, instead of it being about Rick and Evelyn and Jonathan squaring off against Imhotep or some other mummy, let’s see how they fend against Dracula.
Think about it for a second. It’s already a period piece, so we’ve got the style covered. Move the characters over to London, have them go to investigate some murders or some bollocks, it really doesn’t matter. Maybe some guy contacts them and says “I heard you defeated a mummy! We could really use some guys like you on our team”. Maybe that guy turns out to be Van Helsing, and then we have the O’Connells off to London to square off against Dracula. If that goes well move them up to the moors of Yorkshire and have them fight a Werewolf. Maybe next they come up against The Invisible Man. Who knows? Who cares? It doesn’t matter, the point is, the idea of taking Rick O’Connell and the gang and pitting them against other classic Universal monsters feels to me like a sorely missed opportunity.
With each movie you could jump into the visual style required for each monster. You could introduce elements of each of the monsters classic tales, just like Sommers did with The Mummy, and before you know it – BOOM! – movie universe, right? You want to do a Van Helsing spin-off, there you go, you’ve got a Van Helsing. You want to make a Frankenstein movie? Well, just have the O’Connells meet Dr Frankenstein at some point within the context of a story and there you go, you’ve got a Dr Frankenstein. It really doesn’t matter; the point is it practically builds itself.
The actors aren’t that old, you could probably pull a Liam Neeson on Brendan Fraser now, it wouldn’t be too hard, you’re Universal, you can afford it. But, c’mon, surely even that’s better than what you guys are pulling out your arse with your Mummy: Impossible and your Dracula: Untold. Look, I appreciate that I’m never going to get my genuinely terrifying cinematic universe if I also want these movies to have a decent budget and a wide reach. It just can’t happen. Why would Universal funnel money into movies that off the bat a big portion of audiences can’t go and see. But if I have to settle for a kind of family friendly classic monsters universe, I’d be a lot happier seeing in the hands of Rick O’Connell than I would Ethan Hunt.
If you really wanted to you could retroactively rename The Mummy so it fits with the franchise better. Rick O’Connell and the Curse of the Mummy, Rick O’Connell and the Bride of Frankenstein, Rick O’Connell and the Temple of Doom (okay, that last one’s a joke. But it worked for Indy, right?). Anyway, this is all irrelevant now. Like I said way back at the beginning (and if you’re still reading this, bravo, you deserve a medal), I’m fully behind the idea of a Dark Universe. But can we just agree that we’ll at least try and make it good?
That’d be swell.
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