Let me explain something about myself so that we all understand where I’m coming from here. I absolutely love the Universal Monsters. I always have. I’m not sure I remember a time not loving them, in truth. I remember first discovering them through a rather bizarre (and I’m not entirely sure actually licenced) stop-motion animation film called Mad Monster Party, and from that point onwards being absolutely obsessed with everything Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
I can remember taping the original Universal Classics of the television, carefully setting my video play to timed record because I was too young to stay up and watch them. I remember watching them on repeat, becoming obsessed with the lighting and the angles and the visual effects.
I couldn’t quite explain to you just why they gripped me so much, nor why they still do, but my love for the horror genre (and man do I love horror) was born there and then with Lugosi and Karloff and Chaney Jr. I mean, I was like five years old and James Whale became my hero. I wanted to make those movies! In fact, I’m pretty sure I even created my own misunderstood monster, a skeleton who could come to life and wanted a friend, but who the townsfolk hated because… well, he was a skeleton. His name was Skelly (I was five… leave me alone).
Anyway, the point is that when Universal announced, way back whenever it was now, that they were planning to return to the well of the Classic Monsters and unleash upon the world a Dark Universe, I was down for it. I was completely down for it.
In fact, I was so down for it that I was willing to overlook just how God awful that freaking trailer for the Tom Cruise Mummy film looked. I was the movie equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and going “lalalala” in the fact of evidence. I wanted it to work. I just wanted to see these legendary icons of Hollywood return to the big screen.
So, the fact that The Mummy was so bad hit me really hard. I was devastated by it. I went to see it in the cinema, and I felt like I’d taken a beating. It was just terrible. And soon the news came that Universal were hesitant to even carry on with the monsters. It didn’t matter how obvious it was to me that the problem wasn’t with The Mummy itself but with the execution of the property, I knew in my heart that this was the end, because studios have a habit of totally misunderstanding why things do and don’t work.
However, this story has a seemingly positive, or at least hopefully positive, ending. With the recent news that modern franchise horror giants Blumhouse are taking on the Universal Monsters catalogue and will be beginning their take on the icons with Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, I feel a sense of optimism once more.
Whannell certainly has the chops for horror, being one of the creators of both Saw and Insidious, while last year’s Upgrade (which he wrote and directed) was a hell of a lot of fun, and Blumhouse have more than proved themselves capable of creating crowd-pleasing, successful horror, so it looks, for now at least, to be in safe hands.
However, as a fan of the Classic Monsters, as well as the Hammer take on the properties as well, I have a few things I really hope we see realised on screen. If this is going to work then let’s try to get it right guys, and here’s what I think is needed for these legends to be brought back to the mainstream.
Firstly, we’ve got to keep it period. The Gothic look of the classic monster movies, made famous by James Whale’s Frankenstein but continued on through their entire run, is integral to what makes them so great. A lack of technology, spooky graveyards, cobbled streets and whatnot are all super important to their feel. Plus, placing them in a period setting gives them a sense of mythos, they almost become like fairy tales or old folk tales told around the campfire.
Stephen Sommers understood this when he rebooted The Mummy in 1999, and Hammer understood it when they first adapted Frankenstein in 1957. As strange as it may seem, in order to drag these guys into the present we need to keep as much of them in the past, because that’s where their unique brand of terror is the most effective.
Secondly, don’t forget this is the monster’s movie. I mean, of course we need a decent cast of characters to round out the plot (and possibly add to the kill count if you’re going down that route), but people pay to see the monster… or, I guess, in the case of The Invisible Man, not see him.
That’s not to say that the monster necessarily needs to be your lead character, just remember that they’re the main draw. Build them up, make them epic, and then, above all else, deliver. The Classic Monster movies are remembered as much for the incredible make-up effects as they are for anything else, so be sure they look every bit as iconic as they did back then.
The film itself may be terrible, but Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man understood this. The look of Kevin Bacon’s scientist once he is invisible is suitably disconcerting, the strange combination of flesh coloured mask and hollow eyes and mouth are both frightening and fascinating all at once.
Third, keep it subtle. Remember, the Universal Monsters are as much about atmosphere as they are anything else, and they’re not gore-fest. This was mainly down to censorship issues when they were first released, but just because we can go full torture porn doesn’t mean we should. Much like their period setting, there’s an element of the Classic Monsters that just works better when things are left to the imagination.
When Bela Lugosi’s Dracula stalks a victim around a corner and the camera lingers on the empty street only for us to hear her screams, that’s just as frightening as anything you could show us. Don’t be afraid to make the audience use their imagination occasionally.
Fourth, just adapt the original movie plots. It might seem silly to say, considering how often I go on about hating the never-ending barrage or remakes, reboots and “reimaginings”, whatever they are, but seriously, just adapt the original movie plots. They’re good stories and they don’t need an awful lot of work to their structure, just update the dialogue and some of the set-pieces, that’s all.
It’s been long enough since we last saw these guys properly realised on screen that audiences are hardly going to be bored of seeing these stories play out again. In fact, as depressing a thought as it is, I’m willing to bet most of the people in the audience won’t have even seen the original Universal Classic Monster movies, so take as much from them as you can!
The plots to those movies were often almost operatic, would have some kind of moral point and would muse on big, important questions. They weren’t just about scaring audiences, they were about making them think, too. And seeing them updated and brought to the big screen with today’s capabilities is part of what will make them work.
Finally, let’s make it classy. Horror isn’t a genre that’s particularly known for its class, not really, but the Classic Monsters are an undeniable part of cinematic history and are probably a big reason why a lot of industry professionals got involved in the first place. Let’s fill those casts up with some terrific actors and aim for an Oscar! No joke.
The Universal Monster movies are as much about the performances as they are about anything else, and I don’t see any reason why, if approached in the right way and with the right care, a little bit of class can’t be brought back to the genre (not that I really think it ever left, did you see Hereditary, anyone?).
Anyway, that’s what I’d like to see happen with these new iterations of the old classics. As a huge fan I’m sure I have a far more specific idea in mind that most audience members are likely to. Whatever happens I’m glad to see that there’s life in these old monsters yet, and I’m excited to see what Blumhouse and Whannell offer us.
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