Universal Studios announced last month their intention to build a cinematic universe based on their iconic monster properties that will be called the Dark Universe.
Tom Cruise’s The Mummy, which opened earlier this month, kick-started the universe off. However, after underperforming at the box office and getting critically panned, has the idea collapsed before it’s even got going?
The Original Monsters
It is important to first understand what made the original monster movies so great.
In 1931, both Dracula and Frankenstein were released in cinemas with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff playing the monsters in each respective film. The movies were incredibly well received at the time and looking back on them over eighty years on, it’s not hard to see why. The films, in essence, were great character stories. The monsters were almost the heroes of the story, the title characters who kept coming back. People didn’t go to Dracula to see Dr Van Helsing, they came to see Bela Lugosi’s terrifying beast.
A great aspect of these films was the sympathetic nature of the monsters. At times, you could understand their motives and even feel sorry for them. Take Frankenstein’s monster for example. Born as an experiment and for most of his life only knowing torture and imprisonment, he wants only to be accepted by society. Due to everyone’s fear of his existence though, he is vilified and exiled. Even the reanimated Imhotep in The Mummy can be seen as nothing more than a hopeless romantic whose heart is in the right place despite his questionable actions. The humanity of these monsters is no doubt an important part of what made them great.
What definitely did make them great though was their scare factor. Although by modern standards these films would be suitable for a child, at the time, they were quite terrifying to some. When stripped down to their basic concepts, the monster films are quite scary: a man of psychic power who drinks blood to survive, a man-made monster of extreme strength, a reanimated corpse from ancient Egypt and an invisible murderer.
Looking at what made these horror classics so successful is vital to understanding what the Dark Universe has to live up to.
A Weak Foundation
Onto the modern era and what Universal studios are looking to do now; having already failed at establishing a franchise with the abysmal Dracula Untold, a second attempt is well under way with several films already in the works including Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man and more.
The Dark Universe, however, has started with a stutter, with The Mummy basically being one long trailer for future movies. The film had no real personality to it. Being co-written by six different people, it’s easy to see how many of the shoehorned in elements, such as Russel Crowe’s Dr Henry Jekyll and many of the monster artefacts made their way into the film.
The film shares the problem Batman V Superman had, where several different plot elements were included just so the process of introducing the universe could be sped up. Both movies are convoluted as a result and have been heavily criticised for it.Universal need to remember that although the monster movies of the thirties and forties did cross over eventually, they were good solo films first.
Take the Marvel structure for example. Several solo films are brought out over a period of four years. Not all great movies, but all self-contained movies that developed their title characters. The only elements of crossover happen either in post credit scenes or in the last few minutes of the movie proper. Then The Avengers comes out, bringing these characters together, and, at this point, it’s exciting because the audience already knows and cares about these characters. The franchise has since kicked on so that heroes can cross over into each other’s films no problem.
Now, look at The Mummy. The first film in the franchise and it includes: references to other characters who will appear in future films, relies on previous knowledge of monster films to fully understand, no definitive ending in order to set up sequels, poor character development and no real focus on its own title monster.
This is a weak foundation for a potential franchise.
What Can Be Done?
But there are a few things Universal can do in order to get things back on track.
Firstly, they are well prepared in a sense that they have a strong cast lined up. Johnny Depp will be the Invisible Man, Tom Cruise is set to return in future films and, in what is a fantastic casting, Javier Bardem will be playing Frankenstein’s monster. These are proven, talented actors and their attachment to these properties will hopefully prove enough to prop up their respective films.
Something Universal can definitely do is learn from the reaction to The Mummy. Being criticised for tonal problems and forced-in content, Universal can make sure that the next release, Bride of Frankenstein, is tailored so that it meets what audiences want to see. Better written characters, a more horror-like tone and less world building will be of much benefit to the upcoming films and will be bringing back features that made the old films work.
Finally, they need to focus on making solid individual films. There are plenty of movies that successfully sparked sequels without forcing some kind of set up; examples being John Wick, Jurassic Park and The Matrix. People wanted to see more of these movies because they set up interesting worlds whilst being self-contained films in their own right. If Universal can cut the number of writers on each film and look instead to make the best solo features that they can, the demand for future crossover films will come naturally.
There are many who are already expecting Universal to pull the plug on the Dark Universe, but with the cast they have set up and the money already invested, it’s more likely they’ll push on. Hopefully, if they re-think their strategy, they can do justice to the monster movies of old and build an interesting, engaging cinematic universe for us to enjoy.