Everyone wants their own Cinematic Universe. With the unbridled success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, all the studios are rushing to create a massive interconnected franchise of solo movies interspersed with team up movies. Universal Studios has been attempting to launch a shared universe consisting of their classic monsters including Dracula and Frankenstein for a few years now. But in their rush to simultaneously emulate Marvel, and catch up with their offerings and popularity, things have not gone smoothly.
As anyone who follows these things knows, Universal originally reworked their film Dracula Untold to work as the launching pad for a series of films that would have seen Vlad team up with his fellow monsters to defeat an ancient evil. But when the film starring Luke Evans (Highrise, Beauty and the Beast) flopped at the box office and failed to woo critics, they decided it wouldn’t be included and instead placed their hopes on The Mummy.
Where as Dracula Untold focused almost exclusively on building up it’s take on Dracula and the vampire mythos, The Mummy tries to jam not only it’s take on undead Egyptian royalty, but lay extensive groundwork for a shared universe that consists of a single film. A large part of Marvel’s success with it’s films has been keeping the focus on the titular character while giving just enough connective tissue to pay off after several very loosely connected films. Instead of trying to give the world solid solo outings for it’s stable of Monsters, they just wanna launch directly into the kind of shared universe that it took Marvel years and 6 films to achieve.
Universal had already given it’s new franchise a name, Dark Universe, and a cast of stars for films that don’t even have directors yet. In addition to Cruise’s adventurer and Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyl, Universal has also cast Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster and in an incredibly questionable casting choice Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man. With Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast, Gods and Monsters) set to direct the next instalment, Bride of Frankenstein which will focus on the titular Bride who has yet to be cast. They’ve also got plans for Dracula, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (rumoured to star Scarlet Johanson), Phantom of the Opera, The Wolf Man and yes even The Hunchback of Notre Dame (despite the story not being horror or part of the original group of Universal’s horror pictures).
Suffice to say that Universal is counting it’s monsters before they hatch. Given that their second attempt to start the shared universe has failed, let’s take a look at some ways they can restart this shared universe the right way.
These are monster movies, why not give the audience something actually scary! The PG-13 rating that most big budget movies go with means that they inevitably end up as action adventure movies dressed up in horror trappings. Why not give the audience some gore and ultra violence? While the budgets would be smaller, movies like Blade, Deadpool and Bram Stoker’s Dracula have proven that R rated films can make money and get critical acclaim. Universal had done an R-Rated Wolfman film with Benicio Del Toro but it failed to find success. Maybe it’s time they revisit the concept.
Lean Into Comedy
While not everyone realises it, we have already gotten cross overs featuring our favorite monsters. Universal had Abbott and Costello meeting Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolfman over 50 years ago. In the 80s, the world was gifted with The Monster Squad. Directed by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps), the film is a comedy focusing on a group of misfit kids who are obsessed with classic horror monsters. When Dracula brings together The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster to help him plunge the world into darkness, making him nigh unstoppable. So it’s up to the group of spunky kids with assists from a Holocaust survivor and one of the boy’s older sisters to stop Dracula before it’s too late.
The film, which has a massive cult following shows how comedy can be the perfect genre for these monsters to meet. While the stakes are high, so is the camp. Perhaps instead of trying to sprinkle just the right amount of humor, Universal should instead lean into it wholeheartedly.
Make Them Period Pieces
Trying to modernise these stories is quite the tall order. It’s hard to find a balance of “grounded” and fantastical. By setting the films in the past, there isn’t as much need to make them grounded. Francis Ford Coppolla had great success with Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Tim Burton’s take on Sleepy Hollow is sumptuous and spooky. Even lesser films like Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Joe Johnson’s Wolf Man gave the audience gore and violence mixed with atmosphere and old world charm.
More recently, Penny Dreadful showed audiences that these stories can work best when recontextualised within the past, instead of being modernised. One of Dracula Untold’s strong points was that it was set during the historical period during with Vlad Tempes was in power. A series of solo movies could set up the heroes from each film to become something along the lines of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Go Young Adult
Some of the most successful franchises in the last decade have been based on young adult novels. Instead of going for casts whose median age is 45, why not lean into the younger demographic and cast young up and commers for a youthful approach. Dracula becomes a story about a young Mina Harker who becomes enthralled by a handsome prince with a dark and violent secret who Mina must stop with the help of her professor Van Helsing. The Wolfman tells the story of a young man cursed by the full moon. A younger cast could bring in a younger audience which means better longevity.
Go Full Freddy vs Jason
Rather than spend a ton of time reinventing the monsters, creating secret societies that are obviously rip offs of SHIELD and the Telemasca, just go full tilt Monsters vs Monsters. Good monsters (The Bride, Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Van Helsing) vs bad monsters (Doctor Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy). At the end of the day, people just wanna see a monster brawl, so why not just give it to them? Stop trying to make things high art and just lean into the pulpiness of it all. I mean who doesn’t want to see The Bride of Frankenstein kill her maker, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon tearing The Mummy in half?
Whatever Universal does, the most important thing is that they examine what makes people love these stories and characters. Instead of producers working on making sure they have everything on their check lists, they need to hire people who are passionate about making quality films, not hollow blockbusters. Gone are the days where soulless garbage still breaks even. In this new age of Gods and Monsters, the audience is discerning about not to fall for sloppy attempts at cashing in. They want to see movies made with passion and creativity and a true love for the source material. With Bill Condon directing Bride of Frankenstein, based on his favorite film, there may just be hope yet for The Dark Universe. But if the big wigs decide to start over a third time, perhaps they will take a different approach. Lordy knows as a fan I want these films to be a success. But if they thought The Mummy was the right way to start things off, I’m not very hopeful for the success either critical or financial for this shared Monster-verse.