Jun 7, 2017

Why I'm All For Universal's The Dark Universe

This Friday marks the debut of a new cinematic universe. According to Universal, the "Dark Universe" is set to premiere with the Tom Cruise vehicle The Mummy and will continue to expand out to various other iconic monsters, including a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein up next. For many, it is a moment worthy of groaning. Does the world really need another cinematic universe? There's also already a universe with monsters that will probably be better because of recent films Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. Still, Universal is betting on their biggest icons to finally compete with the likes of every major studio. While I think there's reason to be concerned regarding jerry-rigging a franchise out of nothing, I do think that the Dark Universe has the potential to be a better franchise than it lets on. Why? It's because Universal Studios did it first, almost 80 years ago. And it's about time that they gave it another shot.
Nowadays, it is easy to see Marvel and its Cinematic Universe (MCU) as the purveyors of movies crossing over into one shared universe. It's a concept not terribly new, especially in TV, but has become all of the rage in the movie landscape. Marvel competitors D.C. have launched their own D.C. Extended Universe (DCEU) that recently released the highly successful Wonder Woman. Everywhere you look, it's hard to not notice this fad. Even movies like La La Land have made fun of Hollywood's obsession not just with reboots, but with building worlds that could give them eternal revenue and movie options. From a business standpoint, it's the sort of genius that MCU pulled off, and nobody has been able to imitate correctly. It is fun to see characters appear in someone else's movie. It plays into a fantasy that audiences have been having for almost a century.

This is especially true for Universal's original Universal Horror/Monsters franchise from the 1930's. It was during this time that monster movies became what they are today. True, the late 1920's featured Lon Chaney Sr. in films like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame also scaring audiences, but it was with films like Dracula and Frankenstein that audiences were exposed to the horror icons of early cinema. They were played by actors like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and even Elsa Lanchester. Most of them were based off of classic horror literature like Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," H.G. Wells' "The Invisible Man," or Bram Stoker's "Dracula." While they took artistic liberties, they created characters that were visually frightening as well as intellectually compelling. Frankenstein works because The Monster has a vague sense of humanity in him that makes his actions, in a sense, misunderstood and thus more sympathetic than Chaney Sr.'s monsters that were monsters because they were ugly.
A lot of what audiences expect today was set up pretty early with some of the goofiest sequel names out there. Son of Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, and (in indirect ways a sequel to The Invisible Man) The Invisible Woman and The Invisible Agent (which essentially pitted The Invisible Man against Nazis). While it was probably just a move to churn out more movies, their cinematic universe built from their stable of iconic characters that relied on great character actors. For the 1930's, it was largely a single character affair with each of the monsters going on their own adventures. Following the success of The Wolf Man in 1941, the crossovers would begin to happen more frequently. In fact, Chaney Jr.'s Wolf Man (who was also the most human and emotional of the central characters) never appeared in another solo adventure after that, instead playing as a sidekick largely to The Monster in movies such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Scene from House of Frankenstein
While it would fairly be attributed to the Abbott and Costello movies, the cinematic universe in a more modern sense actually began with House of Frankenstein in 1944. It was here that audiences could see Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man all in one film. The issue is that by that point, the stories were half baked and the ending was anticlimactic. The subsequent House of Dracula was even more of a mess, and it was a miracle that Universal Monsters could make it into another decade with the Abbott and Costello franchise where they met Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Mummy. To say the least, their vaudeville style of humor mixed with classical scares created a modern sensibility to the horror universe that has been largely imitated since. Still, its smartest move was pitting the Average Joe against the monsters that they grew up adoring. It was an easy premise, and one that probably made the entire cinematic universe gimmick more than an embarrassing mess (nobody talks about more than the "origin" movies, anyways).
These characters would cross over in each other's movies as the decades rolled on, but none in the Universal Horror franchise. Still, films like Monster Squad were firm reminders of how revered these characters remain. It is why these films keep getting remade and reimagined over the decades. But there is one key issue that becomes apparent for movie fans: Universal's original cinematic universe may have been ahead of its time, but it also wasn't the greatest that it could be. It could be in part because by then horror was in some ways a B-Movie medium where actors got to wallow in easy paychecks. There were some great latter day movies (specifically The Creature from the Black Lagoon), but House of Dracula embodied just how much these movies were about profit over telling clever stories. It could be in part that the key directors of the early years, like Tod Browning and James Whale, were now gone. Even then, the films had abandoned true horror by the time that Abbott and Costello got involved, and made the cinematic universe seem like a bit of a joke.

Scene from The Mummy (2017)
As someone who loves the old Universal Horror movies, it pains me that the original group don't have too many great crossover movies. Sure, some of the sequels work if you're forgiving enough, but a film with The Monster, Dracula, and Frankenstein should be awesome. They're monsters who feel all too human but have a certain disconnection from humanity. At best, they were existential explorations of these subjects. At worst, their cheap sets and bad actor replacements showed how much the franchises became about cheap profits. I know in my heart that The Dark Universe is essentially starting off on bad grounds. It was unfortunate that the proposed "first film" Dracula Untold was so bad that it was dropped from the franchise. It makes me worried that The Mummy will start the franchise on an equally sour note, given the recent aura that surrounds the DCEU thanks to several films that many felt were forced starts with half baked results. Still, I want to believe that a movie with The Mummy and Dr. Jekyll will be awesome. I want to see the world where they interact with The Bride (I will discuss why I'm actually for that remake when it actually is closer to release) and have conversations with Dracula. Imagine the possibilities.
I am aware that the early reviews are bad. I am also someone who remains largely skeptical based solely on the marketing. I am not a fan of the name that they have assigned this cinematic universe (The Dark Universe), and feel that it is largely a missed opportunity to call if The Gods and Monsters Universe, as it is a reference that is not only quoted in the trailers but also has a deep connection with Universal Horror's history. I know it is naive to be optimistic for a cinematic universe to be good, but I'm also someone who inherently loves these characters and wants to see them treated right. I want to see Frankenstein meet The Wolf Man just as much as I want to see King Kong fight Godzilla. These are all dumb ideas, but with a budget that allows for something grander to take place, it may be a chance to redeem Universal Horror's later problems. I remain doubtful, but at least it has Javier Bardem as the role of Frankenstein. Whether that's the Doctor or the Monster, that is a thing of beauty. And besides, why shouldn't Universal join in the fun? They were here first.

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