Ever since the Marvel Cinematic Universe hit big, there have been rumblings about numerous franchises attempting to create interconnected universes. X-Men, DC Comics, Spider-Man, etc. are all allegedly headed in that direction. Interestingly enough, the first to make it out of the gate was also the first to pull it off many decades ago when the Universal Monsters joined together to fight the threat of Abbott and Costello.
Last week, Dracula Unchained planted the first flag in the Universal Monsters Interconnected Universe. The film features perpetually-trying-for-A-list-status Luke Evans (The Hobbit trilogy, Furious 6) as the titular monster and tells of his origin story, because we aren’t tired of those yet, are we? Set in the Middle Ages, it’s about how Vlad (soon to be the Impaler) sacrifices his dark and broody humanity to save his family/kingdom by becoming a dark and broody vampire. Reviews have been roundly negative with many criticizing its attempt to transform the Dracula tale into a low-rent superhero movie. The presumed Nick Fury of this world is “Master Vampire” (Charles Dance, Game of Thrones) who turns Vlad into Lord of the Undead. At the end of the film, it cuts to present day (let me reiterate, present day) where he watches from afar as Dracula meets his “reincarnated” wife (Mirena in the past, Mina today (Sarah Gadon)) and says to no one, “Let the games begin.”
There have been several attempts to bring these 19th century icons back into public consciousness, but most of them have failed. The Brendan Frasier-led Mummy (1999-2008) trilogy was successful, but its first installment was one of the first heavily CGI’ed films, so it had a novel quality to it, plus it applied a fun, old time serial quality to its adventure. A major modern outlier has been Showtime’s 2014 dramatic horror series “Penny Dreadful,” which obtained a good-sized following, mostly decent reviews (78% on Rotten Tomatoes), and a second season. But 2004’s generic shoot-em-up action-adventure Van Helsing, featuring scholar-turned-action-hero Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) taking on Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolfman, failed critically and commercially. Similarly, 2003’s action film The League of Extraordinary Gentleman also disappointed by a) not being close enough to Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill’s original graphic novel and b) being an all-around bad movie.
While some might read these cinematic failures as indicative that audiences are opposed to putting creatures in their natural, Victorian-era London, setting, there is another, and I feel more valid reading. Monsters simply aren’t action heroes.
There are a lot of things you can do with classic monsters – from comedy (even child-friendly fare such as The Monster Squad) to artistic gore (Blood for Dracula aka Andy Warhol’s Dracula) to Werner Herzog (Nosferatu the Vampyre) – but trying to shove them into an action-adventure template rarely works. And that’s a good thing. One genre does not fit all, and this angle plays against the characters’ strengths.
Monsters are monsters because they prey on our fears. The originals – particularly in their literary incarnations by Stoker, Shelley, and Poe, among others – reflected concerns of the era while still being relevant across time and space. Playing God with science, giving in to repressed passions, and bringing to light that which lurks in the shadows are concepts that still strike to the core of the human experience. Creators (e.g. Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll) often end up as destructive as their monsters (e.g. Frankenstein’s monster, Mr. Hyde), while the monsters gain some level of sentience that makes them as conflicted and afraid as their creators. Creator and monster alike, their greatest battles were mostly internal, human struggles, rather than physical fights against expendable armies.
By the same token, the 19th century mortals who had to defeat them were similarly overwhelmed. Not did they have to fight something with extraordinary powers, but that things’s very existence shattered their belief systems. The Victorian era, when many of these stories first emerged, was marked by a dedication to a strict sense of morality, the “stiff upper lip,” and all around prudishness. Even moreso than acknowledging that the supernatural does exist, these creatures forced people to face their even darker fears: themselves. Their true enemy was not a man who can turn into bats, but their own closed-mindedness. The multi-faceted and layered complexity of these stories explain how they have lasted in our consciousness for centuries.
When it came to movies, Universal quickly established itself as the home for most of these tales. The original Universal “canon” lasted from the 1920s to the 1960s and included works such as 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, 1933’s The Invisible Man, 1941’s The Wolf Man, and 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1931 had Universal releasing what would be two of the biggest pop culture phenomenons of all time: Dracula (with Bela Lugosi) and Frankenstein (with Boris Karloff). Nearly 85 years later, and their imagery is still instantly recognizable.
While many of these movies abandoned the characters’ nuances (like the original Frankenstein’s monster having the power of speech), they captured the public’s imagination (and still do) because their atmospheres complemented what these characters were truly about. Even with cheap sets and basic effects, these original movies got across just how dark, isolated, and chilling their worlds were. The hollow emptiness of Gothic castles (always great to see on film) mixed with the uptightness of Victorian society provided a remarkable and appropriate backdrop to reflect what these creatures mean and feel. Actors such as Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., and Boris Karloff were able to go way over the top without devolving into camp. It’s a unique form of acting that isn’t really seen today, but when you watch the actors, you understand why they obtained and retained their iconic status. They are otherworldly beings and their performances express that. (Willem Dafoe nailed it in 2000’s Shadow of the Vampire, but he’s Willem Dafoe.)
All of these factors should combine to form a different experience – visually, mentally, and emotionally – from other modern franchises. We already have plenty of action heroes and plenty of anti-heroes. The original books especially show that it’s possible to feel for these characters without reducing their already established and fascinating personalities to a dark and broody protagonist template. Dracula by way of Batman is lazy and uninspiring.
If this is the style Universal aiming for, the style that Dracula Untold shows, it’s easy to believe that all of the other figures in this collection will similarly be cast in action hero molds, thus missing the point entirely and giving us something easily digested and utterly disposable. And setting it in modern times? Well it worked so well for I, Frankenstein, didn’t it? Not to mention that these movies will be competing against a myriad of other public domain monster properties in production at other studios, such as 20th Century Fox’s Victor Frankenstein, the Mary Reilly of the Franken-verse with Daniel Radcliffe as Igor and James McAvoy as the good doctor. Originally is increasingly important.
An interconnected universe featuring the Universal Monsters can work. After all, they all pretty much live in London in the late 1800s. (I personally feel a scientist/explorer-type looking into the supernatural would be a swell figure to tie all of them together; at least more so than “Master Vampire.”) But the key to creating an interconnected universe of pre-existing properties is first understanding why those properties work in the first place. Marvel pulled it off because they got their characters right. They gave us Tony Stark, not just a man in a gold titanium alloy suit.
When it comes to the Universal Monsters, the same core concept gave birth to all of these characters – fear of the unknown and the otherworldly in a world that was rapidly changing. (All of which was probably exacerbated by heavy laudanum use.) That the studio has seemingly abandoned that for bland effects and not-that-epic war sequences during the launch of this franchise disappointingly shows their hand. It’s been a decade and they still haven’t learned from Van Helsing.
Then again, according to reports, tying Dracula Untold into this interconnected universe came after the movie was finished filming so it was too late to change the entire film. But with no news about any of the other properties other than the franchise being overseen by Alex “Magic Blood” Kurtzman, it seems warranted, appropriately enough, to fear the worst.