Desperate to find some way to complete with other studios’ franchises, most particularly Marvel’s Avengers movies, Universal Studios have come forward with what may be their most wrong-headed plan yet. Since they don’t have any superheroes in their character roster, they’re going to try to remake their classic monsters into action adventure heroes and turn them into a team.
During a recent roundtable of studio executives hosted by the Hollywood Reporter, Universal’s Chair Donna Langley provided the money quote:
…we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.
In other words, we have these iconic characters, characters and images who are forever burned into the collective consciousness of the American psyche as the definitive interpretation of the entire term “monster” and whose likenesses are exactly what pops into peoples’ heads when they think of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-man, the Mummy, or even the Invisible Man, characters that once upon a time literally saved our company from bankruptcy, and since we have no idea what to do with them, being afraid to do something different than what all of the other studios are doing, we’re going to take those images, trash the entire concept of them even being monsters, and try to make them into something just like what everyone else is doing.
This isn’t the first time the studio has done something like this. I remember my excitement years ago at walking into Universal’s remake of The Mummy (yes, I’m talking about the studio’s 1999 take which starred Brendan Frasier) looking forward to seeing just what they were going to do with this (again i can’t help but use the word) iconic monster and anticipating some good old fashioned chills, or at least something that would attempt to scare me. Instead, what I got served up was a pure action-adventure romp that was more comedy than horror, and was nowhere near what I was expecting. Once I realised that this was what I was getting (about 15 minutes into the movie) I decided to just sit back and take it in and accept it for what it was, and was able to enjoy it on that level, but the friend that I was seeing it with never reached that point, and left the theater not just disappointed, but angry at the studio for trashing her expectations and despairing that we would ever get anything resembling a real monster movie from Universal again.
In the intervening years between then and now, the studio has also given us some other abortive takes at trying to do something with these characters, such as the horribly-conceived and executed Van Helsing (about which anyone who actually cares about these characters has collectively agreed the less said the better), and 2010’s The Wolfman, which, while hewing somewhat closer to the original still went incredibly wrong.
(As an aside, that movie’s biggest flaw came in forgetting that of all of Universal’s monsters, the Wolfman is especially their most sympathetic, being the story of a man who not only is cursed to become furry and fanged under the light of the full moon, but feels the full weight of that curse – meaning you have to have an actor in that role who can make the audience feel not only the physical pain of the transformation, but also the mental and emotional anguish that accompanies it, something that Lon Chaney Jr. managed to perfectly embody and convey to the audience, which is one reason that that movie is my second-favorite of the Universal originals, just behind The Bride of Frankenstein– and substituted instead a third act that became a complete cgi-fest which I’m sure seemed a great idea on paper but in the end just completely didn’t work from either a story-telling or a technical aspect.)
Not that any of this is really news, rather it’s a confirmation of what we’ve all been expecting ever since the studio went back and re-jiggered this year’s Dracula Untold and – at the moment I can’t remember whether they outright stated it or merely implied the concept – decided that it would be a prequel-of-sorts to their upcoming slate of monster films. Yeah, that take certainly seems like a great building block for a new take on the franchise considering how well it did with both critics and audiences. (It currently has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22% fresh and 61% positive with audiences and sits at a domestic box-office take of roughly 56 million on a production budget which was nearly 70 million and didn’t even win it’s opening weekend – a real franchise-making blockbuster that one.)
Of course, my real beef here is not that Universal wants to remake these movies or even that they want to, as Langley put it “reimagine” them. Actually, I think that the time is ripe for a new version of these classic films. Certainly they can be well-done-by with the possibilities brought on by new effects and there are actors working today who could, I think, take these characters and make them their own in the way that Lugosi, Karloff, and Chaney did back in the day. My problem is simply with the approach that Universal seems to be wanting to take with them, completely ignoring the fact that there is a reason that these characters are called “monsters” in the first place and thereby taking them “out of the horror genre” and putting them “in the action-adventure genre”, abandoning the one aspect that actually makes them different from what everyone else is doing and just making them one more take on superhero movies, simply with a different power-set.
Another problem that Universal is going to run into is the timing of these films. Marvel and Warners have already announced their next full slates of movies, taking both of their franchises up through 2019 at least, and unless Universal is further along in development of their movies than they’ve already stated, they’re really running the risk of simply being Johnny-come-too-damn-late-to-the-table and both facing the inevitable burnout/backlash that is likely going to come to all of this output and at the same time simply getting lost in the muddle.
Heck, even Marvel has acknowledged that they feel the weight of being sure that they’re not copy-catting themselves with each new release, with Disney head Alan Horn saying in the same roundtable
The term “superhero” has become sort of all-inclusive. But, in fact, I think there are delineations. Captain America is a spy movie to us, in many respects. Thor is a Shakespearean drama in some respects.
And, I would add, their latest hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, while again in a way falling under the “superhero” banner simply because that’s still how the general public pigeonholes anything coming out under the Marvel banner, is far and away more space-opera than anything else.
Still, in the end, these are Universal’s characters, and they can do whatever they want to with them, no matter how I or any of the other fans of the classic takes on these monsters feel about it. And the good news is, no matter how many times they attempt to “update” or “reimagine” them, we’ll still always have those classic films, the ones we first fell in love with and which, as I said above, to this day identify the collective popular image of what and who these characters should be and no matter what they might do with them in the future, they thankfully can’t take those away from us.
- Universal taking Horror out of Monster Film Franchise (bestmoviesevernews.com)
- Universal Will Reboot The Wolf Man Yet Again For Its Monster Verse (io9.com)
- How horror has influenced pop culture (theglobeandmail.com)
- Failure of Monster Movies Too Scary for Universal, Studio to Morph Genre (chinatopix.com)