Why the “Dark Universe” is looking bleak

A few years back, Universal announced the beginning of the Dark Universe.  Those of you unfamiliar with this, it is the reboot of the classic Universal Monster movies.  I for one, was very excited for this, because growing up in Illinois, I was raised on a steady diet of monster movies every Saturday night on channel 44, WFLD, with the great Son of Svenghouli serving me up Dracula, The Wolfman, the Creature, etc…

And their first movie, “Dracula Untold”, had me really excited that they were going to do it right.  It was an interesting story, fleshed out how a known historical figure, Vlad Tepes, became the prince of darkness, Dracula.

I’ve watched it a few times.  I liked it.  Lots of action, I felt they caught the atmosphere right, good story, and they even cast well.

And then it went to hell.

First, the then announced that this movie was not part of the reboot.  The first movie to reboot the Universal Monster Universe was going to be the Tom Cruise led “The Mummy”.

Now, to be honest, I’ve only seen parts of this movie.  I really wanted to like it, because as a fan of the first run of Universal Monsters, I definitely wanted a second run.  And after watching this, I’m pretty sure it either won’t happen, or they are going to botch it, and I will tell you why.

The first run of UM had very little going for them.  Starting with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931.  Yes, Nosferatu came out in 1922, but due to some legal issues with Bram Stoker’s estate, most copies were destroyed,  And it was a German film, so we’ll start with the 1931 version.


It all started with Dracula.  To me, the finest Dracula of all time was Bela Lugosi.  It wasn’t because he was a great actor per se, but for the fact what he did when not speaking.  When per se, but for the fact what he did when not speaking.  When he looked at the camera wide eyed, as a kid, it was absolutely terrifying.  It was like he was looking through the camera, right into your soul.  It is the classic story that I know I’ve seen at least filmed 5 different times, and it still holds up.

Frankenstein followed it a few months later, starring Boris Karloff.  Dark, dreary, and overacted, it is such a good watch.  Classic story, and you definitely feel the tension.

In 1932 Boris Karloff took the screen as The Mummy.  This movie scared the crap out of me as a kid.  I’m not sure why, but Karloff played the character perfectly, especially for a character that didn’t speak.

In 1933, The Invisible Man starring Claude Rains.  Not near as dreary looking as the previous movies, it was a great movie.  And I don’t mind saying, I’ve had more than a few discussions with friends with how we’d handle being invisible.

1935 brought us  Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull.  I vaguely recall seeing this when I was around 9, so I’m a little fuzzy on it.

The more famous “The Wolfman”, starring Lon Chaney Jr, and Claude Rains, didn’t come out until 1941.  Definitely a movie filled with atmosphere, some superior acting for its time.  A fun fact about Lon Chaney Jr.  For a while, Universal dropped the Jr from his name, to bring people in who enjoyed his father, basically tricking them into going to a movie to see him, and having his son in his place.

Phantom of the Opera came out in 1925 as a silent film, and then released in 1943 as a “talkie”.  The original starred Lon Chaney, the 1943 version starring Claude Rains.

And finally, The Creature from the Black Lagoon arrived in 1954.  Originally filmed in 3D, this is possibly my all time favorite monster movie.  Yes, the monster moved kind of hokey.  Yes, the stunts aren’t the greatest.  I don’t care.  I love it.  I always have, always will.

Fun fact, in the sequel, a young Clint Eastwood plays a scientist, because when I think of Clint Eastwood, I always think scientist.

Now, this is a brief overview of the Universal Monsters.  There were almost 90 movies from 1923-1960 that Universal put out that are considered part of the universe.  Each and every one of these titles had sequels, which made up about a third of these movies.  I didn’t mention “The Black Cat”, “They Came From Outer Space”, and many more, because this will be long enough.  Google them, look them up, watch them, get lost in them.  Eat lots of popcorn.  Enjoy the stories.

And that is what made these movies great.  Studio’s back then had teams of writers, and they would pump out script after script, movie after movie, all for one studio.  They were under contract.

The same goes for the music.  Each studio had a few composers, and they’d get the nod for a movie, and they scored the movie.  It may be a crappy Bob Hope movie one day, and a Boris Karloff thriller the next.

The main expense for ever movie was the sets though.  Granted, you didn’t have a bunch of different shots in different places.  Heck, if you watch enough of these movies, you are going to see the same castle, same set, in a few different movies.  In fact, in the 1931 Dracula, they would film a scene with the actors, they’d get off the set, and then the actors for the Spanish version would come in, and film their movie.  Studios definitely got their money’s worth.

You had the same make up people, the same extra’s, the same wardrobes at times…and people didn’t care.  They didn’t care if Bela Lugosi was Dracula when they went to see The Phantom, in fact, unlike now, that is part of the reason they went, and the built in audience was born.

Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, and all the others were a troupe of actors, who were in and out of that genre of movies all the time, all played the monsters.  And don’t get me wrong, some were typecast, like Lugosi and Karloff.  But part of that was their heavy accents.  Lon Chaney Jr had roles from Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” to Lenny on “The Monkees”.  Claude Rains had an amazing career, from “Casablanca” to “Rawhide”

And this is where Hollywood will fail.  Gone are the days where a studio has a pool of actors that are signed to contracts, that they can, in a sense, typecast as a character.  You don’t see great character actors any more.

The money is spent of a name.  Tom Cruise in “The Mummy”.  By all accounts, he used his name to change the pace and the tone of the movie, to make it what it was.  Granted, it was a new spin on a classic tale, but done poorly.

If Universal really wants to reboot the Universe, they need to take a look at what Marvel is doing.  I’m not saying to get total unknowns to play the monsters.  But you have to get actors who realize that the characters are the stars, not their name.  Though the movie was panned, De Niro let the monster be the star in “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”.  Then the director ruined it.

But if you want to create a universe, where there is some continuance, a few things will have to happen for it to take off.

  • Modernize the stories.  Kids today don’t want to see movies set in the 1800’s.  I do, they don’t.  Modernize it, make the settings recognizeable.  It can be done.  It’s called creativity and imagination.
  • Have the actors playing the monsters sign multi picture deals. How has Steve Buscemi not played Igor?  Look at him for Christ’s sake, he was born to play Igor!!!
  • Minimal CGI. It’s lazy.  I want to see more Guillermo del Toro, and less green screen.  Why they didn’t try and make “The Shape of Water” part of the Dark Universe, and have this generation’s Creature from the Black Lagoon strongly represented, is beyond me.  I’d be happy if the assimilated that movie into the DU, just so I can see a sequel.
  • Ignore being Politically Correct. Let men be in the classic men roles, and women be in the classic women roles.  Yes, it’s sexist, but I want my monsters falling in love with a woman.  I want dudes trying to save them.  I want to see the monsters slapping them around.  If  you have a female in that role, the world would have kittens if you let a woman be bitch slapped if there is even a hint that the monster is a male.
  • Identify them as monsters. Not as broken human beings.  Not as “sharp men” (read the IMDB for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein), not as sympathy needing creatures.  None of those.  They are monsters.  They are blood sucking, undead, genetically mutated, addle minded, lizard brained beasts, who have mayhem in their hearts, and the desire to survive, and also procreate, and pass on their traits, so I get sequels
  • Play the movie straight, don’t be afraid for it to be a bit campy. If I have a 7 foot tall man built of parts and a deranged brain chasing me, I’m not making jokes, unless I’m Abbot and Costello.

 

Well gang, I’ve bored you enough for now.  John and Kenric  have given me free reign to write about whatever    I’d like, and suggested Universal Monsters, so here I am.   I’m hoping to review the classic movies, and then review a modern movie that is similar, and try and turn you on to some films that maybe you had forgotten about, or didn’t know existed.

If you have any movies you’d like reviewed, please email me at [email protected], or if you’d like to hear my smooth tones, I am the funny one on the podcast My Worst Holiday.

 

Jay R.

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