Universal Studios’ Monsters – a glorious past and an uncertain future

Universal Studios Monster’s Gallery:
top row from left: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931),
bottom row from left:The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Franchises and cinematic universes are pretty much the only reason that audiences go to watch movies in theatres these days. These ‘event movies’ generate the much sought after ‘water cooler moments’ (or their equivalent in social media) which drive new audiences and repeat viewers for the movies.

Disney is currently the king of franchises, with its acquisition of Pixar (in 2006), Marvel (in 2009) and Lucasfilm/Star Wars (in 2012) now giving them unprecedented box office dominance around the world. With Fox studios now part of the Mouse empire, they also have James Cameron’s Avatar, Ridley Scott’s Aliens and the Planet of the Apes franchises, although the success or continuity of these is less assured. And of course, the live action remakes of their own animated classics like Lion King and Aladdin are also raking in the moolah.

Warner Bros. has had significant (though less consistent) success with the DC Comics and Harry Potter franchises and there is always the possibility that they may create new Lord of the Rings films through their New Line division. Their Godzilla/King Kong “Monsterverse” seems to be fast fading though, with the tepid box office performance of this summer’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters calling into question the prospects of Godzilla vs. Kong next summer or any future films in the series.

And this brings us to Universal Studios, the home of Jurassic Park and The Fast and the Furious. Both franchises have been around for a while, but each is built around a single plot point – “dinosaurs run amuck” and “anti-heroes in fast cars”. I’m not sure how long these can continue.

The real opportunity for Universal lies with their ‘classic monsters’ line-up, based on films which were produced almost a 100 years ago! The characters are household names, deeply embedded in popular culture, having appeared in parodies, children’s cartoons and TV shows.

It started off with two silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), both featuring Lon Chaney, who was known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces” for his incredible ability to transform his appearance using make-up and facial contortion.

In 1931, the studio turned to two other literary characters – Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff are considered classics of cinema. In fact, the visualization of these two characters in popular culture around the world is based entirely on the way Lugosi and Karloff interpreted these characters nearly 90 years ago. Both actors were typecast into similar roles for the rest of their lives.

A year later came the first Universal monster character not based on a novel – The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. And in 1933, the studio went back to a literary source for their next creation, H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. It starred Claude Rains in his American film debut, who went on to become one of the most acclaimed character actors in Hollywood over the next 30 years.

In 1941, Universal released The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr., son of the Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney Jr. played the title character in 3 subsequent films.

Now with a full range of cinematic monsters, Universal started mixing and matching them in a series of sequels through the 1940s. Eventually, the characters crossed over into comedy, appearing as the featured villains in Abbott and Costello films from 1948 to 1955.

Towards the end of this period, Universal created the last of its monsters, the “Gill-man” in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Released in 1954, it spawned a couple of sequels.

Over the next several decades, with the expansion of American films and TV shows across the world, these monsters became famous around the world, especially appealing to children through their presence in cartoons and TV shows. I was first introduced to these characters as a kid, seeing their various incarnations on TV. It was only about ten years ago that I eventually watched the original classics which started it all off. It’s amazing what was achieved on screen with the make-up and cinematic techniques that were available decades ago. These films are not scary by the definition of today’s horror films, but still evoke a sense of dread, through the masterful use of music and lighting.

In 1999, Universal remade The Mummy as an Indiana Jones type adventure movie, with the inspired casting of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. Powered by their entertaining on-screen chemistry and superb visual effects, the film was a global hit and spawned two sequels and a spin-off series, The Scorpion King. Incidentally, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started his film career in 2001 playing the Scorpion King character in The Mummy Returns.

The Mummy directed by Stephen Sommers, starring Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser and Arnold Vosloo was a worldwide hit in 1999, spawning two sequels and a spin-off series, The Scorpion King

Director Stephen Sommers became hot property on the back of the first two Mummy films and was picked by Universal to direct Van Helsing. Based loosely on the vampire hunter who appeared in Bram Stoker’s original Dracula novel, this was an attempt to bring all the Universal monsters back together for the first time since the 1950’s. Featuring box office star Hugh Jackman, it was considered a surefire hit. Instead it turned out to be a critical disaster and put paid to any plans for a sequel.

Since then, Universal has tried thrice to restart its monster franchise. The first attempt was a remake of The Wolfman in 2010, starring Benecio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. The film went through a tortured pre-production process and was negatively impacted by a last minute change of director, with Joe Johnston coming on board just three weeks before the start of filming. The film was a critical and commercial failure (although I really liked it!) and put paid to plans of a sequel. The second attempt in 2014 with Luke Evans starring in Dracula Untold tried to position Dracula as a hero. And when that film failed to make an impact, the studio doubled down and became even more ambitious, announcing the creation of the “Dark Universe franchise” and releasing the now-infamous publicity picture featuring Russell Crowe (Dr. Jekyll), Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp (the Invisible Man), Javier Bardem (Frankenstein’s monster) and Soufia Boutella (the Mummy) in the lead-up to the release of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy in 2017. When that film crashed and burned at the box office, Universal learned the hard way the same lesson as Warner Bros. did when trying to force fit a shared universe for its DC Comics characters; both Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League were widely reviled for having one-dimensional characters while being over-stuffed with noisy video-game type action sequences. On the other hand, the standalone films Wonder Woman and Aquaman have achieved significant commercial success and have been praised for their character development and likeable protagonists.

Universal Studios’ failed attempt to create a new Dark Universe franchise planned to feature, from left to right:
Russell Crowe (Dr. Jekyl), Javier Bardem (Frankenstein), Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp (The Invisible Man) and Sofia Boutella (The Mummy)

And so, Universal decided to go back to a smaller, character-driven film to try and organically grow the franchise. They turned to American producer Jason Blum, the man behind the low-budget Paranormal Activity and Purge franchises, and Australian actor-turned-director Leigh Whannell who has been insanely successful in the past 15 years in launching the Saw and Insidious horror franchises. Whannell will direct a modern adaptation of The Invisible Man, starring acclaimed TV actress Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, Top of the Lake, The Handmaid’s Tale). Scheduled for release in February 2020, I assumed that Universal would look for this film to pave the way for other standalone stories, focusing perhaps on human characters who have been twisted in some way – Dr. Jekyll, Quasimodo and The Phantom of the Opera.

I was surprised therefore, to hear this week that Paul Feig, the man behind comedies like Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy has been hired by Universal to write, produce and direct a film called Dark Army, which will apparently feature some of Universal’s monsters. This looks like another attempt to take a short cut into a shared universe, perhaps with a comedic angle, like Fred Dekker’s 1987 horror-comedy cult film The Monster Squad. I’m not very reassured, especially since Mr. Feig’s attempt to reboot the Ghostbusters franchise in 2016 didn’t get very far.

In Hollywood, as in all businesses, you’re only as good or bad as your last venture. Sequels get greenlit within hours of a successful opening weekend and likewise franchises are shelved on the back of a poor box office performance. So it’s best to wait five months for The Invisible Man and see if it can help Universal’s monsters get through their first hundred years and survive against superheros, space adventures and fairy tale characters.

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