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Famous Monsters of Filmland As The Paradigmatic Shared Universe

By Syvology, 10/25/2013 - 2:30pm
Untitled-1 Based on some vague, kinda incoherent remarks by genre film writer/producer Bob Orci, the internet is buzzing about the possibility of a shared movie universe featuring the classic Universal Studios monsters. Orci and cohort Alex Kurtzman are set to write and produce two upcoming pictures involving Universal’s classic monsters: The Mummy and Van Helsing (with the latter purportedly featuring Tom Cruise). It seems to me that viewers have only recently recovered from the latest “modern” iterations of both the Mummy and Van Helsing (smh), but Orci and Kurtzman have racked up enough geek cred to be considered two mini-Abrams or quasi-Whedons. So it’s at least conceivable that these movies will be cool. But if you’ll believe the hype, there’s also some indication that in addition to these two movies, there’s much more to come. Orci opined, “there’s an interesting thing that could happen at Universal where they have this amazing library of their old monsters and these kinds of heroes . . . the idea of trying to create a universe.” Untitled-1 At first glance, the idea of a crossover monster universe sounds like a desperate attempt at exploiting what Marvel has accomplished in the past few years, and what DC is hopelessly embarking upon as we speak. That The Avengers was so stunningly successful –financially, critically, and in terms of hardcore fan appeasement –means that long-term production models focusing on a shared-universe genre films are likely to have real grab when Hollywood financial interests consider their options. So on one level, Orci’s monster team-up fantasy is both understandable and predictable; hell, it may even be a realistic possibility. But that’s not all that’s going on here. What’s really interesting about the prospect of creating a cross-filmic Universal monsters universe—is that it already exists. Historically, shared-universe building is precisely how Universal rolled out its classic monster films between the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Starting with two silent film adaptations of French literature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1924), both starring Lon Chaney, Universal produced a series of dark films throughout the 1920’s. The 1930s marked a major turning point for the horror genre, with dual landmarks released the same year: James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Those two paved the way for multiple sequels and a litany of solo monster pictures proliferated, forming a monster pantheon that would include The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Although always a lot of fun to watch, these were at heart extremely beautiful, serious films that skillfully gave voice to the dark, sad humanity inherent in classical gothic storytelling. The first time the monsters met onscreen was in the aptly titled Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in which Lon Chaney, Jr. reprised his role as the Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi (legendary for his 1931 portrayal of Count Dracula) somewhat awkwardly donned the green makeup and neck-bolts. The following year, House of Frankenstein (1944) provided viewers with its first true mad monster party, adding Dracula, a mad scientist, and the hunchback to the mix. Universal continued this approach with House of Dracula (1945) and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Untitled-1 Untitled-1 Universal’s monster movies didn’t just share common characters and actors, but actually made a concerted effort at developing a shared continuity. Primarily drawing on the original Frankenstein and its three excellent sequels, the various films were written to interconnect with each other. Many of us were wowed by Marvel’s ability to orchestrate continuity leading up to The Avengers through simplistic devices like Easter eggs and appetizing post-credits teasers, but what Universal attempted 65 years ago was quite arguably a more impressive study in cross-filmic universe-building. So it’s important to note that should Universal actually follow Orci’s suggestion, it’d be inaccurate to characterize it as mimicking Marvel’s plan. If anything, Marvel was following in Universal’s pioneering footsteps. Untitled-1 Nonetheless, something doesn’t feel right about the idea.  Modern attempts to update classic monster fare and sell it to adult audiences are actually pretty common –and they’re usually unsuccessful. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) by Francis Ford Coppola is still probably the only major success at this endeavor, but that movie is unlikely to be replicated. Kenneth Branagh’s copycat attempt at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was a critical failure and box office disappointment, as was The Wolf Man (2010) starring Benecio del Toro. Despite admirable efforts from both those projects, they really didn’t get general audiences amped for monster movies. As a person who grew up watching the classic Universal films, I continue to worship them with almost religious conviction. But that doesn’t mean I see the content playing well in a modern context. The elements that most characterize the classic monster films – heavy dialogue and melodrama, expressionist black and white mise-en-scene, and only the humblest of special effects –are essentially non-factors in studio horror films today. In fact, these qualities are rare in mainstream filmmaking at large. So more than likely, serious horror fans of will probably end up unenthused (or offended) by what’s likely to be a weak bastardization of the classic pictures. Orci’s vision is unlikely to thrill either general audiences or special interest constituencies all that much. Considering that, it’s very hard to imagine a retread of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man being anything but an enormous, embarrassing disaster. The fact of the matter, however unfortunate it is for classic horror fans, is that while vampires and zombies are “in” right now, Dracula and Frankenstein haven’t been for a long time.
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