In Defense of the Universal Monsterverse
Universal Studios has been catching a lot of crap lately about their announced plans to reboot their classic Monster franchises as a shared “Cinematic Universe,” similar to what Marvel Studios has done with their Avengers and related movies. A lot of the internet snark about this particular topic can be dismissed simply by pointing out ill-informed snark is what at least 37 percent of the internet is for (it’s the third most dominant form of content, after porn and pictures of cats), and usually, I think the best way to deal with snarkers is to ignore them entirely. In this case, however, I feel like two of the most oft-cited criticisms of the Universal plan are so blatantly unfair that something needs to be said, and since Bela Lugosi isn’t around to do it, it’s up to me.
First, let’s talk about the notion that Universal is merely trying to copy Marvel’s success. Well… sure, of course they are. Let’s be honest here, that’s what Hollywood does. Virtually any successful film or franchise spawns imitators, plain and simple. Marvel’s parent company, Disney, is doing it themselves, attempting to emulate Marvel’s success with a new series of Star Wars movies. Warner Bros is doing the same thing with the DC Comics characters. Sony and Fox are doing it with their respective Marvel licenses, Spider-Man and the X-Men. Warner Bros is also planning a trilogy of Harry Potter prequels showing the history of the Wizarding World, and Sony is considering a shared universe franchise based on Robin Hood, of all things. And while each of these has been met by at least some level of e-cynicism, the bile being diverted to Universal seems particularly ludicrous to me because, far from copying Marvel, if anything, they did it first.
In 1943 Universal released Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, and after that the floodgates were opened. The franchises became inexorably intertwined, Dracula soon entered the picture, and the “monster mash” films became the norm. Granted, the films being made in the late 40s had very little concern with continuity. Characters would suddenly leap to different time periods so they could coexist, dead characters would return to life with little or no attempt at explanation, and nobody gave a damn about consistency. But despite this, it was an early example of what people now think of as Marvel’s model, and in fact is the earliest example of such a thing I’m aware of. (If you know of an earlier one, please tell me, because I want to see those movies.) To be certain, Universal is reviving the concept now because Marvel has been so successful at it, but that in no way negates the fact that they did it over sixty years before Marvel rolled their first foot of film.
The other thing that people are complaining about, a complaint that admittedly has at least a little more validity, is Universal’s recent statement that the new Universal Monster movies will be less of a horror franchise and more of an action-adventure series. I can at least understand why someone would be perturbed by this. The image of Lugosi’s Dracula, Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster, or Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman are some of the most enduring images of classic terror. But it is in the characters’ enduring nature that we find the problem. Fear stems from the unknown. The more we know about any subject, the more we understand it, and the harder it is to truly fear it. Drac and Frankie are so well known at this point that modern efforts to make them terrifying invariably run the risk of becoming self-parody.
Or to put it more bluntly, we live in a world where the first vision of Frankenstein’s monster kids see is his pink counterpart selling them marshmallow cereal. You can’t make that scary. And they don’t want it scary.
Even in the 40s, Universal seemed to know the monsters were becoming too popular to be frightening. When you watch the old monster mash movies, the emphasis is rarely on fear, but instead on providing you a few awesome fights between beloved creatures. Perhaps the crowning achievement of that period was not House of Dracula or any other such picture, but instead, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
It’s not just Universal, either. One reason Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie was so scary was because we didn’t see the monster in full until the very end. By Aliens, since we all knew what it looked like, James Cameron shifted genres from suspense to action, and it was the perfect move. And what about more modern horror icons like Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Chucky? How many films did each of these villains get before they switched from being embodiments of darkness to winking at the camera and going for the most over-the-top kills possible? In fact, horror franchises that don’t go meta often fall apart entirely: Halloween’s sequels grew tepid and dull before a reboot that itself was tepid and dull by the second film, and the Saw franchise limped to the finish line a garbled, confusing shadow of its own early sharp as hell installments.
And lest we forget, Universal itself has had success with this approach in the past. In 1999, when director Stephen Sommers was tapped to reboot The Mummy, the resulting franchise owed far more to Indiana Jones than to Karl Freund, and it hit very big for a while. They tried to get scary again with the 2010 remake of The Wolfman, and it flopped. Last month’s Dracula Untold, which had a tacked-on post-credits sequence that could have made it a sort of back door pilot for the new Universal Monsterverse, similarly bombed. (Although the studio has not made any official declaration as to whether Dracula Untold will be “canon” in its new universe, I for one am betting against it.) I’m not saying it’s no longer possible to make Dracula or Frankenstein scary, but to do the sort of long-term franchise Universal is picturing, taking an action-adventure route is not only easier, it’s more practical as well.
If the movies come out and suck, then sure, I’ll complain. I’d rather have no Universal Monster movies at all than have bad ones. But nothing that has been said so far indicates an inherently bad idea. Granted, if people online were inclined to wait for evidence to complain about something, an awful lot of bloggers would run out of things to talk about. But frankly, that’s a chance I’m willing to take.