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Today’s post was provided by guest writer Michael Cross, whose love of the Dark Universe is rather uncanny.
Universal Studios’ Dark Universe was a terrific idea. Rebooting the monster franchise and having them cross paths on the big screen again excited me more than the current crop of superhero movies out today — and there are a lot — as I grew up loving the classic monsters and not comic book characters. Perhaps that’s because of exposure.
As a kid, the superhero climate was drastically different. Other than The Adventures of Superman or the Adam West Batman, there wasn’t much. Compare that to the 30 plus Universal Monster films, starting in 1931 with Dracula — or 1923 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame — and ending in 1955 with The Creature Walks Among Us, all of which played in heavy rotation on the weekends, there was plenty to indulge.
Growing up, what I took from these movies were the little moments and not the films as a whole: the wonderful opening graveyard scene or Lon Chaney Jr’s nervous breakdown during a sing along at a town festival in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, and most frighteningly, the female lead aging thousands of years in mere moments as she was carried into a swamp in The Mummy’s Ghost.
The first entry in the Dark Universe, 2017’s The Mummy, borrows more from 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand, that film followed two American fortune hunters who served as comedic relief when they weren’t in a scene with Kharis, the slow walking bandaged monster that casual fans would recognize. This “light comedy throughout the mayhem” approach was adopted by Tom Cruise and Jake Johnson in the new film, presumably checking off the boxes of what a modern theater goer would want to see.
But they didn’t.
The Mummy drastically under-performed at the North American box office. Universal put the next film in the series, Bill Condon’s The Bride of Frankenstein, on hold indefinitely and The Dark Universe’s architects, Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, jumped ship. Clearly, audiences don’t care about the Universal Monsters.
Those films, though I love them, were very much of their time. They’re like Shakespeare, incredibly important pieces of entertainment that are appreciated, almost academically now. When a modern audience looks for a character drama, why should they read Macbeth when they can just watch a thematically similar story in prestige television like Breaking Bad?
Horror has evolved, but will the Dark Universe? As recently as January 2018, rumors spread that Bill Condon had hired a crew to resume production on a more standalone version of The Bride of Frankenstein. As a fan, and the director of Gods and Monsters — a biopic about the original’s director, James Whale — Condon’s the perfect choice for a loving tribute.
But what does Universal hope to accomplish at this point? How much money would they be willing to put into this thing? “From the Director of “‘Beauty and the Beast’” would probably be the only way to sell it to the masses. Theater attendance is down, streaming services are up. Perhaps Universal’s best bet would be to put the monsters into one of their reliable cash cows: The Fast and the Furious and the Monsters? Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart meet Frankenstein?
Writing this, I think back to 1943’s Son of Dracula. In it, a woman named Katherine leaves her boyfriend Frank for Count Dracula himself. The twist is that she’s only using Dracula to become immortal so she can then live forever with her true love Frank. The film ends with Frank destroying both of them.
Why is the Dark Universe coming to an end?
…because Dracula is the Universal Monsters, Katherine is the Dark Universe, and Frank is the modern movie going audience.
About Michael Cross:
Man of a certain age, Michael grew up in Upstate New York in the 1960’s & 70’s, now lives in Kissimmee Florida, away from the unforgiving snow of North East Winters. His interests include Auteur Directors, pre-1980’s exploitation & horror movies, Film Noir, Godzilla, & James Bond. You can find him on twitter @mocross63.