First, the good news. Universal Pictures is reviving its classic monsters, those terrifying creatures that first stalked the screen in the glorious black and white horror movies of the 1930s and early 1940s – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man et al. Their images, inspired by literature and folklore, were brought to life by some of cinema’s greatest visionaries, and have become an inextricable part of our popular culture.
Now the bad news: Donna Langley, Universal Pictures chairman, announced during a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable discussion that the studio is preparing to “reimagine” them. Uh-oh.
You can see where Universal is coming from. These days, every Hollywood film studio has to have its money-spinning franchise. Leader of the pack is Marvel Studios, based at Walt Disney, whose slate of forthcoming productions threatens to give us superheroes like Captain America, Hulk and Thor up the kazoo until the next century, and beyond. Jostling them for pole position is Warner Bros with popular DC characters such as Superman and Batman.
Now Universal wants in on the act. Not content with churning out hit series such as Fast & Furious, the Jason Bourne films and Despicable Me, the studio is casting a covetous eye at those lucrative Marvel and DC superheroes. As Langley said, “We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies – unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day.”
Do you remember Universal’s post-Millennium monster movies? Do you remember The Mummy and its increasingly naff sequels? How about Van Helsing, Dracula Untold or The Wolfman – which even Universal’s president admitted was “one of the worst movies we made, though for me the decisive scuppering factor was Benicio Del Toro’s uncanny resemblance to Frankie Howerd.
But surely, these films were already more “action-adventure” than horror – degenerating into incontinent montages of thinly-drawn characters leaping around amid wall-to-wall CGI and jitterbug editing, as though the film-makers were terrified of dialling the action down for a few seconds in case their ADD-afflicted audiences got bored. And maybe, just maybe, it was the poor quality of the films themselves, rather than their half-baked nods to the horror genre, that prevented all but The Mummy from spawning sequels.
Elsewhere, beyond Universal, there’s no shortage of action-adventure that has already co-opted the classic horror creatures of yore to resolutely non-horrific effect: the never-ending dingdong of vampires vs lycanthropes in the dreary Underworld films; the arch alliance of classic horror movie characters in the botched bowdlerisation of Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a movie that featured a car chase through the streets of Venice, for heaven’s sake); or the unspeakably stupid I, Frankenstein, a film notable chiefly for its bad tooth make-up and gargoyles clad in leather peplums.
There’s no question that horror comes in cycles – what seems frightening to one generation will invariably seem quaint and laughable to the next, which ups the ante by inventing something scarier, which in turn will seem tame to the next generation, and so on. It’s a genre that needs constantly to be reinvented. There’s also the problem that big-budget “horror” movies are, by their very nature, anything but horrific. They have to appeal to mainstream audiences who wouldn’t stand for anything too unpleasant, with the result that the horror in a blockbuster zombie movie such as World War Z is watered down until it’s no more disturbing than an average episode of Doctor Who, with a lot of running around in corridors somewhere in Wales.
Another problem is that upmarket film-makers who have built their reputations in more prestigious genres just don’t “get” horror, so when they deign to make a horror movie they imagine they’re the first to spot the symbolic and metaphorical content that has always formed part of horror’s subliminal appeal. Take the late Mike Nichols, who saw Wolf as “transcending the horror genre” and apparently imagined, rather endearingly, that he was the first director ever to portray the wolfman as a metaphor for modern masculinity and the beast within. Or Robert De Niro, agreeing to play the creature in Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, “because I knew that Ken was going to make more than just another horror film, that he was going to give it a deeper meaning.” You idiots! The “deeper meaning” is already there. It always has been.
It’s also telling, perhaps, that Universal already has a hit horror franchise in the form of the The Purge series, which is presumably too low-budget and downmarket to figure in their grand plans. All innovative horror films – the so-called “game-changers” – come out of left-field and the low budget sector, from non-mainstream directors working with unknown actors: films like Night of the Living Dead, Shivers, Rabid, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Blair Witch Project, and (the scariest film in aeons, even scarier than The Babadook) this year’s It Follows, which parlays its rock bottom budget, iffy dialogue and uneven performances into a truly terrifying and genuinely original supernatural chiller.
So perhaps it’s logical for a big studio like Universal to give up all pretence of trying to frighten audiences in favour of bombarding them with gung-ho action. The men in charge of this new approach have been named as Alex Kurtzman – whose screenplays for Transformers and Cowboys & Aliens indicate there will be lots of very loud CGI-generated mayhem in his 2016 reboot of The Mummy – and Chris Morgan, whose work on The Fast and the Furious sequels shows that he knows his way around a franchise, but whose early CV, more promisingly, includes the screenplay of Cellular, from a story by legendary exploitation maverick Larry Cohen.
So let us keep our fingers crossed. Perhaps the new Universal franchise will give us thrill-a-minute fun-rides, souped-up Monster Squads for our times, in which case hurrah for them, and for us. But one thing they WON’T be is proper monster movies. The most we can hope for is that the classic horror creatures, lurking embodiments of some of cinema’s most enduring nightmares, are treated with a modicum of respect. So tread softly, Universal, for you tread on our dreams.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph site in December 2013.
After the box-office failure of The Mummy (2017), Kurtzman and Morgan announced their departure from the “Dark Universe” franchise in November 2017.