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What Universal Studios Doesn’t Understand About Universal Monster Movies

When digging up the past, expect a curse. And with a current score of 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, it seems Universal Studios’ first entry in their much-hyped “Dark Universe” reboot franchise, The Mummy, is one that should have stayed buried.

The last reboot of The Mummy, the 1999 film starring Brendan Frazer, was a hit with audiences, enough to justify two sequels and a whole other spinoff film. So what went wrong this time?

With the exception of 1999’s The Mummy keeping the name Imhotep for the titular villain, that film was a total reinvention, completely shifting genres from horror to a straight Indiana Jones-like action/adventure flick. It didn’t make any attempt to invoke the original film and just seemed to be a totally different movie that happened to share the same title.

As part of this larger extended universe of planned reboots of the 20s-40s Universal classics, arguably the first silver screen “shared universe,” this film can’t so easily escape the aura of the original Mummy. It ends up feeling like a strange hodgepodge of genres that seems more interested in aping the Marvel Cinematic Universe than classic horror. This is most evident in their silly Marvel-inspired “Dark Universe” logo that opens the movie.

Universal seems to inconsistently want this to be both its own new thing and, simultaneously, remind us of the classic Universal Monster films that inspired these reboots. The studio even goes so far as to reuse Dr. Pretorious’ famous line in James Whales’ Bride of Frankenstein:  “To a new world of gods and monsters” — the last three words of which incidentally would have served as a far superior name for this entire reboot franchise than “Dark Universe.”

Much has been written about how this “Dark Universe” aggressively thrusts its larger world in our faces before earning it like Marvel did at the start. Marvel Studios producer Kevin Feige had the good sense to save Nick Fury and “The Avenger Initiative” for the post-credit stinger of its first entry, allowing Iron Man to function as its own standalone movie. And of course the original Universal films were themselves entirely standalone stories that only later spawned sequel team-up films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man that were never part of any preconceived plan.

But the real problem with the “Dark Universe” is bigger than just marketing. It’s that Universal doesn’t understand what made those original films and the characters in them so popular in the first place.

I often say that the best monster movies are the ones where the real monster is us. There are few better examples than those classic Universal monster films where the famous “monsters” were largely tragic figures more deserving of our pity than our fear or scorn.

The two arguably most beloved of all the original Universal monster pictures are James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). In both, Frankenstein’s Monster is a sympathetic creature. He doesn’t intend to harm people. He kills out of self-defense or, as in the instance when he drowns the little girl in the lake, simply because he naively thinks she’ll float like a flower.

In Bride of Frankenstein, Whales emphasizes the Monster’s sense of alienation and loneliness. The Monster actually settles into a peaceful domestic life with a blind hermit for a time before outsiders arrive and drive him out. With nowhere else to go he returns to his creator, meeting along the way the ambitious Dr. Pretorious. Pretorious exploits the Monster’s loneliness, manipulating him to force Dr. Frankenstein to make a companion who can love the Monster the way he is. When the Monster’s last chance at companionship is dashed after even his monstrous bride rejects him, the dejected Monster declares, “We belong dead,” sheds a tear, and commits suicide by blowing up the entire lab.

Erik, the subject of 1925’s silent The Phantom of the Opera, has much in common with Frankenstein’s Monster. He too is a hideous outsider looking for love in all the wrong places. Though there’s nothing healthy about his stalking and abusive behavior to woo understudy Christine, his madness is clearly driven by his alienation and desire for companionship. And like Frankenstein’s Monster, he too is ultimately chased down and killed by an angry mob.

In the original The Mummy (1931), Imhotep’s crime for which he was mummified alive was trying to resurrect his dead lover. Once reawakened, his plot has nothing to do with world domination, unlike the recent remake. Instead, believing a modern woman resembling his lost love to be her reincarnation, sets out to again reunite with the woman he loves by magically transporting her spirit into the body of her living doppelgänger.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? These “gods and monsters” are fundamentally and inescapably human. They are outsiders, freaks, misfits. They are the tragic heroes of their own stories. They are the unloved.

Tod Browning’s 1931 classic, Dracula, presents an exception. The titular vampire devotes much of the run time to obsessed with Jonathan Harker’s wife, Mina, but there is not so much as a hint of a romance between Dracula and Mina. This is the case in the book as well. However, other versions have modified the tale to play up more of a macabre romance, which perhaps makes for a more interesting Dracula.

In 1941’s The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot really is just some innocent guy who, through bad luck, becomes the film’s monster. The werewolf curse is something that happens to him for which he can’t control. He’s killed by his father, whom tragically discovers the truth about the monster after it reverts to its human form upon its death. Talbot is much like a Jekyll/Hyde or Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk figure, a victim of circumstances undeserving of his tragic affliction.

Jack Griffin of 1933’s The Invisible Man — also a James Whale film — is the truest villain of the bunch, so maniacal one can imagine him twirling a mustache the entire film, even if we don’t actually ever see Griffin until he’s finally killed at the end of the film. That being said, however, Griffin does have a fiancee whom he loves. Even after the invisibility serum has driven him mad, on his deathbed, Griffin expresses remorse to her.

None of that pathos, tragedy, and fundamental humanity can be found in the villain of 2017’s The Mummy. She doesn’t just want to resurrect a dead lover; she’s a generic action blockbuster villain after world domination. And the “Dark Universe” franchise is so disinterested in her as a character that it immediately disposes of her, instead setting up Tom Cruise’s hero, Nick Morton — whom steals her power at the end — as the character who will carry over into the rest of this shared universe rather than the actual “mummy” of the film.

I can’t help but think a smarter approach to what I’d have called the “Gods and Monsters Universe” would have been to begin with an Avengers-like team-up film that acted as if it were a true sequel to those original Universal films.

I’d set it in the 1930s or 40s because a modern world aesthetic just doesn’t mesh well with these characters.  A character like the Dark Universe’s Dr. Jekyll by way of Nick Fury could employ methods to resurrect all these “monsters” and recruit them to fight some Lovecraftian creature that can’t be  defeated by normal means. Along the way, the “monsters” each wrestle with the question:  Are they men, or are they monsters? Then perhaps it might be easier to spin these reestablished characters off into their own new individual stories.

Instead, we got a confused mess that not only doesn’t work as a standalone movie, but demonstrates that Universal doesn’t understand the Gothic horror origins that made these monsters enduring in the first place.


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