6:15am PT by Richard Newby
How Blumhouse Can Rehab Universal's Monsters
They’re alive! The news broke Monday that Universal is approaching its famous monsters from a new angle, abandoning the forced connectivity of a cinematic universe and instead concentrating on bringing new life to these characters through singular, director-driven films that will be unique in terms of budget, rating, and tone. Universal is hoping to accomplish this feat alongside Jason Blum, whose studio Blumhouse has delivered some of horror’s hottest properties over the past decade.
The first project to get the greenlight is The Invisible Man, based on the 1897 H.G. Wells’ novel of the same name. The story was famously adapted by Frankenstein director James Whale in the 1933 movie starring Claude Rains, which spawned six sequels at Universal. Leigh Whannell, who has earned his horror cred as one of the minds behind Saw (2004) and Blumhouse’s Insidious franchise, and directed the techno-body horror thriller Upgrade last year, is set to make the Invisible Man visible once more with a new approach. This new approach and Universal’s collaboration with modern horror maestros like Blum and Whannell seems so obvious that it’s a wonder it’s taken this long. But the mistakes Universal has made in the past regarding these properties may hold the answers to clawing their way back to the top.
Universal has tried numerous times over the years to recapture the magic and audience enthusiasm for the monsters that forever changed moviegoing. For the most part, it has been an uphill battle. Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999), an action-adventure take that owed more to Indiana Jones than the 1932 film, successfully led to two sequels and a theatrical spin-off. Universal tried to double-down on the Sommers approach with Van Helsing (2004), which saw Hugh Jackman as the titular vampire hunter caught in a monster-sized conspiracy that found him encountering Mr. Hyde, the Wolf Man, and Dracula. The movie, despite earning over $300 million, failed to generate a sequel though it has gained a small following over the years. While teaming Jackman’s Van Helsing with Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell would have been the ultimate monster mash, Universal surprisingly never went in that direction. The final installment of The Mummy series, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) was supposed to launch a new trilogy, but despite its $401 million worldwide gross in a crowded summer, Universal began looking elsewhere to stake their claim on their monster legacy.
Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman (2010), a remake of the 1941 film, was supposed to put the horror back into Universal’s classic monsters. With a cast including Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, and Geraldine Chaplin, and famed make-up effects guru Rick Baker designing the werewolf transformations, The Wolfman seemed destined to be a new horror classic. But script alterations and a rushed production schedule hampered the final theatrical product and the film bombed, making $139.8 million on a $150 million budget. The extended cut, later released on DVD and Blu-ray, is quite good, filled with strong performances and in need of a reexamination by audiences disappointed with the theatrical release. Still, this home video release wasn’t nearly enough to save the reputation of The Wolfman.
Universal next turned its attention to Dracula with a prequel story Dracula Untold (2014), through which the studio first announced its desire for a cinematic universe starring the classic monsters. The film, which doesn’t offer a particularly new consideration of horror’s most frequently appearing character, did manage to be a small box office success with $217 million worldwide. It’s worth noting that with the exception of The Wolfman, none of Universal’s attempts to resurrect their monsters were box office failures. Even if the critical response lagged, there was nothing to suggest that sequels wouldn’t have proved to be successful with stronger scripts. But Universal wasn’t approaching these movies within the parameters of success for a horror film. With sizeable budgets and blockbuster expectations, it was clear Universal wanted these movies to play like superhero movies. And no evidence pointed to this more than their reboot of The Mummy.
Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy was the most alarming of Universal’s handle on these monsters. The Tom Cruise starrer inexplicably kept its Mummy (Sofia Boutella) in chains for most of the film, while using Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde (Russell Crowe) to deliver exposition and world building that felt like too much too soon in the efforts to launch Universal’s Dark Universe. Universal had banked on having some of the world’s biggest stars as new iterations of classic monsters. Tom Cruise as The Mummy, Johnny Depp as The Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, and rumored appearances by Angelina Jolie as The Bride and Dwayne Johnson as The Wolfman were set to reclaim the cinematic universe that the Universal Monsters had launched back in the '40s. But audiences understandably didn’t want monsters in the guise of superheroes. It wasn’t the cinematic universe that was Dark Universe’s downfall, it was the fact that The Mummy felt like an attempt to capitalize on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, rather than a love letter to Universal’s Monsters. Audiences wanted monsters to be scary, weird, and relevant again. Now with Dark Universe behind them and Jason Blum in its corner, that’s exactly what Universal plans to do.
So how does one modernize monsters born of classic literature and black and white movies? How do these icons, so thoroughly exposed and parodied, frighten us again? If we go back and look at how audiences reacted to Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, these films frightened because they pushed boundaries, revelled in their pre-code freedom and use of taboos. Audiences’ relationship with horror cinema is of course very different today. But arguably, we’re still afraid of much of the same things – the other, the dark, the voices scraping at the base of our skulls, and the question of what people do when we’re not watching them. I think the key approach to these monsters is to not treat them as icons. It should never be about which stars will play them, but about their presentation as something new. When thinking about the continued presence and purpose of these monsters, I often go back to Whale’s Frankenstein and the decision not to credit Boris Karloff in the film’s credits, instead leaving a giant question mark following the role of The Monster. These monsters shouldn’t need to adhere too closely to any iteration of the characters. Yes, we want them to feel like the characters they are, but at the same time, we have to recognize that the unknown is the most frightening. The rules that kept these characters within their gothic constraints should be loosened so that when we encounter them, it feel like the first time. They should exist as question marks.
Another exciting possibility that comes from Blumhouse’s involvement is to see creative filmmakers who thrive on small budgets. Blumhouse has done extremely well in this area over the years, but they can do even better when it comes to getting new voices on these properties. Whannell is a great and proven filmmaker to start with. Interestingly, Whannell’s Upgrade is frequently compared to Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987), and Verhoeven did his own version of The Invisible Man with Hollow Man (2000). But Whannell is only a starting point. It’s important that these monsters aren’t simply being reinvented by people with similar backgrounds. A significant part of the success of Whale’s films and their insights came from the fact that the director was openly gay. In a contemporary society that too often treats people of color, women, and those of the LGBTQIA community as the other, it’s important that these be the filmmakers that Blumhouse and Universal employ to tell these stories.
There is unlimited potential within these monsters, and it shouldn’t be the case that there can’t be two iterations of the same character that co-exist with modern adaptations. As exciting as Whannell’s take on The Invisible Man is, I’d love to see a take on the story that blends both Wells’ take with Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man in a consideration of modern black identity and challenges of existing as both seen and unseen. And it would be equally interesting to see a filmmaker like Leigh Janiak tackle The Creature From the Black Lagoon or The Bride of Frankenstein from the female perspective. For these monsters to not only survive, but thrive, we have to change the way we think about them and be willing to step into strange, uncharted territory. With filmmakers willing to challenge our preconceived notions of these characters, these monsters have the potential of being presented in new ways, playing on modern fears regardless of whether they’re set in the past of present.