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What The World Needs Now Is Love (And Universal Monsters)! Sweet, Sweet, Monsters!

Universal Monsters Universe

Who among us could disagree with good old Burt? The world does need love, and a lot of it. Also, of course, monsters. Sweet, sweet monsters. No, not just monsters for some; but monsters for everyone.

SECTION I: Has Dracula Risen From The Grave?

But, before we get into all that, let us travel a short while back in time. The strangely under-advertised Dracula Untold was released to mostly negative reviews and underperformance at the box office. At best, reviews were mixed, praising the performances of Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, and Charles Dance in his small role, as well as the undeniably sweeping visuals, costume, and art direction; while finding fault with the plot—which, for most of the film’s critics, fell flat, was full of holes, and lacked any real bite. One particularly harsh review read “This Dracula Should Have Stayed Untold.” If that isn’t a stake through the heart, I don’t know what is.

I did not agree with the vast majority of critics. I thought Dracula Untold to be a wholly decent film… Not a masterpiece of cinematic perfection by any means, but a relatively solid, entertaining blockbuster movie; not as good as something of the caliber of the Lord of the Rings trilogy or some entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, perhaps, but a far cry better than anything in, say, the Transformers or Twilight franchises. As a fan of the original novel—who has been disappointed many times before—I had low expectations for the film and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it; as well as the simple fact that it did not, to use the parlance of our times (while making a terrible pun), suck.

Even with the advantage of hindsight, and having watched and analyzed the movie several more times (as one does), I stand by much of that initial judgment to this very day. I do not consider Dracula Untold a guilty pleasure. I do indeed have guilty pleasure movies, movies which I enjoy completely un-ironically, despite knowing in my very core that they are absolute garbage. And standing proudly in my truth, I hereby go on the record saying: I do not believe Dracula Untold is anything close to absolute garbage.

SECTION II: In The Land of Gods and Monsters (But Mostly Monsters)

Stepping away from this vampire film completely devoid of scintillation for a moment, let us now discuss monster movies and the time-honored literary tradition from which they are derived.

For any modern fan of gothic literature, myself included, it is indeed a beautiful time to be alive. Penny Dreadful, somewhat tragically, finished its excellent run on Showtime in the spring of last year. Crimson Peak was released in October 2015, and in it, Guillermo del Toro made every mad dream literary obsessives have ever had of a perfectly gothic film come true; entwining the lush and darkly beautiful visuals for which he is
famous with all the hallmarks and dread of classic gothic fiction, with the added bonus of a more timely, updated feminist message (another important component of Guillermo del Toro’s entire body of work).

The Babadook, Under the Shadow, and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, all critically-acclaimed and all fulfilling a great many hallmarks of the gothic genre in an excellently chilling fashion, are currently available on Netflix. Disney’s live action remake of its own classic version of the Beauty and the Beast tale (featuring Dracula himself, Luke Evans, as Gaston) is due for a tremendous opening in only a few short weeks. The Witch, an indie horror film which received great acclaim in the 2016 festival circuit, was highly gothic and deeply chilling. Victor Frankenstein, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic starring James McAvoy and Daniel Racliffe, was also released last year. The Eyes of My Mother, another eerie gothic tale which received acclaim in its festival runs, had its limited release in late 2016, and was hailed as one of the best movies of the year. Guillermo del Toro allegedly would like to develop his own unique and entirely reimagined film version of The Haunted Mansion for Disney—which, if Crimson Peak is anything to go on, will be magnificent.

Similar things could be said of the present time for fans of monsters in film.
Aside from the aforementioned causes for excitement, King Kong and Godzilla are getting new films—Kong: Skull Island
featuring such luminaries as Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, and Samuel L. Jackson, is on the very cusp of theatrical release; and the recent remake of Godzilla has a sequel in the works, just over the horizon. Alien: Covenant (having released several thrilling videos in its advertising campaign already) is just as hotly anticipated, scheduled to hit theaters May of this year. As well, it has become apparent to all avid fans of motion pictures that we are living—in large part due to Marvel’s explosive success—in the Age of the Cinematic Universe. So, if you consider the current status of the cinematic market, the time is ripe for Universal to throw itself headfirst (along with DC, Disney live-action remakes, Star Wars, and countless others) into the franchise-building game. And Universal has ample material for such an endeavor, squarely in its back-pocket. Way, way back.

SECTION III: It’s Not A Phase, It’s Who I Am

We now return to a long-ago time—the 1930’s in the United States of America. The golden age of old. A simpler time, when everything was better. Right?

Well… No. Not in the slightest, in fact. It was in no way a simpler time: as any student of history could tell you, to say anything less would be historical revisionism and romanticizing of a period in history which, like any other, had its issues as well as its good points. And in actual fact, if you consider the point of view of anyone besides a heterosexual, Protestant, conservative, white American male, it likely had more bad than good. But, I digress: the Great Depression was ravaging the country; and as time went on, the nation would also enter the Second World War. What could help the people of the country in these dark times?

The movies, it turned out. Motion pictures were enjoying a period of vast success in these days—with the advent of talking motion pictures, it was even easier for the average American to escape into some glitzy Hollywood picture and forget their all-too-real troubles for a while. But people were not just in the mood for glamour and sparkle from Tinseltown; as it so happened, they also sought a more thrilling form of entertainment, in the form of the first major horror movies. Universal’s Carl Laemmle had released the silent Phantom of the Opera— starring the Man of A Thousand Faces himself, Lon Chaney Sr.—in 1925 to wild success, setting the stage for what was to come.

In 1931, Bela Lugosi starred in what remains the most well-known Dracula film of all time, launching Universal’s classic monster phase. Through the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, beasts and grotesque creatures emerged from the shadows of studio stages to chill the blood of audiences throughout the country—notably,  in Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), the Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Wolf Man (1941), and the Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954); all of whom enjoyed numerous sequels, spin-offs, and some of the first crossovers in movie history.

But like all good things, the phase had to end at some point. Audiences lost their taste for monster movies after a certain point, and the mainstream horror genre endured something of a hiatus for about a decade. Universal, reading the signs of the times, peeled off its monster makeup and carefully tucked away the fake cobwebs; moving on to other things. So, you may ask (or you may not, I don’t presume to know the inner workings of your psyche)… What happens now? Let us return to our present day and the matter at hand… love, sweet love.

SECTION IV: Brave New World

The love I speak of, ladies, gentleman, and those of you who do not conform to the binary, is the love of movies. Specifically, the love of monster movies. How now shall we approach this new cinematic universe, off to a rocky start with the badly-recieved Dracula Untold, which some of you might agree “should have remained untold”?

At the risk of sounding terribly trite: with open arms, I say. With love and with hope.

To my fellow monster-movie-lovers, my comrades: let not the bad reviews of one small movie discourage you. I would urge you to give it a chance—after all, it is only ninety minutes of your time. Instead of re-watching an episode of Sherlock, which while admittedly excellent, you’ve likely already seen, you could be watching a Dracula origin story. What is the worst that could happen? And even if you don’t enjoy this batty (sorry, I could not resist—I am weak, my friends, so weak) film, I would also propose that you not judge an entire cinematic universe, brimming with potential, on one “mediocre” prologue.

The brimming potential I speak of could be very great indeed. Consider all the possibilities, with modern story-telling and film artistry being where it is today. From a technical standpoint alone, a reboot of any of the Universal Monster movies is an enthralling idea. But there are more important things that could come of this reboot. 

The much-loved Universal Monster movies are classics for a reason. There is something about each of these films, and the creatures featured within, that transcend the boundaries of time. They are stories, elegant in their simplicity, of darkness and danger—and human beings, from our beginnings crouching around the fire at night, have always loved to tell such tales.

However, there is another, uglier side to these old movies, as well. It is important to note that other aspects of these classics do not date so well. Namely, in their hugely old-fashioned representations of women and people of color. Mina Murray, the true hero of the Dracula novel, is reduced to a fainting damsel; the Mummy, the most famous Egyptian figure in pop culture, is played by a British man in brown-face and eyeliner. As in most films of that era, the vast majority of female or non-white characters are reduced to caricatures, victims, or one-note villains.

With these reboots, Universal has the chance to adapt stories that better fit the world we live in, and properly tell the tales of more diverse, fully-realized characters. I was concerned about this, at first; though the main female character in Dracula Untold was complex, strong, and well-played, she was the only woman in a major role in the story. And as for people of color, the main villain of the film was a Turkish sultan Mehmed II (who, to be fair, was the historical enemy of Vlad III Dracula), played by Dominic Cooper in bronzer and eyeliner. I’m no expert on the ethnic background of Turkey—in the present day or in the mid 1400’s, when the film is set. However, I think it’s fair to say that casting a British actor of British and Scottish descent, noticeably darkening his skin, and putting eyeliner on him may not have been the best choice. While Dominic Cooper is a very fine actor, perhaps they should have looked a little more carefully for someone who would be playing Turkish sultan Mehmed II, one of the most prolific and respected Islamic and Middle-Eastern rulers in the Ottoman Empire’s long and fascinating history. Really, Hollywood?

My fears for the next entry in Universal’s new Monster Cinematic Universe, The Mummy—rumors of Tom Cruise being cast in a “main role” were terrifying when Hollywood has, on several occasions, showed that the fact that it is 2016 will do little to stop their continued white-washing—have been mostly assuaged, however. In fact, with the new trailer and featurette being released with Sofia Boutella in the titular role, as Princess Ahmanet; and director Alex Kurtzman asserting in interviews that not only Tom Cruise will not be at all a heroic character, but that the story centers all around Boutella’s character… Such wondrous news warms the blood, dear readers. Annabelle Wallis, Courtney B. Vance, Javier Botet, and Marwan Kenzari have also been cast, and while only time can tell what the size and significance of their roles will be, their inclusion in the film is reason for ample hope.

What is next, you ask? The mind races. Oscar-winner Javier Bardem has reportedly been cast as Frankenstein’s monster, and fellow Oscar-winner Russell Crowe has been confirmed to play Dr. Jekyll in the upcoming The Mummy. Scarlett Johansson reportedly has been approached for the main role in Creature From the Black Lagoon—according the report, as some sort of scientist; perhaps a gender-flipped version of the original version’s protagonist Dr. Carl Maia (I didn’t even know I wanted it, but now, the idea will never release me). Other articles pass on rumors that Academy Award winner Angelina Jolie has been approached to play the Bride of Frankenstein; and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson approached to play the Wolf-man.

Much of this is speculation—there is so much we still do not know. As has likely been pointed out before, the only classic monster who really needs to be one particular person is Dracula himself. The rest of the monsters are known by titles, not names—thus, they could really be played by anyone. The “Wolf-Man” need only be a werewolf; the “Mummy” need only carry the Mummy’s curse and powers; “The Invisible Man” need only be invisible, mad, and in possession of certain skills. Aside from these requirements, most of the monsters could be anyone—of any gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or nationality.

The directors and casts for these films are yet largely uncertain. But from fresh newcomers to classic standbys, the possibilities for artists that could be involved are boundless. This franchise, after all, is only in its very early stages. It could go anywhere. It could be really, truly great.

SECTION V: Something Wicked This Way Comes

However, unless this franchise is approached with an open mind and a heart full of love, it could fail before it even gets a foothold. Already, the slightly worrying domestic reception (and slightly better international one) for Dracula Untold does not give a sense of a stable or certain future for this particular cinematic universe. There are hopes for the Mummy as a summer blockbuster, but at this point, the future is in the hands of audiences worldwide—audiences such as we here at UMU, and of course, you, dear readers.

If you share my feelings about this, I would not only encourage you to comment below and discuss them, but also to show your support on public forums. Tweet at Universal Pictures, even Facebook message them. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Tell the world.

What the world needs, besides love, of course, is equality. And also, I would like to reiterate: monster movies. Good, entertaining, inclusive, interesting, and elegantly simple… Monster movies.

(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)

About the author

Anna Strauss

Favorite Monster Movie? A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Favorite Monster? An impossible choice. Amateur thanatologist, narratologist, teratologist, folklorist, storyteller, scholar, performer, and witch who appears to unwary travelers at deep forest crossroads on moonless nights.

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