Dreamcasting the new Universal Monsters Universe of films.
We here at UMU are all about embracing quality entertainment with open hearts and arms, about pursuing new, monstrous content unabashedly, discussing the worth of horror films without shame. But considering the current state of the affairs the world seems to find itself in, enjoying this year’s new entertainment offerings to their fullest might be quite a tall order. But after first thinking on ways to spread love, stand up to the lions of injustice, and keep the world safe for everyone… Perhaps allow yourself some time to ease into the more fanciful side of things. Life, after all, is about balance. Thinking of subscribing to a cool new podcast? Treating yourself to a spa day? Starting to take yoga classes? Making an effort to finally take that scenic hike you’ve been dreaming of for years? Taking some drawing classes again? Here at UMU, we would encourage you to do all those things, and many more… And since we’re on the topic of what we’d like this year, and to see next year, I would personally like to send a few hopeful wishes out into the vast universe: namely, a dream cast for the upcoming Universal Monsters Universe.
UPON THESE ROCKS
We’ve already been given a wondrous gift in the solid dramatis personae of the Mummy—Sofia Boutella as the starring ancient-queen-turned-curse-upon-the-earth is the crowning achievement in terms of casting perfection; and Academy Award winner Russell Crowe as the enigmatic Dr. Jekyll, who will no doubt (to our great delight) be wrestling with some formidable personal demons. As well, Tom Cruise as the non-monstrous, but “bad” (as the director of the film himself described the character) Nick Morton is a major coup in terms of the film’s promising status as a blockbuster. Let us not forget, either, Annabelle Wallis, a tremendously talented actress giving life to Jenny Halsey—a character still shrouded in mystery. As well, Universal has been reported as officially casting Oscar winner Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, a hugely appropriate choice for the deeply complex role; and Johnny Depp, a consistent box-office success famous for quirky, slightly mad roles, as the Invisible Man. Thus, the shared Universal Monsters cinematic universe has already proven itself capable of not only being able to cast talented, critically-acclaimed artists who have the potential to perfectly portray the characters, but also to cast major Hollywood stars who could be significant box-office draws for the films. Now, with all this in mind, is it not only fair to consider what gifts the future may hold for we brave, monster-loving souls?
Apparently, Universal has been in talks with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for the character of the Wolfman, a piece of casting work which, if secured, would be both lucrative and brilliant on the studio’s part. However, failing that admittedly heady idea, who else would portray the role well? After much consideration, my top choice would be Idris Elba. An extraordinarily talented actor with an incredible range, Elba has not only the physicality for the role, but the ability to seamlessly shift from cool, collected command to utter vulnerability to unbridled rage. He has a fascinating presence, and smooth, articulate, intelligent speech that would fit the background of Lawrence Talbot. For these same reasons, actors Tom Hardy, Colin Farrell, and Noomi Rapace would be excellent secondary choices. After Elba or Johnson, it would especially interesting to see Noomi Rapace, someone who has excelled at playing women far more dangerous than they appear, add a new dimension to the werewolf legend—after all, it is only recently mainstream films have begun to feature female rage and violence as equally valid and frightening as that of men, rather than being sexualized or used to comedic effect.
THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Universal, in another bold move, has approached Scarlett Johansson for an unnamed “leading role” in the in-development Black Lagoon project. Whether this is for a gender-swapped version of the leading scientist Dr. Carl Maia of the original film, or for the ancient Creature itself—or perhaps, if all our wildest fantasies may be made reality, a scientist who will be somehow “infected” and transformed into the new Creature for the shared universe? The mind races, and the monster-loving heart flutters… But if this dream fails, what then?
My first suggestion would be Samira Wiley, best known for her work as Poussey Washington on Orange Is The New Black. Not only is she a brilliant actress, but she has a bold, unflinching intensity and sincere vulnerability that would be fascinating to see in either a passionate woman of science making her way across a dangerous new frontier or in a lonely, strange Creature. She also has a gift for wit and comedic delivery that could add an interesting dimension and warmth to the otherwise horrific and tragic situations of the film. Other suggestions could be Tilda Swinton or Matt Smith, not only for their talent as actors and similar gifts, but also because they have fascinating, somewhat otherworldly features that could lend to the alien-ness of the Creature.
BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN
In yet another brilliant turn of events, Universal has offered Angelina Jolie the role of the infamous Bride, and is yet “in talks” with her for the project. Jolie is an artist with the distinction of being unfailingly excellent and committed no matter the caliber of the film she is starring in; and when the film is excellent along with her, she is nothing short of magnetic. But while no one could deny she would absolutely (to use the parlance of our times) slay the role of the Bride, there is always the possibility she will not sign on. In which case, my first choice to play the role in her place would be the inimitable Viola Davis. Equally captivating, equally full of grace, Davis has shown herself to be an actor of incredible depth and incredible breadth. The Bride requires not only coldness, command, and distance; but also rage, terror, vulnerability, and a sort of tormented innocence. She, like the Monster, has been ripped into life again; forced into an existence as a lost, strange creature in an unforgiving world, with a callous creator who cares nothing for her agency. As not only an Academy Award nominated, Emmy-winning actress of the highest caliber, but a black woman, the role would become still more mesmerizing, dynamic, and heart-wrenching in Davis’s capable hands. Other actresses who would be truly intriguing to see in the role would be Tatiana Maslany and Rinko Kikuchi—both physically diminutive and both forces of nature in their own right, it would be fascinating to see what they did with the role of the unstable, beautiful woman with a fragile innocence and no shortage of consuming pain.
As someone still wearing full Victorian mourning dress for the loss sadly shared by all at UMU, this is a tender topic. The wounds are yet fresh, the pain still quite near. But, for the love of monsters, I stand here still with the mighty pen in hand. The loss I speak of is, of course, less a physical death than the death of a dream—the dream of once again seeing Luke Evans as Dracula. Not simply as the starting point this time, the origin story for what Dracula would become, with mere hints of darkness simmering beneath the sincere love for kith and kin, the desire to protect them… Nay, this dream involved seeing Luke Evans excel in the role of the Dracula we all know and love, the ancient Prince of Darkness with all the powers of the night at his command, with a smile Judas in hell would be proud of—a role which he undoubtedly would have killed, if you’ll forgive the pun. But, alas… Alas… This dream is dead. And though it is difficult to write with several mourning rings hindering mobility and the traditional Victorian mourning veil obscuring my vision, for all those fellow Dracula-lovers, I do dredge up hope and trudge on. Dracula never truly dies, after all—he regenerates again and again, throughout the centuries, wearing different faces and sometimes questionable wigs. Who could do him justice? After deep thought and no shortage of wracking my brain, my first choice came to me like a blinding epiphany, one that seems far too obvious now… Michael Fassbender. Not only one of the most critically acclaimed and talented actors working today, but also one who has achieved fair box office success through his range, intensity, and effortless charisma. He has been described as acting the same way a lion or a shark attacks and devours prey; he can terrify, repulse, move, seduce, and compel one all at once; he is physically suited to the role—I really do feel foolish outlining this, it really does feel almost too on the nose. Other actors who could potentially give us the Count Dracula we sorely need and well deserve are Mads Mikkelsen and Zachary Quinto, for the same kind of dark powers mentioned above.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
There has been a strange absence of talk about this particular “monster” on the part of Universal; which makes a certain amount of sense. The Phantom of the Opera—or Erik, as he is named in the original novel by Gaston Leroux—is quite different from many of the other Monsters in Universal’s canon of characters. He is a very human monster, whose horror comes not from preternatural abilities or an undead nature, but instead from a deformed body, tarnished heart, distorted soul, and a brilliant, twisted mind. As well, he is a deeply tragic figure who is ultimately “defeated”—who finds his salvation through love, turns back on his evil ways to free the pure and good Christine Daae, and ultimately redeems himself before dying in the catacombs of his Opera House. He hardly has the power to control storms or command the night creatures, as Dracula does; or the invulnerability to any manmade weapons possessed by Frankenstein’s creatures. However, he is also the Opera Ghost, possessing certain near-supernatural skills from his time as an assassin and magician traveling the world—hypnosis, ventriloquism, illusion, chemistry, architecture, and nearly any other craft he puts his mind to learning. He is also possessed of “a heart that could have held the empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar”; and effortless artistic talent that manages to convince others around him that he is far more than human. And if Universal were to lean into the myth—make him an actual spirit after his human death, perhaps—there is no reason he couldn’t be every bit as powerful and captivating a monster as any of the others in the pantheon. Now, if this wonder did come to pass—who would play him? In a recent interview with Mummy director Alex Kurtzman, composer-performer-writer-activist-extraordinaire Lin-Manuel Miranda was suggested.
One may initially be tempted to suggest other luminaries of the stage who have played the role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous musical adaptation before—such as Ramin Karimloo, who portrayed the Phantom in the recent 25th Anniversary concert in London for the global musical phenomenon; or other popular stars like the West End’s John-Owen Jones and Earl Carpenter, or Broadway’s Hugh Panaro and Norm Lewis. These would all, no doubt, be interesting choices, and the actors would assuredly excel in the role. However, for our purposes, let us consider several things: first, that acting for the camera and acting for the stage are quite different; next, that the characterization of the Phantom in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s magnificent musical diverges quite significantly from the Phantom in the novel upon which Universal’s 1925 film is based; and last, the sad truth that, typically, film actors would simply draw larger audiences.
Keeping all this in mind, I would say quite firmly that the best man for the job would be Tom Hiddleston. As well as fitting the physical description of Erik in the novel—gruesome deformity notwithstanding, of course—and having an appropriately smooth and articulate voice, the actor is one of the most prominent male stars in the film world today for a reason. He has shown himself to be incredibly gifted in all the roles he has been given; and seems to have an affinity for intelligent, lonely, tormented, dark, dangerous, tragic, and half-mad characters. He has a talent for humanizing complex, flawed, monstrous characters that makes him a perfect choice for the role of The Phantom. Failing this, actors Viggo Mortenson and Lee Pace would also be interesting choices for the role; both tremendously talented in their own rights, both committed artists with the capacity to transform into whoever they are playing at any given time.
Again, Universal has not mentioned this particular monster in what they’ve said of their plans for the cinematic universe thus far; but it seems an awful shame to let such an infamous, wicked character go to waste. Dorian Gray is not only immortal and maybe impervious to certain ailments and wounds; but also, of all the monsters Universal can claim, one whose monstrosity comes ultimately from an apathetic amorality and pure, cold inner evil. So who could play this eternally youthful monster whose (great) beauty is only skin-deep?
Any number of male models could pull off the surface of the role, but for the purposes of a great performance as well; my first suggestion would be Rami Malek, best known for his portrayal of an anti-social, deeply troubled hacker in acclaimed television series Mr Robot. Malek is not only fits the description of “a beautiful youth,” but has also proven himself highly capable of bringing to life a character who operates outside of what is normally defined as “humanity”. For similar reasons, my second and third choices would be the ridiculously talented Sebastian Stan and Ben Whishaw, respectively. Anyone who has seen Stan as the Winter Soldier or Whishaw in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer could agree that either of them, along with Rami Malek, could do Dorian Gray great justice.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not just the monsters that make Universal’s classic horror tales what they are; but also their heroes. And, as anyone who has spoken to me about Mina Murray before would know, she is not just a hero but, in fact, The Hero. Yet another reason I wear my aforementioned Victorian mourning garb is for the passing of our chance of seeing Sarah Gadon as possibly the greatest incarnation of Mina Murray the world has yet seen—a tragedy I have bemoaned both frequently and intensely. But, what is done is done, and so I again ignore the pain in old wounds to reach for hope for the future. And such considerations being part of the healing process, I’d like to assert my first choice: the inimitable Jessica Chastain. A veritable chameleon who consistently shifts from role to role, no matter the character, with grace, skill, passion, and irresistible radiance; she would no doubt at last give us the Mina Murray we deserve—a hero not with the aggression or fighting skills typically associated with strength, but instead of spirit of light and steel that Dracula knows nothing of, and is ultimately beaten by. Other actresses who would no doubt “crush it” (as the kids say) would be Ruth Negga or Natalie Portman, for their similarly transcendent talents for portraying characters who are warm, loyal, intelligent, tremendously vulnerable, and incredibly brave all at once; as the long-suffering Mina Murray is.
DR. ABRAHAM VAN HELSING
As well as being an obsessive, highly eccentric living grimoire of monster-hunting knowledge, Van Helsing is also a deeply flawed character who commits morally questionable acts with the absolute certainty that he is doing what is right, that he is “God’s madman”. Overall, his intentions are good, and he cares for those he tries to protect, but he is not without his own worrying beliefs—namely, that the ends always justify the means. He is, nonetheless, a character whose name has become synonymous with the hunting and killing of monsters, going hand in hand with his enemy Dracula. In the novel he provides practical knowledge of supernatural creatures, comic relief, reckless action, and the tendency to fight fire with fire; a fascinating, bizarre, off-color academic with a slightly twisted sense of humor and a shadowy area of expertise.
Anyone who has seen his work could undoubtedly picture first suggestion Christoph Waltz in the role; he can be effectively chilling, gleeful, or manic, and often, all of them at once. As well, though he is not Dutch as the novel’s van Helsing is, his natural German nationality would no doubt suit the character—who, to be fair, frequently uses German phrases in Stoker’s tale. Other actors who could add a unique touch to the colorful Doctor would be Ralph Fiennes or Hugo Weaving, also accomplished actors with large ranges and admirable, total commitment to each role they play, no matter how strange.
Unlike many of the other female characters featured in Universal’s monster pictures, Christine Daae plays a central role in her story—she is necessary and irremovable to the plot of Phantom of the Opera, the driving force behind the climax of the tale, the reason for the beginning and the end of strange affair of the Opera Ghost. Without her purity, her innocence, transcendent talent, compassion, mercy, love, and light, there would be no tale to tell. Only a young woman at the story’s start, she is lonely, frail, vulnerable, and deeply naïve, always somewhat in her own world. She is forced to mature very quickly over the course of the disastrous chain of events, but in the crucible of repeated hardships and horrors her inner strength is proven—her capacity for love, empathy, understanding and kindness. Ultimately, the gothic love story between her and the Phantom remains amorphous and unrequited; but it is her love that saves the day, overcoming her fear and the Phantom’s darkness.
For the role, my first choice would be Alicia Vikander—not only does she share Christine’s nationality and most of her physical traits, but she is also one of the most gifted young actors working today. She would be able to capture the details and minutia of Christine’s mostly silent struggles, repressed emotions, and inner turmoil; she would be enchanting, sublime, and sincerely lovely, impossible not to fall in love with… Which, after all, is the very nature of Christine Daae’s character. Coming in a close second would be Lupita Nyong’o, for though she may look quite different from the Christine described in Leroux’s novel, her ability to capture the person of the innocent, warm Mademoiselle Daae is beyond a shadow of a doubt—the mind races at the mere idea of what she could potentially bring to the role. Another prospective choice for the role could be Emilia Clarke, famous for playing Daenerys Targaryen on HBO’s Game of Thrones; she has, after all, shown herself to be forged from fire. And like the aforementioned actors and Christine Daae herself, in the words of William Shakespeare, “Though she be but small, she is fierce!” Despite Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the novel centering around Christine and her journey, still her significance, sensitivity, and strength tends to be forgotten; and it would be refreshing to see even more done to right that imbalance.
Though not usually included in the list of monsters made famous by Universal, the Victor Frankenstein of the novel, and even the film, is less than heroic; and far less sympathetic than the Creature he created, to whom the name “Monster” is given. The relationship between the prideful, arrogant Doctor and his wronged Creature is a deeply complex one, and he is a fascinating character, his sins having a different origin—rather than malice, revenge, or ancient evil, like Dracula or The Mummy, his crimes are born of hubris, selfishness, indifference, and spiritual impotence. In the novel, he is an arrogant, obsessive young man who creates something without ever thinking whether he should, and is utterly unable to control or even cope with the consequences of his careless actions.
Gael Garcia Bernal, best known for his work in Y Tu Mamá También, Even the Rain, and Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle, would no doubt powerfully capture the ill-fated Frankenstein. All his woes, brilliance, and failings; Bernal, an actor of great intelligence and considerable skill, would no doubt embody them all. Other actors who would be well-suited to the role would be Hugh Dancy or Eddie Redmayne, who have already shown a certain talent for playing gifted men facing things beyond their ken, who possess hidden darkness or potentially destructive secrets.
DREAM A LITTLE DREAM WITH ME
As we look forward to the rest of the year, dreaming our dreams and preparing ourselves to stay strong and safe in the times ahead, let us have hope; not only for a great cast in the Universal Monsters reboots, but also for the world entire. Let us take care of each other, take care of ourselves, and delight in life’s simple joys—including, of course, monsters, and those gifted individuals who bring them to life. If you liked the choices for casting in the article, or have some ideas of your own, feel free to dream with me and all the lovely people here at UMU—respond in the comments below! As always: make monsters, and also love. That is how the saying goes, isn’t it?
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)