Editor’s Note: Welcome to October, the month of Spooks. Kicking off our month is our Movie Mechanic’s reconstruction of The Dark Universe. Check it out below Crunchers!
Make: Universal Pictures, Legendary
Model: Classic Horror, Action, Dracula Untold & The Mummy
Year: 2014 & 2017
It’s October, the month of darkness. Let’s get dark. Today, we’re rebuilding the Dark Universe.
Universe building is a lucrative endeavor when it is done right. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grossed over $17.5B in the box office. But even when done wrong, it can still bring in lots of money. The DCEU has brought in almost $4B with only 5 movies and much harsher criticisms. It’s no wonder every major studio is digging through their libraries looking for fertile fields in which to build a film franchise. For Universal, they dusted off their classic monster movies, Dracula and The Mummy, to start a franchise that would include Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, and many others. Thus was conceived the Dark Universe.
But, with the lackluster success of The Mummy, the Dark Universe has been languishing in development purgatory, waiting for signs of life, or the final nail in the coffin. While things look bleak, there is still a pulse in this franchise, as http://www.darkuniverse.com is still active, as is the website for Prodigium. Universal has to play this series right in order keep it going, or the next movie will kill it dead. Without further ado, let’s get to the rebuild.
What works: Classic Characters. Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman, the Mummy, and many other classics call Universal Studios home. Of course, they have to get the order and casting right, but these monsters have always been scary and compelling, and what’s more, are often the inspiration for more modern characters like the X-Men. Dracula Untold, for example, got a lot right. Basing the movie on Vlad the Impaler, and giving Dracula a sympathetic origin led largely to an interesting movie. Dracula had nothing but hard choices and tragedy through the whole movie. With some different direction and cinematography, it could have been high art.
Another thing that works is the depth of material and related themes. The reason these characters endure is because they speak to our basic fear of death, as well as our morality. And when they focus on those themes, not just for jump scares, but for real suspense, these movies can work. There is a scene in Dracula Untold where his countrymen discover he has become a vampire. They turn on him because he is unholy, even though he is trying to save them. Dracula faces a difficult choice, but he maintains his integrity, showing us how upstanding he is. He isn’t a monster (yet), he is just a man in an impossible situation, trying to save his people.
What doesn’t work: The tone. The Mummy cannot decide between gross out scares or high energy action comedy. As a result, it fails at both. Dracula Untold, likewise aspires to Shakespearean tragedy, but settles for dark action flick. The real tragedy is that we didn’t get both.
Another problem is the superficiality of these movies. Each of these movies should be driven by an enduring theme that it can explore, bringing audiences an existential, moral, or philosophical journey. For Dracula, the theme the quest for enduring love. When a man is faced with impossible odds, what will he do to protect his love, to ensure its survival? In the case of Dracula, he exchanged his humanity for love, only to lose both. Dracula Untold pulled this punch too quickly in the final moments of the film by revealing that his lost love could be reborn.
The Mummy is all about the price of immortality. Immortality is attainable, but the cost is your humanity. You must give up your innards, your beauty, your mind. You get to exist in a cursed state, as a plague upon those who would also seek to extend their existence beyond mortality. To be human is to be temporary, so to achieve permanence, humanity has to be tossed aside. Likewise, the other movie monsters deal with issues of their own. The Wolfman is man vs. beast (think Wolverine). The Invisible Man is about conscience and personal recognition. The Black Lagoon is about the power and mystery of nature. Frankenstein is about man’s quest for divinity through technology, as well as the uncertainty of one’s legacy. All of these themes are ripe for the Dark Universe to explore. Ultimately, there has to be a theme that unites these monsters in a common cause. This is our task with this rebuild: (1) restructure the existing movies to provide a better foundation, (2) lay out a roadmap for the next 3-4 movies, and (3) provide a common cause that brings these monsters together.
Dracula Untold: Dracula is essentially Better Call Saul; a guy with a sordid past tries to overcome his darker tendencies to be a good man, but due to the ever more difficult challenges and ever more impossible choices, he must turn to his dark side to stave off disaster. As in Better Call Saul, this movie could benefit from some slower paced moments so the audience can agonize the decisions facing Vlad, and come to the same horrible realizations he does. More closeups, more quiet moments, and more anguish at the hopelessness of his situation, would bring so much more depth to the film, that when we arrive at the final act, not only do we see the tragedy coming, we dread it. We want Vlad to keep his humanity, even though we know he must succumb in the end, because the tragedy is inevitable. His love will be crushed, as much by his own choices as by the destructive forces mounting in the world. And it is the rage of this tragic loss that pushes him over the edge. Since he cannot protect his love, he will avenge his hatred. In the end, he destroys his enemies and mourns his lost love. He relinquishes his will to Nosferatu, and the two of them endure together, until Dracula sees a picture of a woman that looks like his love. The movie ends with an almost imperceptible smile on Dracula’s face.
The Mummy: In her quest for immortality, Ahmanet lost her humanity. Tom Cruise’s character, Nick Morton, is not looking for immortality, nor is he looking for humanity. He’s just a guy, in the wrong place at the wrong time. What’s worse is that there is no appeal to the immortality offered by the Mummy. She’s gross. No one wants to make out with a corpse. What needs to change is Nick Morton’s motivation for looking for the Mummy. He needs to play like a terminally ill Indiana Jones looking for a fountain of youth to extend his life. He is seeking out immortality because he has death knocking on the door. He wants to obtain power over death, through the power of Set. It’s no accident he finds the tomb. It’s only after releasing Ahmanet that he sees what the true cost of immortality is: the lives of everyone he knows and cares about.
Ahmanet appears as a desirable woman to him at all times, even when others see her as a grotesque corpse. She urges him onward, begging him to finalize his acceptance of the power of Set. His reluctance forces her to reveal her terrifying corpse form in order to scare him into avoiding death. As his friends come to his rescue, Ahmanet unleashes an army of the undead to stop them. Nick relents because he is terrified of dying. He accepts Set’s power, losing control of his body. He watches as a dispossessed spirit as Set uses his power to destroy his friends, the authorities, and the city buildings nearby. It’s only after he realizes his choices have killed his friends that he reconsiders. He fights to reincorporate his spirit, and expel Set. He manages to succeed, using the power of Set to revive his friends. It’s at this point that Dr. Jekyll reveals himself and mentions “Prodigium” and the battle looming ahead. Nick is not interested.
The Roadmap: Frankenstein is the next movie. Dr. Frankenstein died long ago. Frankenstein’s monster is still struggling with the circumstances of his creation. Is he a man or a monster? No green skin or neck thingies. He’s just a scarred up normal guy on the outside, with Herculean strength and impervious to damage on the inside. He’s keeping a low profile, spending time gardening. On the news, Frankie sees evidence of savage crimes, maimings, reminiscent of something from long ago. He goes to the crime scene to investigate, where he bumps into a familiar face, long dark hair with a white streak. They exchange a few words acknowledging the thing they both know; the third of Frankenstein’s creations is back. The bride has been tracking for years. The two team up to take it down. Ultimately, the third creation has decided to destroy the other two because it’s what he has to do to feel like Dr. Frankenstein approves of him, that he is the true legacy. Frankie and the bride take him on, but Frankie is destroyed as he comes to terms with his life, self-destructing and taking out the third. The bride survives, and as she walks away from the carnage, she is approached by Jekyll.
Just to keep things simple, Wolfman has a pack, a group of misfit kids that have weird monster qualities. They run a B&B in the woods that specializes in exotic meats. One day, he gets a visit from a woman in a red hood. She is looking for a kid. Wolfman has to protect the kid from Red Riding Hood. Tough job, but he manages. It plays like a cross between Logan and Stranger Things.
Invisible Man is an exploration of moral responsibility. The Invisible Man has spent more than his fair share of time peeping on women, but he also witnesses random acts of human kindness. One day, he witnesses a violent crime. The victim survives, but no one believes her. He is the only witness. He has to decide whether to do the right thing, and if he even can. Eventually, he finds the courage to testify. After he makes himself visible though, things get far more dangerous. He escapes with a lot of major injuries, but survives and testifies, ensuring that the perpetrator goes to prison. Jekyll shows up.
The Common Cause: Cain. Cain has been around a long time. He is tired of all this. The world should have belonged to him. He killed Abel thinking he could get back into Eden. Now, he is going to burn it all to the ground to find Eden. He has an army of Vampires to help him. Dracula doesn’t want him to; he’s working on a new relationship with the reincarnation of his lost love. Nick Morton wants to keep his friends alive, but he won’t be able to if Eden is rediscovered because he is essentially the devil and the devil will be bound in Eden. The bride of Frankenstein wants to protect her little corner of the world. The Invisible Man and Wolfman both have people they want to protect. Prodigium brings them together. Of course, they don’t have enough firepower, so they find the creature from the Black Lagoon, who wields the power of nature and life. They come together to stop Cain’s army of the undead, fail, and then succeed in spite of Cain’s initial victory.
Wrap-up: Wow. The Dark Universe is a tall order. Each individual monster has their own interests and desire for isolation. Likewise, each movie has to be compelling in its own right, while at the same time producing a common cause that establishes a threat to all their individual interests. The Dark Universe could be really good, Oscar worthy even. The Shape of Water won best picture, after all. Here’s hoping Dark Universe can get off the ground.