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The Universal Monster’s Shared Universe is a Dark One

by Tim Maison
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Being a diehard fan of anything in pop culture these days is a roller coaster ride of emotion.  Star WarsAlien, and even my beloved Universal Monsters, nothing is sacred and everything is fair game when it comes to remakes, relaunches, and blatant cash grabs.  The role of the fanboy is to look on with both fear and hope, fear that whatever franchise you cherish will be permanently tarnished, especially in the post-Star Wars prequels world we live in, and hope that the thing that has gripped you all these years will be given its proper dues, will soon be loved by an even wider public, and that there will simply be more content to enjoy over and over.  This is how I’ve felt watching on as Universal Studios set about reviving the Universal Monsters as they began building a shared, cinematic universe for those reimagined monsters to inhabit.  The other day, Universal Pictures unveiled the logo and name it’s given to the revival and planned shared universe of its classic monsters: the “Dark Universe.”  The motion logo will be featured, accompanied by a musical composition by Danny Elfman, before The Mummy, the first film in the new initiative, on June 9th.  Along with the logo, several key players were revealed.

The creative forces behind the movement are Alex Kurtzman, director and producer of 2017’s The Mummy, Chris Morgan (The Mummy producer and writer of The Fate of the Furious), Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and David Koepp (Jurassic Park).  Director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) is also involved, set to direct the next chapter in the Dark Universe, The Bride of Frankenstein, with a scheduled February 14, 2019 release.  Not much has been revealed about the remake of James Whale’s classic, but Universal Pictures Chairman Donna Langley called it,  “the story of a very modern woman in a very classic tale.”  Some, like Condon, might even call it a “tale as old as time.”

Narratively, the thread holding the Dark Universe together has been revealed as an enigmatic organization known as Prodigium, interested in tracking, studying, and often eliminating evil in whatever form it incarnates.  At its head is Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe, neither of whom need an introduction.  Other known players in the Dark Universe are Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man and Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster.

While it’s nice to see Universal showing off their dark side, one can’t help but wonder if the Dark Universe is a damned universe.  To be sure, not all of this news is bad.  Danny Elfman is a genius and the perfect pick for the project, Johnny Depp in the place of Claude Rains as the Invisible Man is a solid casting choice, and giving Javier Bardem a goofy haircut always results in a terrifying villain.  But as an enormous fan of Universal Horror, it’s difficult to be enthusiastic with the Dark Universe’s first offering.  I’m fervently against judging a movie too critically before I’ve seen it, but everything about The Mummy looks way off base for a revival of Universal’s Monsters.

Tonally, it’s difficult to see any connection between the classic Boris Karloff film and what appears to be a run of the mill, Tom Cruise, action pic.  1932’s The Mummy was a slow paced horror movie about a mummy come to life in the desperate attempt to reincarnate his lost love.  2017’s looks like nothing more than an action-heavy, summer blockbuster.  This new movie looks more like a remake of the 1999, Brendan Fraser film, only with less charm.  While I’ll reserve condemning the film before I’ve seen it, it looks a far cry from what I’ve come to expect out of a Universal Horror movie tonally, and that’s a character-driven, melodramatic, typically slow-burning film where horror is the point of the entire picture.  This looks like the Call of Duty version of The Mummy no one asked for.  Who knows though, perhaps Universal is playing mind games and the true horror is what travesty they’ll blemish the good name of Universal Monsters with next.

While the Stephen Sommers Mummy movie back in 1999 also deviated away from horror, it more than made up for it by supplying a high-flying action/adventure movie in the vein of Indiana Jones rife with heart, likable characters, and, most importantly, atmosphere.  Ranging from eerie and dark to new and thrilling, the 1999 Mummy is a lesson in developing and maintaining atmosphere in film.  It being a period piece certainly lent itself well to the development of atmosphere and arguably could have been a great starting point for a cinematic universe.  Without that call back to a different era, the golden era in which the original films were actually made in this case, there’s a loss of nostalgia and mystique.  Not to mention that films like The Wolf Man and The Invisible Man take place in ambiguous settings and time periods, making them hard to envision in a modern setting.  While it may be possible to modernize these classic monsters, the monsters will also have to grow and evolve in response to current technology, losing what made them truly horrifying in the first place, their remarkable semblance and simultaneous deviation from humanity.

But I’ll try to withhold judgment until I’ve actually seen the movie.  Frankly, even the classics don’t have a perfect track record (I’m looking at you The Mummy’s Curse and The Creature Walks Among Us). It’s just hard to keep quiet when the modern incarnation of something you love seems to be missing what made the original special in the first place.  In the case of the Universal Monsters, it’s tone, atmosphere, melodrama, and an eerie good time, and here’s to hoping the Dark Universe can recreate that magic recipe.  If anyone can rebottle lightning, it’s Frankenstein.  Even if the first steps of the Dark Universe are a little wobbly, there’s still an opportunity for growth and improvement.  You don’t have to look further than the DC Cinematic Universe to see that, which will hopefully rise like a phoenix out of the dumpster fire it is now.  The wait might all be worth it in the end.  If it finally gets me a new Creature from the Black Lagoon or I finally get to see some new great matchups like the ‘Creature vs. the Wolf Man,’ it may all be worth it in the end.  “Welcome to a new world of gods and monsters,” let’s hope it’s a good one.

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