Oh my, how the mighty hath fallen. Last year Mark Gatiss released his three-part ‘History of Horror’ (And if you haven’t seen it, I seriously recommend you search it out), and though a later episode focused on my favourite period of horror, the 70’s social commentary horror of America, the preceding episode on the 30’s and 40’s showed me just how successful and influential Universal’s horror series was. Their interpretations of Dracula and Frankenstein, in particular, have become the definitive portrayals within popular culture. But it’s all gone to pot. The rule of diminishing returns cast its magic here, people became terrified by different things, and Universal couldn’t keep up. The Universal monsters vanished off our screens and returned to the great unknown.
Even now, they are sitting on a goldmine and not really bothering to tap into it. There seemed like some sort of renaissance in such horror series might occur from Columbia in the early 90’s with the appalling ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula’ (possibly the worst film in Francis Ford Coppola’s filmography) and the hugely underrated ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ (in my mind the definitive adaptation), but it came to nothing. ‘Van Helsing’ seemed to be their attempt to start the ball rolling again, but look what happened there. In one fell swoop, they ruined 4 of their main characters (I’m including Hyde in this, who got further ruined in ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ the year before). And we all know how ‘The Wolfman’ went down (Not as excruciatingly bad as everyone makes out, but still lousy enough to warrant what will likely be a dreadful DTV sort-of sequel later this year).
The point is, mainstream American horror cinema is dreadful- it’s all the same, focused on gore, not saying anything about our society (I can only think of few impressive mainstream american horrors in the last decade like ‘Saw’, ‘Paranormal Activity’, ‘The Last Exorcism’ and ‘Drag Me To Hell’, which doesn’t really count on account of being a very black comedy). The Koreans, Japanese, French and Spanish are leading the way now, and I feel it is a perfect time to bring back the Universal Monsters en masse. And here’s how…
How to do it
Don’t roll your eyes, but Universal should sit up and look at how Marvel Studios did it with ‘The Avengers’. We saw beloved icons, some we hadn’t seen before, brought to the screen and grew in popularity before a huge crossover. Now these characters are just as popular as Batman and Spiderman. You had a godfather in Kevin Fiege who, though some may not be fans, had an overriding vision he stuck to and never let up. He hired directors who were passionate about the characters and were fantastic filmmakers in their own right. And he had everyone from day one stick to a framework with elements of continuity and foreshadowing. So, to some extent, Universal should do this with their monsters.
Most of the hard work has been done for them- Marvel had to introduce every character and their origins- but most of the characters in their catalogue are instantly recognisable the world over, and in some cases are classics of literature. Everyone knows practically all of their characters, so all the films they release are testing grounds for who/what works and who/what doesn’t. Then they need someone to oversee the whole project, make it a branch of their studio, kind of like what Harry Potter was for Warner Brothers- a long-term commitment that deserves dedicated studio space and creative personnel working in sync with each other, kind of like with Tarzan in the 30’s. This structure would work in this case. You release at least one, if not two, monster movies each year so they are ingrained in the public’s consciousness. Like a bond movie, everyone expects the next Universal Monster Movie.
We are currently seeking Films contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Films contributor, click here.