By Jerry Chandler
The newest iteration of the Mummy has come to the big screen, and all signs point to it leaving the big screen in fairly short order. I don’t write that with any sense of joy. I’m a horror guy. I like horror, and I actually like the Mummy as an iconic horror monster. I’d love to see more of the attempts at modern horror using the classic monsters succeed. I’d love to see a shared universe where the Universal Studios classic monsters all walk the same Earth. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems that we either won’t be getting that or that we’ll get it and it won’t be worth the time to watch it.
We started hearing about a Universal Studios shared monsterverse (now officially titled The Dark Universe) about the time that 2014’s Dracula Untold was getting ready to completely fail to set the domestic box office on fire. For a short time, the word was that Dracula Untold would be the film to kick off their shared universe. They even tacked on a last minute epilogue that was not originally a part of the film in order to allow Universal to launch the concept from there. For various reasons, and not merely the domestic box office, this idea was ultimately shot down.
Over the last three years there have been both mere rumors and confirmed information coming out in bits and pieces here and there. The only single thing about the undertaking that seemed to be at all clear about it was that Universal wanted to be Marvel in the worst way. The biggest problem with that is that Universal isn’t Marvel, and the monsters they have aren’t Marvel superheroes. This is something that I’m not sure Universal itself realizes. I say that because of the nature of both Dracula Untold and The Mummy. They’re not really horror films, and they were both conceived as big budget action films that fit the mold of the summer blockbuster.
The Universal Monsters were born in the genre of horror, not action. Despite the modern perception some have of the older films of being dated or not really that scary or even cheesy, these films were legitimately terrifying for the audiences of their day. 1931’s Dracula was a terrifying story told on a smaller scale than Dracula Untold. 1932’s The Mummy (and even 1959’s The Mummy) had a smaller scaled story populated with characters that effectively conveyed a sense of terror to the viewing audiences. They were not huge, over the top, summer tent pole action films. That’s something that one feels the powers that be at Universal right now don’t understand; especially when they’re talking about filling Lon Chaney Jr.’s shoes with Dwayne Johnson’s feet in an updating of The Wolf Man.
Horror icons like the Universal Monsters would be best served by being updated in actual horror films. The films need to feel more like horror and less like action. They also, at least at first, don’t need to be giant, summer tent pole films. One of the great things about horror is that, when done right, it can be done quite well on a smaller, more intimate scale with a relatively modest budget whereas a large budget doesn’t automatically translate into a better horror film. One example I sometimes use is 1999’s The Haunting having a budget of $80 million vs 2013’s The Conjuring having only a $20 million budget. The Conjuring was a far better film and, even when adjusting both films’ grosses to 2017 dollars, was a far more profitable film than The Haunting. It was also far better received by fans and critics alike. These two films also proved the general rule of thumb that horror is also more effective as horror when you are not being swamped as a viewer with high-end, over the top, computer generated visual effects.
This should be seen as something of a blueprint for Universal’s Dark Universe. Accentuate the horror, don’t drown the viewers in unnecessary computer generated visuals, and keep the budgets workable but modest in the early going.
The other thing that Universal needs to realize is that their monsters don’t have the same natural connective tissue that the Marvel properties have. When they started creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, some of the connective tissue was strong, but subtle. All you needed with these films was the odd item in the background with a familiar to Marvel fans logo on it or a seemingly throwaway reference in a conversation. Marvel has been producing stories for decades now in comic form, animated television, and the occasional other mediums where their various characters have crossed paths on a regular basis. Most people were already primed and ready to catch those references. As a result, the various early Marvel films were allowed to build their own story without having to have the connective tissue of their universe forcibly wedged into scenes and into the story in ways that don’t seem like a natural fit.
The Universal Monsters only have their longevity and reputation, and the fact that some of them were once upon a time randomly placed into a few films together with little more rhyme or reason than people thought it would be cool to have them in the same film. What they don’t have is a natural, inbuilt McGuffin already established in their history to create a common string to pull them all together.
Because of this, you can easily screw up the way you introduce that common string as their connective tissue. A bad way to do it is to hijack a large part of the overall plot in any given film to inject a secret order of monster hunters and introduce large amounts of detail about other things not needed in the film. A good way to do it is that you can follow Marvel in the only smart way someone building a shared universe can follow Marvel’s lead. You have common things in the background of your early films, and you only have the stronger tease of the larger shared universe’s world in post credit scenes. An excellent recent example of this was seen with the post-credits scene in Kong: Skull Island. That movie introduced Kong and told Kong’s story. We were introduced to Monarch in a way that we would have been introduced to any original to that film group that might otherwise have been there, and the true connection to the upcoming Godzilla films was saved for the post-credits scene. Tell your story, finish your story, and then introduce the stronger tease of what is to come.
It’s after this point, after you build a few smaller films, that you risk the bigger budget. Once you’ve established your new monsters and established what kind of threat they may be to the modern world, once you’ve first teased and slowly exposed a bit more of your connective tissue throughout the films, then you put the money into the Dark Universe version of Marvel's The Avengers.
Oh, and they should stop focusing so much on what big name they can get into their films and focus more on the stories. It doesn’t matter how big your budget is or how big of a star you have on your poster if your story is lackluster.
Again, look at an example from Marvel’s playbook. Marvel didn’t cast Chris Pratt because he was a huge movie star. It was instead the combination of his abilities as an actor and the quality of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy that elevated him to a higher level of stardom. Go old school with an example. Universal didn’t ultimately cast one of their biggest contract players and stars to be the lead in Dracula. They cast a lesser known character actor and stage actor, Bela Lugosi, and gave him a role that made him internationally famous. A good plan to follow would likely be casting good actors who will be seen as the characters you want them to play rather than having huge names that many will see as just Big Name Star playing at being your monster or character.
Universal would also do well to avoid the summer blockbuster model by avoiding summer. This is supposed to be horror, a genre traditionally associated with the dark. Move the releases into the fall and winter. Launch one in October, launch another in February or March.
Also, consider the fact that the Universal Monsters once lived in a shared universe without anyone trying to create a shared universe. Once they were established in their own films, they simply started appearing together. 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man brought the monsters together well after they had been established in their own films, and for no more complicated a reason than it was a fun pairing to have on screen. It was then followed by 1944’s House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula.
If there is any one thing that Universal can do to properly launch a shared universe for their monster properties, it would be to just focus on the monster films as individual properties. Give fans three or four quality horror films reinventing the classic horror icons for the modern age. Focus on the horror, keep the early budgets modest, build each part of the universe without shoving the rest of the universe into it, slowly, subtly tease and establish your shared universe’s connective tissue, and then, once you have everything in place, feel free to go nuts with a film that brings everything together and has a larger budget befitting the big get together. Don’t try to build the entire universe from day one, film one. Deliver quality to the fans first, and the rest will attend to itself.
Oh, and find people with stronger ties to and followings in the horror community to make the films. Give them to people who have proven that they understand the horror genre. If you look at the credits of the main creative team, the director and the writers, behind 2017’s The Mummy, you’ll find a noticeable absence of any sufficient quantities of work done in the past on horror productions in their various resumes. There might be a clue there as to why the latest “horror” film to hit theaters quickly garnered word of mouth describing it as largely overall lacking in the rather important ingredient of horror. There are people out there with followings in the horror community for whom these films would be passion projects. Find those people and give those people the reigns on these films.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek, dabbling in just about every genre but finding science fiction and horror to be his primary comfort zones. He has also had a lifelong devotion to that form of entertainment known as professional wrestling. When not worrying that his coworkers are going to inflict bodily harm onto him over his sense of humor, he enjoys hitting the convention scene, making indie films with his friends, or writing for sites such as this one or Gruesome Magazine. He also finds talking about himself in third person to be very strange.