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[Article] – Five Times Universal Tried To Reboot The Monsters

 

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Posted November 5, 2017 by

 
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Universal Pictures is America’s oldest surviving movie studio, and that is due in no small part to the popularity of its horror series during the first half of the 20th century. It is debatable which film started the beloved Universal Monsters franchise, some say it was 1931’s Dracula, others say it was earlier with 1923’s Hunchback Of Notre Dame, but it was with the release of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf man in 1943 that Universal Pictures arguably created the first ever shared cinematic universe.

The cross over capers continued with House Of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and finally Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Although Abbott and Costello would continue to have adventures with other creepy creatures such as The Invisible Man and The Mummy, Meet Frankenstein would mark the final appearance of the big three, Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf man.

History would go on to make these monsters iconic and the template for future adaptations from various movie producers, but it was Universal who set the standard. The widow’s peak hair and high collar caped vampire, or the flat headed, electrode (not bolts!) necked monster costumes that you find littering stores around Halloween all stem from Bella Lugosi’s Dracula and Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein performances respectively.

Now Universal are once again trying to get their legacy back on the big screen with “Universal Dark”, a series of reboots and remakes based on the classic features which started this year with the Alex Kurtzman directed The Mummy revamp. At this time of writing The Mummy has not performed too well at the box office and a shroud of doubt has been cast of many of the other projects in the pipeline.

However this isn’t first time Universal have tried to bring their creations back to life with a shot of lighting, only to have it stagger and crumble to dust. Here are five other attempts of resurrection ranked from worst to best!

Van Helsing (2004)

Starting off with a black and white homage to the classics in its prologue, Van Helsing was an attempt to capture the spirit of the original Universal Horror movies and update them for a modern audience. Sadly, what followed was a soulless, mess of a film

Despite having a fairly good performance at the box office (over $300 million) the movie didn’t do well enough for it’s $160 million budget for it to garner a sequel. Negative feedback from both critics and audiences didn’t help and any plans to build a franchise off the back of this starting point were put on permanent hiatus.

One of the many reasons Van Helsing failed was its lack of resemblance to the original monsters, both visually and characteristically. Richard Roxburgh’s angry, shouty take on Dracula was about as far from Bella Lugosi’s original charming and suave portrayal as you could get. Shuler Hensley’s Frankenstein Monster was now a highly literate man-child who failed to gain any sympathy due to the ridiculousness of both over the top design and performance. At one point the monster is seen hanging over a sheer drop, desperately clutching on to a rope, crying, “I want to live!” Keep in mind one of the most famous, poignant quotes in classic cinema is Boris Karloff’s creature declaring “We belong dead” during the finale of Bride Of Frankenstein, as he throws the switch sealing both his own, his brides and the evil Doctor Pretorius fate as the castle laboratory crumbles around them, and you can see why this is out of sync with the definitive interpretation.

However the biggest change up has to go to the titular character. Gone is the legendary Abraham Van Helsing, well educated and respected Doctor with expertise in recognizing vampirism. Instead we are introduced “Gabriel” Van Helsing, a warrior who has lived for centuries fighting evil. Add an amnesia subplot and you have a hero who shares more traits with Hugh Jackman’s other famous role, Wolverine, than the original vampire hunter.

On top of all this the film trades a feeling of gothic horror and adventure for an over abundance of computer generated effects. What with beastly werewolves and screaming bat people crowding up shots of already convoluted backdrops and special effects one could be forgiven into thinking that this was a video game adaptation rather than one of classic cinema and literature.

Dracula Untold (2014)

Dracula Untold is the newest entry to this list and one that may still have a chance of continuation. Originally intended as nothing more than an origin story of the fabled Count it underwent reshoots to try and tie into the planned “Dark Universe” although Universal has now started to downplay such connections.
Much like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1994 take on the original book, Dracula Untold links the worlds most famous vampire directly to real life historical figure Vlad The Impaler. Although some liberties were taken (I don’t recall any school text books informing me of Prince Vlad exploding into a cloud of bats, and I’m pretty sure I would have remembered that) it treads the fine line of historical accuracy and full on fantasy fairly well.
It features strong performances from its cast, including Luke Evans as its lead, and a fairly interesting take on the Dracula mythos, but most audiences found the movie joyless and boring. Dracula’s origin tends to remain untold for a reason. The figure thrives on a sense of mystery and unknowing and this film figuratively pulls Dracula out of the darkness and into the sunlight.
That is not to say an anti-hero take on the worlds most famous bloodsucker wouldn’t work, but Universal has seemingly lost faith in the concept. The Internet was rife with rumors of a Luke Evans cameo in 2017’s The Mummy up until production commenced and seeing as how that film has now been and gone without so much as a nod to it’s 2014 predecessor it is fairly safe to say all plans have been scrapped for this particular incarnation.

The Wolfman (2010)

Unlike Van Helsing and Dracula Untold The Wolfman is a straight up remake of the 1941 original as opposed to a re-imagining. It tells the tale of Laurence Talbot, a man who is bitten by a werewolf and now must suffer a gypsy curse of beastly transformation whenever a full moon rises.

The film tries in many ways remain faithful to the tone of the classic by keeping it set in the late 1800’s with costumes and sets that echo that of an original Universal picture. It boasts stellar performances from Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving but it was Benicio del Toro’s nigh perfect casting as Talbot that got fans the most excited, with the actor possessing an uncanny resemblance for the original Wolf man himself Lon Chaney Jr.

Legendary make-up man Rick Baker also won high praise for his creature design. His take on the beast was lovingly reminiscent of the original Jack Pierce version whilst at the same time updating it enough to give a more frightening look for modern cinemagoers.

Pierce was the man responsible for the make-up of most of the original monsters including Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy and The Wolf Man. He is considered a hero to most modern horror effect artist, Baker included and you can see that love and respect in his efforts for this film.

Sadly, despite jaw droopingly stunning practical effects from Baker and Dave Elsey, which earned the two a well-deserved Oscar, the movie is bogged down with frankly horrid digital elements including the now infamous computer generated grizzly bear. Add action sequences such as London chase scene and an end battle between father and son Wolfmen, the movie loses its identity and feels unsure of what it wants to be.

In the end it only made back $139 million of it $150 million budget at the box office. A great shame as it had to the potential to be something far more glorious than the finished product.

Dracula (1979)

Dracula 1979 is quite possibly the most overlooked of all the Dracula movies. It has an amazing cast including Donald Pleasance, Frank Langella and the legendary Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing. Furthermore it featured beautiful soundtrack composed by none other than John Williams plus wonderful, haunting costume and set designs. It is a movie that deserved far more praise than what it received upon release.

Like the original 1931 version it was based on the Hamilton Dean and John L. Balderston play adaption rather than the original novel and again, just like Bella Lugosi, Frank Langella earned great praise for his on stage portrayal as Dracula before being cast in the film.

It is one of the first attempts to emphases the narrative into a love story rather than just a straight up horror. Langella’s sexy and charming performance was a direct contrast to Christopher Lee’s scary and menacing take of the character popularized by the Hammer Horror series of the time. It even had the tagline “A Love Story”, letting audiences know that this particular retelling was unlike any that had come before.

Sadly the seventies were over saturated with Dracula films. 1979 also saw the release of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu remake and the George Hamilton starring parody Love At First Bite. Add the factor of a limited home video release; its contemporaries may have slightly over shadowed this particular Universal remake.

It may now have a dated look by todays standards (some scenes resemble that of a power balled music video) but Dracula 1979 is a good film and definitely worth a view for horror fans.

The Mummy (1999)

Stephen Summers The Mummy remake still stands as Universals most successful reboot to date. The reason for this is quite possibly down to its simplicity.

It borrows not only from the 1932 movie it is based on but adventure films and serials of the same era, channelling a tone much like the Indiana Jones series. Creepy but not horrific, it is a well made, fun romp that pretty much the entire family can enjoy.

Its premise is simple. An evil Mummy is awoken and the good guys have to try and stop it. It didn’t try to reinvent or deconstruct the genre, there is no foreshadowing of the future, nor are there attempts to create an extended universe.

Although studios have always wanted to generate as much money as they can form their releases this was before the days they made there business plans public. Instead of a major announcement of what the blueprint is for the next five years (a tactic which has since been proven to occasionally backfire) they concentrated on making the one film, and if it did well (which it did) they would make a sequel (which they did).

Although there are plenty of digital effects they are used to enhance and create the impossible and do not completely dominate the scenes. Summers still relied on practical creations and action sequences, which grounds the film in reality. This maybe because of cost restraints of the time as CGI dominated the lacklustre sequels, but there are visual aspects of The Mummy that still hold up today.

There is genuine feeling of hard work and craftsmanship that went into this film thanks to its giant and lavishly designed sets. The cast and crew had to face sandstorms, snakes, spiders, scorpions, dehydration and other obstacles which saw many of the cast and crew be airlifted and taken to the hospital. Lead actor Brendan Fraser almost died filming a sequence where is character Rick O’Connell was hanged. According to co-star Rachel Weiz at one point Fraser had stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated.

All this effort did pay off. It was by no means a perfect film, but fun and liked enough to see it gross over $415 million in total. It still remains Universals biggest success in reusing the classic monsters, spawning sequels such as The Mummy Returns and Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, a spin off in The Scorpion King, books, videogames and even a rollercoaster! There is little to no wonder why this was the franchise chosen to launch the Dark Universe. Sadly the Tom Cruise starring action vehicle at the time of writing has failed to achieve the same level of success. If Universal want to achieve what they did almost twenty years ago maybe the should just focus on telling one story at a time rather than trying to imitate Marvel and DC by building an entire universe. Even Frankenstein’s monster had to learn to walk before it could terrorise.

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Tim Buckler
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