Can the Universal Monsters Be Cool Again?

By  · Published on July 17th, 2014

Lions Gate Home Entertainment

Remember when Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, Wolf Man and the rest of the classic Universal Monsters were horror characters? Then 80 years worth of cheesy sequels and mash-ups and merchandising watered them all down to the point where they couldn’t even scare a baby. Hollywood has tried different ways to make them relevant for modern audiences, including attempts at grittier takes on the literary sources, blockbuster versions with lots of action and special effects and animated features starring the voices of Adam Sandler and friends. These have each only kept the creatures as corny as ever. They’re never going to be the stuff of nightmares again, so the question is whether they’ll ever be as cool as they once were. Or even cooler?

What if the classic movie monsters were suddenly as hip as the Fast and Furious movies became after the franchise was refueled with high-octane entertainment value following the fourth installment? Unfortunately, a dash of Dwayne Johnson isn’t going to cut it here. He already sort of contributed to the quick ruin of the last Mummy reboot. Never mind that that was before he reenergized his own movie career. The alternative might be the reported hire of screenwriter Chris Morgan for the job of penning the studio’s previously announced super-franchise for its Halloween costume favorites. He’s the guy who wrote all the Fast and Furious sequels from Tokyo Drift onward. It took him a couple installments to really reveal the awesome potential, but he found new life in what had initially seemed to be a niche property aimed specifically at gearheads and fans of street car racing.

But is there any way he can similarly jumpstart a bunch of undead and spooky characters so, like, teenagers will want to see their movies?

Anything is possible, and I can say that after being pleasantly surprised that brilliant comedy could still be mined from vampires (including Dracula types) the way it is with the new mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Still, the Creature from the Black Lagoon will always be too silly. He might not be worthy of whatever Morgan and Alex Kurtzman (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) have planned as the architects (as Deadline calls them) of this new monster cinematic universe. They’re basically going to be the Kevin Feiges of Universal’s attempt at Avengers-like success, and it’s their job to oversee everything from the movie productions to the merchandising of the characters. Not that they can squash other studios’ takes on some of them. Hotel Transylvania can still move forward with sequels, and other Dracula movies can be made, due to public domain titles.

A few Universal Monsters movies had been in the works recently, such as a Kurtzman and Roberto Orci-scripted Van Helsing feature and also a Mummy reboot that the same duo were producing. Orci isn’t involved with the big new plans, but The Mummy is still on tap without him. The studio picked that particular creature to kick things off with a release date already slated for April 22, 2016. Presumably it could be a modernization of the story rather than retain the 1920s setting of the 1932 original and the 1999 remake. One way to get these properties to be a bit cooler is to get rid of all the period settings. Or at least do so eventually. The Mummy could very well be the Captain America: First Avenger of Universal’s mega-franchise (or maybe Dracula makes more sense for that, while obviously Frankenstein’s Monster is its Iron Man and Jekyll/Hyde its Hulk. Maybe the Mummy is Thor?).

Deadline’s article mentions that Morgan and Kurtzman will be trying to rein in any relevant projects already in development in house and bring them under their umbrella. Some of those projects would presumably include Monster High, based on the line of dolls, the Bride of Frankenstein remake planned by Neil Burger for Imagine Entertainment, the Invisible Man remake planned by David S. Goyer for Imagine Entertainment, the Creature from the Black Lagoon redo that’s long been in the works with producer Gary Ross, the Guillermo del Toro takes on Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Douglas Wick’s modern take on Jekyll and Hyde and of course Van Helsing.

Universal and its new dynamic duo have some big nards and a lot of ambition here. We’ll see how it all turns out in two years, hopefully with its own equivalent of a chase scene where a giant safe is being pulled destructively through Rio de Janeiro.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.