Do You Need to See ‘Dracula Untold’ For the Sake of the New Universal Monsters Franchise?

By  · Published on October 13th, 2014

Universal Pictures

If we consider that Dracula Untold is the Iron Man or Man of Steel of the next shared-universe franchise, a $23m opening weekend has to look pretty dim. Yet that figure is higher than the movie was tracking to earn, so Universal is marking the release as a triumph. “It’s better than anyone expected in the industry.” the studio’s domestic distribution president, Nikki Rocco, told Entertainment Weekly. “We’re very pleased with the result.” Universal can be happy enough, too, with its international gross to date of $63m, which is a helpful addition. And as Rocco also notes, the exit polls have been promising. Through Cinemascore, audiences graded the movie an A-. That means those who went to see it liked it enough that they’ll probably be on board for a sequel and the rest.

“The rest” is, of course, team-ups, “versus” movies and other such groupings of Dracula (Luke Evans) and other Universal monsters, including the Mummy and probably the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Frankenstein’s Monster. I wouldn’t be surprised if King Kong is in the mix at some point, as well, since the giant ape’s origin movie, Skull Island, is being made by the same studios (though not produced by Alex Kurtsman, the showrunner of this franchise). The next installment for the new monster mash project isn’t due for a couple more years, when the Kurtzman-directed The Mummy opens in June 2016. I wonder if many people will even remember Dracula Untold then, and I wonder if that will matter.

Until a few months ago, the movie was its own thing, an origin story for the iconic vampire showing his mortal beginnings and source of transformation as the historically real Vlad the Impaler. Then, reshoots were ordered and an epilogue was attached, bringing the action up to present day with the character revealed, unsurprisingly, to still be “alive.” Presumably it’s in modern times that the crossovers with other monster characters will occur (maybe firstly in the planned Van Helsing film). Other solo movies aren’t going to have the same kind of period-setting beginnings that Dracula just received, at least so far as we know with plans for The Mummy. Instead of taking place in the early 20th century at the height of Egyptian archaeological expeditions, as usual, Universal has stated that it would be set today.

Still, that Dracula Untold epilogue plays things safe. There is no tease of Dracula meeting other monsters. If anything it simply sets up a possible Dracula Untold 2, which itself would be a sequel with very little resemblance to the first movie outside of some returning characters (spoiler: Charles Dance’s Caligula is also still around, while Sarah Gadon becomes Mina, the spitting image of Vlad’s wife, Mirena). The only way that this movie would be otherwise relevant to what goes on in the shared universe is if there’s some kind of MacGuffin brought forward from its plot to that of the monsters’ equivalent of The Avengers. Such a carryover could actually be Dance as the villain. But regardless it can’t be anything too dependent on the audience’s knowledge of what occurs in Dracula Untold. In case they haven’t seen it.

Despite complaints about the inter-dependency of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I’ve never found those movies to be too functionally based off one another. You can see The Avengers and, so long as you have a simple understanding of who the main characters are as introduced previously in their own series, you don’t need to see those installments that came before it. Does it give fans a greater sense of the universe to see everything with a link of some kind? Sure, but Marvel isn’t going to risk ticket sales by alienating anyone who hasn’t seen the Iron Mans, Thors, Captain Americas and Hulks. And I bet when Avengers: Age of Ultron and the third Avengers movie arrive, they’ll avoid requiring us to have comprehended any of those post-credits sequences featuring Thanos and other relevant characters and props. They’ll catch us up.

I assume Universal will be just as careful with their properties. They have a fairly easier situation, too, so long as they don’t veer too far from the monsters’ most well-known mythologies. They can depend on the audience for the crossovers being familiar with the characters prior to the reboot of their new series and shared franchise. Even another studio’s current animated monster movie series, Hotel Transylvania, can aid in that familiarity. Everyone knows about Dracula on some level, maybe even regarding his connection to Vlad the Impaler, without seeing Dracula Untold. Actually watching the movie is merely a bonus for anyone interested enough in the character to see that all played out, but with such mediocre reviews it probably won’t draw in a lot of others, even with any word of mouth that Universal could hope for given the Cinemascore.

The two ways that Dracula Untold might veer too far from the common knowledge and perception of the character is the fact that he’s played up as a hero and that the movie is much more a part of the action genre than horror. Both are things that could make the direction of the monsters shared-universe franchise seem to also be of the same angle. After the last incarnation of The Mummy, we can buy that as action over horror, but maybe not with the title creature being the protagonist. The rest are easily made more good guy than bad, but can Frankenstein’s Monster be an action hero? More importantly, is the central fanbase of these characters as well as the mainstream who know them best as horror icons going to accept that their scary reputations are thrown to the side? Maybe, if they’ve accepted any other monster mash crossovers in the past.

I was surprised that Universal hadn’t pushed the idea that Dracula Untold is the start of a new shared-universe franchise. They went to the trouble of producing those reshoots and then having all the movie sites report that it is indeed a part of this new branding endeavor, so why not point that out in ads? It made sense, though, with the movie tracking so poorly and now that it performed only okay. There’s no big embarrassment there, and there won’t be if the studio suddenly decided to change its mind on this one and recast Dracula and give him another angle in a few years. It also could have been a deterrent to some moviegoers who didn’t want to make the commitment to more than a single picture with a mostly opened and closed plot.

After The Mummy arrives and if it’s a hit – otherwise after the crossovers begin – they can go back and re-release this first installment of the franchise on video with the title Universal Monsters: Dracula Untold. That will remind us of its connection and allow anyone who missed it this time around to catch up, and it will probably get the studio some easy money in the process. For now, if not for always, you’re probably best off skipping it.

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.