Hello, October! It’s the beginning of spooky season and also International Coffee Day, so grab yourself a French roast (or whatever international flavor suits your fancy) and sit down for a chat, because I’m in a talkative mood today!
Recently I watched the 2020 horror/thriller, The Invisible Man. Surprisingly, the film was very good, the best (at least since 1999’s The Mummy) of Universal’s recent attempts to bring its classic monsters back to the big screen for a new generation of movie audiences to enjoy.
And it was quite the box office success, garnering $143 million on a $7 million budget!
It seems that, with the film performing so well among audiences as well as critics (it has a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), Universal has decided to semi-revive its previously defunct, twice-scrapped MCU-inspired Dark Universe concept, but instead of an interconnected classic monsters movie-verse (not to be confused with Legendary’s MonsterVerse, featuring Godzilla and Kong), the title “Dark Universe” will only serve as a franchise tag for a collection of new films in preproduction that will all probably get shelved once the next installment inevitably bombs.
This is starting to sound a lot like the chaos and confusion of the DCEU…
(By the way, are we ever going to get that Flash movie?)
Listen, I’m not trying to make fun of Universal here. Truth be told, I love its classic monster movies. I would happily spend a rainy Saturday afternoon watching the original Dracula, Frankenstein, Mummy, Invisible Man, and Wolfman movies from the 1930s and 40s. The problem I have with Universal (as well as Warner Bros. and their mishandling of the DC movies) is that they try too hard to mimic the Marvel/Disney success without having a real plan to achieve it and then completely abandon it when one movie doesn’t do as well as they had hoped, as if all Marvel movies are masterpieces.
Let’s look at 2017’s The Mummy as an example. This movie lost all the identifying qualities of a classic Universal monster/horror flick, i.e., it was NOT scary, not even a little bit. It was essentially a Tom Cruise action film with supernatural elements included as an afterthought. Then Russell Crowe’s character was this weird mashup of Jekyll and Hide meet Van Helsing meets Nick Fury, and his monster-catching secret organization was just a knockoff S.H.I.E.L.D. And I, like everyone else, sat puzzled, jaw dropped to the ground, thinking, Who the hell thought this was a good idea? You have turned one of my favorite monster movies into a Marvel superhero clusterfuck!
The problem isn’t that these movies aren’t “Marvel” enough; it’s that they are too “Marvel.”
Well, at least Universal has learned its lesson and has decided to stick with producing good ol’ classic horror movies.
That being said, I was initially really excited about the Dark Universe concept. I wanted a cinematic universe of interconnected reimagined monster films set in present day. I thought that was an awesome idea. And it’s not like they haven’t done it before! Let us not forget Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and the Abbott and Costello Meet film series. So it absolutely can be done. It just has to be well planned and, most importantly, well executed. And while critics may be mixed on it, I guarantee audiences will love it, if not for the nostalgia, then for the fact that it sticks to the source material WITHIN UNIVERSAL and doesn’t rely on unrelated outside inspiration (*cough, cough* MARVEL).
Now, let’s say I was a studio exec at Universal (I probably just lost that job after trashing them, but hey, a girl can dream). How would I bring back the Dark Universe of interlinked monster movies, keeping them true to their predecessors, while avoiding the curse of Marvel mania? Here’s what I would do…
How to Resurrect “Dark Universe” and Produce Interconnected Monster Movies the “Right” Way
Step 1: Make Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy canon
But pull a good ol’ Halloween and retcon all sequels, spin-offs, and whatever the hell that 2017 reboot was.
(While The Mummy Returns is the only sequel I acknowledge, its plot doesn’t fit into my grand scheme, so it has to go. And let’s be honest, the Scorpion King spin-offs were not that good.)
I think it is safe to say that after the failure of the last two mummy movies, we’re all mummied out. We don’t need a new movie any time soon. Especially when the 1999 film still holds up so well today (apart from questionable casting of Egyptian characters, a problem that persists in Hollywood even in 2022).
Step 2: Establish Dracula as the BIG bad (and retcon Dracula Untold—sorry, Luke Evans)
Arguably, the title of “BIG bad” can go to either the Mummy or Dracula, as they are the oldest and most powerful of the monsters, but here is why I think it should be Dracula…
The Mummy is just a man who fell in love with the wrong woman, got mummified alive for it, then cursed, and now is bound by his curse. He’s not really evil.
Now, I know what you’re going to say.
But he sucked all of those Americans dry!
But the plagues and total destruction of the world!
You can even see this in the original 1932 Mummy movie and its sequels. All he wants is his princess. Any destructive thing he does is in pursuit of her or because he is being controlled by whatever cult awoke him. But at his core, all he wants is love. And that is not more evident than in the final scenes of The Mummy Returns. Yes, I know I said it won’t be canon, but hear me out. At the end of the movie (and this is not a spoiler because this movie is over 20 years old—at this point, if you haven’t watched it yet, you’re not going to), when Imhotep is being dragged back to the Underworld by these zombie-like creatures, he calls out for Anck-su-namun to save him. What does she do instead? She runs and abandons him. Distraught and heartbroken, Imhotep lets go and willingly dies. That is a man in love. He cannot be our BIG bad.
Dracula, on the other hand, is a coldhearted evil vampire, and I say that despite actually liking Dracula Untold. I thought it was a good movie, a good origin story, a good anti-hero action flick, a good period piece about a fictionalized version of a historical figure. Was it a “Dracula” movie? NO. And therein lies the problem.
For the love of God, Hollywood, stop making Dracula a likeable character! He is a horrifying predatory vampire, a plague upon this earth, the ultimate evil, everything unholy and anti-Christian. Whereas baptism in Christ gives you salvation and eternal life, baptism in Dracula curses you to eternal damnation. It would be wise for you to remember the difference. Stop giving him sex appeal. Stop giving him a love interest. MAKE. HIM. EVIL GODDAMMIT! Because your girl is tired of this sad, lonely vampire romance bull…
(I take that back. Give him sex appeal, but the temptation kind. The kind that risks your life when you fall into it. Thomas Doherty’s Walter in The Invitation captured this juxtaposition perfectly. He was hot…but also menacingly terrifying!)
I think 100 years of Dracula movies have hoodwinked us into believing we’ve actually read the source material, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, when we actually haven’t (myself included), despite it being available for free in the public domain. For example, from my research, allegedly, the character Dracula was not inspired by the man Vlad “the Impaler” Dracula, despite them having the same name. In fact, the book was already mostly written before Stoker decided to change the character’s name from Count Wampyr to Count Dracula, believing that the base word “Dracul,” translated from Romanian, means “devil” and that the “-a” tacked onto the end means “son of”; ergo, “Dracula” means “Son of the Devil.” Other sources say the translation is actually “dragon.” Given that the devil appears as a dragon in the Bible, I would consider these translations to be interchangeable. However, Vlad Dracula’s father, Vlad Dracul, was a member of the Order of the Dragon, a society that was the opposite of being devilish or anti-Christian. Instead, they rose up in defense of Christianity, so “Son of the Dragon,” at least for real-life Dracula, seems the most probable translation, but boy does “Son of the Devil” make fictional Dracula sound a whole hell of a lot scarier. It also solidifies why turning him into a sympathetic character makes absolutely no sense! He’s the devil incarnate, just like Jesus is God incarnate, so let’s work with that.
In my dream Dracula movie, I would take pieces from Dracula Untold that I thought worked well and bring it into present day: the Son of the Devil/Dragon nickname, the ancient evil vampire trapped in a cave waiting for a conduit that would finally free him to spread his evil throughout the world (this would be the real Dracula, not Luke Evans’ crybaby Vlad). Maybe hearing Evie from The Mummy reading out of the Book of the Dead awoke him from his centuries-long sleep, which means he would’ve been out of that cave for 100 years now. He has no love because he is pure evil (there is room for only one lovelorn monster in my Dark Universe, and that is the Mummy). There’s no reincarnated wife that he’s after. He’s just out here drinking people’s blood and turning them into vampires.
For this movie, I would want to make this a mystery/exorcism type story. Not quite Midnight Mass, but it takes place in a tight-knit Catholic community. We open with a woman going to confession (we don’t see what she confesses; maybe that’s revealed later in the movie). When she leaves, she visits her parents’ graves. Maybe whatever she’s just confessed would have disappointed them. But she starts to hear things moving around her that unsettle her, maybe she sees a pair of glowing eyes that peak out from behind a nearby mausoleum. She freaks and runs for her car, drives, but then a bat crashes into the windshield and she nearly wrecks. She gets out to see if it’s still alive. It twitches a little, then suddenly flies at her face knocking her over. She gets up, tries to get back in the car, but the door suddenly closes then locks, behind her she hears a swarm of bats coming, and she takes off running.
From there on, here’s my suggested plot: A woman (our “Lucy”) is attacked by an unseen force and begins behaving strangely. People in the community believe she is possessed. A Catholic priest with a dark past (Van Helsing) is sent to determine if she is truly demon possessed and to perform the exorcism if she is. He enlists the help of a physical doctor and a psychiatrist to assist with the evaluation. But Van Helsing is a descendant of Evie and Rick O’Connell. He remembers the stories his grandparents told him about the evil Mummy that almost destroyed the world. He knows all too well that there are monsters in this world far worse than demons, and one of the worst of them has attached himself to “Lucy.” Now it’s a game of is it real or not (demons or vampires), will they or won’t they (exorcise), and whodunit (the devil or his “son”).
Around the climax, we get our exorcism, but when Van Helsing commands the demon to tell him its name, Lucy screams, “Dracula!” At this point, we get some background on Dracula—how he got to America (my mind has this film set in Baltimore for some reason—maybe it’s the Edgar Allan Poe in me), what does he want, how do we kill him. Only in the last 10 or 15 minutes is Dracula’s identity revealed (and it’s someone everyone knows—someone on the doctor team trying to help Lucy, perhaps?). But by that time, it’s too late. Dracula gets away…
Well obviously we can’t kill him!
If he’s the BIG bad in this universe, he has to stay alive to appear in subsequent movies. So if Dracula gets away and Lucy becomes a vampire (as she does in the book), can there be a feasible resolution to the movie without it feeling like a cliffhanger? I think so. We could make it a Van Helsing origin story, in that after the events of the movie, he abandons the cloth and becomes a vampire/monster hunter on the search for Dracula and Lucy. We can have another potential victim of Dracula (our “Mina” or “Johnathan Harker”) who is saved but is left with DEEP scars (either literal or metaphorical) and joins Van Helsing in the hunt for Dracula (for revenge).
What’s important is that we don’t focus too much on universe building (like the Jekyll/Hide and Prodigium crap in the 2017 Mummy movie). This is strictly a standalone Dracula movie. Only in the post-credits scene will we tease the next movie: clues to where Dracula may be headed next or to our next monster…
I realize that when I’m really passionate about something, I can talk on and on about it. If you’ve made it this far, then you must be passionate too, and you’re intrigued by my Dark Universe concept. I’m thankful for that. But alas, as this post is already at over 2,000 words—and attention spans aren’t what they use to be—we should probably end it here. Like Michael Jackson says, let this idea simmer for a week, and I’ll be back next Saturday with the conclusion to my Dark Universe. See you then. And happy International Coffee Day!