At the beginning of The Bride of Frankenstein, the Monster climbs up out of the burnt ruins of the windmill, and is greeted by an old woman whose husband he just murdered. She starts screaming, so naturally he picks her up and tosses her into the pit.
What do you think the odds are that Universal Studios will allow an old lady to be hurled to her death in Van Helsing: The New Generation (2016)?
Why Universal Studios Won’t Make Monster Movies
There is a “truism” in circulation among writing circles that you must make your villains understandable and sympathetic. I hate this idea. I don’t disagree that a three-dimensional antagonist with believable motivations and psychology can be compelling or even fascinating, I just object that this is the only way to portray bad guys.
This sort of thinking is prevalent among Hollywood producers and studio execs. Look at the character of Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is a murderous, alien presence who kills anyone who gets in his way – mailmen, ambulance drivers, etc. As the sequels progress, he kills people who “deserve” it. We even get the pointless, inevitable origin story in Hannibal Rising. All calculated to make Hannibal more “likable” or even sympathetic. Boring, boring, boring.
So of course, with this sort of thinking, the eventual result is Van Helsing, where there are “good” werewolves, a Frankenstein Monster that looks and acts like Frankenberry, and only one villain, Dracula. Even then, Dracula is charming and funny and likable.
Superhero movies are built around action; things must blow up, heroes must fly through the air improbably, and the world must be rescued. Horror movies are built around scares; things jump out of the darkness, characters die horribly, and happy endings are optional. Do you remember any scary parts in Van Helsing? I remember a lot of scenes of Hugh Jackman swinging on ropes, so much so that I assumed director Stephen Sommers suffered from some kind of kinky rope fetish.
Monster movies predate comic books, and therefore, superheroes. Superheroes were not invented in a vacuum, but the literary traditions that spawned them are very different than those that spawned Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy. The roots of superheroes lie in classical mythology, the roots of the modern monster lie with the Gothic novel. Recent superhero movies have been successful because they found the universal, timeless qualities that were embodied by classic comic book characters, and stayed true to these proven formulas. Modern monster movies must do the same thing, except in a completely different vein.
You can’t just apply the same formula to a different genre. “Going bigger” is the enemy of a good horror movie. $100 million worth of CGI can’t buy dread, terror, or psychic dislocation. Look at the history of horror films, many of the greatest were low budget productions. Night of the Living Dead, Psycho, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Repulsion, Last House on the Left, Halloween, The Howling, Les Diaboliques, nearly every Hammer Film and Roger Corman Poe movie, Peeping Tom, Black Sunday, Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project – the list goes on and on. The blockbuster mentality is completely wrong for horror movies, and by extension monster movies. Good practical effects always make for better monsters than CGI anyway.
Hollywood in general and Universal Studios in particular don’t understand any of this. They think they can hire writers of the Fast and Furious and Transformer movies and just throw money at the project. That’s why we will see Mummy, The First Monster (2016), Dracula Untold (2014) and Frankenstein (2015) full of CGI, likable monsters, and plenty of rope swinging.
Why It May Not Matter.
This marvelous, delicious TV show triumphantly demonstrated exactly how to make monsters fun, scary, and engrossing. They did it without scads of expensive CGI, without whiny teenagers, and without portable gatling guns that shoot wooden stakes. What they did use – to great effect – were sumptuous sets, rich period atmosphere, terrific British actors, wicked sex, and dollops of blood and gore.
Does this formula sound familiar? Here’s a hint:
In the 1960s Hammer Studios figured out two things: Universal Studios did not hold copyright on the the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, Werewolves, etc. and there was money to be made by updating the stories with plenty of cleavage and technicolor blood. They did it on the cheap, without looking cheap, which is why they succeeded and why many of these films still hold up today.
When the Hammer horror cycle began with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, Universal Studios was still producing horror movies but they were C grade, black and white mediocrities like Monster on Campus and The Mole People. They were no match for the colorful, vibrant Hammer films. Hammer went on to dominate the horror genre until the early 1970s; Universal gave up trying.
In 2007, Hammer Films was brought back from the dead, and has since release several creditable horror movies. The same opportunity exists today for the studio; while Universal Studios are fumbling around with lame $100 million tentpole movies, they could counter-program with less expensive, fresher and scarier monster movies. Who wouldn’t want to see a re-imagining of Frankenstein starring Ian McShane as the evil doctor and Rory McCann (the Hound, Game of Thrones) as the hulking monster? How about Lena Headly as a menacing, sexy Countess Dracula? Patrick Stewart as a grizzled Van Helsing?
Whether it’s Hammer or some other smart, enterprising producers, the opportunity is there to do what Hammer once did: show Hollywood how it’s done, and do it better. I’m hoping more for that than I am putting faith in clueless Universal Studios.