Whatever Happened to the Universal Monsters? Part One
Author's Note: This is the first part of an ongoing series where we look at the Universal Monsters legacy and the roads taken and those not taken.
The lines are forever engrained in cinematic history. "It's ALIVE!!!!"
"I am Dracula."
"To a new world of gods and monsters!"
The character designs are some of the most iconic in the history of the world. The likenesses of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester and Lon Chaney will forever be linked to a set of characters created in the early 20th century and inspired by classic literature.
They were the lifeblood of a movie studio and the chilling vision of those that saw the spark that changed cinematic history.
They are called the Universal Monsters. Frankenstein's Monster. Count Dracula. The Bride of Frankenstein. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Invisible Man. The Mummy. The Wolf Man. The Phantom of the Opera. The Metaluna Mutant. I'm sure there are others (the Mole People?) that belong on the list. Characters so iconic that they are instantly recognizable. Like Batman and Spider-Man, they are timeless in their pop culture awareness.
The ongoing comic books featuring modern twists on the original characters.
The various TV shows over the years.
The numerous sequels to the original black and white movies.
The blockbuster reinventions of the original movies.
The action figures.
The animated series from the '80's and the modern 2000's version.
The Happy Meal tie-ins.
The theme park rides.
In our universe, at least, most of these never came to be. In fact, most media related to these characters stopped in the late 1950's. Sure, there were new takes on the literary versions. And the merchandising around the figures, statues, T-shirts and the like are pretty active nowadays. Even I have visited Universal Studios Orlando to see a few of the exhibits and the café (unfortunately, never got to go inside). I love picking up the Super7 merch. But what is Universal really doing with these characters outside of random licensing? When they do try to capitalize on the monsters, why can they not seem to get anything to stick? Here are my thoughts and theories…
1. They're all dead. The likeness, as mentioned, are so iconic that they can only be played by Karloff, Lugosi, etc. And they're all dead. To some degree, that theory holds. While there have been many new movies that take on the literary versions of the characters, none of them are that memorable. But I think Universal themselves dispelled this idea during the original run. Boris Karloff only played the monster three times. Bela Lugosi played Dracula twice. Even in their shared universe different actors took on the established roles. Like Batman, James Bond and others, the characters have outlived their most famous portrayals and they've become timeless. The key, I believe, that differentiates the monsters is that the portrayal has to match the original. I don't want to see someone else's take on Frankenstein's monster. I want to see someone else play Karloff's Frankenstein monster.
2. They're too old. Given that the most recent appearance of these characters was nearly 70 years ago (or more), it's hard not to see why the general public would not have an affection for them. They're certainly in the public zeitgeist, but mostly from their appearances or as an afterthought. Most would know who Frankenstein is if shown a picture of Karloff in makeup, but probably have never seen the 1931 James Whale masterpiece. Nor could they tell you what the picture was even about beyond the pop culture reference of the monster. If you go down the line of Universal Monsters, you're not likely to even have
a pop culture reference point past Lugosi's Dracula. By the time you get to the Invisible Man or the Mutant, you've lost any recognition.
3. They've been forgotten. No, in this case, I don't mean by general movie going audiences or the public at large. I mean by Universal. In this blog, I've argued that DC/Warner Bros. struggles to use their characters, especially legacy characters, in a meaningful way that engages fans--i.e. the people spending money on said characters. But unlike DC, I don't see that Universal even tries. They do a decent job of keeping the movies available in stores, around the Halloween season and some of the re-releases on Blu-ray and DVD have been top notch. However, when I went to stream Frankenstein, I couldn't even find it--on Peacock, no less, Universal's streaming platform. In comparison, HBOMax and presumably Disney+ have whole sections dedicated to DC and Marvel properties, respectively. Peacock has nothing. I recall reading an interview about the creation of special features for the DVD's in which the interviewer was hired because the people at Universal knew little of the history of their own properties.
4. That kind of horror isn't cool. Today's horror fans and moviegoers demand a different kind of picture than those made in the 1930's. But Michael Myers, Leatherface, Jason, Freddy, etc. don't stay relevant today just because of their course language and flamboyant gore. They are pop culture icons. Every few years, sometimes longer, someone passionate about the franchise puts out a new movie. There are media tie-ins and usually a steady stream of merchandise. Why can't Universal do that for the monsters? Okay, we'd eventually have to deal with Dark Universe. The movie trailer they released promoting their old/new shared universe concept was easily one of my top 10 favorite trailers of all time. Universal even went as far as hiring top tier talent and stars to develop their answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And then The Mummy happened. Now, I'm not as critical as most to the movie. It had very high ideals. It even had nods to the originals--in universe. This was the way to go. But where they failed miserably was both in the tone of the movie and the story. The mummy was not the mummy from the old movies. Not even close. I don't know how Tom Cruise's character was supposed to be and beyond that, he wasn't right for the role. Was this a horror movie or an action movie? At times, it was just boring. Either way, that was the death knell for the Dark Universe. But it didn't have to be. And a few years later, the Elizabeth Moss-starring Invisible Man showed that these characters do indeed have life in them. Now, this movie had zero to do with the old movies, nor did it have anything to do with the shared universe concept. The next movie in the lineup, Renfield, appears to be following suit. Not having the shared universe is disappointing but having a Universal Monsters movie in theaters (or streaming due to COVID) and having it be a success is a plus for fandom. As DC has learned with their DCEU misfires, audiences will flock to see a good movie, but it doesn't have to be a blatant, formulaic version of the MCU. It just has to be a good movie.
5. Maybe the dead should stay dead. One of my favorite movies is Gods and Monsters. While no biopic, it's central focus is the analogy of the Frankenstein monster to aspects of director James Whale's life following the time he directed the horror movies for Universal. Like the monster, Whale could not escape the dark pages of his own past always lurking, like a hulking creature on the horizon. Ultimately, it's the monster, or something analogous to that, that delivers him the solace that he seeks--death. So, maybe the monsters should not be revived. You can't do better than perfection, so why do anything that sullies the memory of the original? I believe that to stay relevant, the properties have to evolve, too. It doesn't take away from the original Star Trek when someone other than William Shatner plays James T. Kirk. But James T. Kirk will always be William Shatner. The same is true of Boris Karloff and the monster. No, I think the dead have to keep living. Part of our job as fans is to honor the originals. To ensure that those that come after us will always have a Frankenstein or Dracula to experience whether that be at the cinema, Universal Studios or even the next great entertainment experience not yet conceived. Like Whale in Gods and Monsters, our monsters are certainly there are the horizon. They may be far more real and horrible than anyone would care to imagine, but in the most dour times and in the pitch black darkness we can look a little bit closer and we might just smile. For there, on that black and white horizon, amongst the gathering monsters we might just see the faces of Elsa Lanchester, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.