The Universal Monster Cinematic Universe
Ron Seifried | On 23, Jul 2014In what is becoming a sub-genre in the film franchise category, a “cinematic universe” is a studio’s alternative to tired direct sequels and instead producing standalone origin story’s to widen the narrative across several parallel timelines. Marvel has perfected the concept with their Marvel Initiative now in its second phase and Warner Bros/DC Comics is in its early stages of possibly as much as seven more films. Now comes word that Universal Pictures is tapping into its vast backlog of classic monster films for a new cinematic universe of origin and crossover confusion by rebooting Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Mummy and possibly more in an unprecedented new franchise of an assortment of undead characters. According to Deadline, the new project will be led by Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan, two writers already familiar in franchise building. Kurtzman has been involved with Transformers, Star Trek and The Amazing Spider-Man while Morgan has an existing Universal relationship with his scripts for five of The Fast and The Furious series. The new monster franchise supposedly (but not confirmed), will start with Dracula Untold out later in 2014, followed by The Mummy reboot on April 22, 2016 and soon with several origin features of the myriad of deadly characters that gained popularity in the 1930’s and 1940’s. This will be the first time in over 70 years Universal will attempt at tying together these iconic monsters in a cohesive manner. Oh, and a possible film in this eclectic universe may be a reboot of Van Helsing starring Tom Cruise who will also produce. Universal Monsters: A Brief History Universal’s first horror box-office hit was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel. Due to the film’s success, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) followed starring Chaney as the deformed Phantom and was based on Gaston Leroux’s 1911 mystery novel. Both films had incredibly lavish sets even by today’s standards and Chaney went though torturous make-up preparation that cemented his legacy as the “man with 1000 faces.” Universal went on to make a few more silent horror films in the 1920’s, but none reached the success of the studios output the following decade. In early 1931, Dracula was released starring Hungarian-American Bela Lugosi as the blood-sucking vampire and was directed by Tod Browning. Loosely based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel, this was the first officially sanctioned film from the Stoker family based on the vampire. The infamous 1922 classic German silent film Nosfertu was filmed without permission from Bram Stoker’s widow, who sued for copyright infringement and plagiarism, eventually triumphing with the courts ordering all prints to be destroyed. Fortunately several copies escaped the furnace and there was even a remake in the late 1970’s. Later in 1931, Frankenstein was released. The first of two Frankenstein films directed by James Whale starred Boris Karloff as the scarred, flat-head, neck-bolted monster. The film was adapted from a 1927 play by Peggy Webling, which was loosely adapted from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel. Coincidentally, Webling’s play was written at the request of actor-producer Hamilton Deane who developed the Dracula we know today as a tuxedo-wearing, stand-up collar vampire with cape in his successful stage adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula which later inspired Lugosi’s interpretation. The following year saw the release of The Mummy (1932), directed by Karl Freund and starring Karloff as a revived ancient Egyptian priest. Inspired by the 1922 opening of the tomb of King Tutankhamen, the producer commissioned story editor Richar Shayer to track down a novel with an Egyptian-themed horror story. Since none was found, Shayer and writer Nina Wilcox Putnam mixed occultism with elements from a short story by Arthur Conan Doyle entitled “The Ring of Thoth” for their treatment. The final screenplay was written by John L. Balderston, who also contributed to Dracula and Frankenstein. The Invisible Man in 1933 was based on H.G. Wells 1897 novel, and was also directed by Frankenstein‘s James Whale, starred English actor Claude Rains in his first American production. Rains part was limited to a disembodied voice when not covered by bandages, but his face is finally revealed at the end of the film. The “first phase” of Universal’s golden age of monster origin film continued with The Wolf Man (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the werewolf and co-starred Bela Lugosi as Bela the man/wolf who bites and infects the title character. Produced and directed by George Waggner and written by Curt Siodmak, this was actually Universal’s second attempt at a werewolf film, following the commercial failure Werewolf of London (1935). Lugosi and Karloff dominated in the 1930’s, with one or the other appearing in 13 out of the 17 horror films at Universal, some one-off productions including The Raven, The Phantom Creeps and Tower of London. Hollywood’s First Golden Age of Sequels The surprise success of this new genre spawned a myriad mix of sequels, remakes and crossovers that inspired the current trend of comic book franchises and now Universal’s upcoming return to their monster properties. Considered by many to be superior to the original, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) began pre-production soon after the first film’s premiere with director James Whale and stars Boris Karloff, Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein and lab assistant Dwight Frye returning to the fold along with newcomer Elsa Lanchester (wife of Charles Laughton) in two roles as Mary Shelley and the Bride. Picking up immediately after the events of the first film, the monster pressures the doctor into building a mate for him who later rejects him and in his despair destroys the lab and himself with it. Despite a considerable amount of censorship from the Hayes office for its controversial religious undertones and going over budget, the film was a success and is now in the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and is considered Whale’s masterpiece. Karloff would portray the monster one more time in Son of Frankenstein (1939), which also featured Lugosi as Ygor. Produced as a reaction to the double-feature rereleases of Dracula & Frankenstein during Universal’s two year halt on monster films in the late 30’s, the third film was enough of a success to continue the franchise. Dracula’s Daughter (1936) was a direct sequel to the Lugosi classic and it was followed by Son of Dracula (1943) starring Lon Chaney Jr. and is the first film to show the vampire’s transition into a bat onscreen. Neither film starred Lugosi who would reprise his role one more time in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Disappointed the monster became more of joke than the resurrected and tormented creature, Karloff decided not to reprise the role until an episode of the TV series Route 66 in the 1960’s. Son of Frankenstein was also the final “A” production of Universal’s Frankenstein franchise, which continued in a series of “B” movies starting with The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) with Lon Chaney Jr. as the monster and Lugosi returning as Ygor, which was also the final solo appearance of the monster at Universal. The classification of “B” movies reduced the budget, reused actors and even recycled footage from previous films. The crossover era started in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the fifth film in the Frankenstein series, but the first sequel to The Wolf Man. Lon Chaney Jr. reprised his role as the Talbot/wolfman, and Bela Lugosi was the third actor to portray the Frankenstein’s monster. Once considered for the part of the monster before the unknown Karloff took over in 1931, Lugosi’s ambition to be a serious leading man led him to famously turn down the original non-speaking part. The plot device of the full moon awakening the wolf man was first used in this film, resurrecting Talbot (along with a poem) from the dead. He seeks out Dr. Frankenstein looking for a cure, only to run into the monster (Lugosi) and after a climatic battle in the castle, a nearby dam breaks killing both creatures. Now approaching sixty, Lugosi had a change of heart and agreed to don the monster makeup and grunt on camera. This wasn’t Lugosi’s first official “appearance” as the monster: in the fourth film, Ygor’s (Lugosi) brain is implanted in the lumbering creature (Chaney Jr.), leading to Lugosi’s voice to be the voice of the monster. But test audiences reacted negatively to Lugosi’s monster speaking in any capacity, so all of his dialogue was edited out. Due to Lugosi’s age and exhaustion during production, the monster was replaced by doubles throughout the film, making the Hungarian’s screen time limited. The monster-mania films commences with House of Frankenstein (1944), with Chaney Jr. returning as the Wolf Man, Glenn Strange as Frankenstein’s monster, John Carradine as Dracula, J. Carrol Naish as the Hunchback and Boris Karloff as the Mad Scientist instead of reprising his famous portrayal of the monster. Early drafts of the film even included the Mummy, Ape-Woman, Mad Ghoul and the Invisible Man, but due to budget and plot density were thankfully not included in the final film. Karloff actually coached Strange onset on how to play the monster, a part Strange would reprise two more times. The Wolf Man meets his fate by a silver bullet for the first time in this mashup. This film is the sixth in the Frankenstein series, third in the Wolf Man franchise House of Dracula (1945) is a direct sequel to House of Frankenstein, and despite being profitable, it was one of the last films to feature Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolf Man with Strange, Carradine and Chaney Jr. reprised their roles respectively. The Mummy did not have a direct sequel, but was instead remade into a series of “B” movies, starting with The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and its direct sequels: The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944), The Mummy’s Curse (1944) and the comedy spinoff, Abbott and Costello Meets the Mummy (1955). None featured Boris Karloff, but because “B” movies recycled footage, the uncredited actor can be seen in The Mummy’s Hand. Dracula and the Wolf Man made their last Universal appearance in Abbott & Costello’s 1948 film, but the comedy duo also “met” the Invisible Man in 1951, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (w/ Boris Karloff) in 1953 and finally The Mummy in 1955. But it was in 1954 that Universal’s Horror franchise was revived with Creature from the Black Lagoon, later followed by two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), the first two released in 3D. The Creature, aka Gill-Man, spawned a variety of merchandising, literature and other forms of entertainment that impacted media for the remainder of the decade and helped usher in a new era of horror films. Universal produced sci-fi with It Came from Outer Space, giant insects in Tarantula and zombies in Curse of the Undead. The 1950’s also witnessed a revival of the original 1930’s horror films with double feature viewings and television syndication, leading up to a plethora of merchandising in the 1960’s, insuring their legacy for decades. Universal’s Monsters: After the Golden Age Universal’s horror franchises would languish for over 20 years until the release of Dracula (1979) with Frank Langella and Laurence Olivier, a more romantic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel directed by John Badham. Universal’s release fell short critically and commercially against two other vampire films the same year: Warner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu and the George Hamilton-starring comedy Love at First Bite. It would be another 20 years before Universal would return to their monster characters, with the Brendan Fraser trilogy of films; The Mummy (1999) ,The Mummy Returns (2001) and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) followed by one spinoff starring Dwayne Johnson, The Scorpion King (2002). Van Helsing (2004) was Universal’s first attempt to center a story on the infamous monster hunter that first appeared in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but was poorly received despite starring Hugh Jackman in the title role. Universal then attempted to remake The Wolfman (2010), starring Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving, but despite the stellar cast, the movie was a bomb. Universal’s Monsters: The Future Several of the Universal’s Monster properties are in some form of pre-production. Universal has announced a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon, titled simply The Black Lagoon with Gary Ross (son of original writer, Arthur A. Ross) writing the script and Breck Eisner (Sahara) to direct. The Invisible Man was greenlighted a couple of years ago with David S. Goyer writing and directing, but with his involvement in DC Comics superhero franchise it’s unlikely this will happen. These productions may be realigned with Universal’s focus on a new cinematic universe, and it could be refreshing to breathe new life into this collection of mayhem.