Saturday, June 10, 2017

Horrible Isn't Horror: The New Universal Universe & Its Crummy Mummy [Updated Below]

Thursday, there was a pretty good article on Decider on the problems Universal is going to have in creating its "Dark Universe," which launched Friday with the premiere of THE MUMMY. Written by Brett White, "Monster Problem: Dark Universe is the Anti-Marvel" covers some of the things that have made Universal's model, the Marvel's cinematic universe, work but that won't be applicable to Universal's effort. Marvel prioritizes "character over celebrity"; it doesn't do vehicles for huge-name stars. Universal is grabbing up every uber-A-list actor in sight and using them as major selling-points.[1] "While some Marvel characters weren’t massively popular before their film debuts..., their personalities were well-defined from decades of consistent storytelling," whereas the Universal monsters were archetypes that have been used by basically everyone for decades. Marvel was patient and built its universe over time; Universal is rushing into things, going big, going expansive (and, I'd add, making a lot of the same mistakes as Warner Brothers has made with its DC comics universe).

I'd add another item to this. Universal is going upbudget tentpole with properties that don't work well in that box.[2] In doing so, it's running away from what makes those properties enduring and bankable in the first place: their status as horror icons.

By and large, studio suits hate horror movies, consider them lowbrow trash and don't want to be associated with them. Because horror can be done very inexpensively and has a huge and loyal audience, they'll hypocritically crank out some from time to time to keep the lights on (mostly tamed-down PG-13-rated rehashes of past successes) but they typically reflect the larger Hollywood culture in acting as if they're ashamed of such productions.[3] Universal horror is an established brand with 86 years of history but even as Universal is trying to exploit that brand, the studio won't even call the new franchise the Universal Horror Universe. When it comes to genres, horror remains the outlaw.

At the same time, the Hollywood notion of a tentpole is to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into a project, a similar amount into hyping it and give it a big release with the goal of a massive immediate return. The movies are huge in scale, they're kept as dumb, audience-pleasing and inoffensive as possible and they're as packed with noisy, rapid-fire action and big CGI-generated spectacle as the always-substantial budgets will allow. All of that is utterly anathema to quality horror; horror either doesn't need it, can't use is or is utterly undermined and destroyed by it.[4] While some tentpoles buck the race to the bottom that typically characterizes this class of film, they're invariably big, noisy action pictures. That's a necessity for foreign sales. That's all we're going to get here. MUMMY: IMPOSSIBLE, as so many commentators remarked upon seeing the awful trailer for the new Mummy flick. The classic Universal horrors were mythic. They worked by wringing creepy atmosphere, unease and a disturbed sense of wonder out of mysterious, grotesque and dangerous creatures that shouldn't exist in the world but that shuffle out of the shadows anyway, born of some dark legend, forgotten past or corner of the human psyche we don't like to acknowledge. If Universal had any interest in a horror universe using its classic monsters, it could certainly build one. Such an effort would, I imagine, be warmly welcomed. It wouldn't be made up of tentpoles though.

I've always hoped Universal would be able to come up with something worthwhile with this current project but I've always doubted it too. The contemporary studio has a very poor record when it comes to its classic monster properties. From 1999 to 2008, it released three Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser[5] and while these did good box-office, they were terrible movies, painfully stupid, low-rent Indiana Jones knock-offs that had no real connection to the older films that had supposedly inspired them. In 2004, there was VAN HELSING, by the same director as the first two of those Mummy atrocities; it jammed a whole slew of classic Universal monsters into a CGI-overloaded action shit-fest. THE WOLFMAN from 2010 was an incredibly troubled production; as everyone working on it seemed to have an entirely different idea about what it should be, the final result was an unfocused, badly-made mess that ran insanely over-budget then flopped. DRACULA UNTOLD from 2014 was supposed to be the film that launched the new "universe" but it was awful, flopped domestically and has since been declared no part of it. The studio reaction to that setback was to throw even more money at the next project and go even bigger (which almost inevitably translates into "even dumber" and even less of a horror project). Now, it seems THE MUMMY is going to be just as awful a non-starter.

Source: Rotten Tomatoes

Too bad. Being lousy is certainly no bar against being a box-office success--tentpoles wouldn't even exist in their current form if that was the case--but the buzz on this one is terrible and its most likely fate in its theatrical run is probably a quick death. Universal's suits should probably be hoping Marvel doesn't decide to gather up its mostly unused or underused horror characters (Morbius, Blade, the Man Thing, Ghost Rider, and yes, the Living Mummy, Dracula, Werewolf By Night and the Frankenstein's Monster) and launch a Marvel Horror subuniverse to show them how it's done. Oddly enough, that would probably be the one thing that could convince Universal to finally make a serious effort to get it together with their own.

--j.

---

[1] Even if it didn't bespeak a wrongheaded effort to use star-power to sell the new franchise (which practically never works anyway), casting all that expensive talent is a major budgetary mistake; those actors and actresses will be huge line-items in the budgets of every movie in which they appear.

[2] I just wrote a somewhat long article about, among other things, the harm that has been done many comic-based properties by trying to force them into that tentpole box. Comic-based movies often need big-scale productions but it's the smaller-scale, more intimate stories that have made the characters survive and thrive for all these decades.

[3] We have decades of directors, writers, producers, executives who, while working on a horror movie, have insisted their project "isn't a horror movie." This was a running joke for decades in the recently-deceased Fangoria magazine.

[4] Did you know WORLD WAR Z was a zombie movie? Because the studio behind it didn't want you to know that and took every step to make it as unzombie as possible--it was shot as an action/disaster movie--then conceal what little was left of its nature in the advertising (something about which I wrote at the time).

[5] And four godawful SCORPION KING spin-offs from 2002-2015.


UPDATE (Sun., 12 June, 2017) - Reader "Stone Rockhouse" points to a November article in the Hollywood Reporter, a roundtable between various Hollywood executives, wherein Universal's Donna Langley says of the Dark Universe,

"...what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We've tried over the years to make monster movies--unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day..."


Email: jriddlecult@gmail.com
Twitter: @jriddlecult

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