Film Editor Samantha Creswick discusses why Universal might have to wait a little longer before declaring that the Dark Universe is alive
Content warning: Domestic violence insofar as it’s the major them/plot point for The Invisible Man (2020)
In the current filmmaking landscape, the ability to repackage pre-loved IP is less a skill than the lifeblood of studio movies. Of the top five films in the U.S. Box Office at the time of writing, there are no wholly original stories. Adaptations (from literature, plays, graphic novels, etc.), sequels, prequels, and franchises are repeatedly proving themselves to bring the best returns on the kind of big money that a studio likes to put behind a blockbuster. Although we may decry the cultural erosion that accompanies this endless string of remakes and revamps, we can’t deny that nothing has us flocking to the cinema (or, increasingly, paying over-priced membership subscriptions) than the latest instalment in a long-running narrative. Studios and audiences, both with limited funds and time, are mutually in search of a familiar story.
Although this method of moviemaking feels like a recent phenomenon, one studio in particular has successfully employed this modus operandi as a corporate money making strategy for a succession of decades. I am talking, of course, of Universal’s monster flicks, which dominated the box office in the early to mid-twentieth century. In the 1930s, Universal was severely in debt, until Carl Laemmle Jr. – a man who would become known for spending vast sums on movies that didn’t recoup their budgets – and the son of Universal owner Carl Laemmle Sr., revived a decade-old plot to adapt Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. The studio spent $40,000.00 on acquiring the rights to both the novel and stage adaptation of Dracula, and even imported the latter production’s star Bela Lugosi to helm their monster flick. The result is a camp but atmospherically haunting thriller that turns on Lugosi’s powerful performance and a tendency towards theatrical histrionics. It was an enormous success, and became the top grossing film of the year.
The success of Dracula (1931) acted as a much-needed financial safety blanket for the studio, and they set about trying to replicate their success. Their next target was Mary Shelley’s gothic sci-fi thriller Frankenstein, which they produced in the same year as Dracula (1931), for a fraction of the former’s budget, but with much of its cast. Absent was Lugosi, who was replaced as the flick’s monster by then little-known character actor Boris Karloff. The film opens with a singularly interesting framing device. Edward Van Sloan steps out from behind a curtain to present a warning from “Mr Carl Laemmle”, the public figurehead of the Universal studio, that what the audience are about to witness is horrifying. He invites the audience to leave the theatre if they don’t think they’re up to it, parting with an ominous “we warned you.” This marketing strategy was paired with theatre schemes, such as offering a $5 reward to anyone who could sit through the film in the picture house with the lights off and doors locked.
Far from putting audiences off, such strategies assured the film’s great financial success. The greatest testament to this is not in its box office statistics, but in its lasting legacy on popular culture. For good or ill, largely gone is the loquacious existentialist of Shelley’s novel, and in its place is a green-bolted, non-verbal monster from the mind of James Whale. Carl Laemmle Jr., then Head of Production, announced to the New York Times that what the studio had begun in Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) was a “cycle” of horror stories that it intended to continue; and it did. Universal mined literary minds, such as those of Edgar Allen Poe and H.G. Wells, for over two decades for potent scares with which to horrify its audience. Frankenstein and Dracula, the monsters that began it all, would also appear in a series of sequels and team-ups. Bosley Crowther noted of these later films that, even though they had depreciated in quality, “the pure and simple thought of a cinematic convention of all those scrounges is enough to tickle our fancy for a week.” Thus, what Universal began in 1931 was a series of films that performed all the characteristics of the long-form narrative franchise before it was cool.
Universal began to merchandise their monster films as a unit in the 1960s and ‘70s, but didn’t treat them as a unified series until the 1990s, when they rereleased all the films in a DVD collection termed ‘The Classic Collection’. They perhaps didn’t recognise the true value of what they had achieved with their monster films, however, until the franchising successes of the early noughties, with the likes of Harry Potter (Warner Brothers), Lord of the Rings (New Line Cinema), and Star Wars (then Lucasfilm, now Disney). Thus it was that in 2004, Universal released ‘The Legacy Collection’; a DVD series of only their most iconic monsters, in a release perfectly synchronised with Stephen Sommers’ 2004 film Van-Helsing. Van-Helsing is blockbuster fodder that partnered with Hugh Jackman, fresh from success in the X-Men franchise, with Kate Beckinsale (of Underworld), helmed by the director of The Mummy in what ought to have been the great launcher of an unbeatable franchise. Van-Helsing, however, was a flop. The reason being was that it was simply overstuffed; in two hours and eleven minutes, Van-Helsing breezes through Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula (and his brides), Frankenstein (and Igor), and the Wolf Man, all with CGI that was too ambitious for its time. A series of planned sequels were scrapped, and Universal’s plans to reignite and reunite their iconic pop-culture monsters were put on hold.
It would be a decade before there was a serious attempt to try again, with 2014’s Dracula Untold. Dracula Untold attempts to learn from the failure of its vampiric predecessor by focusing tightly on one monster (Samantha Barks filmed scenes as Baba Yaga which were resigned to the cutting room floor.) Yet the film’s earnest attempts to integrate a historically accurate origin story with the supernatural Dracula legend were ill-received. Their attempt to create a historical epic with liberal Tolkienist overtones (Luke Evans, fresh from The Hobbit trilogy, starred as the titular monster) were deemed trite. Even worse was the film’s lacklustre romance plot, which reimagines Dracula victim Mina as the reincarnation of his long-dead wife. This sub-plot, absent from both Stoker’s novel and Lugosi’s cinematic iteration of Dracula, parallels a similar device in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But Coppola’s film, distributed by Columbia Pictures in the early 1990s, is a sexed-up gothic romance reimagining of the Dracula story. It is not Universal’s Dracula, as Dracula Untold was wont to be. The connective tissue of the Universal monsters is not simply their monstrosity, but their ability to horrify. Dracula Untold ’s crime was being both too earnest and too scary. To borrow from Peter Howell’s review: “whatever possessed the makers of Dracula Untold to think we’d be interested in a tragically unhip romance that backstories the infamous bloodsucker?”
It is the issue of backstory that plagues Universal’s next failed attempt to reintroduce their monsters to the big screen. When Universal decided to scale back its plans for the Dark Universe, it cancelled or shelved a series of announced projects, including a Bride of Frankenstein adaptation starring Javier Bardem. Another such project was a remake of The Invisible Man, originally based on a H.G. Wells novel, which was set to star Johnny Depp. As a byproduct of Universal’s restructuring (and thanks in no small part to Depp’s own legal troubles), Depp left the project, which Universal passed on to Blumhouse Productions, a production company known for specialising in critically well-received horror, such as Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and with which Universal has a ten year first-look deal.
The Invisible Man (2020) became a trial run for exploring the Universal monster projects without any interconnectivity. The result is a film that feels more independent, intimate, and thus, is far more scary. The film opens in a minimalist beach house with architectural planes and shot composition reminiscent of that year’s Best Picture Winner, Parasite (2019). Unlike The Mummy (2017), there is no copious narrative exposition; we are plunged straight into a high-tension scene in which Elisabeth Moss’s Cecilia escapes the house without waking her sleeping partner. The stakes are implicit even before he wakes up and chases her down; Cecilia is fleeing an abusive relationship. The simple brilliance of The Invisible Man (2020) is not that it revives a beloved monster from Universal’s canon, but that it depicts a monster that’s all too real, without the need for supernatural interference. The Invisible Man (2020) joins a select group of Post-#MeToo Horror, such as 2018’s Revenge, that builds on the terrifying experience of not being believed. Although not a component part of the original tale, this subject matter is perfect for The Invisible Man, which literalises the idiom that seeing is believing, and transliterates the importance of bearing witness into a technological age of camera obscura and deepfake technology.
“The simple brilliance of The Invisible Man (2020) is not that it revives a beloved monster…but that it depicts a monster that’s all too real, without the need of supernatural influence”
It’s hard to imagine the project being executed this well with a star of Depp’s luminosity; Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s Adrian is largely absent from the film, as the character fakes his own death and becomes ‘invisible’ by wearing an optical suit of his own design, in order to terrorise his former girlfriend. This allows the film to centre its female victim’s experience and emotion. Even so, the audience have a particularly complex relationship with our villain, always having to second guess whether we are looking at him in an empty frame, or, even more terrifyingly, if we are seeing from his perspective as he stalks his victim. The Invisible Man (2020) is a genuinely tense film that delivers on a monster that its audiences love to hate, one that would be terrifying even without his invisibility.
The ending of the film leaves little room for a sequel, and yet it’s the only Universal monster offering of recent years for which I would genuinely be excited to see a follow-up. Though I would loathe seeing Oliver Jackson Cohen’s insidious Adrian revived, or witness Elisabeth Moss’s Cecilia subject to even more terrors, this highlights the paradox of good movie making: the truism that perhaps it is best to leave your audience wanting more but not delivering, for fear of disrupting the positive experience of the original event. It is also the nature of a good monster; a creature that the audience is happier to let rest at the end of the day. For this reason, perhaps, Universal will never succeed in creating a true interconnected franchise from its monster properties. However, if it continues to create films of The Invisible Man’s calibre, it might find a way to strike gold twice without importing such a laborious business model. At its heart, The Invisible Man (2020) is a film that interrogates the ethics of watching and perspective, and thus of narrative and control; one can’t help but feel that if Universal had been more attentive to its message, it might have a clearer idea on how to proceed with its Dark Universe.
Cover image credit: flickr/Thomas Hawk, Universal Studios Monsters