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Playing God with these Monsters – How to Fix the Dark Universe

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With The Mummy having settled into our cinematic stomachs for well over two weeks now, and seeing as it’s attracted less than a stellar reception (rocking a disappointing average of 15% on Rotten Tomatoes, as it currently stands), one could infer that the Dark Universe hasn’t launched in the ideal way. Rather than heading straight for the desired point, it has gone off track, veering towards the black hole that is financial and creative failure.

But, I believe there is a chance to salvage it. One need only consider the faults of this initial instalment, in order to decipher just how one can reignite the rocket propulsion of this Universal Franchise and set it back on the course towards success. So, without further ado, here are 3 errors made by The Mummy, and the alternatives that can hope to resolve the Dark Universe before it completely loses interest.

1) Lose the Huge Names – This is a devastating situation for me, as I’m going to say something that goes against my cinematic heart: Tom Cruise shouldn’t be in this franchise. I know, I know. Many have argued, including myself, that he was excellent in the film, entertaining, always game for his stunts. But, the tone is completely off from what a Universal horror film should be. One need only examine the zero-gravity scene, supposedly ripped straight out of a ‘Mission Impossible stunt’ brainstorm according to Cruise, to realise that perhaps Cruise isn’t the man to lead what should be a cast of dark, unnerving Hollywood ghouls and creatures. Cruise is far too likeable, far too noticeable, his action set-pieces and charismatic presence taking a lot of the attention away from Boutella: it’s called The Mummy yet we spend way more time with Cruise, making me wonder why it isn’t called Nick Morton. It isn’t just Cruise. We’ve got Javier Bardem lined up as Frankenstein’s Monster, Johnny Depp on as The Invisible Man, and apparently Michael Fassbender is the favourite to don the cape of Dracula and vice versa for Angelina Jolie with the infamous wig of the Bride of Frankenstein. While I can definitely see Bardem suiting the role of the Monster, all the other names appear a little desperate to thrust a lot of glitz and glamour into the Universe, in order to kickstart it with excitement towards what these actors could bring as the new iterations of these beloved characters. But, as we have seen with the box office numbers for a selection of star-driven blockbusters – Ghost in the Shell, Pan, Cowboys & Aliens – illustrious actors don’t draw in the audiences as much as they did back in the black-and-white/technicolour days of Astaire, Bogart and Wayne. Instead, it’s the talent behind the screen, and the narrative innovations in front that do. So, follow suit with that equally ambitious yet gratuitous film franchise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Excluding the high-profile Benedict Cumberbatch, the casting of the likes of Chadwick Boseman, Chris Evans and Tom Holland in dominant roles is a stroke of genius. Without the baggage of star power really weighing upon their shoulders, they’re able to fit into their roles seamlessly, characterising them with real enthusiasm and becoming synonymous with that image. This is what Universal should be prepared to do: scout for the talent and actors who fit the character, not the box office. A Mads Mikkelsen for Dracula, a Daniel Radcliffe for Quasimodo, an Aaron Eckhart for the Phantom of the Opera, this sort of casting would really put a spotlight on the characters and the actor’s work, not the actor and how the character reflects them.

2) Get Directors Who Know the Genre – We can all agree, I hope, that Alex Kurtzmann didn’t add a whole lot of cinematic flair to The Mummy. A writer, and one of the principle producers of this Dark Universe, Kurtzmann seems more interested in clumsily establishing the confines of his universe through screenwriting exposition, than he does with crafting a unique and investing cinematic aesthetic that truly defines and augments the character that it is honouring. It is from this that I request that we drop Kurtzmann from directorial duties, instead aiming to hunt down and snatch up as many distinctive, knowledgeable directorial voices as the franchise can muster. What Kurtzmann rather officiously imposes upon the horror foundations of The Mummy is the look and feel of a spectacle-driven summer blockbuster. This just doesn’t do the Universal horror pictures justice. Baroque, unnerving and even a little campy, those films took a lot from the German Expressionist movement and adapted it to the American market, making them visually engaging as well as entertaining. The same should be said of this Dark Universe. So I propose the following list of filmmakers who would really suit the franchise and where it could head:

  • James Wan – Creature from the Black Lagoon
  • Fede Alvarez – Dracula
  • Adam Wingard – The Wolfman
  • Scott Derrickson – The Phantom of the Opera
  • David Cronenberg – Frankenstein
  • Sam Raimi – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

While I don’t claim to be Kathleen Kennedy, I believe that getting in talents like these, who know the horror genre, how it ticks, how you can play around with its comedic and gross-out moments, one could really launch a selection of movies that have their own distinctive authority. Refreshing, exciting, ambitious, the Dark Universe would then rival its financial opponent at Marvel, who have yet to really allow their directors to breathe outside of the corporate narrative template that Kevin Feige measures to each and every film released. Speaking of Marvel…

3) Don’t do an MCU and Feel Like You Have to Connect Everything – A problem with many franchises today is how they want to link plotlines across multiple movies, fashioning a narrative through-line so the audience goes from point A to B to C, without any creative deviation. While this is textbook narrative continuity, it isn’t innovative and it can place a vice around the neck of the director who wants to express a little more outside-of-the-box (see Edgar Wright’s dismissal from Ant-Man, due to creative differences, as an example of this). The Mummy made this mistake about halfway through its narrative. Taking the attention away from the eponymous villain, and instead looking into the inner workings of Crowe’s Dr Jekyll and his newly-dubbed supernatural investigation organisation Prodigium, The Mummy stalls and leaves Kurtzmann without much room to flex his muscles and delve into the creature the film is meant to be adapting. Instead, what the Dark Universe should do is still have a thin layer of intertextual tissue, that being Prodigium and Crowe’s Jekyll, but have this remain subtle and firmly in the background: the Dark Universe films should be entirely separate, devoid of crossover and team-ups. What this makes for is a chance for the director to sink his teeth into the classic mythology, but put their own, inventive spin on the events that follow. Imagine Cronenberg’s practical yet repulsive take on Frankenstein’s Monster’s formation, or Raimi’s darkly comic look at the creature who lurks in the shadow of France’s most famous cathedral. All of this, without a smudge of corporate franchise fingerprints over the narrative of these movies. Pure, original and productive filmmaking that constantly refreshes the audience’s expectations, luring them in to the next instalment.

While I’d be surprised if any studio, especially one as gargantuan and ever-present as Universal, would listen to a thing a measly film buff like me would say, I think I’ve made a strong case as to how the Dark Universe could evolve from its inherent failure at the first hurdle. This doesn’t have to turn into a disaster, enticing article after article that claims the Dark Universe has expelled its welcome at its inception. Instead, it can be a moment to build a better cinematic world, one that focuses less on expense and more on the macro features of genre and performance that made the originals so effective. No one knew the talents that adopted the mantles of these monsters so many years ago. And yet who could turn away from the mesmerising performances of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney Jr. One didn’t recognise the names of James Whale or Tod Browning. Yet their filmmaking would go on to inspire many a horror filmmaker. This franchise could easily achieve the same for its talent, if it willingly takes a risk with it, going against the mould and tendencies of an often lazy contemporary Hollywood.

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