When I made the decidedly silly decision to put down my own money and see The Mummy, Universal’s latest inept attempt at rebooting their iconic Monsters series, I knew I was in for a rough couple of hours the moment the opening credits started. The Universal logo itself appeared, just as you remember it, and then it was followed up with a grim copy that replicated the style of Earth being surrounded by the letters, only now it spelled out ‘The Dark Universe’. One person in the screening - there were only four of us - openly cackled. Indeed, it was the warning sign that everything to follow would certainly be dark, only not as they’d hoped it would be.
Everything about Universal’s desperate scrambling to turn a variety of classic horror characters into a Marvel styled shared universe of interconnecting movies was a bad idea. It was clear that nobody seemed to have thought out why such a thing should be done, much less how it could be. Even the most ardent fans of the films had no real desire to see them forced into a superhero franchise mould. Still, Universal marched on, announcing plans for multiple films in the same world that would include major A-List names in some of the most striking roles in horror cinema - Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster! Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde! Johnny Depp as the Invisible Man, because everyone still likes him, right? Tom Cruise as… Well, kind of the mummy but also just Tom Cruise but hey, he’s got time in-between Mission Impossible movies so let’s celebrate! Big money was put behind the folly, with the budget for The Mummy reaching a rumoured $195m, and Universal released a photo of the cast altogether in marketable unity, hoping nobody would notice the obvious photoshopping since they couldn’t get everyone in the same room at once. It seemed that they thought if they made the film loud enough, they could distract from how little people cared about it.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Mummy opened to scathing reviews and made about $80m domestically. The $409m worldwide gross just kept it afloat - if you side with offical reports that the budget was only $125m - as Tom Cruise’s international power came out in force, yet that couldn’t hide the obvious disappointment of the film’s performance. You don’t launch a multi-film franchise if you can’t get past $500m after all that publicity and A-List dazzle. Even the handful of generous reviews couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for the prospect of more of these films. The question everyone was left with was ‘why?’
That seems to be something Universal are wondering now as well. Days after Bill Condon, the attached director to an adaptation of Bride of Frankenstein (which was to be released before any take on Frankenstein, for some reason), assured people that the project was still in pre-production, Universal announced a U-turn. Now, no longer working to meet a planned 2018 shooting start, the project’s script will be retooled either until Universal feel it’s ready to go forward or until they just cancel the entire franchise. Let’s be honest, they’ve probably had a few board meetings to discuss the possibility. It’s clear that this Dark Universe has struggled to get off the ground. Audiences don’t care, the creative team seem confused by their plans, and critics’ only concern is how highly to rank The Mummy in the worst films of 2017. How do you fix a never-ending curse of problems?
The good news with this universe - possibly the only good news - is that it’s not too late to just scrap it all and start again. They’re one film in and they don’t seem to have gotten any of the other planned projects out of the early stages. None of these projects have any directors attached, although a handful have writers on board in name only. Alex Kurtzman, the man in charge of this franchise, was never a good fit, as evidenced by his sloppy direction in The Mummy, but he also didn’t seem clear as to what his objective was. It was supposed to be an epic shared universe of intertwining stories involving classic monsters from old school horror film but done as an action story with a S.H.I.E.L.D. style organization fighting the monsters but they also work for it but then there’s a curse and somehow all of this was supposed to be canon not only with the original horror films but also the Brendan Fraser starring trilogy of The Mummy movies? And to top all that off, there would be various A-Listers of major clout who all want their input in the project, one of the many rumoured problems The Mummy faced thanks to the creative control wielded by Cruise. They say too many cooks spoils the broth, but at least cooks are competent.
It’s not so much that the Dark Universe, a phrase that makes me cringe every time I type it, can’t be saved as perhaps it shouldn’t be. Would anyone miss it? The potential lost would be disappointing but the route Universal chose with their greatest icons of the golden age of cinema was always a baffling one. This has no business trying to be The Avengers. These are horror characters and should be adapted as such.
Right now, one of the biggest films in the world is It, a mid-budget adaptation of a beloved novel whose iconography has haunted generations. Even the most generous estimations couldn’t have predicted the international grosses, but now studios have no excuse to ignore the consistently high profits made from horror loving audiences, particularly when the product is strong. And let’s not forget Get Out, which continues to dominate the cultural zeitgeist. Every producer is going to be scrambling to find a pre-existing property that can be mined for nostalgic gold and creative intrigue thanks to Pennywise and the sunken place, so surely it would be good business for Universal to take the icons that made their name and give them another day in the darkness. Ignore the tired habit of trying to make the classics of horror into action fare and just make some great scary movies.
It’s not as if the material is bereft of potential either: How about a take on Creature From the Black Lagoon that directly confronts the colonialist undertones and crosses Heart of Darkness with the Fluke-Man episode of The X-Files? Or The Invisible Man with a bleak examination of masculine power gone toxic (and without Johnny Depp)? Perhaps a modern interrogation of the ethics of Frankenstein in an era where anti-science politics dominates the discourse? Hey, why not just make a full-on honest adaptation of Dracula as the gothic horror we desperately need, free of Marvel rip-offs?
Crucially, Universal just need to admit that a shared universe model is unsustainable for these characters and invest in making individual films, preferably with manageable budgets, that can stand on their own two feet. For all the whining about the evils of Rotten Tomatoes and the dismal results of a weak Summer box office, there is a simple truth to the world of cinema - make something worth seeing and audiences will eventually find their way to it.