The Long, Strange Journey To Create A Shared Classic Monster Universe

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old and new Universal monster universes

Universal Studios recently announced plans to create a “shared” movie universe for its monster characters: The Dark Universe. The upcoming movie The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, will be kicking the Dark Universe off, but there are also plans for flicks featuring The Invisible Man (Johnny Depp) and Frankenstein’s Monster (Javier Bardem). Russell Crowe makes an appearance in The Mummy as a Dr. Jekyll so one would imagine we might be seeing more of him too.

This all sounds well and good…but it is interesting to note that Universal has tried this all before. Several times in fact.

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Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman

The first attempt was in the 1940s, with the release of Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman. Sure, there were some Universal monster franchise-builders before this 1943 movie—Dracula’s Daughter, Bride of Frankenstein, and a bunch on Invisible Man & Mummy flicks just as starters.

But Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman was the first Universal film to combine the protagonists (antagonists?) from two totally separate films…building something like a wider “universe” in which these characters inhabited.

Subsequent films like House Of Frankenstein and House Of Dracula only expanded the universe further…and 1948’s Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein took it to a whole new level (apparently this monster universe was also inhabited by comedians). These films were all incredibly popular, and solidified Universal Studios as the place for monsters and horror.

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The Universal Monsters

But with the dawn of the “atomic” age the monsters began to seem a bit hokey, and audiences craved more sci-fi, giant creatures, and the like. There was a Universal Monsters (as they came to be eventually known) revival in the 1960s, but by that point it was done mostly for camp and laughs.

What might have been the first “attempt” at a possible classic monster “Dark Universe” (and we’re going to skip the Hammer stuff from the 1960s for now because that sort of takes us off onto quite a tangent) happened not at Universal but Columbia/Tri-Star Pictures, with the 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

This new version of Dracula being very popular, 1994 saw Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, helmed by Kenneth Branagh. As Coppola remained the producer of both films…you kind of get the feeling that a shared universe might have been on the (operating) table?

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Columbia’s Frankenstein & Dracula

Unfortunately, poor reviews for Frankenstein pretty much killed such hopes. The Jack Nicholson starrer Wolf, also released by Columbia in 1994, was sort of like an “unofficial” addition to this burgeoning monster universe—though Coppola was not involved, and the flick took place in the present day.

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this Blu-ray release gives the impression that there is almost a shared universe here

Fast-forward to 1999’s The Mummy. It, like the upcoming one with Tom Cruise, was made by Universal. But though wildly popular (and spawning several sequels/spinoffs), it was not part of any shared universe (other than that of the Scorpion King).

2003’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was not made by Universal, but I include it in this list because it featured a couple of characters that are also in the new Dark Universe: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde & the Invisible Man.

Then:

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Hugh Jackman as Van Helsing

Van Helsing.

This 2004 film was Universal’s first modern attempt at a real shared monster universe, with all the monsters pretty much in that one movie. One would imagine that if this big budget movie had succeeded, we might have seen a whole new era of the Universal Monsters.

But that didn’t happen.

2010 saw a new version of The Wolfman starring Benecio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. Again, in theory: if this movie had done gangbusters in the box-office, maybe an expanded universe would have followed. But it didn’t; The Wolfman was one of the most expensive flops of all time.

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the 2010 Wolfman

This brings us to 2017, and the dawning of the Dark Universe. Has Universal got it “right” this time? Have the examples of successful shared universes such as Star Wars and Marvel led the way for Universal to follow their example?

The success or failure (or “meh”-ness) of Cruise’s Mummy will be key.

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