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The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

Godzilla – Savior of Mankind

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Sadly, Gareth Edwards’s attempted reboot of the Godzilla franchise is deeply disappointing.

As I note in Film International today, “Now, we have Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version of Godzilla, and the results are decidedly mixed. I am a great admirer of Edwards’ 2010 film Monsters, which Edwards, an accomplished digital special effects technician, wrote, directed, photographed, produced and edited on a budget of significantly less than $500,000. Unlike most tech-heavy films of its type, Monsters betrayed real signs of intelligence and originality, imbuing the aliens, who are only glimpsed in full during a final, eerily mystic mating sequence at a desert gas station, with a genuine if other-worldly presence.

Edwards made up Monsters as he went along, shooting out of the back of a van on location, improvising most of the film with just two actors, and later described it as being ‘Lost in Translation meets War of the Worlds,’ which really does sum the film up rather neatly. One might almost call it an alien romantic fantasy, and the bare bones, documentary style of the film, combined with the laid back performances of Scott McNairy and Whitney Able as the two leads, created a work of genuine quality – a rarity in effects driven films. Though the film was only a modest commercial success, Hollywood took notice, and recognizing Edwards’ skill with actors as well as CGI effects, quickly snapped him up for bigger things.

Bigger, yes, but sadly not better. Made for $160 million, with extensive location shooting, and an added promotional budget of $80 million to put the film over the top, Edwards’ version of Godzilla has benefited from a shrewd marketing campaign, with a trailer that, as with Monsters, withheld the title character from view almost entirely, while banking heavily on actor Bryan Cranston’s presence in what seems to be a leading role in the film – in the trailer, he gets nearly all of the dialogue, intercut with suitably spectacular scenes of destruction. But – spoilers ahead – the trailer is one of the most remarkably deceptive ad campaigns in recent memory.”

You can read more by clicking here, or on the image above. This is a real missed opportunity.

Godzilla (2014) – Extended Trailer

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Here is an extended trailer for the new Godzilla film, which opens Friday May 16, 2014.

The new version of Godzilla, a potential reboot by director Gareth Edwards, has been much anticipated by fans of the series. Hopefully, the film will restore the much-damaged franchise to its original vitality and intensity, just as Christopher Nolan did with the Batman reboots.

I spoke with Duane Dudek of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on this film, who wrote that “over the 28-film series from Japan — five more than James Bond — the giant lizard became a pop-culture icon, but the films ‘descended into baroque parody,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska.

The worst of them include the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla with Matthew Broderick. The black-and-white original is a still poignant document of Japan 10 years after two atomic bombs were dropped on the country to end World War II. Rural and urban scenes that portray civilian and military life, and even women’s roles, are a glimpse of a country rich in tradition struggling to be modern.

Godzilla, portrayed by an actor in a rubber suit, is considered a neo-dinosaur reanimated after atomic testing, and the original film is a metaphor for Japan’s lingering nuclear trauma [. . .] In an attempt to restore the creature’s dignity, Toho oversaw the making of [this] new Godzilla film and had ’specific touchstones’ it wanted to include, said Dixon.

Toho is ‘painfully aware this is an incredibly valuable character in their arsenal. They are looking to crack the American market decisively’ with a first-class production and state-of-the-art effects. ‘This is their chance to reclaim and reboot the entire franchise,’ Dixon said.”

We’ll have to wait and see if this works out as planned.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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