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Jason Blum Should Helm Universal’s “Classic Monsters” Project

Thursday, June 8th, 2017

When it comes to horror films, Jason Blum is the smartest man in the room right now.

Here’s a link to a great piece by Amy Nicholson in LA Weekly on Jason Blum, the man behind Blumhouse, the most successful and prolific producer of horror films right now working in Hollywood. As she writes, “an average studio movie costs $75 million, plus another $30 million in marketing. That model is: Go big or give up on making a fortune in China. As a result, audiences moan that Hollywood has become too glossy, too bland, too costly, too safe.

There are too many superhero movies and too few of everything else. Midpriced films have vanished, those solid romantic comedies and middlebrow crowd-pleasers that kept adults happy for decades. Blum’s frighteningly successful formula argues that there’s another way to do business: Think small. Hollywood is intrigued, and it has two questions for him: How does he make movies so cheaply? And can other producers — and other genres — do the same?”

Yes, if they want to do so – and Blum will be the first to admit that not every project works out to his advantage. His production of Jem and The Holograms stiffed, but as he put it, with just a five million dollar budget – generous for Blum – “the model is, really, if everything goes wrong, we will [still] recoup.” And then there’s Whiplash, not a horror film at all, but budgeted at about $3 million, which led, of course, to La La Land.

And, of course, the most interesting and successful film, regardless of genre, of 2017: Get Out, a horror film with real social commentary. That was another $5 million film. Some of Blumhouse’s films never make it to a theater; they’re released via VOD and some just wind up hanging out in the vault, never to be released. But that’s just the minority; Blumhouse has many more hits than failures, both critically and commercially, and that makes him a definite outlier in contemporary Hollywood.

Which leads me to my main point here: Universal’s “Dark Universe” series. Frankly, I’m sick of discussing this, since there are so many other much worthier films to address, but it struck me this morning that since Universal clearly doesn’t know what to do with its most valuable intellectual property, why not give Jason a crack at it?

And the irony is – he works for Universal!

In fact, he has a unique deal in place that he can greenlight any film at all as long as the budget is $3 million or less, and then Universal gets a first look. He’s a smart person, who knows about the history of the genre, and the main figures; Val Lewton, Terence Fisher, James Whale, and all the rest. And Blum uses the key strategy of successful low budget production as one of the cornerstones of his philosophy; use one central location for 90% of the film’s narrative, and you don’t waste a lot of travel days, and cut down considerably on expenses.

Come to think of it, Hammer Films used a house/studio at Bray for their most successful films, many of them brilliant Gothic thrillers shot for a mere pittance – like Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula – so Blum is merely copying, in a sense, a very successful model. Val Lewton, even though he worked for RKO in the 1940s, did the same thing; one set for most of the scenes.

So my thought is this; instead of just doing the “Dark Universe” series of updated action films – like 2017 version of The Mummy, which is raking it in at the box office not because it’s a horror film, but because it’s a Tom Cruise action flick – Universal should initiate a “Classic Monsters Universe,” which reboots all the studio’s major horror figures in an honest and unadulterated fashion, and put Jason Blum in charge.

Keep it simple; one location, unknown actors, perhaps one star (Ethan Hawke loves to work with Blumhouse), and stick faithfully to the source material, making it a genuine horror film which ups the graphic specificity of the material – as Hammer did in the 1950s – without sacrificing the intrinsic integrity of the genre.

It would be great if this series was set off from the other Universal films with it’s own logo at the top; the Universal globe spinning into place, and as it does so, a brief montage of clips from the classic black and white horror films of the 1930s and 40s matted into the center of the screen, alerting audiences to the fact that this will be a return to the values that originally inspired Universal’s classic Gothic thrillers.

The cost – about $5 million a film – would be nothing by Hollywood standards – and Universal could keep the other “Dark Universe” series going at the same time. There’s no reason they have to conflict, since one is really a series of action movies, and the other authentic Gothic horror – and even if everything goes wrong, as Blum notes, “we will recoup.” So something to think about, since franchise films seem to have taken over the mainstream cinema so decisively; why not try something a bit edgier, with little financial risk, and see what happens?

You can read the entire interview here; fascinating stuff.

The Mummy – Brutal Reviews And A $177M Opening Week

Wednesday, June 7th, 2017

The 2017 Mummy is out; the reviews are brutal, and yet it still seems destined to make a fortune.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year, “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age,” “Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program – the so-called Dark Universe – of entries in the coming years, with Johnny Depp tentatively attached as the lead in a reboot of The Invisible Man; Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson potentially linked to a reboot of The Wolf Man; and a remake of the 2004 film Van Helsing.

Scarlett Johansson is being considered for a remake of The Creature from The Black Lagoon; with Javier Bardem, perhaps, as the monster in a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Angelia Jolie considered for the role of the Bride. These are tentative casting choices at the moment, but no doubt, one ‘A’ list star or another will appear in each of these reboot attempts.

Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library; but what about Dracula?]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters.

All this will do is degrade the material further. Horror films are not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role. Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained.”

Critic A.O Scott in The New York Times commented that the 2017 version of The Mummy “deserves a quick burial,” adding “it will be argued that this one was made not for the critics but for the fans. Which is no doubt true. Every con game is played with suckers in mind.” Harsh. And the other major critics aren’t far behind. But as Nancy Tartaglione and Anthony D’Alessandro argue in the trade journal Deadline, The Mummy could “turn out to be Tom Cruise’s biggest global opening of all-time with [a] $177M [opening weekend]” despite a lackluster US showing at the box-office, noting that “industry sources tell us that The Mummy stands to clear $125M-$135M in its overseas release in 63 territories, which when added to its domestic range puts global between $160M–$177M

On the high end, that would be a record global opening for Cruise, besting War of the Worlds which posted a traditional global opening of $167.4M (3-day domestic + 5-day foreign; Box Office Mojo’s $203.1M figure rolls in extra domestic days). After War of the Worlds, Cruise’s next best worldwide debut is Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation ($120.5M).” So, is there a link between quality and profitability? Or are we just making one cash cow after another? It saddens me that it’s come to this, but it has; everything is a franchise, and everything is a “Universe.”

As A.O. Scott concludes, “the old black-and-white Universal horror movies were a mixed bag, but they had some imagination. They could be creepy or campy, weird or lyrical. The Mummy gestures — or flails — in a number of directions but settles into the dreary 21st-century action-blockbuster template. There’s chasing and fighting, punctuated by bouts of breathless explaining and a few one-liners that an archaeologist of the future might tentatively decode as jokes. A more interesting movie might have involved a similar struggle within Ahmanet [the film’s central character], but a more interesting movie was not on anybody’s mind.”

Only by returning to the roots of Universal horror can anything worthwhile be achieved. 

The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age

Monday, April 17th, 2017

I have a new article out today: “The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age.”

As I note in the article, “this essay takes its title from Erle C. Kenton‘s 1942 film The Ghost of Frankenstein, one of the last credible films in the original Universal series, and asks the question, ‘What are we to do with, or make of, the Frankenstein monster in the 21st century?’ Tracing the monster in film from its beginnings to the present, we see a disturbing but not altogether unexpected trend. Newer iterations of the classic tale feature more special effects, but less real content.

Universal is rebooting their stable of classic monsters with yet another version of The Mummy in Alex Kurtzman’s 2017 film of the same name starring Tom Cruise, with revamped versions of Frankenstein and Dracula to follow if the film is successful. Significantly, the 2017 Mummy is more of an action film than anything else; it seems that mood and menace will no longer hold an audience. But will any of these versions have lasting impact, or value?”

You can read the article by clicking here, or on the image above.

Jason Bourne Meets Mission Impossible Meets The Mummy

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Universal is starting a reboot of their classic horror films this summer, starting with The Mummy (2017).

As I write in my new article, The Ghost of Frankenstein: The Monster in the Digital Age, “at Universal Studios in Hollywood, the parking decks for visitors are named after the various classic monsters (the Frankenstein lot, the Dracula lot, the Mummy lot, and so on), with enormous paintings on the outside depicting the first iterations of each character, but that’s about all Universal seems to be able to come up with. Universal is desperate to restore their ‘creations’ to some semblance of their former glory, but the 2017 version of The Mummy promises little in the way of originality or imagination, while piling on the special effects and action sequences in a frenzied attempt to sustain flagging audience interest.

Copying the Marvel and DC Universe method of churning out franchise films on a regular basis, Universal is plowing ahead with a similarly designed program of entries in the coming years. Noted Universal chairperson Donna Langley of this strategy, ‘we have to mine our resources. We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. So, we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and reimagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience.’

I would argue that it’s not going to work; that it hasn’t worked thus far; and that it won’t work in the future. Indeed, this would seem to me to be the very worst possible strategy. The Frankenstein legend, and with it The Wolf Man, The Mummy, and Dracula are not material for a Bourne or Mission: Impossible series – they’re not action movie characters. All this will do is degrade the material further. They’re not action films; they’re films that inspire genuine dread. The original Mummy, for example, depended upon pacing, atmosphere, and Karloff’s iconic performance in the title role.

Only by returning to the source material, treated with utmost fidelity, can anything worthwhile be attained. What is needed is a creative force like the Hammer Film Productions team in the mid 20th century, which took the material seriously, and treated each project with the utmost care and attention, placing the emphasis on character, setting, and thematic development, rather than relying on special effects and fleeting star power to put these forthcoming projects across in the marketplace.

Until Hollywood returns to the original narratives that inspired the first wave of classic monster films, as Christopher Nolan did when he rescued the Batman franchise from ignominious parody with the straight-ahead reboot Batman Begins (2005), there’s no real hope for a Renaissance of horror. In these new Universal monster films and others like them, we will get only a simulacric vision of these mythic characters, especially Victor Frankenstein and his creation; in short, all we will get is the ghost of Frankenstein.

That’s hardly enough to inspire a whole new generation of millennial horror fans, let alone resuscitate the classic figures that inspired two cycles of Gothic horror films – the first Universal series, and then the Hammer remakes in the 1950s and 60s, which brought the various monster back to their original roots. Frankenstein’s ‘undying monster’ may finally be dead after all; we’ll just have to wait and see what Hollywood is cooking up in their own mad labs.”

Click here, or on the trailer above to see for yourself; this may make money, but it’s not The Mummy.

About the Author

Headshot of 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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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