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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.

How Universal Plans to Salvage Fast and Furious 7

Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Fast and Furious 7, and the franchise itself, is simply too lucrative to abandon.

As everyone knows, series regular Paul Walker was killed in a car crash two weeks ago, and since then Universal has been quietly trying to figure out how to save the film, and the series. Sara Nathan, writing in The MailOnline, reports that “Paul’s brother Cody, 25, who has worked as a stuntman, is set to take his place in the final scenes. According to a source close to the production, producers have been in-and-out of meetings since the star’s death, trying to work out a way to fill his void.’They soon realized they needed someone who looked like Paul to finish the movie and that’s when they approached his nearly identical brother, Cody,’ claims the source.’They can shoot Cody from behind and at distance and it it’s a shot they need Paul’s face in close up they can CGI it later on,’ explained the source.”

The death of a major actor during filming on a movie has certainly happened before — see this link — but what might be nice is if the script is reworked so that Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, is sidelined by a minor accident within the film, and the team decides to call on his brother to help out with whatever scheme they’re up to in this episode. Cody Walker, an experienced stuntman, could easily adapt to a franchise like the Fast and Furious films, which is little more than nonstop action.

This would give Universal a chance to showcase Cody, with perhaps a scene in which Paul – through the extensive use of CGI – decides at the end to hang it up, walks away, and his brother takes over his slot in the series. That way, “Brian O’Connor” remains alive at the end of the film, just in retirement from the fast life, and reality isn’t allowed to intrude on what is essentially a fantasy series. It makes a great deal of sense – as when George Sanders handed over the Falcon series of detective thrillers in the 1940s to his brother, Tom Conway. I’m sure that Cody Walker will feel more than a little strange doubling for his brother, Paul, and I hope that he strikes a deal with the studio that makes him an instant multi-millionaire for his services.

It’s sad, but that’s Hollywood, where the bottom line is always a prime consideration.

The Unguarded Moment (1956)

Monday, August 6th, 2012

I have a new article on The Unguarded Moment in Noir of the Week.

Here’s the opening paragraphs: “Harry Keller’s The Unguarded Moment is a lost gem from the 1950s, which reveals the real dark side of the American dream, and the nightmare behind the seemingly pleasant facade of Eisenhower America. Esther Williams, usually more at home in aquatic roles, had just been dismissed by MGM, and was looking around for an interesting project to help her establish a new screen identity.

Universal suddenly, and unexpectedly, stepped in and offered her $200,000 to appear in The Unguarded Moment — more than $1.5 million in 2012, adjusted for inflation — which was more than MGM had ever paid her for any of her many films for that studio. The film was described to Esther Williams as a suspense thriller, which it manifestly is, and it was a complete change of pace from the roles she had spent her lifetime playing; essentially the same role over and over again, in a series of Technicolor swimming extravaganzas. Williams was sick of them, and sick of the genre as a whole; she wanted something different. Seeing the role as a challenge, Williams accepted the assignment.

Williams plays Lois Conway, a small town high school music teacher living in well-manicured suburbia — actually the Leave it to Beaver / Desperate Housewives street on Universal’s back lot — whose life is turned into a nightmare when one of her pupils, an unbalanced high school football star, Leonard Bennett (John Saxon, in a very early role) starts sending her love notes, physically attacks her after a football practice underneath the bleachers, breaks into her house and steals her possessions, all without leaving a shred of evidence against him.”

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

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

Son of Dracula (1943)

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2012

Louise Allbritton in Robert Siodmak’s Son of Dracula (1943); click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for the film.

I’ve been meaning to blog on this film for quite some time, but something always came up; in any event, Son of Dracula, one of the last of the truly serious Universal horror films of the 1940s, is a remarkable film in many respects, not least of which is the fact that it’s the first horror film to combine distinct elements of film noir with the Dracula legend, transported here to America’s south for the first time, and directed by the gifted noir stylist Robert Siodmak (at a salary of just $150 per week), from a screenplay by his brother Curt, both refugees from Hitler’s Germany who wound up in Hollywood, and brought their Expressionist style of cinema with them.

Son of Dracula’s plot begins in a fairly straightforward manner; Count Alucard (try spelling it backwards; persuasively portrayed by Lon Chaney, Jr.) shows up at the Dark Oaks plantation in New Orleans, invited by Katherine “Kay” Caldwell (Louise Allbritton), a wealthy young heiress with a disturbingly deep interest in the supernatural. In short order, Alucard dispatches her father, Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), and marries Kay, who seemingly dismisses her long time fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) without a backward glance. Kay soon becomes one of the undead, and it seems as if Kay and Alucard are destined for a life of brutal immortality, scouring the countryside on a nightly basis for victims.

But — and here is the twist that makes the film unusual, and also constitutes a spoiler, so be warned — Kay has only one plan in her mind; after becoming a vampire, she infects Frank, hoping to turn him into a vampire, as well, so that Frank and Kay can live forever, as soon as Kay destroys Alucard by driving a stake through his heart. In short, Kay is a stylish 40s femme fatale, whose true motives can only be divined more than two-thirds of the way through the film, and who dares to double cross even the Prince of Darkness himself to obtain eternal life for herself and her beloved.

Siodmak thought the script was junk, but he’s wrong; it’s a smooth, solid piece of genre craftsmanship, and the film served as his “trial by fire” at Universal, as he soon moved up to more prestigious assignments, such as The Spiral Staircase (1945), The Killers (1946), based on Ernest Hemingway’s short story, and The Dark Mirror (1946), all certifiable noir classics. In addition, George Robinson’s atmospheric cinematography brings out every last nuance of the dark, decaying mise en scene of the film, and John P. Fulton’s masterful special effects — the first time Dracula transforms into a bat on screen, or a trail of vapor in another memorable instance — adds much to the film’s overall impact, to say nothing of Hans J. Salter’s suitably sinister music score, one of many for Universal’s classic horror cycle.

But in the end, it’s Louise Allbritton’s performance — alluring, sensual, willful — that serves as the centerpiece of the film, and balances nicely off Chaney’s masculine interpretation of Alucard. Son of Dracula is a one of a kind movie, made just as the Universal cycle was coming to an end — it would collapse entirely in 1944 and 1945, with House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, respectively, but here, for one last time, with a top flight director who would go on to much greater things, and a serviceable cast that responds intuitively to his authoritative direction, the Dracula legend is taken seriously one last time, and the results are well worth watching.

Incidentally, I’ll post in a few minutes on Film Forum’s tribute to Universal and Robert Siodmak, an event those of you who live in or around Manhattan absolutely should not miss.

Roy William Neill

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Roy William Neill’s passport photograph, circa 1920.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Roy William Neill’s film Black Angel (1946), one of most interesting and atmospheric noirs of the late 1940s, and the last film he made before his untimely death at the age of 59.

From Wikipedia, All Rovi and other sources: “With his father as the captain, Roy William Neill was born on September 4, 1887, on board a ship off the coast of Ireland. His birth name was Roland de Gostrie. Neill joined the film industry in 1915 as an assistant to Thomas Ince, subsequently directing 40 silent films. He made one talkie for MGM before moving to Columbia Pictures, where he worked until the mid ’30s. While at Columbia, Neill directed the atmospheric period chiller The Black Room (1935), arguably the best movie that Boris Karloff made away from Universal in the ’30s.

In 1935, Neill moved to England, where better opportunities existed for American directors, and spent the next three years there, working for Gainsborough Pictures and later for Warner Bros.-First National. Among the features that he made while there was the 1935 drama Dr. Syn, starring George Arliss and Margaret Lockwood, about a local vicar who has a connection with a long-missing pirate, and who tries to save his village from the oppression of the king’s soldiers.

In 1936, Neill got what could have been the best picture-making opportunity of his career. In May of that year, screenwriter and future director Frank Launder suggested that Gainsborough Studios buy the rights to Ethel Lina White’s new mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which they did and assigned Launder and his longtime associate Sidney Gilliat to adapt into a screenplay called Lost Lady. The script was completed in August of that year and Neill was chosen as director of Lost Lady, and a film unit was sent to Yugoslavia to shoot some summer exteriors under an assistant director named Fred Gunn. Unfortunately, Gunn broke his ankle in an accident, and in the course of investigating, the police found his script and demanded to review the manner in which it treated their country.

The opening pages — which found parallels between goose-stepping soldiers and geese waddling — offended the authorities, and the entire unit was expelled from the country. By that time, both Neill and the studio had lost much of their original enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved while Neill went to to other thrillers. A year later, as he was finishing up Young and Innocent for the same studio, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for another film and asked the studio if they had any screenplay on hand that would be suitable for him. What they pulled out was Lost Lady which, after a few minor rewrites, became The Lady Vanishes.

Altogether, Neill helmed 107 films, a remarkable accomplishment by any measure; he was known for directing films with meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, a style that would become the hallmark of film noir in the late 1940s. After working in Hollywood for Universal in the early 1940s, mostly notably on films in the long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill returned to London, and a house he had just built for his retirement, only to die on the doorstep of a heart attack on December 14, 1946. Neill was a conscientious craftsman as a director, but his signature style of high key lighting, and his smooth, luxurious tracking shots set him apart from the more quotidian directors of the era.”

As Bruce Eder comments, “according to Rathbone in his memoirs and other survivors of the series over the years, Neill — who was known affectionately to Rathbone as ‘Dear Mousie’ — was the final arbiter in all things Holmes-ian on the set of the Universal series. In addition to being a master directorial interpreter of the character, Neill also got a joint writing credit (with Bertram Millhauser) for the screenplay of The Scarlet Claw, which is arguably the best entry in the entire Universal series. Neill also directed and produced Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man — considered by many to be the last wholly serious entry in Universal’s classic series of horror films. An instantly recognizable stylist, Neill’s work is characterized by meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, with restrained but mobile camera movements.”

Neill was one of the slickest visual stylists of the classical studio era, and his work has long been under-appreciated.

Classic Comedies: Young Frankenstein

Monday, August 1st, 2011

An affectionate spoof of the Universal Frankenstein series of horror films from the 1930s and early 40s, appropriately shot in period-style black and white, Young Frankenstein (1974) is writer/director Mel Brooks’ tribute to the undying legend of the Frankenstein monster, played for laughs with a superb cast that wrings every ounce of parody out of the source material. The film almost immediately became a cult hit, and is frequently revived today; what makes the film so effective is its combination of visual stylization, coupled with Brooks’ irresistible Borscht belt humor. This, in short, is slapstick comedy at its finest, and one of the funniest films produced in American during the 1970s.

Actor Gene Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay of Young Frankenstein with Brooks, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who continually insists that his name is properly pronounced “Frahnkenstein,” and avoids any mention of his infamous ancestor. As Young Frankenstein opens, Frederick Frankenstein is working as a lecturer at an American medical school, but soon news arrives that he has inherited his grandfather’s ornate castle in Transylvania. Arriving to claim his birthright, he meets Inga (Teri Garr), who will become his assistant; Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), a stern taskmaster who urges him to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps; and Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback whom Frankenstein soon presses into service in his experiments.

In short order, Frankenstein and his motley crew of associates have whipped up a new monster (Peter Boyle), assembled from the body of a recently executed criminal, but handicapped by an “abnormal brain” that makes him unpredictably violent. Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, in a parody of a role made famous by actor Lionel Atwill in the original films) is suspicious of the activities in Frankenstein’s laboratory (which used the original “mad lab” equipment designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the original 1931 film, and its subsequent sequels). When the monster escapes, he is briefly befriended by a blind hermit (Gene Hackman), but is soon recaptured by Frankenstein, who dresses him in white tie and tails and teaches him to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for a group of amazed fellow scientists.

More plot complications lead up to an obligatory happy ending, but the film’s real strength lies in its deep respect for the original Frankenstein films, starting with director James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and continuing on though Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and director Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939). Brooks’ film borrows plot elements, characters, and situations from all of these films, and yet manages to remain both fresh and funny entirely on its own terms.

Much later, Brooks would transform Young Frankenstein into a successful Broadway musical, but the 1974 film version is easily the better production, and is often screened at “midnight matinees” in film theaters around the world. Brooks parodies the Frankenstein legend, but at the same time, he is faithful to it, resulting in a film that even purists can enjoy, and one of the most successful comedy films of all time.

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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