The Dark Universe was Universal’s attempt to revitalize the Universal Monsters. The plan was to connect them all into a shared universe a la Marvel and DC. The first film in the proposed series was The Mummy, but the critical and financial failure of that film brought the whole experiment into question.
And now, the Dark Universe is dead. The Hollywood Reporter released a story that detailed the dissolution of the venture.
To be honest, this is great news.
Not Everything Fits the Formula
Ever since the enormous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, studios have been trying to replicate that shared film concept. Marvel is the only one that seems to be excelling at this but that hasn’t stopped others from trying. It makes sense for something like the superheroes of DC Comics to attempt this, but the Universal Monsters?
Granted, the Universal Monsters started this whole shared cinematic universe thing back in 1943 with Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. To be fair, there was rarely any tight continuity between the films — which included House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein — but they began to inhabit the same world as each other.
But, in today’s marketplace, audiences either want clear connectivity between entries or standalone titles that work completely on their own. The Dark Universe always felt like a forced medium between the two. Plus, it turned the Universal Monsters into something they shouldn’t be…
Scares, Not Superheroes
Trying to force the Universal Monsters into being pseudo-superheroes felt like a violation of their core appeal. These were always characters and films that were firmly rooted in the horror genre. Yes, there was the 1999 version of The Mummy but that was a self-contained film that took its own path and didn’t concern itself with other properties.
This decision to turn the Monsters into quasi-heroes also feels misguided in a year when genuine horror is dominating the box office. IT, Get Out, Split, Annabelle: Creation and plenty of other horror films have been doing phenomenal business and a big part of that has to do with their commitment to being true to their material.
The Dark Universe might have worked if it was a horror universe but Universal wanted it to be much more palatable than that. And that was one of the reasons it failed.
So, What Happens Now?
The best thing for the Universal Monsters is for them to be handled by filmmakers with vision. And honestly, these are well-told tales that need some serious sprucing up.
Look at Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water. That is essentially a radical new take on Creature from the Black Lagoon. In fact, The Shape of Water sprung out of del Toro’s time developing a new version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. Or even the 2000 film Hollow Man is a good example of taking a story like The Invisible Man and freshening it up in a new way that still echoes the sentiments of the source material.
Instead of worrying about how these movies might connect together, Universal should be handing these properties over to filmmakers who have a serious passion for the story and aren’t afraid to shake things up. Imagine if someone like Denis Villeneuve had a bizarre take on Frankenstein. Or Julia Ducournau wanted to bring a twist to Dracula.
It’s also important that these movies don’t have to be gargantuan blockbusters. These are smaller conflict stories that do best when they focus on character, atmosphere, and vision. Give an indie director $30 million to do something new with The Wolf Man and it will at least be worth discussing.
The Dark Universe — in its current form — is dead. That’s probably for the best. Here’s hoping that the next version of the Universal Monsters is more in line with what they originally represented.