Why, Hollywood? Why why why why why why why?
I get that theater attendance and home video sales are going down. I get that because of this, all the major movie studios have become even more risk averse, and reliant on iterations of proven franchises. I get that it’s much easier to market and sell an idea people are already well familiar with than to try to pitch audiences a new idea. But what I don’t comprehend is this recent Hollywood trend of trying to force something to be a “thing” when it’s so clearly NOT a thing.
First case in point: Gritty, adult versions of children’s fairy tales. A couple years ago it seems that all the Hollywood studios got together and said “Guys, this is it. The idea that’s gonna make us all trillionaires: Fairy tales. But like, live action, gritty, serious, adult, gritty, violent, and gritty fairy tales. Oh, PG-13, definitely. Don’t be ridiculous! Now, I know we haven’t exactly had, well, any of these types of films come out and be hits yet, but I think if we just release enough of them all at once it’ll catch on.” And thus, we got Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, and Jack the Giant Slayer all in the span of two years. And none of them were big hits.
So where did this come from? In an industry currently famous for only greenlighting movies that have something in common with a recent blockbuster record-setter, why would Hollywood take so many chances on something they had no reason to believe audiences even wanted? Was it just a by-product of reboot culture?
Cut to today, and we’re getting Dracula Untold, the second recent “origin story” reboot-thing based on a Universal monster property. The first being the massive flop I, Frankenstein, featuring a sexy, badass, heroic version of the Frankenstein monster who karate battles generic CGI creatures. Dracula Untold features a sexy, badass, heroic Dracula but based on the trailer he seems to be fighting mostly humans.
I understand that Universal wants to cash in on their iconic monster franchises again, as it’s been about 20 years since their last attempt to resurrect them, but who thought the right way to do it was to remove the “monster” part and the “horror” part and replace it with sexy karate action? Sure, Once Upon a Time proved you can make a sexy Captain Hook and people will eat it up, but that series is only building on True Blood’s success and mostly female viewership.
I’ve heard rumors that Universal is aiming to suckle at the same teat as Marvel by creating an expanded, shared universe for their characters, which partly explains the superhero vibe they’re putting off. The tone of these recent movies seems to lean darker and more gothic – kind of an Underworld/Blade series thing – but they’re still PG-13 rated, CGI-soaked, and generic as hell. When you see a poster that says Frankenstein at the top, and then you look down and see Aaron Eckhart in a hoodie with a couple of badass scars and a bunch of flames and crumbling architecture behind him, it’s the opposite of interesting. Same thing with Dracula, but with Luke Evans in fantasy armor.
In 2010 Universal did make a pretty straight up Wolfman with Benecio Del Toro, and it was a flop. While I didn’t see the movie, I understand its failure was most likely due to the fact that it sucked balls. But the Hollywood machine doesn’t take quality into consideration when analyzing their successes and failures. If a classical Wolfman movie was a flop, then the only possible explanation to them was that the market was cold on the entire idea. This is really the only reasoning for this treatment of monster movies that makes sense to me. It just sucks to know how this will all play out. The sexy superhero phase of Universal monster movies will run its course, leave no impact, and put those characters back on the shelf for another couple decades before they decide to take another crack at a reboot (in general terms, the Universal monsters tend to reappear every 20 years). That’s assuming this current reboot frenzy won’t have already driven all the audiences away from mainstream movies entirely by then.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula wasn’t perfect (Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder with British accents – what could go wrong!), but it had respect for the material and did what it did well. It used the original novel as the foundation, took a few iconic bits from the 1931 movie, and fleshed it all out with the historical myths of Vlad the Impaler. It kept the Victorian setting and gothic horror atmosphere. PLUS, it gave Gary Oldman the opportunity to play two Draculas in one movie – first a decayed, monstrous Dracula and then a young, sexy, mysterious one. And it had a hard R rating! You don’t make an “adult” movie by desaturating all the color and filling it with video gamey action, you do it by including actual adult content and themes.
It’s hard to say what a proper Universal monster movie would look like today. In the 30’s, the mere idea of a vampire, or a werewolf, or a man-made monster was enough to scare the wits out of people. Just seeing stone castles and lightning strikes and cobwebs and bats freaked people out, but now we’ve had decades of Halloween costumes based on those characters. We’ve had Young Frankenstein. We’ve had The Munsters. We’ve had Teen Wolf and Twilight and Count Chocula…. simply put those monsters aren’t scary anymore, at all. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do know sexy karate isn’t it.