It is hard to imagine a more ignominious start to a film franchise than the one suffered by Universal’s Dark Universe with its appalling remake of The Mummy in 2017. A cheesy, old-fashioned star-vehicle for Tom Cruise, and featuring one of the most preposterous screen performances of recent times by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Alex Kurtzman’s risible effort tried and failed to interest us in an entire Marvel-style cinematic universe of monster movies being investigated by a SHIELD-style linking organisation known as Prodigium. An expensive, clunky box-office bomb – it is reported to have lost the studio around $95m amid audience derision and critical ridicule – the film appeared to have sounded the death knell for Universal’s ambitious plans for a series of connected horror flicks.
However, in Hollywood there is always another maniacal movie executive determined to apply the jump leads to a tired old franchise, and reports of the death of the Dark Universe seem to have been greatly exaggerated. Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a reworking of the 1933 Claude Rains classic, will hit multiplexes later this month with Elisabeth Moss in a starring role. This time, instead of flashy special effects, the studio seems to have opted for the kind of low-budget, high-yielding horror that saw Whannell’s previous films, Saw and Insidious, triumph financially – it is budgeted at just $20m. Other director-led “open-source” projects, such as Elizabeth Banks’ unconnected Invisible Woman, and Dexter Fletcher’s Dracula henchman flick Renfield, are reportedly on the way.
This, surely, is the way forward for Universal’s monster films. The original, pre-Hays Code movies were story-based concoctions popular for their gothic daring and atmospheric chills (often reliant on James Whale’s stylish, impressionistic direction) rather than showy star vehicles. Which is why it is so unsettling that Universal may not (according to a new Variety report) have given up entirely on delivering the next stage of its original plan for the Dark Universe – namely, an Angelina Jolie-fronted remake of Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, widely considered one of the best horror sequels of all time.
Jolie has reportedly been interested in the role of the bride, played in 1935 by the iconically coiffured Elsa Lanchester, for some time, though it is not apparent if she has yet signed on the dotted line. What is clear is that Universal would do well to avoid the mistake it made by casting such a well-known figure in The Mummy. The studio risks missing the point entirely about the original films it is so desperate to jolt back to life: it is the monsters themselves, not the actors portraying them, who are the real stars.
While casting Cruise or Jolie might add a few million dollars to the box office, it places these new episodes in a creative straitjacket. Instead of relying on word of mouth, or positive early reviews, any Jolie-led Bride of Frankenstein would inevitably focus heavily on the publicity delivered by Universal persuading the world’s most famous female film star to appear in such an iconic role.
Something similar happened when Jolie signed on to play Maleficent, Disney’s nefarious fairy, in the 2014 reimagining of its own Sleeping Beauty, and a 2019 sequel. The Oscar-winner’s very presence seemed to feed into a kind of creative malaise, as if everyone involved felt placing those famous features centre stage was all that was required to make a success of the project. They were wrong.
When Whale was originally approached to make Bride of Frankenstein, he was at first unsure it would be possible to do justice to his 1931 film. And yet, by adding a new framework involving Mary Shelley (also played by Lanchester) discussing her famous creation with Lord Byron and her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as the introduction of a sinister new character, Henry Frankenstein’s mentor, Doctor Septimus Pretorius, the film-maker succeeded in breathing life into the project.
The 1935 sequel is in many ways even more heavily embedded in popular consciousness than the original, a rare feat indeed. If Universal can succeed in making its remake half as good against the backdrop of a Hollywood machine that so often struggles to escape its own rigid structures, it may just have bettered even Whale’s remarkable achievement.