A New World of Gods and Monsters: Ideal Auteurs for the Dark Universe
The classic Universal Monster movies run in my blood. Very few of them are actually good films, but their atmosphere and aesthetics captured my imagination at an early age and continue to inspire a sense of spooky nostalgia. So, it is with a heavy heart that I confess my deep frustration with the studio’s recent attempts to revitalize the brand as a big-budget shared universe. Dracula Untold was slick, soulless, and drab, and the second attempt to jumpstart the concept, with The Mummy, doesn’t seem poised to make any improvements.
I do think there’s merit in the idea of carrying on Carl Laemmle Jr.’s legacy with a new breed of monsters, but action vehicles for A-listers feel like the wrong path. To truly reanimate the soul of those black-and-white chillers and make that spirit feel alive (ALIVE!!!), Universal should recruit a roster of up-and-coming or cult favorite directors with idiosyncratic visions and a knack for the uncanny. There are ideal choices hiding in plain sight, and I couldn’t help but imagine my own personal dream team of filmmakers. This, of course, assumes all these helmers would be interested in the project and didn’t have better things to do, but I think I’ve fantasy-booked a lineup that could carry the mantle of James Whale and Tod Browning while injecting the lineage with fresh and worthwhile lifeblood.
I realized only after drafting this list that I’d only chosen one token white guy. I didn’t set out to do this, but it further convinces me I’m on the right track.
The Phantom of the Opera – Taika Waititi
The quirky Kiwi auteur is in the throes of his big break with the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok, but his humble roots in indie dramedies, his musical experience with Flight of the Conchords, and the creepy kitsch bent he honed on What We Do in the Shadows have perfectly prepared him to execute a take on the too-often-told tale of Erik and Christine worth doing. The juxtaposition of the austere opera house with the weird nerd lurking in its basement is square in his wheelhouse. Jemaine Clement would prove a unique but entirely appropriate take on the Phantom, while Waititi himself could pair with Rhys Darby to provide comic relief as the opera house owners.
Dracula – Mary Harron
With American Psycho, Harron created a masterpiece that should have solidified her as an A-list director, but its unflinching brand of satire seems to have left her with a stigma. That exact blend of sexually-charged horror and comedy is why she would make a hell of a Dracula. Patrick Bateman and his hollow coven of capitalist cronies were practically vampire analogues already, but blending that modern vibe with the gothic trappings of Transylvania would play to Harron’s storytelling strengths while presenting her with a fresh challenge.
Frankenstein – Jordan Peele
The smash success of Get Out has left the film world buzzing with conjecture about Peele’s bright future. A Shelley adaptation would let him increase his high-profile clout with Universal, without stifling his unique stitching of the uncomfortably funny to the deeply disturbing. The god-playing morality tale could continue the thread of body-switching, central to Get Out, into a very fresh venue.
The Mummy – James Wan
Whether it’s the fun period romp of the Stephen Sommers/Brendan Fraser joints or the new Tom Cruise glower-fest, Universal seems intent on making The Mummy an action brand. I don’t know why this seems to be taken so much for granted, given that the original Karloff vehicle was an understated (if racist) character-based creep fest, but let’s roll with it. Who better to pay homage to both the horror origins and roller coaster history of this monster than the director whose career has brought him from Saw to Insidious to Furious Seven to Aquaman?
The Invisible Woman – Julia Ducournau
Ducournau has just made a splash with her French-language cannibal character piece Raw, and if she has any interest in going Hollywood, what better platform than the tale of a scientist gone megalomaniacal with power? She’s proven she has the chops for visually-striking body horror, a key component in updating this tale of someone whose moral identity vanishes as their physical form does.
The Bride of Frankenstein - Agnieszka Smoczyńska
James Whale’s Bride is the undisputed masterwork of the entire Universal Monster slate, and reimagining it would be a daunting challenge. Bill Condon has just been announced as director for the upcoming remake, a natural choice, as he’s already profiled Whale to great acclaim in Gods and Monsters. But the nasty glam-pop of The Lure suggests that Smoczyńska would do a killer job of making the material her own in a way that might be even more satisfying.
The Wolf Woman – Marjane Satrapi
Werewolves-as-puberty is a well-trod metaphor with good reason. The awkwardness of coming-of-age offers a bottomless well of stories about sprouting hair and losing control of your body. Ginger Snaps already gave us a masterful feminine angle on the archetype, but casting a young lady to carry the mantle of Lon Chaney Jr. would open up yet another spin. Satrapi has been a towering figure in the realm of autobiographical comics since Persepolis, and The Voices proved she can bring stylish and incisive horror to the screen.
Creature From the Black Lagoon – Rob Zombie
My feelings about Mr. Zombie’s filmography are mixed at best, but his strengths could be channeled into a delightfully trashy ride with the Gill Man. Revenge of the Creature’s aquarium setting could provide a springboard for a deep-fried spookhouse party that casts the creature as a sideshow attraction. Zombie would cast a tangled web of soap opera interactions amongst carnies into which the titular being blazes a sympathetic path of destruction.
This new “Dark Universe” franchise may not be for me. I appreciate the idea of intersecting remakes of this noble tradition, and I’m willing to believe Universal has some clever concepts up its sleeve (Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s monster, for one, is a choice I can get down with), but the spirit I love seems absent. All that really matters, though, is that I’ll always have the originals on my shelf to revisit. Maybe I can mine these visions of following in their footsteps for my own projects. That is, after all, the best way to be inspired by the classics.