Classic horror film fans had plenty of reasons to celebrate this past week. In addition to Guillermo del Toro’s ‘love letter’ to monster films, The Shape of Water (2017) winning the Oscar for Best Picture, two of the original Universal Monsters films celebrated anniversaries. The Creature from the Black Lagoon celebrated its 64th anniversary and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man turned a grand 75 years of age.
With all the focus on shared cinematic words it’s perhaps easy to forget that the Frankenstein-Wolf Man showdown in 1943 represented the first real attempt to cash in on the appeals of a crossover between popular film monsters. The original 1943 film would seem quaint by today’s standards and it is certainly not one of the better efforts from Universal’s Monsters Universe. For the first half of the film, it largely operates as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man (1941). Younger audiences would undoubtedly be particularly disappointed as the two monsters don’t collide in the film’s advertised battle until the last ten minutes. The less said about continuity, the better. For Internet writers who obsess over small continuity errors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this first monsters’ crossover would make their heads spin. Nevertheless, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man caught onto an idea that still resonates with horror and other genre fans – franchise crossover appeals. These films tap into those childhood playground debates over which superhero or monster would win in a fight.
Horror fans today have Blumhouse Productions, the American production company founded by Jason Blum, that has released several horror gems in the past decade including Insidious, Sinister, Split, The Purge and Paranormal Activity franchises, and a little Oscar-nominated film called Get Out. In the 1960s and 1970s, Hammer Films, the British production company, ruled the horror genre with its Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee-starring Dracula and Frankenstein franchises. These studios were all proceeded by Universal Studios and their ‘monster universe’ blueprint that successfully ran from the early 1930s to the mid-1940s. Beginning in the 1920s with “The Man of 1000 Faces”, Lon Chaney and The Hunchback of Norte Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal Studios would score a trio of horror smashes with Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), and The Mummy (1932), followed by a series of sequels. This original run would make box office stars of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. When the Dracula and Frankenstein’s franchises were staring to run out of steam Universal would strike gold again with The Wolf Man, finding a new horror star in Lon Chaney Jr. Though Universal would score a belated hit with Creature from the Black Lagoon in the mid-1950s, most film experts agree that horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) marked the end of the Monsters Universe proper.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the impact of the Universal Monsters on the horror genre and wider culture itself. The visual designs of their iconic monsters, created by makeup effects wizard Jack Pierce, are embedded into public consciousness. Think of the Halloween costumes and decorations you’ll find in just about any dollar store and their green-faced, square-headed Frankenstein’s compete with bolts in the neck and their representations of Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man – all still reflective of films that are over 70 years old. The aesthetics and production design of graveyards, laboratories, and old castles – all now firmly entrenched in horror film iconography. Narratives of sympathetic and tragic monsters have been adapted and borrowed by countless films over the decades. With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and the monster mashes that followed it (e.g., House of Frankenstein), Universal Studios designed a rough template for ‘shared universes’ long before Marvel Studios released Iron Man in 2008.
Sadly, Universal’s recent efforts to kick off their own shared cinematic universe of monsters, ‘The Dark Universe”, was over before it ever really started. Last summer’s The Mummy, with Tom Cruise, and the now infamous photograph featuring the cast of proposed future instalments in the Dark Universe, all landed with a resounding thud. Numerous post-mortems have already been written picking at the bones of the failed experiment. First and foremost among its faults, intended or otherwise, The Mummy was marketed (or seen as) a Tom Cruise vehicle, eclipsing the film’s horror film legacy despite some of the nostalgic marketing materials released by the studio. This is by no means intended to be a criticism of Cruise; the horror genre has never had to rely on the star power of A-list celebrities, preferring more grassroots casting. Arguably the biggest problem with The Mummy was its own indecisiveness in selecting the right tone, vacillating between horror film sensibilities and more action-oriented story-telling. The final product ultimately gave in to the weight of its Tom Cruise-ness, feeling more like a Mission Impossible film with CGI-rendered zombies than a re-telling of the Boris Karloff original. Most reviews of The Mummy reinforced this observation more often comparing the film to the Brendan Fraser 1999 remake than Universal’s original monster movie.
As several writers have noted, there is an appetite for shared universes when done properly. A Dark Universe intent on re-introducing audiences to classic monsters – from Frankenstein to The Invisible Man – could still find success. Universal Studios should first decide for whom these films would be marketed – casual fans looking for a big-screen cinematic experience or horror film purists. Targeting horror fans may mean smaller budgets and possibly reduced revenue, but that’s not necessarily a given. The recent successes of Get Out, the Insidious franchise, and The Conjuring and its spin-offs suggest that there is an appetite for well-made, scary horror films. And audiences may always have some appetite for seeing beloved monsters duke it out in their local cineplexes. Perhaps the first step for Universal Studios is to focus on making one good monster film that taps into all the things audiences loved about the original classics and worry less about setting placeholders for films that don’t yet exist. Give audiences a good, small-scale monster movie with personal stakes, and audiences may then want to see another Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man.