How Universal Plans to Bring Its Monster Movies Back to Life (EXCLUSIVE)

Dracula Universal Bela Lugosi
Courtesy of Universal

Universal is the house that “Dracula,” “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein” built.

At a time when other studios are furiously raiding the vaults of comic books and graphic novels, trying to find the next Marvel and DC Comics, Universal is deviating from the superhero movie playbook — at the same time it mimics some of its strategies.

The studio has tapped Alex Kurtzman (“Transformers”) and Chris Morgan (“Furious 7”) to revive the monsters that were the studio’s stock in trade during the golden age of Hollywood. Together, they’re overseeing a team that’s busy mixing in elements of those classic films, such as the bolts in Frankenstein’s neck, with a modern setting tied to contemporary themes.

“This is not a heightened world,” Morgan says. “We’re exploring issues of family identity and questions of, ‘Where do I belong in the world?’ ”

The films are taking a page from Marvel in certain ways, however. Just as the comic book label launched its onscreen group of heroes in interconnected films before teaming them in one big superstream adventure with “The Avengers,” Universal is planning to create a shared universe for its creatures. “The characters will interact with each other across movies,” says Donna Langley, chair of Universal Pictures. “We’re incubating it at the moment, and we’re taking the time to get it right.”

The plan is for a new monster movie to come out every year. The first of these, based on the character of the Mummy, will begin shooting in early 2016, with other pictures centered on Dracula, Van Helsing, Bride of Frankenstein and the Wolfman following in short order. To prepare, Kurtzman and Morgan obsessively watched Universal monster films made with the likes of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, and to broaden the sense of genre, augmented that with a diet of Hammer Horror pictures and other creepy works.

“We’re creating a mythology, so we’re looking at this canon and thinking, ‘What are the rules?’ ” Kurtzman says. “What can we break and what are the ones that are untouchable?”

Storyboard artists and designers are creating the look and feel of the various productions, and each of the 10 writers working on the project has been assigned a monster to oversee.

“The idea is that we have a deep bench of brains to consult with about how their monster fits into our world as we go forward,” Kurtzman explains.

To head its team, Universal brass has found two self-confessed horror geeks who credit pictures like “Dracula” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with inspiring their love of film.

“I was raised on monster movies,” Morgan says. “I used to make my own fake puke, so I wouldn’t have to go to school and could stay home and watch things like ‘Cat People’ on TV. I can still tell you what I used — orange juice, Saltines, Pepsi and milk.”

Both men think that after more than a decade of seeing Captain America, Batman and other heroes routinely save civilization, moviegoers are ready for a change of pace.

“Heroes tend to be perfect, but most people in an audience aren’t ever going to know what it’s like to be the smartest, strongest or fastest person alive,” Morgan says. “But there’s a darkness inside everybody. And everyone wants to be able to turn a curse into empowerment. The monsters have been in the shadows, and now it’s time to bring them out into the light.”

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  1. Brian B says:

    As JackCalvert put it in so many words they need find the the right actors and stories too shed the shadows of the original works and balance that with modern themes/times/places/ideas to really connect with today’s audience or it will be doomed to fail.

    i sincerely hope to see this come to fruition because I’ve always had a special place in my heart for those classic monsters that stirred my imagination as a child and still lurk there today.

  2. JackCalvert says:

    Every attempt at “rebooting” these characters has been a massive failure. ‘Van Helsing,’ ‘The Wolfman,’ the ‘Mummy’ trilogy, and the seemingly endless iterations of Dracula and Frankenstein all have sucked (no pun intended). Especially the big-budget versions (i.e., “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”).

    Dated as they are, the Universal classics and the subsequent Hammer remakes were the only movies that ever really got this sort of thing right. James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931) was a primitive film by today’s standards, yet nobody–not even Robert De Niro–has ever topped Boris Karloff’s creepy and tragic portrayal of the monster. I would argue that Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ are still the two best film versions of the Frankenstein story.

    Tod Browning’s creaky, interminably slow-moving ‘Dracula’ (1931) may not be the scariest vampire film ever made, however Bela Lugosi was the definitive Count Dracula. Every subsequent characterization has owed an inescapable debt to Lugosi. His shade seems to hover over the role, making other interpreters look like also-rans by comparison.

    One of the reasons most of the reboots haven’t worked is that they just haven’t been very scary. Modern filmmakers seem to forget that when these films were first made, they were genuinely terrifying for audiences at the time. The latest crop of Universal reboots are destined to fail unless they are as terrifying to modern audiences as the original ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dracula’ were to audiences in 1931. With today’s more jaded, sophisticated, seen-it-all audiences, that’s going to take some real work.

    It is possible, though. Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ was essentially ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ in space. If the new ‘Creature’ reboot is as scary as ‘Alien,’ (or ‘Jaws’), Universal will have something.

    As for Dracula, the only way to save him is to pry the character out of the clutches of the romance novelists, and once again make him a creature of supernatural horror instead of the tragic, hunky, soulful romantic he’s become, or the sleek superhero/antihero I’m afraid they’re going to turn him into. The new Dracula needs to be less Casanova and more Hannibal Lecter. Anthony Hopkins’s Lecter was the last original horror character of the movies. It was a brilliant character because he was genuinely terrifying. And that’s what Universal’s new crop of monsters needs to be–genuinely terrifying–otherwise, they’ll just be wasting their money and our time.

  3. Frank says:

    To clarify… They have tried to remake Texas chainsaw massacre about a dozen times , all failures…problem is what made the original special is that it looked like it was filmed with a camcorder and had a creepy vibe….same problem remakes of these movies would have

  4. Frank says:

    Personally I thought Dracula untold was good… A different perspective of how he came to be, and the man that played him was spot on …also I’m a fan of horror movies that use mood and ambiance opposed to buckets of blood…if they can remake these movies and create that vibe u get from watching a black n white movie with the fog, and old castles and woods it could be special…. Problem is, black n white is what made em special… And that’s not happening

  5. Will says:

    Am I the only one who associates ‘franchise’ with Whopper Wednesdays and KFC Family Feasts? Similarly both seem like good ideas to begin with but afterwords leave feelings of emptiness and nausea.

  6. Occultology says:

    Dear Universal: Please do a remake of the James Whale ‘Frankenstein’ first, before embarking on the revamped ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ opus.You have magnificent characters and film treatments, so take your time re-establishing these epic brands over many new productions. Make sure that they live up to their 1930s Art Deco/German Gothic/Famous Monsters of Filmland-worthy creepiest. And don’t overlook a remake of “The Old Dark House” for sure, which was one of Universal’s freakiest pictures (think of the character of Saul, throwing his beloved knives in 3D, etc.) I can’t wait to sit in the dark to watch them already!

  7. These movies should be made in the same vein as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

  8. Mike says:

    As a great fan of the Universal horror films, I can only hope that the afore mentioned horror geeks have some say. The recent reboots have been, well dreadful. All the CGI effects in the world can’t match the beauty of the original sets and costumes of those classic movies. Fingers crossed, Do it right!

  9. Nate C says:

    The bolts are not in Frankenstein’s neck. The bolts are in the monster’s neck. Frankenstein is a mad scientist.

  10. daniel lapin says:

    “We’re exploring issues of family identity and questions of, ‘Where do I belong in the world?’ ”
    Then you may find it useful to read my book, “The Vampire, Dracula, and Incest,” in which I try to show that the Count derived, unconsciously, from Bram Stoker’s father.

  11. Dan says:

    Monster Squad remake please!!!

  12. Rebooting is for Uni a cost effective, risk-averse, cost-benefit strategy, which minimize loss and maximize profit. It is not about making good movies but profitable commodities over time. True of all studios and most producers.

  13. I sincerely hope they don’t make a bloody mess of them. I would HATE to see all my favourite scary monsters diluted down into pathetic super heroes or misunderstood teen pinups!

  14. Amanda Pike says:

    I want Guilleermo delo Toro to make a faithful adaptation of Frankenstein with an intelligent version of The Creatures sans flat or bald head with neck bolts. Make him well spoken, not inarticulate or sounding like a stroke victim. The creature was intelligent in the book and I want that version to properly enter the cultural collective, not just the odd one out in things like Penny Dreadful. Let Mary Shelley’s version live.

    I’m nervous. I don’t think the current heads of Universal respect or appreciate the classics or their original atmosphere and ambiance. In example look at the 2004 Van Helsing or more recently NBC’s God-awful Dracula and the upcoming Syfy Van Helsing series (Syfy is owned by NBC / Universal). They just want to cash in on an old film trend rekindled by the Marvel franchise and they are even now fixating on the concept of “Goth action” indicating that they learned nothing from the 2004 Van Helsing movie.

    And there’s also the dread that they have such little faith in these characters standing on their own merit they will all “coincidentally” all have October “seasonal” releases as Dracula Untold did. Never mind the best Dracula films were released in November (Bram Stoker’s Dracula), July (Frank Langella Dracula), and February (1931 Dracula)

    The problem is when a horror film is released in October you’re essentially giving it an orange and black crutch. It’s indicating that without Halloween people might not be interested in seeing it. When a horror film gets a November or especially a summer release that shows confidence in it as being more than a seasonal novelty. This was the mistake they made with Crimson Peak. It could have held it’s own as a June release but no one trusted it and it became a victim of Halloween horror market over saturation.

  15. Paul White says:

    Who are they getting to play Bud Abbot and Lou Costello?

  16. James Van Hise says:

    Hasn’t Universal been trying to reboot the Creature From The Black Lagoon for years but the productions keep falling apart?

  17. Joel Emmett says:

    An interconnected universe is a great way to go; the trick is to make each monster a metaphor for something else (as in Twilight), and have each monster’s films have a slightly different genre, like the Marvel films.

    I keep wondering, though, why aren’t they doing the interconnected universe thing with the James Bond franchise — all those other double Os must be out there somewhere? Which number is Idris Elba, I wonder? And which number is Charlize Theron?

  18. Eva Heller says:

    Are Uni just pretending that their abomination Dracula Untold, released only 12 months ago, didn’t happen? Hollywood has pretty much buried that hack director Gary Shore from what I hear, and the article doesn’t even mention the film, so guess he’s back in the obscurity they plucked him from

  19. They tried this before with The Mummy Series and Van Helsing.. it does not work in this day and age. The Mythology was already created and successful. leave it be.

  20. Sounds like a successful idea to me. I am ready for Universal to bring back the monster movies. A remake of The Wolfman and Dracula would be my interest. In color this time please. I can see it now. The fog, the dark shadows, the glowing eyes.

  21. Arthur Lapalme says:

    Looking back, “Creature from the Black lagoon” was one of the big ones. We had sympathy for guys like him and the ‘Wolfman”.

  22. Jack Monte says:

    Hopefully they stay away from the high camp that eventually turned into Van Helsing the last time around, but find better writers and directors with actual visions which is what hurt Wolfman and Dracula Untold. Why no Black Lagoon mentioned again?

  23. Je vizzusi says:

    Whenever Uni was is terrible financial trouble.. they always had their monsters.

  24. wiles11 says:

    ““We’re exploring issues of family identity and questions of, ‘Where do I belong in the world?’ ”

    Oh great, more “chosen one” tween movies . . .

  25. DougW says:

    They had success with The Mummy, which they turned into an Indiana Jones type franchise. But The Mummy wasn’t the lead character. This doesn’t feel like it’s going to work. Besides, aren’t all these characters public domain? What’s to stop someone else from doing cheaper versions and releasing them ahead of the Universal pictures?

  26. John says:

    Wow. Can’t wait to see what classic (and classy) films are created by a guy whose head is so much in the gutter that he felt the need to share with us how he used to make his own puke. We’re off to a great start. Thanks again, Hollywood.

  27. Bill B. says:

    Well, I’m ready for a change a pace, but not so sure it’s one that is this unoriginal. And for those who don’t remember or are too young, the overwhelmingly vast majority of Universal’s horror movies were terrible trash or terribly silly or both. I know. I grew up on them.

  28. Ken says:

    If Universal does to its beloved monster legacy what the lame-o VAN HELSING (anachronistic kick-ass James Bond-ish macho hero) did a decade ago, count me out. I don’t wish for my memories being mugged.

    • the only good things that came out of the Van Helsing debacle was that we got cool remastered DVD box sets of the original Uni monster series (the Frankenstein set is awesome). That and a friend met his future wife on a date at this movie.

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