Question: is the Dark Universe dead?
You remember the Dark Universe, surely? Universal’s attempt to create a shared cinematic universe with rebooted versions of their classic monsters? Is that still a thing? Because it seemed to be DOA with the failure of The Mummy. But then The Invisible Man came out this year and did really well and apparently is supposed to be part of the Dark Universe except the director says it isn’t and Universal are apparently refusing to admit its dead despite the fact that all of its upcoming movies appear to be either cancelled or delayed indefinitely and now the whole project seems (appropriately enough) neither alive nor dead.
And that kinda sucks. Not because I was particularly psyched for any of these proposed films but it’s gotta be galling for Universal to keep getting portrayed as failed Marvel wannabes considering they invented the whole concept of a shared cinematic universe all the way back in 1943. I mean obviously they wouldn’t be doing this if the MCU hadn’t made enough money to air condition Hell, but I personally feel that if any movie studio has a right to rip off Marvel, it’s Universal.
Turnabout, after all, is fair play.
In fact, I think you’d be hard pressed to find two non-comics characters who’ve had a bigger influence on comics as a whole than the Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster. For starters, as public domain characters, both DC and Marvel have incorporated their own versions of these characters into their respective universes. Marvel, in particular, made fantastic use of Dracula in their series Tomb of Dracula, which lasted a whopping 70 issues. And that’s not even counting the dozens (hundreds?) of characters in both of the Big Two publishers that take influence both subtle and overt from these two monsters. You can see Dracula’s lineage in Batman, Doctor Doom, Morbius and Count Nefaria whereas pretty much every hulking, misunderstood monster has a bit of Adam in him, whether we’re talking about the Thing, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy or the Incredible Hulk. So if Universal want to start turning their properties into ersatz superheroes to compete with Marvel, I say it’s less a case of stealing from your competitors than breaking into your neighbour’s house in the dead of night to take back the lawnmower that he “borrowed” from you eighty years ago and never bothered returning. And, like in that analogy, while it may be satisfying and even morally justified, it’s probably not a good idea.
I’ve spent this entire intro talking about Universal, but truth be told only one of today’s movies, 2014’s Dracula Untold, is from that studio. I would have preferred to pit two modern Universal monster movies against each other but according to the Dark Universe wiki (which is a thing that exists) the Dark Universe Frankenstein is just putting the finishing touches on.
so today Team Bolts is represented by I Frankenstein, a 2014 movie from Lionsgate that’s also trying to do the “shove a public domain monster into a superhero cape and see if he flies” thing. And guys, I swear to God, I’m not setting Team Bolts up to fail deliberately. After the last installment, I really didn’t want to see another curb stomp. But there’s no getting around it, I, Frankenstein is a staggeringly bad film, and leagues worse than Dracula Untold. Cunning and savvy reader that you are, you will notice that is not the same thing as saying that Dracula Untold is good.
Fair is fair. Dracula Untold has a real, humdinger, “why didn’t I think of that?” killer high concept: what if the historical Dracula, Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, had the powers of his fictional literary counterpart?
In the 15th Century, Prince Vlad (Luke Evans) of Transylvania and Wallachia is forced to defend his homeland from the invading forces of Sultan Mehmed II (played by Dominic Cooper. In brownface. In the year of Our Lord 2014). Vlad encounters a mysterious Vampire (Charles Dance) who offers to let him drink some of his blood, thereby gaining the powers of a vampire for three days. But if Vlad succumbs to temptation and drinks human blood, he will become a vampire permanently. Given that this is a movie with the name “Dracula” in the title, you can probably guess where that little subplot goes.
If, however, you can guess where I, Frankenstein is heading I will pay you serious money and also you probably should seek psychiatric help. We start conventionally enough with Victor Frankenstein dying in the Arctic after the events of the novel. The creature (Aaron Eckhart) returns to…generic…Europe…land to bury his father’s body. Then, he’s attacked by a group of demons and rescued by a group of gargoyles disguised as humans because apparently gargoyles aren’t actually statues but have been waging a secret war against demons since the dawn of time to protect humanity…
…and they take him to meet their Queen Leonore (Miranda Otto) who names the creature Adam and tries to recruit him into their war against the demons. Adam is obviously a gravelly voiced loner who plays by his own rules and instead spends the next few hundred years bumming around generic Europe Land until he gets caught in the war between gargoyles and demons again when the demon prince Naberious (Bill Nighy) tries to use Frankenstein’s research to create an army of reanimated corpses to serve as vessels for all the demons in Hell so that they can take over the world. Now, for all you purists out there popping your monocles and harrumphing that this is a complete bastardization of Mary Shelley’s work, yes, obviously, obviously it is that. The only thing this has in common with Mary Shelley is that I could believe whoever wrote this was doing serious drugs with Lord Byron. But I wish it was as entertaining a trash fire as I make it sound. Sad fact is, I, Frankenstein is just a boring, ugly, dour slog of a film with leaden portentous dialogue and CGI that would have looked bad for 2004, let alone 2014. Hell, 1994 might have wrinkled its nose at it. A lot of the people behind this also made Underworld in 2003, and it really does feel like a throwback to the early aughties; the God awful nu-metal soundtrack, the clear influence of The Matrix, and that very special kind of joyless suck that characterised so many bad movies from that decade. I got serious Van Helsing flashbacks, guys.
Dracula Untold, conversely, is a strikingly handsome film. It makes good use of its Northern Irish location, the sets and costumes are all very well designed and there’s some very nice use of lighting and shadow. It’s a good looking film, but unfortunately, like many good looking people, it tries to coast without having an ounce of personality. This is what’s really infuriating about Dracula Untold, all the elements are there for a for a film that I would absolutely love. I like the actors, I think the premise is gold and the technical side is clearly staffed by people who know what they’re doing. The problem is really the script. It’s like the writers came up with this awesome premise and didn’t realise that that’s just the beginning of a good story, not the finished product. I have seen plenty of movies that had difficulty choosing a tone. This may be the first movie I’ve ever seen that doesn’t have a tone. It’s an atonal movie. The script doesn’t seem to be aiming for anything, whether it’s horror, comedy or tragedy. It’s just…there. It’s the narrative equivalent of a wikipedia page. That said, I do occasionally read Wikipedia for fun.
Luke Evans has made a lucrative career for himself as the one good thing in movies I otherwise really didn’t like and I think he has the makings of a great Dracula.
One day I hope to see him play the character.
The script positions Dracula as a good, noble man who foreswears a life of violence to live in peace with his family. But when the Turks return like an old army mentor who needs you to come back for one last mission, Vlad has to risk his immortal soul to selflessly protect his land and people. And apart from the name and the vampire powers there is not a single, solitary point of similarity between this character and literally any version of Dracula I’ve seen or read. Oldman’s version also played up the Vlad the Impaler connection, but at least that movie had the good sense to establish that he was a bloody psycho killer even before he became a vampire. And near the end of the movie, after Dracula has sacrificed his humanity to save his son, the movie skips forward a few hundred years and we see Dracula in the present day, just chillin’ and stalking his reincarnated wife but in a cute romantic way. So…was this Dracula ever really a monster? Did he prey on Lucy Westenra and Mina Murray? Did he imprison Johnathan Harker and feed babies to his three vampire hoochie-mommas? There’s zero indication that he did. So in what sense is this even Dracula?
I had more or less the same feeling about Aaron Eckhart’s monster. “Pshaw!” I cried, “this isn’t Mary Shelley’s monster! This is just a mopey asshole who spends his time wandering aimlessly and bitching about how he doesn’t have a soul and humanity will never accept him and he really wants to get with his bland love interest but wouldn’t you know it…”
And then I thought…wait a minute, that is EXACTLY Mary Shelley’s monster. I mean, the movie is still dumber than shit but we gotta give them kudos for literary accuracy.
Scientists Morally Dubious Mentor Figures
Dracula Untold has Charles Dance as a vampire.
If Luke Evans tends to be the one thing I like in movies I otherwise hate, then Charles Dance is that on steroids. Charles Dance has appeared in some appalling dogshit over the years, and he seems to take perverse joy in giving performances so much better than those movies deserve that it makes everything else look worse by comparison. He is masterful in Ali G Indahouse, a tour de force in Space Truckers, pitch-perfect in Last Action Hero and his performance as Lord Vetinari in Going Postal will forever be the definitive take on that character. He is always the lone nugget of gold in the prospector’s shit. And true to form, he finds the perfect wavelength of dark humour that the rest of the movie really needed to be operating on. And, again, no disrespect to Evans, but it’s really hard to enjoy a Dracula movie that also has Charles Dance in it. Because then you can’t stop thinking things like: “Why didn’t they just get Charles Dance to play Dracula? Shit, has Charles Dance ever played Dracula? Charles Dance should ABSOLUTELY play Dracula. Fuck, I need to make Charles Dance play Dracula. Could I kidnap Charles Dance and force him to play Dracula?” And so on.
By contrast, I, Frankenstein has Miranda Otto as Queen Leonore, head of the Gargoyle order.
This is a character that I’m convinced came about when the script was incorrectly formatted, turning all the descriptive passages into dialogue. This is an actual line that Miranda Otto, a professional actor, was forced to say:
“The Gargoyle Order was commanded into being by the Archangel Michael. It is our sacred duty to wage war against the demon horde, the 666 legions of hell-born creatures unleashed by Satan after his fall from heaven. Humans think of us as mere decoration. They do not know, nor can they conceive, the brutal unseen war being fought around them every day. A war that may one day determine the fate of all mankind.”
There must be justice. Restitution must be made, and the writers should be put in a museum where their crimes can be re-contextualised. Justice for Miranda Otto.
The Villains who are the real monsters, when you think about it:
Friends, if even Bill Nighy doesn’t look he’s having a good time…well. Well.
“A bored, checked out Bill Nighy”. It just looks wrong to see it written down. It’s some weird gibberish.
Nighy plays Naberious, a name taken from a demon described by real life occultist Johann Weyer. Does knowing this little historical factoid make it any less ridiculous when otherwise very serious actors are forced to say things like “We have to stop Prince Naberious”?
Actually, yes, it does.
On the other hand…who thought Mr Epic Tanning Bed Disaster here was a good idea?
Performance wise he’s…fine? Does the trick? I dunno, like so much of this movie he’s just there. Gonna have to give this one to Bats though. Cooper doesn’t actually give the impression that he hates me for watching the movie, and honestly, I’m getting that vibe from Nighy.
Perpetually Imperilled Ladies Bland Blondes
So by a weird coincidence both Dracula and the monster have love interests, they’re both blonde and they’re both so boring and underwritten my brain started hallucinating like I was in a sensory deprivation tank.
Sarah Gadon plays Mirena, Vlad’s wife.
While Yvonne Strahovski plays Terra, a scientist who starts out working for Naberious who turns good.
Shit, I just realised I put those pictures in the wrong order. Ah well. Of the two characters, Terra has the more interesting arc on paper as she starts out as a villain before changing sides and learning to love the monster despite his grotesque, abominable appearance…
Sarah Gadon does more with less. It’s a completely stock “worried wife” part but she plays the part with a winning tenderness.
Also, I have gone two Dracula movies now without sexy vampire ladies and that is rank bullshit.
Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?
I’ve dug scarier things out from under my fingernails.
Ooof. Real “Thinnest Kid at Fat Camp” contest here. I do like “What kind of man crawls into his own grave in search of hope?” from Dracula Untold.
I, Frankenstein’s best line is “You’re only a monster if you behave like one” because it rises to the giddy heights of not being actively awful.
FINAL SCORE: Bats 5, Bolts 1
NEXT UPDATE: 08 October 2020
NEXT TIME: Next month sees the triumphant return of Shortstember!
Next month sees the triumphant launch of the very first ShortsTOBER!
To celebrate my first month as a full time writer, I’ve dedicating the whole month to mini-reviews of one of my favourite animated series of all time.