Bat versus Bolts: The 2010s

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.

Suuuuuuuuure it is.

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.

The Adaptations

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…

The One About the B&B with the Mass Grave and Ghosts

…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.

You weren’t there man.
You weren’t there.

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.

WINNER: Bats

The Monsters

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.

WINNER: Bolts

The Scientists Morally Dubious Mentor Figures

Dracula Untold has Charles Dance as a vampire.

“You haff sunk my battlesheep!”

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.

Miranda Otto, seeing the script for the first time.

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.

WINNER: Bats

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.

I, Frankenstein Featurette: Bill Nighy Is Naberius | EXCLUSIVE

“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.

Eddie Izzard Yes And No GIF | Gfycat

On the other hand…who thought Mr Epic Tanning Bed Disaster here was a good idea?

Dracula Untold: Mehmed Taunts Vlad

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.

I, Frankenstein - Publicity still of Bill Nighy

“Fuck you, you bastard, I hope you die!”

“Jesus! It’s like being shivved by Santa Claus!”

Winner: Bats

The 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.

Lets Talk Movies Blog: I, Frankenstein (2014)

While Yvonne Strahovski plays Terra, a scientist who starts out working for Naberious who turns good.

Meet Mirena, the Bride of Dracula Untold, in a New Featurette - ComingSoon.net

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…

Watch the First Trailer for I, Frankenstein - Daily Dead | I frankenstein, Frankenstein, Frankenstein 2014

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.

Winner: Bats.

Are either of these movies actually, y’know, scary?

I’ve dug scarier things out from under my fingernails.

WINNER: TIE.

Best Dialogue:

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.

Winner: Bats.

FINAL SCORE: Bats 5, Bolts 1

NEXT UPDATE: 08 October 2020

NEXT TIME: Next month sees the triumphant return of Shortstember!

*Checks calendar*

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.

Over the Garden Wall - streaming tv series online

23 comments

  1. Little story, I got to meet Kevin Grevioux (who wrote the graphic Novel I, Frankenstein and co-wrote the movie) at a Con some time ago (hell of a nice guy with voice that sounds like the rumblings of the Titans in Tartarus), now setting aside his impressive pedigree as an actor, stuntman, comic book writer and microbiologist and focus on his work as a screenwriter. What happened?

    His work with Marvel wasn’t bad, and neither was the stuff he did in the first Underworld movie. Michael Sheen gave a surprisingly nuanced performance and Bill Nighy sure as hell was having fun in that.

    Then I checked and saw that I, Frankenstein was directed and co-written by Stuart Beattie who wrote Australia and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and things started to make sense.

  2. Haven’t seen either of these, thank you for confirming my wisdom. Though I must admit, Charles Dance as a vampire has me tempted, so I imagine Untold will make an appearance on my screen some boring Sunday.

    I’m watching/reviewing 50 horror movies as part of a yearly tradition, and this year includes a few of the classic Universal crossovers. I gotta say, Frankenstein’s Monster getting the shaft whenever he’s compared to or up against any other monster is pretty par for the course. Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein, and even Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein all basically get restored to strength in the closing minutes, lumber around a bit, and then die. James Whale seems to be the only one to have considered the monster a character, instead of a mildly dangerous event.

    Oh man, Over the Garden Wall! My request, it’s finally time!

  3. Not gonna lie, your write-up of “I Frankenstein” sounded rather fun, in a ludicrous sort of way. Speculatively, if they had played the script for humor, do you think it would have worked?

  4. So I’m going through finals so it’ll be a couple of stressful weeks. It was really great to check this blog and find another hilarious review. Thanks Mouse. I must say, it feels like both of these movies could have been great as black comedies and over-the-top parodies, so it’s a shame both were wasted like that. I wonder how an Universal Frankenstein would turn out, if it ever comes out that’s it. But I really liked The Invisible Man, so maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible.

  5. Oh, Luke Evans. Someday you’ll get the franchise you deserve. What’ve you got in the pipeline- a Gaston show on Disney+? …honestly, probably a better idea than the remake, at least if it’s all musical numbers about how kickass he is.

    1. Luke Evans, he’s been in Disney, one of the Three Musketeers, Dracula and in a Tolkien adaptation and has been underutilized in all of them.

      You have to wonder just how that’s possible.

  6. JUSTICE FOR MIRANDA OTTO. EOWYN DESERVES BETTER THAN THIS!

    For real though can we all just appreciate for a minute how good Miranda Otto is as Eowyn in Lord of the Rings? Just everything about her performance is incredible. This scene is one of my favorite in the whole damn trilogy. She deserved to get huge after Lord of the Rings.

  7. I had the misfortune of watching Dracula Untold on a long-haul flight a few years ago, and yeesh, I found it a strikingly UGLY film. The individual costumes aren’t bad, I suppose, but there’s a muddiness in how they filmed it that doesn’t work – like they were going for Grand Guignol but couldn’t manage it and wound up with blood sludge instead.

    I mean, I would be prejudiced against it anyway, because trying to make Dracula the Hero of the story never, ever works, and I wish they’d stop trying it (like, leave him alone – enjoy that he’s the best at being The Worst).

    I never saw I, Frankenstein – but it seems like yet another case of casting directors not knowing what to do with Aaron Eckhart (in their long tradition of not understanding that people can be good-looking AND funny – as unfair as that is – see Anna Camp’s entire career).

  8. I think you were a little hard on Strahovski and Gadon. They’re not completely interchangeable and in fact are very competent actresses in these films that don’t give them that much to work with.

  9. Mouse, I’m with you all the way on CHARLES DANCE FOR DRACULA – I’ve typed this before and will shriek it again in ALL CAPS, DRACULA UNTOLD SHOULD HAVE BEEN ‘VLAD THE IMPALER Vs COUNT DRACULA’ not a reheat of the first few minutes of Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA.

    For pity’s sake, they even call Ms. Gadon’s modern dress character ‘Mina’ (with the implication that she’s Mina Murray), an implication that reduced me to such a rage that even Count Dance-cula’s little cameo at the end barely cheered me up.

    On a less vexatious note, it’s amusing to realise that Mr Aaron Eckhart probably comes closer to the ‘Michelangelo’s David carved out of corpses’ description from Mrs Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN than almost any other vision of the character.

  10. I have to admit, it is pretty difficult to create a perfect version of Mary Shelley’s monster because according to her, he basically DOES look like a well-build man and there is only something off about his eyes. How exactly do you portray “something is off about his eyes” for film? Especially without bringing up the question of “why the hell doesn’t he simply wear something to hid his eyes”? There is a reason Universal went with green and scarred.

    Btw, I would disagree that Universal invented the notion of a cinematic universe. They just did crossover events where different monsters encountered each other, but without any continuity. And I am not even sure that they were the first who did something like that either. Not that the Marvel cinematic universe was the first…after all, there is Star Trek for starters, which did something similar, except that they started with TV and THEN went to the movies, not the other way around (and I guess that’s the major difference, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the first one which started in the cinemas, all the others I can come up with started in TV).

    Anyway, Universal did so much for this particular genre of monster movies. It is kind of sad that they aren’t able to recapture the spirit. One thing for sure, your review didn’t entice me to watch either movies.

    1. For my money the key to getting across Mrs Shelley’s descriptions of her ‘Daemon’ is to place him very firmly in the Uncanny Valley (possibly by toying with frame rates to show him moving at a different pace to the people around him or making him the only CGI character in a film otherwise put together with practical effects): one key element in my own conception of the character is that he was put together with the proportions of a statue, rather than a living being, which means he looks OFF (since even ‘realistic’ statues are often put together using a very different logic to actual anatomy) – couple that with the consequences of some horribly rough living and you might have the beginnings of a Monster that more resembles the literary original.

      Having said all that, it occurs to me that The Creature’s ‘wrongness’ would be far easier to render in animation than in Live Action – but that FRANKENSTEIN is one of those stories very unlikely to be animated with the right sort of tone (since cartoon Frankenstein’s have been been the butt of jokes for so long it would be quite hard to sell executives on the viability of an animated tragedy that could do the original story Justice).

      p.s. OH! and one other idea that always sticks in my head when contemplating The Creature’s appearance is that the poor fellow should look as though he was designed to be Victor Frankenstein only more so – to provide a ‘Father/Son’ resemblance that helps sell the key interpersonal dynamic of the story* and also to make it clear that part of the reason Victor Frankenstein rejects his creation is the uncomfortable mirror that it holds up to his own soul.

      (*Which I tend to see as a man paying for the consequences of his irresponsible decisions in youth, in the same way a man who fathered an illegitimate child and then abandoned it to life might suffer the consequences – especially when the child turns out to be a bastard in more ways than one).

  11. I sometimes feel like I’m the only person who enjoyed The Mummy but admittedly I just thought it was ok mostly because of Sofia Boutella being very hot but I also kind of liked her performance.

    1. I’m terribly, terribly sorry that they didn’t just dump the Modern Day scenes and make a horror movie set in Ancient Egypt – bonus points if the local Van Helsing is a Priest named ‘Imhotep’.

  12. God I was hoping you’d roast Alien3 in the list of good Charles Dance performances in terrible movies. It coincidentally was the first thing I ever saw him in. It coincidentally is not underrated or misunderstood. It was perfectly understood on the first impression as an appalling dumpster fire of a film who killed off one of the few good things in it way too early.

    Ironically I quite enjoyed Alien Resurrection.

  13. Great review as usual. Can’t honestly say whether or not I’d heard of I Frankenstein before. I assume I did because they must have marketed it. I will likely forget that it ever existed by this time next week. I definitely remember trailers for Dracula Untold and thought they looked awful.

  14. I wonder how the Frankenstein movie with Harry Potter and Professor Xavier’s bromance would have placed here. Maybe that one would have made a better match?

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