The Mummy brings Universal’s attempts at a cinematic universe full circle
The 1999 remake was a franchise-spawning hit which the studio keeps trying to replicate.
Van Helsing. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The Wolfman. Dracula Untold. These films were all attempts by Universal Studios after The Mummy (1999)’s success to resurrect its monstrous cinematic universe that was first introduced in 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.
After the success of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, director Stephen Sommers turned his attention to the Gothic monsters for Van Helsing (2004), remaking Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man all at once. It was expected to be a huge hit and for the character to become Hugh Jackman’s second signature role. A DTV anime prequel The London Assignment was produced, while a TV series, Transylvania, was put into development. That, and any possible sequels, were canned when the film opened to poisonous reviews and grossed just $300 million worldwide against a $160 million budget.
Universal turned its attention to a third Mummy film, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008), with Rob Cohen directing this time. While it grossed $401 million worldwide, it made less than its predecessors domestically, grossing just $102 million, dampening the studio’s enthusiasm for a teased sequel that would expand the universe to Peruvian mummies.
After a troubled production, Universal’s next gothic horror remake, The Wolfman (2010) opened to negative reviews and grossed just $139 million worldwide: somehow, this R-rated horror film had been expected to recoup its $150 million budget, and justify a teaser for a spin-off starring Hugo Weaving’s Detective Aberline.
Then came Dracula Untold (2014), an origin story for the bloodsucker starring Luke Evans, which actually was a success, comfortably generating a profit with its $70 million budget by grossing $217 million worldwide. Despite that, unenthusiastic reviews led Universal to decide to ignore it, and that their reboot of The Mummy would officially reestablish their shared universe.
Universal were confident enough before The Mummy’s release to unveil a Dark Universe ident for the films, and that Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp would respectively play Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man in upcoming films, including a Bride of Frankenstein remake for 2019.
History repeated itself though, as The Mummy opened to mostly negative reviews, and a meagre $32 million domestically. It opened with $142 million in the rest of the world, but Universal must be feeling unenthusiastic. They must wonder, where do we keep going wrong?
Well, Universal is reluctant to embrace the horror roots of these characters. To be fair, it does recognise these characters appeal to some who enjoy the old monster movies as campfire entertainment, who grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and seeing the characters in The Munsters or Scooby-Doo TV movies. Boris Karloff was quoted in Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic as being disdainful of post-Hays Code horror films like Night of the Living Dead, and Universal is presumably trying to keep up that spirit. But Get Out, which Universal distributed, demonstrated modern horror films don’t have to be overly graphic demonstrations of prosthetics that appeal solely to gorehounds.
And when a filmmaker wants to showcase these characters outside a horror film, make it unique. Stephen Sommers succeeded in 1999 because he realised that if Spielberg, Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan had been so inclined, Raiders of the Lost Ark could have been about a mummy instead of the Ark of the Covenant. He directed an action-adventure film, where the villain happened to be a mummy, which people adored because it was a throwback to Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone. In 2017, people were less inclined to see a generic Tom Cruise thriller with a mummified baddie.
Universal needs to remember the spirit of innovation behind filming these characters in the first place, instead of aping Marvel or DC Comics. Remake The Hunchback of Notre-Dame or The Phantom of the Opera because these classic novels are still worthwhile in the 21st century, not because of a brand. Creature from the Black Lagoon is dying to be remade by sheer virtue of not being done to death. Ultimately, I have a lot more hope for Bill Condon directing a remake of Bride of Frankenstein than because he made Gods and Monsters, a biopic of the original’s director, James Whale, and could craft a genuinely beautiful love story with two monsters. Hopefully it’ll be the fresh start the Dark Universe needs.