Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Universal Monsters’

So there I was, just watching the closing credits of Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy, waiting for the bafflement and confused disbelief to lift from my mind (hmm, kind of given the general tenor of the review away there – hey ho), when the guy across the aisle from me shouted ‘Is there anything to stay for?’ – meaning, would there be a post-credit sequence trailing a coming attraction? ‘I don’t think they’ve planned that far ahead,’ I said. Having established some sort of relationship, my new acquaintance asked me how familiar I was with the series. I made noncomittal noises and he said, ‘I’ve seen the old one, with… what’s his name…’

Hmm, I thought, could he mean the 1932 version with Boris Karloff? Or perhaps the 1959 one with Christopher Lee? Maybe even the 1971 take with Valerie Leon? (All of which I have inevitably seen.) It seemed pretty unlikely. ‘You mean the 1999 one with Brendan Fraser,’ I said, somewhat resignedly. Yes it was; it turned out he preferred it.

Given it’s not unknown these days for a remake (or, sigh, reboot) to follow only five years after the thing it’s remaking (or rebooting), the nine year gap between the last of the Fraser-starring movies and Kurtzman’s film is actually fairly respectable. The ‘is there a post-credits sequence?’ question is significant, though, for it cuts to the heart of what this new movie is really about: because that’s what movie mega-franchises do these days. (Except this one, apparently.)

Things kick off with a somewhat involved prologue involving crusader knights, the expansion of the London underground, and much other unexpected material. What it all boils down to is the story of Princess Ahmanet, heiress of one of the Egyptian pharaohs (she is played by Sofia Boutella, a game young actress making a bit of a career out of big genre roles in which she becomes almost unrecognisable one way or another). When she is unexpectedly replaced as first in line to the throne, she enters into a pact with the evil god Set and sets about pressing her claim, rather violently. This goes down poorly with the palace staff and she is, according to the voice-over, ‘mummified alive’ (not according to what we see on screen, she’s not, but I digress), stuck in a sarcophagus, and buried ‘far from Egypt’.

Roll on the title card and we find ourselves in modern Iraq, in the company of dodgy treasure hunter and mercenary Nick Morton (Tom Cruise). A careless airstrike from Nick’s associates in the US military reveals the entrance to an ancient tomb complex, into which he ventures with plucky archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis). But is it really a tomb, or actually a prison for an ancient evil? (Clue: it’s not really a tomb.)

Well, having extracted Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, our heroes are flying off somewhere when their plane becomes besieged by crows and Nick’s buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) turns into a murderous zombie (it feels like there’s a lot more zombies than mummies in this movie). No sooner has Nick handed Jenny a parachute and thrown her off the plane than it crashes in England. Of course Nick does not end up splashed across the landscape, but wakes up unscathed in an Oxford morgue (by the way, I feel it incumbent upon me to point out that The Mummy‘s depiction of the traffic system in Oxford city centre leaves a lot to be desired). It transpires that Ahmanet has taken a shine to Nick (that’s nice), and quite fancies using him as the vessel to bring about the embodiment of her patron, the god of evil (maybe not so nice). Can he escape the mummy’s curse, or is he doomed to a fate that’s approximately about as bad as death?

It’s not widely known or talked about these days, but for quite a long while in the early 2000s Tom Cruise was in talks with Marvel about his taking the starring role in Iron Man. Terms could not be agreed, however, Cruise not wanting to make ‘just another superhero movie’ (it’s hard to imagine him committing to the standard Marvel multi-film contract, anyway, or indeed agreeing to be part of an ensemble cast). Since then, however, Cruise has noticed the large trucks full of money going to Robert Downey Jr’s house, and Universal Pictures have noticed the enormous trucks full of money going to the Marvel offices, and their joint desire to grab a slice of that kind of action is what has led us to the new version of The Mummy.

For, yea, this is the opening installment of what we are supposed to call the Dark Universe franchise, presumably because Legendary Pictures already have their Monsterverse (the film series with Godzilla, King Kong, and the others) and this precludes Universal from using the obvious ‘Universal Monsters’ title for their own prospective mega-franchise. At one point Dracula Untold was going to be part of this series, but they have apparently rowed back on the idea, and so it’s The Mummy kicking off the new undertaking (no pun intended).

Quite how this new series is supposed to function I’m really not sure. The thing about superheroes (as in the Marvel and DC film series) and Toho’s daikaiju (in the Monsterverse) is that they have a tradition of bumping into each other and butting heads, whereas all the best-regarded Universal horror films were basically standalones – obviously you have things like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man and House of Dracula, but these were pretty much last-gasp efforts, one step away from Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The material feels severely stretched to meet the requirements of the studio – it looks very much like the intention is to retool the classic monsters as occult super-powered anti-heroes.

So is this really a horror film or isn’t it? I would tend to say not, for all that it is saddled with a box office-unfriendly 15 rating in the UK. Sensible studios don’t attempt to make genuine horror blockbusters, because the two forms are largely incompatible, appealing to different sensibilities. Attempting to combine the two is the source of many of The Mummy‘s numerous problems.

On one level this movie wants to be a dark tale about the stirring of ancient, primordial evil, and moral corruption, and the profound ambiguity of the human soul. On another, it wants to be a jolly wise-cracking CGI-driven popcorn movie. I’m not saying it’s absolutely impossible to make a film which manages to reconcile these two ambitions. I’m just saying that The Mummy definitely isn’t it. Every time the darker material shows signs of promise, along comes a big chase sequence or a comedy bit or Tom Cruise sweating ostentatiously and we’re back in vacuous popcorn-land. If the film was the slightest bit knowing or showed any signs of being aware of how outlandish it is, it might function, but Cruise in particular doesn’t seem capable of that kind of wit.

I suppose there are signs of hope for the future, as the linking device for the projected Dark Universe franchise is a gang of enigmatic monster-hunters called the Progenium or the Prodigium or the Perineum (I can’t actually be bothered to check Wikipedia), led by Russell Crowe as Dr Jekyll (I know, I know) – we pay a brief visit to their archives where they appear to have a vampire skull, pickled bits of the creature from the black lagoon, and so on. Crowe actually has the ability to make this stuff work, believe it or not, though he’s much better as Jekyll than Hyde.

And he quite easily blows Tom Cruise off the screen. Probably The Mummy‘s biggest problem is that Tom Cruise simply does not belong in it, at least not in the role he’s been given. Nick Morton is supposed to be a lovable rogue, a scoundrel with the potential to be something better, utterly charming even when he’s doing deeply suspect things. Cruise can’t do charming any more. He goes through the motions energetically, but he just comes across as fake, and rather than loving Nick in spite of my better judgement, I just thought he seemed like a bit of a tool. Cruise can’t really do funny consistently either; for this film to attempt to be a light-hearted adventure is arguably a bad choice, but for it to turn out to be a light-hearted adventure fronted by a leading man with all the comic sparkle of one of Donald Trump’s media consultants contemplating their career prospects is, frankly, disastrous.

This is still a fairly lavish modern blockbuster with all the necessary bits in mostly the right order (though not, as noted, many of what you’d call classic Mummy moments), and Crowe and Boutella are generally pretty good in it. And, as Wonder Woman has recently proven, all it takes is one good installment for this kind of movie series to come to life and start generating real interest and excitement. But The Mummy shows every sign of getting the Dark Universe project off to a flying stop.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Something curious and historically interesting happened to popular culture in the late 1930s and early 1940s, not that most people would have noticed it at the time: the idea of the shared fictional universe came into existence, where events in one story could have consequences in others that weren’t simply sequels, where characters didn’t just spin off but converged as well. Given that this concept underpins the business plans of a number of major film studios nowadays, we should probably remember that it was rather a derided one for many decades – although even today we’re still talking about the kind of films which aim to make money rather than win awards. The key players, Marvel and DC, are heavily rooted in making superhero movies, although also reputedly having a bash are Universal, with their stable of horror characters.

This seems entirely appropriate given that capes and monsters were where the first fictional universes started to crystallise: the mythos created by Lovecraft, and the DC comics universe kick-started by All Star Comics #3 in 1940, for instance. Both of those were probably happening under most people’s radar – a little more visible, perhaps, was the appearance of Universal’s original shared movie universe, which was inaugurated with Roy William Neill’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, released in 1943.

frankwolf

This was the fourth sequel to the iconic Karloff-Clive version of Frankenstein, but to begin with it seems much more strongly linked to The Wolf Man, to which it is the first follow-up (apparently writer Curt Siodmak only suggested the movie as a joke, but didn’t object to being paid to produce an actual script). It opens in that notorious hotbed of lycanthropic savagery, the Welsh countryside, where a couple of unwise locals in unfortunate hats break into the family vault of local big-shots the Talbots, intent on plundering the corpse of prematurely-deceased heir Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr).

However, it turns out that all that ‘shot with a silver bullet’ stuff is not strictly accurate, for four years after his interment Talbot is still alive – apparently being a werewolf makes you immortal! The shock of finding himself not dead means that Talbot ends up in hospital in Cardiff, although quite what happens is a little obscure. Here he meets Dr Mannering (Patric Knowles), who eventually proves to be a rather remarkable individual, and local copper Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey).

Never mind the Universal Monsters shared-world, for a moment it looks as if another crossover is on the cards, as Dennis Hoey is perhaps best known to modern audiences for his role as the impenetrably thick Inspector Lestrade in half a dozen Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, also for Universal. Hoey gives exactly the same performance as Owen as he does as Lestrade, in an identical costume – it’s enough to make you speculate about Lestrade being sent on an undercover mission to the principality, and imagine Rathbone’s Holmes facing off against the various monsters. Not to be, unfortunately.

Anyway, Talbot fangs his way out of his straitjacket and goes on the run in search of a way out of his predicament, eventually catching up with the gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the mum of the guy who originally bit him. We’re now quite a long way into the movie and I suspect most viewers will be quite relieved when her only suggestion is that they look up a notorious scientist with an unparallelled knowledge of the secrets of life and death, Dr Frankenstein!

Unfortunately, all the various members of the Frankenstein dynasty with medical diplomas have died by the time the duo arrive in Frankenstein’s home village, mostly as a result of the family’s most famous creation going off on one. Talbot and Maleva are thus somewhat stumped, until Talbot stumbles across Frankenstein’s Monster (Bela Lugosi), frozen in ice. This happens quite by chance, by the way: I suppose this is the sort of thing which happens when you are a werewolf who spends most of his time being chased around by mobs of angry villagers.

Once defrosted, the Monster proves extraordinarily helpful in trying to find Frankenstein’s original notes (especially so when you consider that he is supposedly blind at this point and also had his brain replaced in the previous film in the series), but Talbot still has to call upon the help of Frankenstein’s granddaughter (Ilona Massey), a woman who really knows the value of plaits, in order to find what he wants.

At this point Mannering turns up, having tracked Talbot across Europe, and having proven himself to be not just a top doctor but also a remarkable sleuth, reveals he is also a bit of a Frankenstein fanboy. He agrees to rebuild Frankenstein’s lab and use the machinery there to drain the vital energy from both Talbot and the Monster, thus ending the threat of the two monsters forever. What can possibly go wrong…?

You would, I suspect, have to be a particularly sensitive and delicate individual to actually find Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man frightening or horrific by modern standards. Perhaps the most alarming thing in the film is the obligatory musical number (not performed by either of the title characters, alas), which features startling numbers of fiercely cheerful gypsies and villagers in lederhosen going ‘tra la la’ more than you might imagine possible.

Or perhaps not. Actually frightening, this film is not, but it still possesses a weird, morbid atmosphere, primarily because this is really a film about suicide: the chief motor of the plot is Lawrence Talbot’s desire to die. The film in general and Chaney in particular are not remotely subtle enough for this to be quite as affecting as it could be, but a modern film with this kind of theme would have the potentially to be truly disturbing and unusual.

But then this is obviously the product of another era, when a horror film was still second cousin to a fairy tale, mostly set in ruined castles and graveyards in quasi-mythical lands far across the sea, populated by superstitious villagers and enigmatic gypsies. Good and evil are still almost palpably real, in the world of the film at least. The genre has changed so much as to be almost unrecognisable.

Is it really any good, though? Or – was it any good when it was made, by the standards of the 1930s and 1940s? Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask, for I tend to find the original Universal horror movies painfully slow and lacking in incident, certainly compared to those made by Hammer a generation later. Even The Bride of Frankenstein, the film generally held up to be the zenith of the series, seems to me to be awkwardly self-conscious and twee. Well, anyway: the story is odd enough to be watchable, even if the plotting is rather melodramatic and some of the characterisation highly peculiar – Mannering variously functions as an expository tool, the romantic lead, and the de facto villain, depending on what point in the film we have reached. He briefly goes bad simply to facilitate the climactic battle.

Yup, before Batman Vs Superman, before Alien Vs Predator, before Freddy Vs Jason, before King Kong Vs Godzilla, there was the concluding barney of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Again, by modern standards the battle is energetic but ultimately quite tame, and it’s pretty brief too. You can see they’re making kind of an attempt to make the two combatants fight in different ways, but it really just boils down to the kind of rasslin’ you might see outside a pub in the small hours of any weekend night. One of the prime rules of the all-star death match is established even this early on – in that the clash is not fought to its natural conclusion with a real winner emerging. In this case, a convenient collapsing dam washes away the venue of the struggle while events are still in progress, the Baroness and Mannering (back to being a mildly heroic figure at this point) having discreetly scarpered by this point.

Then again, the makers of this kind of series always eventually figure out that by killing your monsters off too permanently you’re only making trouble for yourself when it comes to writing the next movie, so I suppose we can’t be too critical on that score. I find it quite hard to be especially critical of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man on any grounds – it’s not high art, of course, and it’s just as much a weird collection of disparate bits as Lugosi’s character, but its very oddness gives it a strange charm I find very hard to resist.

Read Full Post »