Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Frankenstein(’s monster) and the Bride of Frankenstein(’s Monster). They’re all icons of cinematic horror, many for nearly a century – and that’s the problem.
It’s hard to be scared by things you’ve been looking at for 90 or so years, which are so omnipresent in pop culture they’ve inspired dozens upon dozens of copycats, are sometimes turned into laughing stocks, and have generally been neutered to the point where they can safely be put in children’s cartoons and on cereal boxes. The Universal Monsters just aren’t scary anymore, but they can be – and writer/director Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man knows how.
The problem with most recent Universal Monster movies is that they’re usually not even trying to be scary; instead, they’re PG-13 action flicks like Tom Cruise’s Mummy, Dracula Untold, Van Helsing, even the 1999 Mummy film and its sequels. When the movies try for horror (like 2010’s The Wolf Man, starring Benicio del Toro) they fail, mainly because modern audiences don’t have the suspension of disbelief anymore for magic curses, ludicrous science or creatures that can somehow explode into a bunch of bats. These monsters aren’t monstrous enough to be frightening by themselves – they need something more.
The new Invisible Man movie has more. It doesn’t just bring H.G. Wells’ classic novel into the modern-day, it ties what is honestly one of Universal’s least intimidating villains to a very modern, unfortunately relevant and nightmarish scenario – a woman being physically and mentally abused by her partner, and who can’t get anyone to believe her. Much like Jordan Peele used horror to examine institutional racism in Get Out (which was also produced by Blumhouse), Whannell is using the Invisible Man to examine the horror of abuse and the difficulty women face when they speak out about their abusers. It’s scary because it’s so real, even if it involves a guy who invented a science potion to turn himself invisible.
This is the key. These classic characters should be used to tell stories that reflect modern fears, while still keeping the core of the classic monsters somewhere inside. After all, there’s still something scary in all of them, buried deep in the cultural consciousness; it just needs to be augmented by connecting them to the things that scare us in 2020. Here are some of my ideas – please add yours in the comments! (And if you happen to work at Universal, DM me so we can discuss my screenwriting contract.)
Dracula is the ultimate movie monster. Many actors have portrayed the vampire in many ways: as a tragic character, a romantic lead, and a misunderstood hero at least as much as a straight-up villain, but the latter is where the horror lies. In Bram Stoker’s original novel, Dracula isn’t just an evil bloodsucker. He moves to England to make it his feeding ground, but he also wants power. He easily becomes part of high society thanks to his aristocratic nobility, wealth and immense charisma, which allows him to put people under his spell even before he bites them. He feeds almost exclusively on women, delighting in controlling them as well as killing them. He also revels in the pain his murders cause their loved ones when they return from the dead and begin feeding themselves, and have to be killed once again.
What makes Dracula so terrifying isn’t his ability to turn into a wolf or slip through cracks or his inability to show up in mirrors. It’s that he has an immense amount of power that he uses to commit acts of evil that only his victims and their loved ones know about. Because in society at large, he appears only to be an immensely charming member of the elite that people – especially ladies – swoon over. This is where a new Dracula movie needs to start, and if you want to make a modern movie about someone with tremendous power who can force people to do his bidding, who revels in performing acts of evil that almost no one knows about and is still charismatic and sexy as hell, Dracula needs to be owner and CEO of a Halliburton-esque military contractor to the government.
It sounds silly at first, but think about this way: what if Marvel’s Tony Stark never got ambushed by terrorists, but kept on being a war profiteer? He’d still be one of the richest, most powerful men in the world, and because of his good looks and charm he’d still be a celebrity who could have practically anyone come to his beck and call. But while this alt-Tony probably still wouldn’t care about the ramifications of his weapons manufacturing at all, this Dracula would revel in his ability to essentially commit horrific acts of violence in a way that isn’t just legal but considered an act of patriotism by many. Dracula’s cult of personality could bleed into an actual cult, where his company employees are secretly fanatic followers of their leader to the point where they’re only extensions of his will. (Imagine an accounting department full of Renfields.) And while Dracula may have more reasonable, less comic book-y superpowers, he sure as hell still drinks blood.
When Dracula holds a lavish party to celebrate a new government contract, low-level Department of Defense employees Lucy Westenra and Jonathan Harker attend as lackeys of their boss who helped negotiate the deal. There, Dracula fixates on Lucy immediately, giving her most of his attention, to the confusion and dismay of the other guests. Lucy becomes immediately infatuated with the CEO and the two begin to see each other. Jonathan gets concerned as Lucy’s infatuation becomes an obsession, and because she’s begun growing ill with what doctors can only describe as some unknown form of anaemia, as her body seems to be losing the ability to generate blood.
When Dracula whisks her away to give her the level of health care only afforded by the one per cent, Jonathan isn’t allowed to see her and gets even more concerned when the missing Lucy emails in her resignation, saying she’s begun working for Dracula. Jonathan enlists a few friends, including his fiancée Mina Harker, to investigate, and they discover a disturbing number of murders tied to Dracula and his corporation, all hushed up by the CEO’s power and money. Eventually, they discover Lucy seems to be alive, but may have possibly committed murder herself – and also that Dracula’s new military contract is for a biological weapon with some very strange side effects. But how can Jonathan and his friends prove one of the most powerful, admired men in the world is secretly a monster, both figuratively and literally?
The Wolf Man
Both The Wolf Man and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are stories about the darkness that lurks in the hearts of people, but the former is the far more popular of the two. There’s something very compelling about someone helpless to stop themselves from becoming a monster, which is why so many werewolf stories go the same Jekyll/Hyde route. So instead of focusing on the monster, let’s focus on the curse – or, rather, the illness.
Humanity has a constant fear of modern plagues, and not without reason. Imagine a world where a werewolf virus spreads across the planet, but one that only affects 10 per cent of the world’s population. It’s utterly undetectable until the full moon arrives and they transform. There’s some real dread in wondering if you might have the virus and what horrors you might commit if you do, especially when it’s discovered a werewolf bite is the only certain way to transmit the disease, even to someone who had been immune to it in its plague form. Even though the infected are perfectly normal human beings 96.66 per cent of the time, they are feared, hated and discriminated against, and the government isolates them from the general populace by putting them in quarantine camps.
The loss of their rights, jobs and families drive some werewolves to fight back, but there’s also an extremist movement led by a man named Larry Talbot, who finds the world’s treatment of werewolves shows that civilised society is a lie and that all humans are essentially animals. As such, he and his followers are anarchists determined to turn as many people into werewolves as possible, killing those who try to stand in their way. It’s eventually revealed that Larry is special; he maintains his identity and intelligence when he transforms into a wolf, effectively making him the alpha of his pack, which is also how he attracts so many to his cause. Between the plague, the injustices and an army of werewolf fanatics, can civilisation survive? To be fair, a lot is going on in this particular story, but I’m very open to studio notes.
What I think is most interesting about both Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff is that when the creature awakes, it’s instantly treated as a monster despite the fact it was purposefully made. In the novel, Dr. Victor suddenly realises exactly what he’s wrought and flees, while in the movie the monster freaks out when the doctor’s assistant brings in a torch, which makes it appear it’s going to attack the two scientists, and thus gets chained up in the dungeon. When the creature finally enters the outside world, it’s childlike and doesn’t know what’s right, wrong or its own strength; by the end, the creature becomes a monster because it’s been treated like one. It’s forced to fulfil a role prescribed to it by society, as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Consider this: a man wakes up on an operating table with no memory of his past life or how he has ended up there. He asks what’s happened, but the doctor and assistant examining him ignore his questions completely, and refer to him only as an experiment as if he were a literal lab rat. Over the next few weeks, they test and experiment on the man, often cruelly and painfully, and continue to refuse to acknowledge him as a sentient being. When the man tries to fight back to avoid what is essentially torture, he injures the assistant in his attempt. The doctor is hypocritically disgusted by the violence the man committed, calling him a monster, and the experiments get even more brutal.
Eventually, the man escapes but discovers everyone in the outside world also considers him a monster because of his hideous appearance. With his humanity denied for so long, the man embraces his fate and becomes a monster, taking what he needs to survive and killing at whim, all while plotting his horrific revenge against the doctor who created him against his will. This could be set in the 1800s or 2000s; all you need to think of is how society prescribes stereotypes on certain groups and unthinkingly (or otherwise) creates the circumstances that foster those stereotypes, and you have a hell of a modern, relevant movie.
The Bride of Frankenstein
This could work as a sequel to the Frankenstein movie above, but it could also be even more powerful as a standalone film. A woman wakes up and discovers she’s been scientifically brought back to life, but with one sole purpose – as a mate for Dr. Frankenstein’s first monster. She’s essentially a sex slave, given no rights or agency whatsoever, a very real problem for women throughout recorded history as they were given away or practically (and literally) sold off for political alliances, financial transactions and power reallocations for their fathers and husbands-to-be. That the Bride’s very existence, her entire reason for being, is to be a man’s mate takes this horrific idea to its most terrifying, awful extreme.
In the original Bride of Frankenstein movie – which is considered one of the greatest classic horror films and sequels of all time – the “bride” rejects Frankenstein’s monster upon awakening, and the morose monster destroys the laboratory they’re both in (after sending Dr. Frankenstein away to safety). There’s a lot of ways the primary story of a new Bride of Frankenstein could go, but an ending where a man who wants to annihilate everything because a woman he thought he deserved rejected him is so modern and pertinent it’s genuinely depressing.
The Creature From the Black Lagoon
Plenty of movies are about monsters created by something shitty we’ve done to the planet (e.g. Godzilla) – but climate change isn’t just the most relevant, it’s the most hard-to-grasp for many people, and that’s exactly what a new movie could take advantage of. Forget the titular creature and his black lagoon for a moment, and let’s have a movie that begins by examining the truly horrible effects rising temperatures would have on the world in general and aquatic life in particular.
Honestly, the real-world ramifications of climate change are terrifying enough to star in their own movie, but you can easily go with the trope where the natural world can’t put up with humanity’s crap any longer and decides to fight back. At first, increasing ocean levels and environmental destruction causing predator fish like sharks to come to areas they’ve never been before. Other fish mutate, becoming poisonous and rendering major water sources undrinkable. Then those terrifying monster-fish that live at the bottom of the ocean start coming to the surface, wreaking havoc on any boat or structure they can access. Some of these sea creatures can come on land using tentacles as legs. They have the intelligence of dolphins and recognise humans are the problem. The first of these creatures emerge from an atoll known as the Black Lagoon.
Still, the real danger will be climate change because as much as the fish are a danger, the destruction caused by rising temperatures and sea levels will be even greater (although the latter will allow the monster-fish easier access to coastal cities). It’s a monster movie where the true threat isn’t the monsters at all, but what we’ve done to the planet; the ambulatory, nightmarish sea creatures are only a symptom of a very real problem that needs a real solution, and that’s where the real horror lies.
I… okay, guys, I just don’t think there’s a genuinely scary mummy movie out there.
They’re just zombies wearing bandages, and zombies have been so prevalent in pop culture this past decade they’re not particularly scary anymore. Of course, mummies can have weird ancient magic powers but those powers inevitably end up as horrible, goofy, unrealistic and unintimidating VFX. I bet someone can come up with a mummy movie that channels modern anxieties, but that someone isn’t me. Sorry, mummies!
Featured image: Universal