The Internets have been a-buzzing as of late about Universal's decision to revive its cache of classic movie monsters (e.g., Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, etc.) as part of an action-adventure franchise of interconnected movies along the lines of what DC and Marvel are doing with their superhero characters right now. According to Donna Langley, the head of Universal:
"We don’t have any capes [in our film library]. But what we do have is an incredible legacy and history with the monster characters. We’ve tried over the years to make monster movies — unsuccessfully, actually. And we had an epiphany, which is that the horror genre has a ceiling; it’s not global. There’s a reason why monster characters are enduring, generation upon generation. So we took a good, hard look at it, and we settled upon an idea, which is to take it out of the horror genre, put it more in the action-adventure genre and make it present day, bringing these incredibly rich and complex characters into present day and re-imagine them and reintroduce them to a contemporary audience."
As a horror fan, I understand why other horror fans are outraged over this decision to use classic monsters as fodder for action-adventure movies. These characters are supposed to be monsters--things that shock and terrify like nightmares, not excite and amuse like macho power fantasies. Furthermore, while some may argue that the classic Universal monsters can never be made scary again because they are too dated, the creepy ideas that these monsters represent (e.g., vampirism, lycanthropy, burying people alive, resurrecting dead tissue as new life, etc.) still provide plenty of subject matter for modern horror movies. Indeed, there are many ways that these classic monsters could be brought back to movie theaters as gruesome, spine-tingling movies--Hammer studios already did it once before--but I don't think that's what Universal wants. What it really wants is merchandising.
Universal's classic monsters have only shared the same cinematic space three times: in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The House of Frankenstein (1944) and The House of Dracula (1945), and those crossovers only featured two or three of the Universal monsters at a time. (The Abbott and Costello movies that featured the Universal monsters don't count as official crossovers.) In the years since Universal's golden age of horror, fans have been much more likely to see the Universal monsters put together as part of a merchandising campaign, such as for model kits (Aurora), toy lines (Remco, Diamond Select), book series (Crestwood House), syndicated TV programming (Shock Theater), video games (Castlevania, Zombies Ate My Neighbors), and DVD and Blu-ray box sets. Even Lego recently hopped on to the classic Universal monster bandwagon with its “Monster Fighters” series of kits.
In other words, fans have been much more likely to see the Universal monsters share a shelf in a toy store or hobby shop than share narrative space within the same fictional universe. Thus, by putting the new Universal monster movies into the action-adventure genre through complementary movies, it will be easier for Universal to make PG and PG-13 movies that will attract audiences who are of the right age demographic to buy whatever licensed merchandise that's made in conjunction with the films. That follows the strategy that's driving the DC and Marvel superhero movies, so it only makes sense for Universal to follow suit when launching new multi-movie, multi-platform franchises.
Where this plan falls short is in Universal’s disinterest in the pop culture history of its own monsters. As the saying goes, no one should fix something that isn't broken; thus, if Universal wants to make its monsters successful now, it needs to understand what made them successful before. Universal monsters still have fans to this day because they captured the imaginations of movie fans for decades and still have the power to do so without being transplanted out of the horror genre. Forrest J. Ackerman (a.k.a. "Uncle Forry") ushered in a few generations of "Monster Kids" through publications like Famous Monsters of Filmland because the classic Universal monsters and their cinematic kin inspired a sense of curiosity wonder among kids who were discovering the horror for the first time and the many techniques that special effects masters such as Ray Harryhausen and Dick Smith used to bring the horror genre to life on the silver screen.
The challenge should be for Universal to produce well-made PG or PG-13 horror movies, horror movies that could be seen by a wide audience. It's been done before--after all, horror classics such as The Legend of Hell House, Jaws, Gremlins and the original Stepford Wives were all rated PG. People remark how great Pixar films are because both adults and kids can enjoy them, so Universal could logically do the same with its classic monsters. Personally, I think that filmmakers such as Joe Dante, John Landis, Fred Dekker and Guillermo del Toro--all former Monster Kids themselves--would be perfectly suited to helm the revival of Universal's classic monsters.
Unfortunately, Universal's decision to opt for action-adventure movies instead of horror reflects how the deck is stacked against horror films as a whole. This is probably because Hollywood probably believes that horror films have to be R-rated in order to be profitable, and that targeting a younger audience through a genre that is still as controversial as horror could wind up causing problems (such as parents who hate horror movies) that would negatively impact Universal's classic monster merchandising plans. Yet what will ultimately sink this endeavor is Universal's complete lack of creativity and ambition, opting instead for the safer route of shoving a familiar brand (Universal monsters) into an inoffensive and profitable genre (action-adventure). Langley's quote above about how she regards the removal of classic monsters from the horror genre as an "epiphany" reinforces how astonishingly uninformed and self-defeating this idea really is. It's 2004's Van Helsing all over again.