What Ruined The Mummy? Bad Decisions

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Nearly every decision made regarding Alex Kurtzman’s THE MUMMY was the result of bad decisions, mostly on the part of executives. And those bad decisions are Legion, for they are many.

1. MAKING A MUMMY MOVIE

You can actually reverse-engineer the decision disturbingly easily.

EXEC 1: We want to make a shared continuity universe like Marvel has, because those make money. Let’s use our old-school monsters. Who’s our most popular one?

EXEC 2: Dracula!

EXEC 1: Yeah! But nobody liked DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), and we jumped the gun on making that our shared continuity movie.

EXEC 2: Frankenstein!

EXEC 1: But other companies made I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014) and VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015), and nobody liked those.

EXEC 2: Ummm… The Wolfman?

EXEC 1: WOLFMAN (2010). Nobody liked that either.

EXEC 2: Creature from the Black Lagoon? Invisible Man?

EXEC 1: Too small.

EXEC 2: The Mummy?

EXEC 1: Yeah! We could blow around sandstorms, destroy cities, and do all kinds of crazy stuff!

EXEC 3, who has been silent all this time: But won’t audiences just compare that with the popular MUMMY 1999 franchise?

EXEC 1: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOPE!

Spoilers: EVERYONE has done that, and THE MUMMY hasn’t looked good because of it.

There’s nothing wrong on paper with making a Mummy movie, but in the age of reboots, you have to be especially careful about audience burnout and the optics of sullying a fan favorite. THE MUMMY (1999) IS a fan favorite, and if Universal doesn’t have enough evidence of this from its box office success and continued DVD sales, it certainly does from the fact that The Mummy is STILL a major ride at their theme parks.

It’s not been that long since THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (2008), which came out 7 years following THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001). Audiences had plenty of reason to wonder if MUMMY (2017) was a sequel or reboot or wonder why Brendan Fraser didn’t return.

2. MAKING THIS AN ACTION MOVIE

Regardless of my love for the action-horror genre and my unpopular opinion that MUMMY (2017)’s horror scenes were among the few things it got right, horror is enjoying a renaissance, with movies like GET OUT (2017), IT FOLLOWS (2015), THE CONJURING SERIES, and THE PURGE SERIES showing how very much is possible within it. Universal’s “Dark Universe” could’ve truly stood out if only it’d fully committed to its horror. While its original movies were horror-dramas, they eventually evolved into action-horror movies. That gave audiences plenty of time to fall in love with the characters to care about their slugfests. Audiences today are clambering for the next big, exciting horror movie. There’s no reason why Universal couldn’t have started with a mid-budgeted horror movie and worked its way up from there.

By that same token, the UNDERWORLD and RESIDENT EVIL movie franchises have demonstrated that with a mid-level budget, you can make exciting movies that are consistently both action & horror without betraying either. THE MUMMY (2017) was initially slated to be directed by Len Wiseman of UNDERWORLD fame, and probably would’ve been a more appropriate movie for that.

3. FORCING THE SHARED CONTINUITY

I’m all for Universal’s “Dark Universe” of classic monsters. I love gothic horror, and I believe that there’s a place for it in a modern setting. By the same token, I respect anyone who has “shared universe burnout,” especially when MUMMY (2017) shits the bed with it.

IRON MAN (2008), only establishes its shared continuity status in its post-credits scene with Nick Fury, which is nothing more than, “We’d like to put more superheroes together. Whaddya think?” In THE MUMMY, Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll commandeers the movie with his monster-hunting organization, Prodigium. It effectively becomes HIS movie, undercutting whatever interest you probably hadn’t been building for Tom Cruise’s Nick, Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny, or Sofia Boutella’s Ahmanet. Nearly the entire second act takes place in Prodigium’s headquarters, where you’re treated to shots of a vampire and werewolf skull, the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s arm, THE MUMMY (1999)’s book of the dead, and Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde. It’d feel random as hell if those scenes –Nick’s heart to heart with Jenny, Ahmanet’s schemes in captivity, and Mr. Hyde’s Hulk-inspired fight- weren’t lifted directly from THE AVENGERS (2012).

These scenes work for monster nerds like me, but for everyone else, they feel like a marketing plan. “This is how we plan to make billions of dollars. We don’t care if the story makes sense, just that you know that we’re going to keep making these things until the money stops rolling in.”

4. HIRING ALEX KURTZMAN

Alex Kurtzman, the critically-panned writer of TRANSFORMERS 1-3, STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS (2013), and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014) was hired to shepherd in Universal’s “Dark Universe” clearly not out of talent, but because those movies had been BANKABLE. Well, except ASM2. Kurtzman’s gotten lucky in being attached to sturdy franchises and bankable directors like Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams, making his own success cloudy at best. The man isn’t tested with an original property, which THE MUMMY half-is, at least for audiences in their teens & twenties.

Considering those above movies, Kurtzman is an awful idea as a creative head: He’s a lazy writer. To be clear, his work ethic is fine, but he doesn’t care about the craft of storytelling, and holy shit, does it show. INTO DARKNESS, ASM2, and THE MUMMY highlight a writer who arranges scenes in any order without tonal flow or a clear cause-and-effect. He only seems to know how to write lame banter for 14 year-old douchebags, making everyone sound like an idiot. He routinely writes himself into dead ends, and his ONLY solution is Deus Ex Machina (THE MUMMY features about FIVE instances where outside forces inexplicably stop The Mummy from stabbing major characters). Kutzman doesn’t care about internal logic (The Mummy wants to stab Tom Cruise with a magic knife, but the movie is never clear if that’s a good thing or a bad thing and what the consequences truly are). Finally, Kurtzman is a writer with a DEEPLY traditional view of sexual politics. If the Mummy’s relentlessly sucking-out-men’s souls doesn’t convince you, check out the male gaze in TRANSFORMERS 1-3 and INTO DARKNESS, and the fridging of Gwen Stacy in ASM2.

This is not a guy you want anywhere near your mass-appeal summer blockbuster designed to herald in a sprawling shared continuity. He’s going to set a bad tone.

5. $125 MILLION PRODUCTION BUDGET

For fun, let’s run some numbers.

-Universal’s WOLFMAN (2010): $150 mil. budget, $61.9 mil. domestic, $139.7 mil. worldwide.

-Lionsgate’s I, FRANKENSTEIN (2014): $65 mil. budget, $19 mil. domestic, $71.1. mil. worldwide.

-Universal’s DRACULA UNTOLD (2014): $70 mil. budget, $56.2 domestic, $217 mil. worldwide.

-Fox’s VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN (2015): $40 mil. budget, $ 5 mil. domestic, $34.2 mil. worldwide.

Things to note, none of these movies, even the two enjoying Universal’s marketing, were able to break $70 million domestic. All four of these movies took a domestic loss for whatever reason (all four of them are bad-or-iffy movies). Only DRACULA UNTOLD was profitable worldwide, owing almost exclusively to the widest distribution and the emerging global market.

Conclusions: There IS a market for classic horror monsters, but a nascent one. It needs to be developed, not expected. Budgets over $100 million are, at this stage, untenable, when you can only expect an average (of the Universal brand horror movies) of $59.05 million domestic at best (for bad movies). The worldwide box office is a lifesaver, but that doesn’t exactly build excitement for franchises.

A safe budget is probably in the $70-$90 million range. DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) had a reported budget of $70 million, and it’s a good-looking movie with decent talent. Bummer that the movie itself was mediocre.

6. HIRING TOM CRUISE

Tom Cruise is a legendary actor who probably starred in one of your favorite movies, but when’s the last time he hasn’t coasted on just playing an idealized version of himself? In the last 7 years, he hasn’t. His star his dimmed, and if you hire Tom Cruise, the 55 year-old is going to act as if he was 30, and damned if that isn’t out of place.

Just like he’s fallen into niche roles, Tom Cruise has fallen into niche MOVIES. He stars in glossy action movies where he can banter and show off his physicality. His supporting female love interests are always tech/lore/intellectually savvy and play foible to him. He doesn’t have character arcs, but he grows in power throughout. When you see Tom Cruise in a starring role, you know you’re getting “a Tom Cruise movie,” not whatever else a movie might want to be. Thanks to Tom Cruise, THE MUMMY was branded as “a Tom Cruise movie,” which I have to believe hurt it.

7. HIRING TOM CRUISE

Bear with me, because this speaks to another bad executive decision. Why would you hire Tom Cruise? Outside of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, his movies don’t consistently clear $100 million domestically and are routinely saved by the foreign market. At best, audiences show tepid interest to his work.

Chances are, he was hired because he’s Tom Cruise, a name that was huge a decade or two ago. Remember that picture of the actors hired for Universal’s Dark Universe? Russell Crowe, Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise… these are men who were gigantic a decade ago, but now… aren’t. Their personal reputations and box office performances have ruined their brand. There’s much to be made about how the star system is defunct, but the big actors and actresses now are people like Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston, Tom Hardy, Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and Scarlet Johansson. THOSE are the kinds of people you want to hire to usher in a new era.

Even then, look at Marvel’s approach: they hired people JUST on the verge of popping. People who could be defined by their MCU roles, not the reverse. Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet is this kind of excellent casting so OF COURSE…

8. THE MUMMY RUINS AHMANET

In the age of EVERYONE clambering for diversity and positive representation in roles, especially after the success of THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) and ROGUE ONE (2016), it seemed like a great idea to make Sofia Boutella Ahmanet, the Mummy. An Egyptian princess out for revenge because her kingdom was stolen from her? BRILLIANT. Sounds like a great way to attack the idea of the glass ceiling and those who enforce it.

Except Alex Kurtzman has an extremely traditional view of sexual politics and gender roles. As an example, when we’re introduced to Annabelle Wallis’ Jenny, we’re immediately told that Tom Cruise’s Nick bedded her to steal information. Our supporting female lead is introduced as a sex object.

Ahmanet fairs little better. Her intro in ancient Egypt is heavily exoticized and eroticized, but things nosedive when Nick falls under her curse. Ahmanet’s curse basically means you have waking wet dreams about her, most of which confusingly end with undead sexual assault. Ahmanet grows her powers by sucking the life-force of men, and attempts to sexually manipulate others into doing her bidding. Ahmanet’s, a brunette, actions run counter to Jenny’s, a blonde, who continually calls Nick to the high path, confident that there’s some good in him, despite all evidence to the contrary.

So much for a feminist character.

Worse, Nick’s solution to killing Ahmanet is to suck out HER life-force, which is undeniably coded on the screen as rape. Then it’s heavily implied that Cruise will become the next Mummy.

Nicely done, Kurtzman.

9. PREMIERING THE WEEKEND AFTER WONDER WOMAN

Snarky point, but it highlights executive bad decision-making. It nearly says EVERYTHING about what went wrong during every phase of THE MUMMY’s production.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the ONLY character who emerged unscathed from BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), and Jenkins’ titular movie was getting strong buzz throughout its development. Wonder Woman is an established brand, not to mention THE most widely-known female superhero in western comics. Even if the DCEU was a three-movie failing brand, people WERE going to see Wonder Woman just BECAUSE IT’S WONDER WOMAN.

This should’ve behind why it’s hard for a Superman or Batman movie to fail, but…

…executives commonly think that since movies like CATWOMAN (2004), ELEKTRA (2005), and SUPERGIRL (1984) failed, female-led superhero movies flat cannot be successful. It’s pitifully reductive thinking that ignores every more relevant detail of those projects, and it’s nakedly misogynistic. Boiling it down, the execs behind THE MUMMY thought that WONDER WOMAN, a movie all about the positivity of women, their representation, and their role in the world, couldn’t be successful.

Oops.

There are a myriad of other nitpicks for THE MUMMY. Jake Johnson’s ghost corpse clearly rips off AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. Nearly all the dialogue. A host of logical and continuity errors. But these aren’t isolated things that spell doom for movies –after all, look at Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams’ ongoing success.

The bigger failing is in the executive decisions that made THE MUMMY feel like a movie of the early 90s instead of the late 10s. It feels like a throwback, ignoring all the progess cinema has made since MUMMY 1999, except for the shallow sequel-delivery vehicle of cinematic universes. Audiences don’t want to see business models; they want to see good movies, and that didn’t happen here.

Personally, I have hope for Bill Condon’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (2019). Condon’s a strong director with an undying passion for the original movie, and he’s clearly got things to say about untraditional gender roles, romance, and dysfunction. It’ll probably be a good movie.

But will audiences care? I’ve already heard people wondering why it should be made before Frankenstein, or just how badly THE MUMMY would’ve ruined its brand.

Maybe executives will learn the right lesson here, back off, and let Condon do his crazy thing. Or maybe they’ll make him bend over backwards to get a cameo with Johnny Depp’s Invisible Man.

They probably will.

Should The Mummy Be a Horror Movie?

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Even though I’m excited for THE MUMMY (2016), I’m waiting for it to bomb, critically and financially.

The conversation leading up to this movie has been fascinating. Those in the critic community have pointed out the blandness of the trailers; that the movie seemingly can’t decide on a tone; and that it seems like a cynical, Marvel-inspired cash grab. Time will tell how accurate those thoughts are.

More interestingly, others have stated that they don’t want an action-horror Mummy movie, and would prefer a straight horror movie. While I respect that impulse as a horror fan, I’m not sure I buy it. Not when THE MUMMY (1999) -action horror with comedy elements- is still highly regarded.

From there, I’m having trouble parsing out the expectations for THE MUMMY (2016) and Universal’s “Dark Universe.” If it’s a wish for it not to be a cynical cash grab, I understand, respect, and agree with that argument, and can only hold out hope that THE MUMMY holds together despite its iffy trailers. If it’s “we only want this as a horror movie,” well… doesn’t that seem unreasonable?

Put simply, “only if it’s horror” is “I don’t want X to be Y.” and it’s an overly simplistic sentiment that has bedeviled horror for decades.

In a genre closely related to comedy, horror is all about eliciting physical reactions in viewers. That’s the point of the jump scare. That’s the point of dread and suspense. But what about when horror isn’t trying to scare you? The latter Freddy and Jason movies are trying to make you squirm and laugh with the absurdity of the gore. ALIEN COVENANT generally doesn’t use suspense and prominently displays its creatures. Is that scary? No. Is it horror? Yes.

SLITHER is a fantastic creature feature with heart, but it’s more funny than scary. CABIN IN THE WOODS starts as an effective, self-aware slasher, but it’s more interested in satirizing a subgenre than scaring. THEY LIVE is sort of an action comedy, but its implications about corporate and political control are the stuff of paranoid nightmares. Horror represents a broad range of subgenres (hauntings, slashers, body horror, etc.), but why do we keep trying to police what horror can/can’t be? Psychological horror and zombie movies aren’t alike, but both are valid. Both explore different kinds of horror, some that might not rely on big scares. Hell, ALIENS is one of the greatest movies ever made, but it toes the line between action and horror.

My point is that the Universal Monsters don’t need to be pure horror movies to be good or important. Yes, their original movies were horror, but as their titular characters shared sequels, they became horror-dramas, and ultimately horror-action movies. What else do you call it when the Wolf-Man wrestles the Frankenstein Monster?

The real strength of the Universal Monsters, to me, is less in outright terror, but in our own empathy. We can see ourselves in them. Who hasn’t felt like the Frankenstein monster, struggling for purpose and identity in a world that can seem hostile and alienating? Who hasn’t been attracted to the idea of Dracula’s seductiveness and power? Who isn’t scared of losing control of their base instincts like the Wolf-Man? The Universal Monsters are veritable Jungian archetypes for our understanding of the world, which has led to them enduring as Halloween costumes and symbols for all these years. We may not have had a true theatrical Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf-Man movies for ages, but their derivatives are ubiquitous.

To that end, a successful Universal Monster movie doesn’t need to be a horror move in the jump-scare-gore-fest-high-tension-sense; it needs to explore a part of ourselves that’s simultaneously horrifying… and alluring. Whatever mode it takes -action, horror, drama, even comedy- it just has to be honest with itself and to the audience.

Does that mean that “The Mummy” (2017) will be a good movie just for being emotionally honest? No. It could still have poor characters, bland action, lame horror, and little overall merit. Hell, if it’s as paint-by-the-numbers as its trailer looks, it could be a snooze. But it WON’T fail by virtue of its genre.

So yeah. Action-horror. Time for everybody to start reappraising VAN HELSING.

Because that movie rules.

Untelling Dracula: Untold

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Dracula: Untold is a teachable moment for film criticism. The critic scores are abysmal across review sites, and most audiences will say it was terrible. Problem is, it wasn’t terrible. It was just really, Really, REALLY mediocre.

The formal elements were all there. Strong acting, beautiful mis en scene, exceptional cinematography bordering on experimental, visceral action, etc., etc.

Simply put, the movie had an abysmal script. It told when it should’ve shown; it used hamfisted gimmicks to raise the stakes; it was, at times, unintentionally funny; it rendered the origin mundane; it didn’t know which characters were important; it failed its Universal Monster Continuity end tag; and worst of all, it failed to highlight why Dracula remains such an interesting and complex character, despite that being the whole point of the movie.

So how could the script have been improved AND kickstarted the Universal Monster Continuity?

1. MAJOR ELEMENTS

The origin story in Dracula: Untold had comparison working against it. Wes Craven’s Dracula 2000 featured Dracula as Judas Iscariot -the man who betrayed Jesus Christ- which accounted for his weaknesses to holy objects and to silver. Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula depicted Dracula as a Holy Crusader who committed the ultimate blasphemy when his fiancée committed suicide. Dracula Untold, however, just has some cave-dwelling vampire turn Vlad into a vampire. Wasted opportunity if there ever was one. Dracula may not be the first vampire in Stoker’s novel, but in the movies, that’s a MASSIVE part of his allure.

Still everyone’s favorite Dracula, right?

Dracula’s motivation, flirting with the powers of darkness to save loved ones, is an inherently sympathetic angle, and the former warrior backstory works in a big way, but the rest isn’t as interesting or as singular as it could be. We don’t need him to have a complex relationship with the villain, but we certainly need him to have one with his people, his family, God, and himself. This isn’t about the villain; this is about the icon that Vlad will become.

Finally, this isn’t a superhero story. In the movie, Dracula discovers that he can become a swarm of bats with more joy than Man of Steel’s Superman has in learning he can fly. The end tag suggests a very regal and well-adjusted Dracula when this isn’t where the story goes. We have to believe, right from the start, that this is a person who could become a monster and all that entails. The capacity for evil has to be a central part of their identity and their decline –not ascent- into damnation. This has to end in a dark place.

Going from there…

2. THE PAGE ONE REWRITE

Jesus, that poster’s beautiful.

Vlad Tepes is a former crusader of Roman Catholic Church with a dark history of war crimes (LOTS of impalement). Having been given a Papal Indulgence (assurance from the Pope that he’s pardoned for all past sins and WILL be going to Heaven), he lives a peaceful life as the beneficent ruler of medieval Transylvania. He attempts to be saintly and just, but it’s clear, especially when he metes justice, he’s harsh. Almost cruel. When the Turkish army threatens to invade his lands and enslave his people, he first turns to the Roman Catholic Church for answers. The Vatican proves useless, preferring to stay out of military affairs now that the Crusades have proven costly and ineffective. Vlad prays to God for answers, but God doesn’t answer. Terrible things continue to happen to Vlad’s people.

Enraged and desperate, Vlad turns to the only power left: those of darkness. Vlad summons Satan, begging for the power to wipe out his foes. Satan offers him infinite power at a cost: he’ll have obscure weaknesses, and he’ll have insatiable thirst. If by the time three days passes, he has supped on human blood, he’ll gain more power, but the curse will be permanent and Satan will have leave to unleash darkness will upon the world. This last part is important for later.

Let’s be honest, Charles Dance would probably play a great Satan.

Vlad accepts and is soon kicking ass like the best of him. He attempts to do so with honor, as a man of God, but the dark impulse and his true nature win out, leading him to commit one horrific atrocity after another on the battlefield until his family and his people –those he sold his soul for- are utterly terrified of him and begin to plot his death.

Naturally, Vlad’s enemies also react in kind, summoning Satan to help win their battles. Satan, however, doesn’t even want to bargain with them. He doesn’t need to. Instead, he simply tells them to mock Vlad with signs of his own faith (Crosses, crucifixes, etc.), and he will be brought to heel. As will his people.

Suddenly Vlad, unstoppable force of darkness, is exiled from his own people and helpless against the tide of Turks invading his land. To add insult to injury, the God he loyally served in the crusades is now a tangible presence against him –sapping his strength and giving leave for his enemy to kill, torture, rape, and pillage as they see fit. In a moment of unspeakable rage and indignation, Vlad gives into the thirst, slaughtering and drinking the Turk leader.

Satan bellows in triumph, escaping from Hell to walk the Earth, bringing with him the forces of darkness. Deep in Egypt, a tomb begins to stir. On the English Moors, a prince bitten by a wolf begins to convulse. In South America, fishermen are dragged to their deaths by a scaly creature with human arms… you get the idea.

Every goddamn one of them and maybe more.

And Vlad’s power? Increases exponentially. He summons a storm to that wipes out whatever of the Turkish horde he isn’t at that moment massacring. When the rains stop, and he’s alone on the gore-drenched battlefield, all he really wants is to return to his people— but they’re not having him. They want him dead. Now. Dracula begs his wife and child to accept him, but they refuse, terrified by what he’s become… by what he’s always been. Enraged, Dracula promises the people of Transylvania an eternity of fear and sorrow, that he is of the House of the Devil and that he shall feast forever on their blood. With that, he escapes into the night, leaving only carnage in his wake.

The people of Transylvania attempt to rebuild and go on with their lives, using crosses and the like to protect themselves, but night after night, someone inevitably dies by Dracula’s crimson kiss. His wife and son, though, go untouched, and are eventually put to the stake, presumed to be in collusion with him. Further enraged, Dracula creates other vampire slaves, making Transylvania itself and its nearby lands a realm of the dead, locking in its dwindling populace. Learning of his crimes and his blight upon existence, the Roman Catholic Church revokes Dracula’s Papal Indulgence, removing his final shred of hope for any kind of happy ending.

Dracula sits in his Gothic castle, surrounded by his three vampire Brides, his loathing for God and humanity keeping him alive all these years… but so does love for his long-lost wife, evidenced by a tattered tapestry of his family hanging from a lonely wall. He swears that he’ll rebuild his family and reclaim his lost love … at any cost.

That’s when an hideous old man shambles into Dracula’s throne room. He’s well-dressed enough… but there’s something off about the wrinkles in his face… they’re all horizontal. He demands Dracula aid him in the fight against the coming darkness, but Dracula wants none of this –he wants the solitude of his castle. He’s waged enough war and enough misery on the human race. Refusing to leave, the Ancient Stranger attacks Dracula, and the two tumble out of Dracula’s stained glass window –into the streets of modern London. The Ancient Stranger’s clothes and skin have wafted away, revealing a skeleton draped in papyrus –that’s right, the Mummy. He fights Dracula to a standstill, saying that if they mean to continue controlling the world, they need to contact “the others.” They’re not strong enough to combat this force individually, but together… together they might stand a ghost of a chance.

Bill Nighy? Candidate for PERFECT Dracula, btw.

2.5 FULL DISCLOSURE

I stole my proposed end tag from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow.

Plagiarism, naughty, I know, but this is purely hypothetical. I’m not using this for personal gain, but to highlight that it’s possible to make an exciting, multi-purposed end tag –one that’s better than just Dracula hitting on a chick and being stalked by Charles Dance smirking about letting “the games begin.”

Because that tag is stupid and pointless.

3. SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Fucking metal, that’s what.

My proposed counter-outline addresses several flaws in Dracula: Untold.

It strips away the pointless medieval politics and strategizing that were, if we’re honest, a half-assed rip of Game of Thrones.

It frames Vlad the Impaler as a person who is guided by deep-seated beliefs that extend beyond the prototypical love of one’s family, and also deepens his character as his beliefs are systematically shattered. This, in turn, enhances the Faustian element of the script which was, in the original movie, a quarter-assed. Naturally, this helps make the story more solidly action/horror. In the same turn, it allows the villain to have a real way of combating Dracula instead of laughably blindfolding his troops to zero effect or –even more laughably- fighting Dracula in a pointlessly elaborate room of silver coins.

It establishes Dracula’s relationship with his people and gives some time for him to be seen as the classical ruler of Transylvania, neither of which were attempted in the original movie.

It organically establishes Dracula’s strengths and weaknesses, as he would naturally discover his abilities, not be painstakingly told them through tedious exposition.

Finally, it establishes a shared continuity using an organic unifying element that creates a seamless world, invites future stories, and suggests the kind of characters we might expect to see. The end tag with the Mummy works on a few levels: it hints a longstanding rivalry between the two, which could be a plot point in a supposed Mummy movie; it shows that time has passed, and that future movies could take in the modern age, as is Universal’s agenda; it suggests a major adversary, which has already tangibly been revealed in the form of Satan; and it’s a greater call to action –Dracula enlisting the other Universal Movie Monsters is WAAAAAY more interesting than being told “Dracula’s living in 2014 now, and he’s just trying to get laid.”

4. WHY DIDN’T THAT HAPPEN?

Calm down. It wasn’t great for the audience either.

Rumor is, the Dracula Year Zero (Dracula: Untold’s working title) script had been floating around for years, and Universal finally decided to pull the pin on it. Problematically, half-way through production, they decided they wanted to launch their own shared universe to grab some of that sweet Marvel money, but without scrapping anything they’d already shot. Even more problematically, not everything in Dracula: Untold was as gen. audience friendly as they wanted, leading previously shot less-than-thoroughly-safe on the editing room’s floor. Some hasty reshoots later, it was still a story, but very rickety and devoid of soul or purpose. I guess you could say the “shared universe” gambit paid off; Dracula: Untold recouped its budget on its second worldwide weekend. Still, it’s unlikely to ever be more than a forgotten modest success.

As always, the big takeaways are that you absolutely need watertight script before going to production, and you absolutely need to have passion behind the material. Audiences can sniff it out in a second when you don’t.

Better luck on the 2016 Mummy reboot, I guess.

Then again, Kurtzman and Orci are writing it…

Van Helsing: The Dark Continent

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Van Helsing (2004) is insanely underrated. Seriously people hate on it all the time, and yet nobody seems to have an adequate reason why.

For those that haven’t seen it (it’s tons of fun), Van Helsing stars Hugh Jackman as the titular character, an amnesiac charged by the Catholic Church to hunt down monsters –chiefly the primary Universal Horror monsters, Dracula (Richard Roxburgh), the Wolfman (Will Kemp), Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley), and a couple others. He’s sent on special assignment to Transylvania to break the curse over Anna Valerious’s (Kate Beckinsale) family, who’ve been barred from Heaven by Dracula. On this quest, Van Helsing discovers Dracula’s insane plot that threatens the entire world.

He’s especially threatening this dude’s neck.

It’s a rollicking steampunk horror action extravaganza blanketed under tons of camp. It knows its plot is the stuff of Saturday morning cartoon shows and that its romance is equally cheesy, and by God, it wears it well.

That’s not to say the movie’s blameless, however. Dracula reveals that Van Helsing is an ancient immortal with whom he’s clashed before in a head-scratching beat that has no dramatic or narrative impact; rather than facing Dracula himself, Van Helsing turns into a werewolf and tears Dracula to pieces in a complete and utter demolition of conflict; Anna Valerious goes from badass leader to helpless maiden in distress thanks to easy writing; and finally, Ann dies after the climax to raise unnecessary stakes and to hit home that yes, she went to heaven, ergo Van Helsing’s mission is complete. I can see how these elements could take a person out of the movie, just as I could understand how many wanted a dark, brutal horror movie. That said, it wasn’t like The Mummy (1999), identical in tone and direction, hadn’t won audiences over worldwide, setting the tone for this thing.

For me, though, Van Helsing’s a nigh-perfect storm of things I love: classic monsters, James Bond action, metaphysical & moral quandaries, zippy camp, and old-school Transylvania. At the time of writing, it’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a Castlevania movie, and dammit, that’s got to count for something.

So I waited for a sequel.

Ten years later, I’m still waiting. Upon news of Universal’s shared continuity horror universe leading up to a Van Helsing reboot, I got the most mixed feelings I’ve ever had.  New Universal Horror movies? Awesome. Written and guided by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman of Transformers 1, 2 & 3 fame?  Not so much. Having read its script, Dracula Untold (2014) has potential to be an great movie in its own right, but my hopes of a true sequel to Van Helsing are all but completely dashed.

So what better time to show the sequel pitch I wrote a few years back?

1. THE RULES

What would be the next adventure Van Helsing could have, using the remaining high-profile Universal Horror Monsters that would be an organic continuation of his character?

The answer? Quite an epic one.

2. VAN HELSING: THE DARK CONTINENT

ACT ONE

Our story begins in the heart of Africa, 1890, where smugglers plunder an Egyptian tomb for their contractors. They remove a Sarcophagus and a lapis-lazuli-encrusted golden Ankh. As they leave, the Ankh falls into the Sarcophagus, blowing it open in a burst of dust and papyrus. A desiccated creature drains all the life from one of them and disappears into the night. The Lead Smuggler watches, his chest heaving in terror.

Hey, who wouldn’t be pissed?

Elsewhere, in London, Van Helsing stalks a creature through an opera house. He enters the theater’s depths, where comes face to face the Phantom of the Opera (reimagined as a literal phantom with a banshee-like scream). The ensuing battle blows them all the way through the dressing rooms and to the main stage where Van Helsing finally slays him. To his surprise, Actresses shriek over the Phantom’s steaming body, grieving the loss of the greatest voice –and truest lover- who ever lived. Van Helsing attempts to explain that the Phantom had been a homicidal maniac, but they refuse to listen. He returns to Vatican City, confused. There, the Cardinal -the M to his James Bond- informs him of his next mission: protect shipments leaving Africa from creatures of unnatural size and shape. Van Helsing visits the Cathedral’s secret workshop, gearing up for his journey and once more taking Carl, his bumbling monk sidekick and Q to his James Bond, along for the ride.

Voted in high school “Most Needing Braces.”

Meanwhile, a clipper ship taking off from the coast suddenly gets taken down by an unseen horror. The Lead Smuggler watches from the shore, furious.

ACT TWO

Van Helsing and Carl travel to Africa’s western coast, where they encounter the Smugglers loading caged animals and barrels of jewels onto vessels. Van Helsing and Carl learn from the Lead Smuggler the many problems facing their shipments. As they make comments about how he plays chess with himself, he indicates what each country wants (exotic animals for European menageries; diamonds for America; and “work horses” [slaves] for darker parts of the world). Van Helsing doesn’t react to this last part. At the mention of enormous animals, the Lead Smuggler indicates that the Church didn’t brief them well enough -that they awakened something terrible in the pyramids. As if on cue, the warning sounds. Van Helsing and Carl race outside to find Gill-Men (Creatures from the Black Lagoon) slopping out of the water, attacking the Smugglers.

“I’m sorry, honey. I’m just not feeling it tonight.”

In a pulse-pounding battle, Van Helsing slays the creatures, but only sees further desolation in the eyes of the Natives. One of them babbles at him to which a Beautiful Native translates “You have slain many of the Great River’s sacred warriors. They were but a few. Now they are no more.” The Lead Smuggler congratulates Van Helsing, suggesting that they follow the desert horror that fled into the jungle. When Van Helsing inquires about the Beautiful Native, the Lead Smuggler doesn’t know what he’s talking about; she’s not there.

Van Helsing and Carl travel up Africa’s eastern coast by clipper ship, not seeing the massive dorsal fin trailing them. Along the way, a giant great white shark -Jaws- (Hey, Jaws is totally a Universal Horror Monster) attacks them, destroying the ship. Van Helsing barely manages to kill the creature, allowing his and Carl’s narrow escape. Carl can’t take his eyes off it, floating dead in the water. Carl’s happy it’s dead. Van Helsing… he’s not so sure. The instant they hit the jungle shores, though, they’re surrounded by Tribesmen with spears.

Don’t like it? Just wait until he’s finished with Quint.

As they’re carried off, Van Helsing sees the vibrant community of villagers, happy in their freedom. He and Carl are taken to the Beautiful Native from earlier, the Queen of the Nile (a female reimagining of the Mummy), who demands to know why Van Helsing and Carl seek to aid the Smugglers/Slavers. Van Helsing details his calling to slay unnatural beasts, but the words sound hollow to him. When the QotN reveals that the ankh gives her eternal life and control of the enormous animals, Van Helsing frees himself and attempts to slay her with every tool at his disposal. Her magic holds him at bay until she knocks him unconscious and leaves him and Carl tied to poles to be sacrificed to their jungle guardian.

Admit it, you saw this one coming.

Tied to stakes, Van Helsing and Carl argue over killing the QotN to halt the supernatural monsters. Carl’s for it, Van Helsing doesn’t think it’s so black and white. Carl just thinks he’s saying that because he doesn’t want to get his ass kicked again. The trees rustle under the movements of a gigantic monster; Van Helsing steels himself; Carl wets himself. A colossal silverback gorilla (King Kong was totally RKO’s monster, but Universal now owns the rights) bursts from the trees, preparing to devour them, when shots ring out: the Lead Smuggler and his Smugglers invade the village, saving Van Helsing and Carl. The Smugglers waste no time and shackling the Natives. Kong fights to protect the natives and the QotN. Freed, Van Helsing attempts to join him, understanding that Kong’s intentions, but before he can enter the fray, the Lead Smuggler knocks out the QotN, the Natives, and Kong with chloroform.

Didn’t see that one coming, though, did you?

Van Helsing stalks onto the Smugglers’ clipper ship only for the Lead Smuggler to congratulate him for securing such a massive bounty and protecting their interests. The Lead Smuggler snaps the Ankh off the screaming QotN’s neck and wears it proudly as his trophy. Van Helsing, leaves, enraged. He sneaks to the holding cells where he talks with the QofN about King Kong, knowing the ape’s fate: poaching. Van Helsing frees her and King Kong. Van Helsing, Kong, QotN, and Carl ravage the ship in a fiery escape, finally jumping off the boat and swimming to shore with Carl on Kong’s back. The Lead Smuggler recovers from the attack and unleashes a barrage of cannonballs -one of which hits Kong in the heart. Van Helsing mournfully holds Kong’s hand as he dies. That’s when things get worse: the QotN is drying up, appearing ever more Mummy-like. She reveals that the Ankh is the only thing keeping her alive. Without it, she, her magic, and all that stands between her people and slavery will die. The enormity of this devastates Van Helsing. But before the trio can form a plan, the Traders land, holding the heroes at gunpoint. The Lead Trader holds a knife to the QotN’s neck, demanding that Van Helsing come with them.

ACT THREE

“So what do you think, Carl?” “I think we might be screwed.”

Back at their base camp, the Smugglers torture Van Helsing and drop Carl into a tiger pit for consorting with demons and turning their back on civilization. The QotN, nearly collapsed to Mummy-dust, fights within her chained sarcophagus, a trophy to be delivered to Rome for the highest bounty. Carl desperately tries to outwit the Tigers, employing what few tricks he has. The Lead Smuggler taunts Van Helsing, telling him all he has to do is slay the “Native Witch,” and all is forgiven; after all, only slaves were lost in the shipwrecks. Van Helsing refuses, and –freeing himself from his bonds- lashes out at the Lead Smuggler, throwing the fight into the camp. In the resulting scuffle, the Ankh falls from his neck.

The QotN seizes the moment and bursts forth from her sarcophagus with the last of her strength. She crawls for her Ankh, shining so tantalizingly on the ground. Carl manages to free himself from the Tiger pit and turn the Tigers on the Smugglers, knocking over an oil lantern in the process. Van Helsing and the Lead Smuggler have an epic Pirates of the Caribbean-scale duel as the colony burns down around them. Just as the QotN grabs the Ankh, the Lead Smuggler slashes her hand clean off. He holds her at knife point, telling Van Helsing that if Van Helsing won’t do the civilized thing, he will. He slits the QotN’s throat.

Completely a Mummy by this point though, the QotN tells the Lead Smuggler that he can’t slay what’s already dead. She muckles onto his lips, sucking away his life essence, regaining her former beautiful and slaying him in the process. Carl’s rather proud of himself for escaping the tigers, but he keeps his distance from them. They’re eating the Smugglers.

The QotN offers Van Helsing the Ankh, asking if he now plans to destroy her. He is a monster-slayer, after all. He returns the Ankh, telling her to defend her people, but never to step out of line. Or he’ll come for her. She says she hopes he will, and she kisses him. Despite Carl’s protests that they slay her, he and Van Helsing leave Africa, although Van Helsing has no plans of ever returning to Vatican City. Not when they’d have him slay things just for being different.

Have Crossbow, Will Travel

SIX MONTHS LATER, in the swamps of Louisiana, dirty cultists chant over a familiar-looking idol: “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! I’a, I’a, Cthulhu fhtagn!” (Yeah, yeah, Universal never adapted “Call of Cthulhu,” but maybe they should have) The idol glows with evil power, its eyes opening—only for it to explode in an echoing gunshot. Van Helsing swings out of the foliage. “Not on my watch.”

Goddamn right I went there.

3. RESURRECTING VAN HELSING

“Van Helsing: The Dark Continent” works in a few ways: it continues its predecessor’s undernourished themes of moral ambiguity and of who is/isn’t a monster, which allows Van Helsing to deepen as a character. Obviously, he and Carl are still fairly stock, but that’s the point; they’re pulp action characters, similar to a James Bond. They grow only so much as their extremely plot-driven movies allow.

On another level, it uses the Phantom of the Opera, the Gill-Man, Jaws, King Kong, and the Mummy for a thematic through-line of beauty. Each of these creatures are wonders in their abilities, their evolution, their size, or their magic and mystique. If we’re to cast doubt on Van Helsing’s crusade, we’ve got to empathize with them over the Smugglers/Slavers, who are our true villains. Setting everything in Africa naturally ties most of these monsters together and highlights a subcurrent theme of Western/European Imperialism. Being that Van Helsing starts on the Smugglers’ side, his transition is a little more tangible.

Yeah, we didn’t use the Invisible Man, but that could be an easy fix. Maybe the Lead Smuggler drinks a jungle potion or uses the Ankh’s power to become “an invisible god.” He could still have the sword fight with Van Helsing -the protagonist just fighting a floating blade- but that wouldn’t look half as cool.

Finally, it opens the doors for a third movie, which could see him at odds with the Catholic Church, where he could take on wacky stuff like angels, the Four Horsemen, and hell, maybe God –after all, we burned out all the major Universal Monsters, unless we want to open the doors to the Cthulhu Mythos. Any of this could shed light on Van Helsing’s origin and thematically address society’s decreasing dependence on God and religion.

4.  THE LAST NAIL IN THE COFFIN

So, yeah. Van Helsing. Underappreciated camp classic. So when you’re putting your Halloween movie marathon together, and you’re trying to decide whether to watch The Lost Boys (1987) or Interview with a Vampire (1994) for the umpteenth time, dare to dance on the wild side. There’s nothing quiiiiite like it.

And if that doesn’t work for you, try Deep Rising (1998). It’s a cinematic masterpiece.

No seriously.