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Why Won’t These Movie Monsters Die?

‘The Mummy’ returns, soon to be followed by a wave of icons

Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in 2017's 'The Mummy'

Chiabella James/Universal Pictures/Everett Collection

Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in 2017's 'The Mummy'

Behind the action of the fresh remake of The Mummy, which opens this weekend, is a strategic business move to reboot some iconic Universal Pictures movie monsters of the 1930s and 1940s. But why have those characters been so iconic for so long? 

These classic creepy characters, including Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man and Dr. Jekyll, were first seen on-screen in the 1930s and 1940s, and many have reappeared multiple times in subsequent decades. Frankenstein’s creation (or some variation thereof) has shown up in more than 50 films, from the classically terrifying to the comically cheesy (Frankenweenie, anyone?).

Christopher Lee in 1968's 'Dracula has Risen from the Grave'

Courtesy Everett Collection

Christopher Lee in 1968's 'Dracula Has Risen From the Grave'

“We're always looking for something new to scare us, but we also, in the horror genre, fall back on tried-and-true traditional fears and scares,” says Sean O’Connell, managing director of entertainment website CinemaBlend. 

There are other potential reasons these monsters return again and again.

  • They have literary roots. Most of the Marvel and DC Universe creations started out as comic-book characters, but the Universal monsters come from the world of literary fiction. Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man — they all can be traced back to novels. And unlike comic books, which can be ephemeral to noncollectors, classic novels are read by generations and taught in classes. It's hard to get through high school without at least some exposure to these characters.
  • Their visuals are distinctive. These movie monsters have visual roots in the 1930s, and their looks were unforgettable (and, in some cases, showcased breakthroughs in cinema makeup at the time). If someone says "Frankenstein," most people automatically picture Boris Karloff with a block-shaped head and bolts in his neck. And can you picture "the Bride" without vertical hair accented with white lightning-bolt-shaped stripes? How about Dracula without the cape, black garb and slicked-back hair? 

Actually, this classical visual style can be a problem, O’Connell notes. "I think there is a concept of these monsters … that can work, but the idea of a Count Dracula, this caped, fanged creature that lives in a castle, is so outdated."

  • There is pathos behind the horror. It's easy to create a one-dimensional killing machine, and many a cheesy movie has been fueled by such a villain. But many of these hair-raising creatures have a backstory rooted in humanity. Frankenstein's monster was filled with woe. Dracula can easily be seen not just as a creature of horror but as one beset by unrequited love.
Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in 1935's 'The Bride of Frankenstein'

Courtesy Everett Collection

Elsa Lanchester and Boris Karloff in 1935's 'The Bride of Frankenstein'

Still, none of these factors necessarily equates to cinema success. The list of forgettable films involving these unforgettable monsters is long, and reviews of The Mummy have been, well, far from glowing.

Movie ratings meta-site Rotten Tomatoes gave The Mummy an approval rating of only 21 percent as of midday Thursday. The film “keeps throwing things at you, and the more you learn about the ersatz intricacy of its ‘universe,’ the less compelling it becomes,” critic Owen Gleiberman writes for Variety.

O’Connell is skeptical that Universal’s underlying premise — trying to return these creatures to modern-day settings — can work. 

“They are still somewhat dated and still tied to that earlier era, so making them relevant is somewhat difficult,” he says. He notes that The Mummy involves Tom Cruise fighting insurgents and that “Russell Crowe’s character [Dr. Jekyll] runs what is essentially the S.H.I.E.L.D. enterprise from the Marvel movies.”

But the disappointing early reviews seem unlikely to stop the franchise — at least for now. O’Connell points out that even if the franchise ultimately “makes no sense, creatively or even financially,” a February 2019 launch has already been announced for the next film, featuring the bride of Frankenstein.


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