Universal Monsters’ Transition: Gothic to Commercial

Andrew Barnes
Andrew Barnes

When we consider gothic storytelling, we do not often concern ourselves with where it came from. Preferably, most of us have a general sense of the genre, which has, like all other genres in fiction, evolved over the years. A gothic tale does not necessarily belong to a particular specific setting or era but evokes an atmosphere comprised of fear, horror, and darkness — though often with distinct glimmers of romance or hope beneath the surface.

The origin of the genre is commonly believed to be Horatio Walpole’s ‘The Castle Of Otranto: A Gothic Story,’ which was published in 1764. Incidentally, quotes from this novel include a line that sums up the core of gothic fiction — or at least most of it — rather well. Writes Horatio Walpole, “He was persuaded he could know no happiness but in the society of one with whom he could forever indulge the melancholy that had taken possession of his soul.” It is a specific quote to the tale at hand but speaks nevertheless to the loneliness that defines so many classic gothic characters. It is a genre full of protagonists and antiheroes who cage themselves up in morbid circumstances and dreary settings, wanting little more than the average man or woman — love and acceptance — but knowing no ordinary way of attaining it.

If that sort of character sounds not only vaguely familiar but in fact infamous, you may be thinking of Universal’s monsters. These are characters that originated, in almost every case, in nineteenth-century gothic writings: the work of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, of Abraham Stoker, and of Herbert George Wells. They are Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and a host of characters either directly related to or derivative of these formidable originals. Moreover, once upon a time, their nineteenth-century originals — pillars of gothic literature in their time and even today — were transformed into some of our earliest horror films.

This may not be news to fans of the genre. Yet we are now speaking of films that came out nearly one hundred years ago, and the pace of Hollywood’s evolution can render even old classics forgotten. We might not always remember that Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, better known as Bela Lugosi, first brought Dracula to life in a 1931 horror film, or that the same year a tall and imposing actor named William Henry Pratt, better known by his stage name Boris Karloff, would establish the zombie-linebacker image of Frankenstein’s monster (too often shorthanded as merely Frankenstein) that we take for granted. Beyond those two, 1933’s ‘The Invisible Man’ feels particularly forgotten, though it is an equally excellent example of the core of gothic characters, depicting a man who turns himself invisible and goes mad on his own genius.

Each of these films was a product of Universal Pictures, and as a result, we have come to know these and other characters to follow as “Universal’s Monsters” (though it is not an official title). A single studio harnessed the thrills of horror and the human empathies of prominent nineteenth-century gothic writings and presented them in a format that would be more accessible to subsequent generations. Who knows, without Universal Pictures, if we would revere names like Frankenstein and Dracula the way we do today?

Unfortunately, with the preservation of these characters in cinema came inevitable evolution and adaptation. We have seen, following a wave of 1930s horror classics, a never-ending run of cartoonish interpretations and lazy spinoffs. The same monsters that so thoroughly embodied the gothic genre now primarily stand for two things: pure horror, or pure humour.

Perhaps most emblematic of this transition is also the most batch of adaptations. A collection of simple video games now exists online, with the lot of them twisting the Universal monsters into source material for slot reels. Dracula exists in several games; an Invisible Man slot is explicitly based on the 1933 film; similarly, a Frankenstein game claims an air of movie character mystery in its description. Now, it is quite clear that none of these games are bad ideas, nor even disrespectful to the source material. In some cases, they use images drawn explicitly from the films, and they are ultimately catering to existing fans of the genre.

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore how far toward blatant commercialisation we have come with these characters. Once the core cast of a budding genre of horror fiction, they are now the names we ascribe to virtual caricatures of monster types: the vampire, the zombie, the mad scientist. There is little consideration for the actual depth of the characters or the stories that once surrounded them.

Universal Pictures had a chance to fix this. In announcing a “universe” of films to be based on its monster properties, it took a bold step toward reinventing these iconic characters for a modern audience. Done correctly, modern takes on these characters could have even revived general interest in gothic fiction (which is too often confused for the thrill- and gore-based horror we see more frequently today). Instead of opting for faithful adaptations and restrained storytelling, however, Universal Pictures appears to be going the DC Comics route — which is to say opting for overblown, visually and narratively chaotic films instead of real stories.

The result, sadly, is that this project may end before it indeed gets off the ground. After ‘The Mummy,’ the film that was supposed to launch this monsters universe, flopped at the box office, creative leaders started to depart future projects. Now, the so-called Dark Universe has been put on hold.

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