How I’d Ruin It: Universal’s Dark Universe

Today’s How I’d Ruin It is a very special case, as it concerns a group of stories I actually think I’d be pretty good at adapting under normal circumstances. The stories in question are the classic Universal monster movies (and, by proxy, the novels that inspired them): Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, et cetera. So if I think I could adapt them well, where does the ruination come in? Well, as you might know, Universal Studios desperately wants to turn these horror movies – which, back in the day, eventually became interconnected with crossover sequels like Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man and House of Dracula – into a cinematic universe of action films ala Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’ve already branded the project the “Dark Universe,” despite the fact that the two films they made jumpstart the shared universe bombed immensely.

There’s a reason the Dark Universe hasn’t worked out, and it’s a very obvious one. The appeal of Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, and all the other Universal Monster films is that they’re classic HORROR movies, and horror is a very different genre than action. Count Dracula was not designed to be Iron Man – they are incredibly different characters in stories with vastly different tones and aesthetics! This should be obvious to anyone with a brain, and yet here we are. Still, the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to make swimming pools full of money, so Universal isn’t likely to give up its Dark Universe scheme for a while.

So let’s have a special twist to the “What if?” that drives this column. Today, let’s talk about what would happen if I was forced to make a version of the Dark Universe – that is, an action movie reboot of Universal’s classic horror movies.

We’re going to look at what Marvel did as a template, and unlike almost every studio that’s tried to replicate their success, we aren’t going to try and rush our way to The Avengers. The slow burn was necessary for Marvel’s success, and trying to run to that finish line is just going to fuck up this project. So first we need our Iron Man – a story that’s grounded in reality with minimal supernatural elements, because it’s easier for today’s audience to accept super powers coming from technology than magic. So what’s the most sci-fi of the classics?

Why, Frankenstein!

Our hero is Dr. Frederick Franken, a genius medical student with a big secret. Over two centuries ago, his ancestor committed one of the most notoriously ill concieved medical experiments of all time, and Frederick even went so far as to change his last name so as not to be associated with the infamous “Mad Doctor Frankenstein.” However, a spark (heh) of his ancestor’s genius remains in him, and eventually Frederick is approached by Igor Fritz, a Transylvanian scientist who discovered a unique carcass in the artic. It turns out to be the body of the original Frankenstein monster, and while Frederick is initially horrified, he realizes the creature is still alive (albeit comatose) despite all this time – a medical marvel that could revolutionize the world! Despite his fears, Frederick and his girlfriend, Elsa, quickly begin studying the monster, trying to revive it from its suspended animation so he can reverse engineer his ancestor’s miraculous experiment.

Unfortunately, Igor Fritz has a more sinister motive, and steals Frederick’s incomplete research as well as the remains of the original Frankenstien monster to make his own army of monsters, mortally wounding Frederick in the process. Elsa discovers him, and Frederick has to walk her through the process of turning him into a new Frankenstein monster while bleeding out in a scene that totally isn’t a ripoff of the moment in Iron Man where Tony gets Pepper Potts to help him replace his heart battery. Now blessed with supernatural strength and endurance, Frederick chases down Igor, who in turn sets the original Frankenstein monster upon him. Elsa tries to stop Igor from escaping as the two monsters duke it out, but Igor kills her and makes his getaway. Frederick destroys the original Frankenstein monster, but the victory is bitter, as he quickly spots Elsa’s dead body. He breaks down, only to remember that he can bring back the dead. However, before he can begin the process of reanimation, he is approached by Not-Nick Fury, agent of Not-SHIELD, and is told that there are other monsters in the world.

We’d then have a Frankenstein origin movie that’s basically a superhero film AND allows us to have a Frankenstein’s monster that can be called Frankenstein without riling nerds up. It has almost nothing to do with the 1930’s movie and ESPECIALLY the actual novel, but it’s an action movie with a Frankenstein superhero, so boom! First entry done!

Our second film has to fill the Thor niche – it serves as a bridge between the “realistic” fantastical elements of impossible science and the “unrealistic” fantastical elements of magic and whatnot. It took Marvel so long to allow magic to be called magic that the third Thor movie was the first time Thor’s world was every treated as mythical – the previous two instead opted to constantly state that the “magic” of these Norse gods was just highly advanced technology. So who can we fuck up in this particular way – which character can be forced to straddle the line between sci-fi and fantasy despite clearly belonging in the later?

Why, The Wolf Man! It also helps that this story has a very similar dynamic to The Incredible Hulk, which is technically the second MCU movie despite the fact that no one remembers it.

This would essentially be like Teen Wolf (the Michael J. Fox movie) crossed with An American Werewolf in London. Lon Talbot is a young youtube celebrity who travels to the wilderness and films himself surviving outside of civilization. During one trip he gets attacked by a strange wolf-like monster, and eventually he starts turning into a werewolf. After his first rampage, he is taken in by Not-SHIELD, and Not-Agent Coulson tells Lon that he has a rare virus that turns him into a wolf-like man, treating the whole thing as a strange but ultimately mundane disease – not a curse or anything. The word “werewolf” is treated with derision, and instead everyone insists on referring to the disease as Lycanthropy and the afflicted as Lycanthropes. They make a deal with Lon: they can supply him with an experimental drug to control his transformation, and will give him access to the cure if they ever find it, on the condition that he use his wolf-man powers to help them fight other monsters, starting with the lycanthrope that turned him. Lon agrees, and there’s a fight between him and the evil lycanthrope (your starter villain has to have the exact same powers as you, this is Cinematic Universe law). The stinger shows Lon returning to Not-SHIELD, where he runs into Frederick Frankenstein and the newly reanimated Elsa, leading to…

Bride of Frankenstein, the Iron Man 2 of our Dark Universe. Frederick and Elsa are now working for Not-SHIELD, and are chasing down Igor Fritz, who has teamed up with the nefarious Mr. Hyde (evil alter ego of the decent Dr. Jekyll) to create a stronger variation of the Frankenstein monster. Our couple’s relationship is a bit rocky, as Elsa isn’t entirely comfortable with her new monster body and resents Frederick for making her life so weird. It isn’t helped by their ally, the sarcastic and arrogant Dr. Henry Griffin, also known as the Invisible Man. Eventually the trio work out their issues and take down Igor, Mr. Hyde, and their new monster creation, the Frankenhyde. Igor is put in prison, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde is forced to work for Not-SHIELD while being kept in custody, and the Frankenhyde is apparently destroyed. Our stinger would show Not-Agent Coulson discovering a new paranormal artifact: an long-buried Egyptian sarcophagus.

Like The Wolf Man, our take on The Mummy would try to frame the magical elements as “advanced science,” claming that the Ancient Egyptians were visited by aliens that gave them super advanced technology. Yes, I am aware the idea of “Ancient Aliens” being responsible for the advanced technology of ancient non-white civilizations is horribly racist, but to be fair, so is the idea of mummies as stock horror monsters. I’ve never been too fond of The Mummy as a horror icon, and this is just one of the reasons why.

Anyway, ancient aliens gave the ancient Egyptians super technology, including a medical procedure involving special bandages that can bring the dead back to life, albeit with some limitations. This technology was only used twice before being buried. The first attempt was used to “save” Pharoah Imhotep, but the procedure was botched and he came back as a mad and homicidal monster that could literally suck the life out of people, reducing them to dust. The second was used upon high priestess Ahmanet, who fought Imhotep until they were both drained of vitality and rendered comatose. The two mummies were interred in a secret tomb along with the mummy-making technology, and for centuries they were little more than a legend.

In the present day, Not-SHIELD has found the lost tomb. They open Ahmanet’s sarcophagus, and the ancient mummy awakens to a strange new world. She has a lot of fun fish-out-of-water moments as she adjusts to modern civilization, and bonds with the bland Not-SHIELD agent who serves as her love interest. Not-Agent Coulson notes that the technology that preserved her actually use some of the chemicals in Frankenstein’s process for bringing corpses to life, tying this movie to previous Dark Universe films while also grounding the supernatural aspects of the Mummy in “realistic” science.

Of course, Imhotep gets released as well, and does some evil shit while trying to conquer the new world, and once again Ahmanet must fight him. She wins, Imhotep is sealed away, and Ahmanet officially joins Not-SHIELD. We get one last stinger as Not-SHIELD stores Imhotep’s sarcophagus in their warehouse next to another ominous box: a very gothic-looking coffin…

Dracula’s Daughter is our next film, a period piece set in the roaring twenties. Lucy Harker is a flapper and a free spirit that loves Jazz and has a tense relationship with her parents, John and Mina Harker. It’s so tense, in fact, that Lucy ran away from her home country of England to travel to America, unaware that her parents had good reasons for their over-protectiveness, as the Harker family has some powerful enemies. Lucy is attacked by the sinister Lord Ruthven, a powerful vampire who wants revenge on Lucy’s family for killing Count Dracula, the king of the vampires. Ruthven begins the process of turning Lucy into a vampire, but is interrupted by the timely arrival of Gabriel Van Helsing, grandson of Abraham Van Helsing. Gabriel tracked Lucy down at her parents’ behest, and now helps Lucy fight the vampiric disease (we’d still be framing this supernatual stuff as a virus because, again, it takes a while for people to accept magic for some reason) while the two of them try to track down Ruthven before the transformation can be completed.

They fight Ruthven and his zombie minions, but Ruthven has them outclassed until Lucy’s vampirism takes full hold, allowing her to kill him. With his dying breath, Ruthven tells Lucy that, “His blood flows through your veins! You may have killed me, but from this day forth you shall always be Dracula’s daughter!” Lucy realizes this is true when she hungers for Gabriel’s blood, and tearfully asks her friend/contrived love interest to stake her too. Gabriel can’t bring himself to do it, and instead incapacitates her with garlic before locking her in a coffin, promising to find a cure. We then realize he founded Not-SHIELD for that purpose, and our last scene shows Lucy awaking in the modern day. Not-Nick Fury (perhaps Gabriel’s descendant? Peter Van Helsing perhaps?) greets her, and Lucy chastises him for bringing her back, ranting about how dangerous she is. Not-Nick Fury shuts down her complaints with one sentence: “Count Dracula is back.”

Which brings us to The Avengers of the Dark Universe, a movie I’ll call The Universal Monsters. Count Dracula has been returned to life by an escaped Igor Fritz, and the two create an army of Franken-vampires to take over the world. Frederick and Elsa Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Wolf Man, the Mummy, and Dracula’s Daughter must team up to stop him, all while dealing with their own angst over their conditions as well as the interpersonal problems posed by their contrasting personalities. While many are dubious that such a ragtag team of freaks could be anything but a menace, in time they prove to be the heroes humanity needs. Count Dracula balks at this during their big confrontation – “What is this? Do you really think you can save humanity?” “Humanity? Drac, we won’t stop there. We’ll save the world. Hell, we’ll save the universe. That’s what we are – the Universal Monsters.”

And from there we’d start adapting the more obscure monsters – the Creature from the Black Lagoon could be our Guardians of the Galaxy-style wacky offbeat hero, the Phantom of the Opera could finally bring in explicit supernatural elements ala Doctor Strange, and on and on in that fashion. Maybe Count Dracula could become a redeemed antagonist via some Hellsing style magic shackle – Hollywood loves ripping off Anime and passing it off as an original thought. That’s how I’d do the Dark Universe – it completely betrays the stories that it uses as source material, but I think it would be some good, cheesy fun.

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