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Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Dracula Untold

As movie stars go, they don’t come much bigger than Dracula.  The king of vampires has been featured in more movies than James Bond.  He’s been played memorably by Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee and lampooned by the likes of Leslie Nielsen.  In the pantheon of movie monsters, Drac reigns supreme which is why every time Universal decides it’s time to reinvent their monster movies, Dracula is among the first to be dusted off.  Most recently, Universal looked to its monster properties as a way to duplicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic universe.  Their first effort towards that end was 2014’s Dracula Untold.

We can debate the wisdom of applying the Marvel formula to classic movie monsters.  Obviously, Universal sees dollar signs and they want a piece of that action.  But unlike super heroes, monsters don’t play together all that well.  They work better when they are kept separate.  When you pair them up, the monsters lose their individuality or worse, they become fodder for comedy.  The trick with the Universal monsters is finding a way to make them scary to modern audiences.  You’re not going to do that by having the Wolfman cross over with the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

The Marvel approach didn’t stop with efforts to launch a franchise.  Dracula himself has been given a super heroic make-over.  Instead of being one of cinema’s great villains, this Dracula is a warrior prince who allows himself to become a vampire in order to protect his people and his family from an invading army.  He’s been given a variation on the classic superhero origin story and super powers to match.  This Dracula is about as scary as Batman which is to say, he’s not scary.

Originally, the part of Vlad was to be played by Avatar star, Sam Worthington.  A little over a year after he was announced, Worthington was replaced in the role by his Clash of the Titans costar, Luke Evans.  While it may not have appeared to be the case at the time, this was definitely an upgrade.  Evans’ performance is one of the few aspects of the movie that has been singled out for praise by critics whereas to date, I don’t believe anyone has ever been impressed by Worthington.  Plus, Universal was able to get Evans for less money.

After the movie was completed, Universal asked for reshoots in order to set up the spin-offs they hoped would follow.  There’s nothing overt like Russell Crowe showing up as Dr. Jekyll.  Instead, they tacked on an ending showing Dracula in modern London where he could meet up with any other monsters who might be hanging around.  If Dracula Untold had been a hit, Evans would have been set up to appear as Drac in any subsequent monster movies.  Instead, Alex Kurtzman came onboard to oversee Universal’s “Dark Universe” and he has cut any ties that might have been established to Evans’ Dracula.

Dracula Untold was more of a disappointment than a flop.  It had a decent opening weekend coming in just behind the number one movie, Gone Girl.  But then bad word of mouth caused the movie to plummet out of the top ten.  In the US, it grossed a meager $56 million dollars on a $70 million dollar budget.  But Dracula fans around the world made the movie a hit.  Internationally, Untold grossed nearly three times what it made in the States.  It ended up with over $200 million dollars which isn’t half bad.

For comparison, Kurtzman’s Mummy which starred Tom freaking Cruise grossed about $80 million domestically during the prime summer movie season.  With a $125 million dollar budget, that would make The Mummy a bomb, but it was saved by Cruise’s international star status which brought in over$300 million overseas.  That may be enough for the Dark Universe to continue although the second movie in the series, a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, has been postponed so maybe not.

As for Dracula Untold, it was forgotten almost as soon at it was released.  It feels like Universal realizes that their classic monster properties are valuable, they just don’t know what to do with them.  So they are throwing everything they can think of against the wall to see what sticks.  (To be fair, Warner Brothers seems to have taken the same approach with their DC Comics movies which are a much better fit for the Marvel formula.)  Dracula Untold was the first attempt to see what a modern monster movie might look like.  When audiences shrugged it off, Universal went back to the drawing board.

 

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Posted on October 26, 2017, in Halloween, Movies, movies that were supposed to... and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Right. Monsters were not meant to be teamed up unless you’re making something like Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein.

    When this first opened, got negative reviews and underperformed, I found myself thinking that maybe Dracula is one character, like Robin Hood and Peter Pan, that ‘s been done to death. There aren’t really any more stories to tell.

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    • I think Dracula stories are infinite. If you can tell a vampire story, it can be about Dracula. You just can’t turn him into a wannabe superhero in a generic movie like Untold.

      To a lesser extent, that’s true of Peter Pan and Robin Hood too. These characters can have endless adventures. It’s all about execution. The problem with Robin Hood, I think, is that like the Lone Ranger he’s just not relevant to modern audiences. Doesn’t mean he couldn’t be if someone came along with the right approach, but it would be an uphill battle. With Peter Pan, you’re always going to be in the shadow of the Disney version. Even if Disney made a live-action Peter Pan, they’d be tied to their animated feature.

      As a comic book guy, I believe there are no bad characters. I have read some really good Aquaman comics, for example. It’s all about the quality of the story. Someone like Batman is a lot more versatile than Aquaman, but that doesn’t make Aquaman a bad character. He’s just harder to write.

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      • Right. With certain characters you have more room. Like we’ve established previously, with Batman there are many ways he can be interpreted. You can do a dark Batman like Nolan did. Or you can do a campy Batman like the TV show did. But trying to combine the two approaches doesn’t work.

        With Dracula, people have tried to be comedic. But most of the stories about him are appropriately the dark ones. I’ve long considered Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu to be my favorite cinematic Dracula interpretation. Most if not all of the attempts at being comedic with Dracula have veered into camp.

        With Superman, there’s only one way you can approach him and that’s as the all-American hero. A dour Superman simply doesn’t work as Zack Snyder and co learned the hard way.

        The most recent Robin Hood interpretation (the one with Russell Crowe) also had that dark and dour tone and that doesn’t work for Robin Hood. At heart, Robin Hood is supposed to be fun.

        As for Peter Pan, for most of the public, the animated Disney is the definitive one as you noted. Over the last few decades, there’ve been a TV musical, a pretty decent interpretation form a few years ago and a couple miserable failures (Hook and that one origin story from a couple years ago). But pretty much all of them will be judged against the Disney version, even as the Disney one seems to cause mixed feeling among present day viewers.

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        • I am on record as saying that Batman is the most versatile character in all of fiction. You can plop him in any setting or genre and if the execution is good, it will work. Superman, for a variety of reasons, is a lot less elastic. If you portray him as morally ambiguous, he becomes terrifying due to his power levels. He has to be characterized as an ideal – otherwise he is General Zod. However, there are still multiple ways to tell a Superman story. You can do the straight super hero stuff, obviously. You can go with romantic comedy like Lois and Clark or to a lesser extent, Donner. Superman’s origins are in sci-fi. You can play up that angle to various degrees. I have even seen Superman work in horror stories. It’s all about execution.

          You can do funny with Dracula. Mel Brooks tried, but it was no young Frankenstein unfortunately. I attribute that to Brooks being far from his prime by the time he made Dead and Loving It. I agree that most attempts to do a funny Dracula have been campy, but I’m not necessarily against camp. Like Batman, Dracula invites camp. Marvel had a very successful, long-running comic book series about Dracula. Hammer made seven movies about the king of vampires. There are lots of stories to tell. They are dependent on the skills of the story-teller. More often than not, they just use the name “Dracula” because it’s in the public domain.

          I think someone could probably pull of a realistic take on Robin Hood if they wanted to. Ridley Scott just wasn’t that guy.

          The original Peter Pan has spots that are hard for me to watch. I used to cringe every time “What Makes the Red Man Red” came on. Fortunately, the kids have outgrown Disney movies, so I don’t have to deal with it anymore. If/when Disney gives Peter Pan the live action treatment, they are going to have to figure out how to handle that material. I don’t think you can completely side-step it.

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