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.