With the recent failure of The Mummy at the box office throwing the future of a planned Universal Monsters expanded universe into doubt, I’ve been thinking a lot about the wisdom behind the plan in the first place. In theory, it’s a cool idea, one we’ve seen done effectively( Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, anyone?); and I’ll take just about any excuse for another Gillman movie. Yet it wasn’t something I or many of my horror friends were terribly excited about, though. We had about the same level of enthusiasm for the prospect of a Universal Monsters universe as we did for the prospect of maybe going out for Chinese food this weekend. We like the restaurant; it’s good food; we’d probably enjoy it if we went; but, if we didn’t go, none of us would be terribly disappointed, either, and we’d quickly forget we’d ever considered going for Chinese in the first place. Why, though, was this the attitude with which we greeted the prospect of seeing some of the greatest horror legends not only resurrected, but brought together again, for the first time? Why weren’t we frothing-at-the-mouth eager?
The topic came up during a road trip I took with my wife over 4th of July weekend, and something she said really brought things home for me. “My Nana,” she said, “is a diehard horror fan, and those were the movies she went to see when she was a little girl. Those aren’t our monsters. They’re our grandmas’ monsters.”
I started to do the math and it hit home. My wife’s grandmother was born in 1934. By that time, the Universal Monsters franchise was already in full swing. The Bride of Frankenstein came out when she was one; Dracula, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man had already come and gone. She was around to see The Wolfman and Creature from the Black Lagoon in their first-runs, but she saw the rest as revivals. From a 2010s perspective, she was the 80s baby who grew up watching Friday the 13th on VHS and envying her older sister who got to see them at the show.
These aren’t our monsters. They’re our grandmas’ monsters.
I don’t think there’s a horror fan alive who doesn’t hold some affection for the Universal Monsters. They were the progenitors of horror cinema, and, in their literary incarnations, some helped define the modern horror genre itself. Yet there’s a degree of removal between them and contemporary audiences. They’re familiar, but they’re safe. We have a connection to them, but it’s a connection by proxy, forged through the conduit of our parents, grandparents, and, in some cases, even great-grandparents. We can look at them and see their long-ranging evolution over time and into the present. In a way, our relationship with our grandparents’ monsters is very much like our relationship with our grandparents themselves. We love them; we’re nostalgic for them; we care for them and we want to see them treated right. Yet we also don’t want to—can’t—define ourselves by them. Their legacy is their own; ours is ours. Millennials already hold dear in their hearts the memory of Drac, Frank, and the rest of the Universal Monsters throwing down in an epic battle. It was called The Monster Squad, and—along with Beetlejuice and Ghostbusters—it was the gateway drug that introduced countless 80s kids to the very idea of horror. Yet at the same time, it was also a torch-passing. Squad came out squarely in the middle of Jason and Freddy’s reign at the box office, and while the movie was a nice generational bridge, it also ends, more or less, with the Universal crew riding off into the sunset.
Rights issues, focus groups, and all other manner of things will probably prevent us from ever seeing Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Michael Meyers, and Pinhead all doing battle; the process of getting just Freddy and Jason on the same screen took almost two decades as it is. Yet, that’s the movie Millennials are really itching for. Those are our monsters. The idea of Dracula battling Frankenstein (again) is “meh.” The idea of Jason showing down with Michael Meyers is the stuff that our dreams are made of. That is the cultural moment we’re waiting for. That is the movie we want to see. That is where the untold hundreds of millions of dollars are waiting to be made. Folks can shake their heads and ponder why The Mummy didn’t excite, and why the passion for the Universal cinematic universe isn’t as high as for Marvel, but the answer is right there in front of us. It isn’t that we don’t want to see disparate monsters all throw down; it’s that we want our monsters. If the right deals could be signed, the right agreements made, the right people satisfied, it could happen. And boy, would it be a blast—for the audience and the studios.