The Disquieting Guest — Universal Monsters and the Passing of the Gothic

24 Feb

Another week, another story on the attempt by Universal Studios to create a “Monsterverse,” leading to another bit of fretting on my part. I agree with the points in this piece, and I’ve already written about why I think the approach is misguided (at best), but after some online conversation with some friends, I am increasingly of the opinion that Universal’s project would be doomed no matter what the approach. Much as it pains me to admit it, we may be past the era in which any revival of these characters would stand a chance.

Many of us have been grumbling over the decision to make the new films action movies rather than horror films. I still don’t like the idea, but I am forced to concede that if we look at the monster mashes of the 1940s (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein), the fact is that these films were heavier on the action and lighter on the gothic horror than their predecessors in the ’30s. But what if the decision were taken to go with the gothic approach? When was the last time that route was successful? Coppola’s Dracula? More recently we have the box office failures of The Wolfman (which, though badly compromised, did its level best) and Crimson Peak staring us in the face.

Then there’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (yes, I’m finally getting around to the full reason why I think a remake is an idea fraught with peril, to put it mildly). This movie has been notoriously resistant to being remade. There have been attempts since the ’80s, and now the Monsterverse reboot is rumoured to star Scarlett Johansson. Frankly, I can’t see any way of making this movie work in the 21st century. It is too much a product of 1954, in the sense that it may well be a movie that could only have been made in the —’50s. For one thing, there’s the suit. Joe Dante has argued (persuasively, I think) that the classic suit is unimprovable. While contemporary audiences likely wouldn’t go for the same look today, a CG Creature is unlikely to be as convincingly alive a character (see the disappointing Lizard from The Amazing Spider-Man for an idea of what we might be in for). But an even bigger problem is the story itself.

Creature from the Black Lagoon is a Beauty and the Beast tale in the mode of King Kong. The passage of two decades between the films can be seen in the role of Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams). Where Fay Wray’s Ann Darrow is an actor explicitly brought along on the expedition for sex appeal, Kay is a scientist. And while Ann never regards Kong with anything other than terror, Kay feels sympathy for the Creature. But this is still the 1950s, and Kay is still carried off screaming by the monster.

In the remakes of King Kong, Ann’s role changes, and her relationship with Kong becomes one of mutual affection, culminating in her attempts to save his life. This shift works, maintaining the Beauty and the Beast framework, because Kong is 50 feet tall, and so the myth necessarily remains metaphorical. But the Creature is human-sized. Instantly, the myth becomes more literal. Can the core of the story be preserved without winding up in a very bad place? I have grave doubts. For an idea of just how grim that place can be, one need look no further than Humanoids from the Deep (1980). But a move in the direction of the King Kong remakes, with affection on both sides, would require a very deft creative hand indeed to avoid a ghastly ick factor, a task that may well be impossible.

I would like to be wrong in all of this. The Universal Monsters were the first instance of a cinematic universe, and it would be nice to see them get their moment in the sun (moonlight?) again. I don’t want to think their time has passed. But perhaps it has.

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