On May 22, 2017, the Dark Universe was officially announced, with Universal Pictures' release of The Mummy later that year becoming the only official entry into the franchise, effectively signaling the end of the ambitious endeavor. Reviving the studio's slate of Universal Monsters, characters who had captivated audiences both for decades before and decades after their big-screen debuts, seemed like it would be an effective pursuit. Despite that franchise never moving forward, the release of The Invisible Man last weekend has proven that even the campiest of concepts for a monster movie could be turned into a riveting experience, so long as the narrative is approached from an inventive perspective.
While films inspired by The Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein's Monster seem to pop up every few years, the lore of the Invisible Man isn't explored nearly as often. The original 1933 film, inspired by the 1897 H.G. Wells novel off the same name, saw a man unlock the key to invisibility, which he tested on himself, though hadn't discovered how to become visible once again, with the process using specific chemicals that ultimately drove him mad. Most subsequent films based on the concept feature the character who becomes invisible serving as the protagonist, resulting in each adventure being relatively repetitive and forgettable.
Luckily, writer/director Leigh Whannell made the simple switch with The Invisible Man to instead focus on the victim of the titular character's wrath, making for not only an effective horror experience, but a compelling allegory for domestic abuse. The film surely still serves as a revival of the initial concept, yet takes the core conceit and fully reimagines it.
In 2008, Marvel launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has gone on to become one of the most successful gambles in cinematic history, resulting in countless other properties all attempting to embrace the concept of a sprawling, unified world. Sadly, it was this success that launched the Dark Universe, despite the franchise clearly lacking the insight into what made the MCU work.
The Dark Universe struggled so much with what it needed to do that it secretly has two entries, as 2014's Dracula Untold was initially conceived as a standalone film, only for the studio to find ways to modify that film's plans to allow it to exist in the Dark Universe. The public directive of the franchise was to deliver audiences horror experience, but with the massive success of 1999's The Mummy being due to its action/adventure tone, 2017's The Mummy served less as an isolated and enthralling adventure and more as an uneven mix of action, horror, and an introduction of entities that would play an important part of the franchise in the future.
What's clear about the Dark Universe and its failure to gain momentum is that it was a case of a studio putting the cart before the horse, a setback that the Worlds of DC series of films also suffered. While the relatively standalone Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Joker were successes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, and Justice League were largely critical disappointments. From the first inception of this Invisible Man, Whannell and producer Jason Blum not only made it clear that it wouldn't be at all connected to the original plans for the film, which originally had Johnny Depp attached, and it was instead born out of the simple, clever concept of flipping the narrative focus. From there, what resulted is what is sure to become one of the standout genre hits of the year.
Whatever the Dark Universe was shaping up to be in the years since its creation, the release of The Invisible Man has shown just how compelling an unconventional approach to well-worn territory can be, which can hopefully bring these iconic characters back from the grave.
Do you have hope for the Universal Monsters? Let us know in the comments below or contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter to talk all things horror and Star Wars!