Editorial: What Has Happened to All of the Classic Monsters?

Classic monstersI was rewatching Van Helsing recently and wondered, why did this film fail?  What went wrong?  It was a fun film that…wait a minute, did I say fun?  Ah, yes I did, and that’s the problem.  It was fun.  Not fun in the way The Howling (admittedly an early film, but one that tips its hat to the classic monster movie mythos) is fun though.  Joe Dante's film knew how to relieve tension and that release is a good thing, kind of orgasmic really.  The key thing that created that tension is realism.  

That is where the problem lies with modern-day monster fare.

Now, before you say “Hey Mr. Christopher, sir, these films are supposed to be fantastic, what are you talking about?!” let me explain.  When we saw Eddie Quist turn into a wolf in The Howling before our very eyes, we were spellbound, or more honestly, we shit our pants!  We believed and screamed or laughed, just to get the tension out.  Modern films don’t give us that.  They give us impossible CGI monsters that don’t register with our emotional or physical receptors.  We don’t believe for one second that they are a threat, all we can say is…”that looked cool."  

Let’s start with the Universal’s remake of The Mummy.  The script was written by Kevin Alexis Jarre and was fantastic, scary and mysterious.  The first teaser trailer for the film was soaked in mystery and ominous tones, I was excited.  Then the second trailer hit…oh well.  What we got was an action-adventure with a bloated budget and a cartoon like Mummy.  I expected better from ILM, that’s what I get.  At no point is the movie good, did I have fun?  Yes.  Do I even call it a horror movie?  Not really.  It is "Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Pharaohs Tomb" with Brendan Frasier as Indiana Jones.

Van HelsingA few years later, we got excited again; Universal was doing Van Helsing a big monster mash with Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, Dracula and his brides.  It looked awesome and we couldn’t wait!  That is, until the trailer.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey Christopher, weren’t those old Universal Monster mash-ups pretty weak and subpar?”  They were, but you know the saying:  "Absence makes the heart grow founder."  I’ve bought more bad movies on DVD from my childhood because of that.  Anyways, what they did then is a hell of a lot better than what they are doing now.  Instead of a classic monster mash, we got a CGI fest from those lovable half-asses at ILM.  Then, they turned Van Helsing into this half-Werewolf, immortal James Bond type (no really, I couldn’t make this stuff up) and give him a bumbling sidekick like Dr. Watson (the Rathbone era films) who is a Monk scientist and inventor.  You know, when you stop and break this down, it’s ludicrous.  Adding insult to injury, they manage to give you one of the most alluring women in Hollywood today, Kate Beckinsale, and kill her off in the films conclusion.

Acceptable in a horror film, but not in a summer blockbuster, the film was just too big for its subject matter.  That has been the case more and more over the years.  Our last breath of goodness came in the early-'90s and started with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a lavish film with great visuals but once Dracula leaves his castle and begins courting Mina, he ceases to be scary, not even a little.  He was more like Mina’s new boyfriend who happens to be an asshole, not unlike Mark Walberg in his movie debut, Fear.  Fortunately, the atmosphere helps the film and it is among my favorites.

What came next was Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, more Shakespeare than Shelly it had numerous opportunities to create dread and disturb its audience, but missed the mark in several key scenes.  What it did do though, was give us a level of pathos we hadn’t seen before. Frankenstein so far gone that he would attempt to reanimate Elizabeth herself.  It is a natural payoff that is not present in the book (Mary was only 18 when she started writing it so cut her some slack).  These films were less scary than they should have been but were indeed awesome.  Then CGI took over.  The rest is history.

The WolfmanOne film that gave us hope on Blu-ray is Universal’s 2010 remake of The Wolfman.  This film holds its own against the '90s Frankenstein and Dracula.  Criminally mishandled and butchered for release, the film, at its original running time is a truly marvelous gothic spectacle that finally gives the Wolf Man a classic screen story.  Taking place at the near turn of the century, and locating the film in and around London, it brings the classic creature home for the first time, where he truly belongs, rivaled only by Hammer Films Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed.

Most people would say Universal’s 1942 Wolf Man, instead of Hammer's 1961 take, but let me explain.  The Wolf Man, like the Mummy, does not have a classic book from which it is based, therefore, the best images of the wolf man have been in other mediums such as classic black and white horror magazines of the 1960s and 70s. Hammer was the first to treat the monster with a classic respect (not to mention that the monster looks like a wolf rather than an ear-less Chihuahua on steroids).

What will the future hold?  Who knows?  Hopefully the upcoming Mummy and Van Helsing reboots will pay lavish respect so that we will have films to place alongside the other modern classics.  Hopefully, Hollywood will stop taking classic characters and trying to reinvent them with humor and super-style for the post-MTV generation.  And maybe, just maybe, people will remember that practical effects are scarier and cheaper than doing it in a computer.  Hopefully we can get some new tales of terror that aren’t tied to the original novels, but utilize the classic characters.  There are many tales still untold, and with a little love and care, many new nightmares to be had.

As you can see, the classic monsters haven’t truly gone away, they’re still here, but they're getting scarce every year.  They have been replaced with sad digital doppelgangers in designer jeans.


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