Whatever you think of Universal’s planned foray into the expanded franchise game with the Dark Universe, you can’t deny their lofty ambitions. The studio has had the ground-breaking forefathers of horror cinema in their back-catalogue for decades and attempted multiple times to revive them for a new audience, but never with the scope of this planned expanded universe, which hopes to combine the blockbuster tent-pole mould with the icons of the Monster series.
So far, The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, hasn’t set the domestic box office alight or inspired much enthusiasm amongst critics, but it’s been performing well overseas, which bodes well for future planned installments (next: Bill Condon directs Bride of Frankenstein, starring Oscar winner Javier Bardem). So far, director Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek: Discovery), who is one of the major architects of this franchise, has announced upcoming films featuring the Invisible Man (Johnny Depp) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Russell Crowe), but has also revealed tentative plans to include other notable classic Universal horror characters:
“We know we’re going to do Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Invisible Man.”
The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera were Universal’s first two productions that are categorized as part of their Monsters franchise, having been released in 1923 and 1925 respectively. Both starred Lon Chaney and stand as two of the most successful films of the silent era, ushering in a solid thirty years of horror cinema success for Universal that many studios eagerly attempted to replicate.
While Universal’s best known horror movies are more focused on the supernatural or creature stories, both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera are notable in how they remain rooted in realism, albeit at its most heightened and gothic. Both are based on famous French novels and were an excuse for the studio to produce lavish, big-budget period pieces that audiences flocked to in the pre-depression era. Both films are now in the public domain, and the stories have been repeatedly adapted by other studios and writers into a diverse array of fiction, so it makes sense that Universal would want to reclaim some of their most iconic intellectual properties and add them to the Dark Universe roster. But how would an action-oriented blockbuster franchise even approach such material?
Before production can begin, Kurtzman and Universal must decide whether Quasimodo and the Phantom are going to be heroes, villains, or something in-between. Quasimodo is almost exclusively a tragic protagonist, cruelly treated by the world and doomed to a sad fate, while the Phantom (or Erik, depending on the story) is a more flexible character. In the original Lon Chaney film, he is more villainous than the novel, where he’s sympathetically painted as a figure of terrible circumstances, while the 1980s mega-musical has him as a misunderstood romantic figure of Byronic proportions.
An important thing to note about both stories is that the central focus is one men who suffer from disfigurements, so presenting them as “monsters” in the traditional horror sense is intensely tricky territory. There’s a long history of scarring or physical deformities being cinematic shorthand for evil or dangerous, and the implications behind that have long-term damaging consequences.
Presenting such stories in a horror mold will always be difficult, but doing so in the Dark Universe’s intended narrative – from the little we know of it so far – would require a deft hand. Many adaptations of The Phantom of the Opera, for instance, have the character of the Phantom be injured or scarred during the story instead of being born with it. That presents a new motivation for the character which may fit Universal’s new direction (and it’s one they’ve already taken, as the original 1943 remake the studio produced, starring Claude Rains, had the character be burned by acid).