Anyone is allowed to make a movie about Dracula. Same goes for Frankenstein’s Monster, as long as the creature doesn’t look too much like the James Whale model. (This may explain why the character has recently and bafflingly resembled Aaron Eckhart.) A Wolf Man would be fair game, too, if he doesn’t have the surname Talbot. Yet for many genre fans, these three—along with the slightly second-tier but still well-known Mummy, Invisible Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon—are part of a collective known as the Universal Monsters, because Universal Studios made a cottage industry from movies starring all of these characters, sometimes in different combinations, for roughly three decades. Since then, Universal has periodically made attempts to revive these characters; last year, Dracula Untold may or may not have kicked off a new “expanded universe” series of monster-related movies that sound, from the earliest word, modeled closer to the 1999 version of The Mummy than horror of the ’30s or ’40s. Films like the Mummy series, Van Helsing, Dracula Untold, and a one-off (though underrated!) remake of The Wolfman have, as yet, failed to coalesce into a group of ongoing monster movies, officially connected or not. In the meantime, plenty of other studios have taken cracks at their own monster mashes.
Yet despite the parade of Hammer Films versions of these creatures in the ’60s and ’70s, the many other incarnations since then, and Universal’s own bumbling and bungling of their sort-of property, the monsters remain collectively associated with the studio that first popularized them. The most concerted effort to wrest them away from Universal came in the mid-’90s, when Sony released their own versions of Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man within a three-year period. This being over 20 years ago, the three movies were not an attempt to unify the monsters into a crossover-heavy universe that could endgame with the creatures facing off against Abbott and Costello (or, the parlance of this period, Farley and Spade). Rather, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) upped the budget, romance, sex, and Hollywood production values while kinda-sorta claiming greater fidelity to the original novel. On the heels of that movie’s relative success, Coppola produced a companion feature of sorts with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), while the possessive-free Wolf (1994) was released in between the two. Taken together, the movies do now feel of a piece, despite their wildly differing styles and success rates.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Sony monsters is that all three of them are rated R—and presumably not just to shore up their gorehound bona fides. The movies themselves show every indication of being R-rated because they are intended primarily for adults, which seems almost unthinkable today. (Guillermo Del Toro’s recent Crimson Peak had a major shift in financing when the director insisted on mounting an R-rated version, and he’s had similar difficulties getting At The Mountains Of Madness together without going PG-13. No one is expecting Universal to allow similar age restrictions on their interconnected monster universe.) None of these three event movies were designed to lure teenagers away from video games for a few hours; whoever greenlit them obviously did so with the intention that adult audiences would want to see them.
In keeping with this more adult sensibility, all three movies attempt to humanize these monsters beyond the Universal iconography. In this respect, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein takes the boldest steps, attempting to portray a Creature closer to Shelley’s original text, which does not mention green skin, neck-bolts, or a flattop haircut. To telegraph this seriousness, director Kenneth Branagh and Coppola hired top-billed acting legend Robert De Niro to play the part, in exactly the kind of match of big-name part and big-name character that seemed to disappoint a lot of people in the ’90s (such as Dustin Hoffman’s perfectly fine turn in Hook). In Branagh’s film, De Niro’s Creature suffers the same fate as pretty much all of the characters: His story, while relatively faithful to the events of the novel in many respects, whooshes by in such a camera-whirling frenzy that it’s difficult for the performance to take root. The film follows the book by separating Victor Frankenstein (Branagh) from his creation shortly after it comes to life, sending the Creature off into the woods, where he observes a family, befriends their blind grandfather, and learns to read, write, and articulate himself.
De Niro does well with this material—the hunted, haunted monster who is piecing together a vision of humanity that fascinates and disgusts him—but the movie doesn’t spend much time on his quieter side, perhaps cautious about the many ways it departs from expectations formed by past Frankenstein movies rather than the book. For whatever reason, it rushes the monster through the family’s discovery of his scary stitched-together appearance and his own discovery of Victor Frankenstein’s meddling in bringing him into existence, which sends him into furious-vengeance mode, and sends De Niro into over-the-top bellowing (and, in some confusingly blocked menace scenes, a seeming ability to teleport). De Niro has gone over the top to great effect; when Frankenstein came out, he wasn’t too far from his delicious scenery-chewing in another sort of horror remake, Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear. But here he’s most interesting when he’s going small, rather than operatic.
He’s out of luck, then, appearing in a Kenneth Branagh film. For better or for worse, Branagh lathers this material into melodrama at every opportunity. On a purely technical level, it’s impressive. Branagh’s signature move here is to send the camera careening around the characters, capturing chunks of conversation in showy extended takes with such bravado that it takes a while to notice how lightweight and surface-level all of the characters are. His frequently shirtless, sister-besotted Victor Frankenstein supposedly draws motivation from his grief and an Anakin Skywalker-like determination to beat death, but Branagh, for all of his attempts at brooding, just as often comes across as weirdly giddy.
That’s not a problem faced by Gary Oldman’s lovesick Dracula or especially Jack Nicholson’s uncharacteristically beaten-down pre-wolf man Will Randall. Wolf addresses what might be referred to as the Shining problem—that Nicholson doesn’t naturally have a normal-guy affect and might seem wolfish well before his transformation—by dialing his character way back, into a vaguely surly but basically mild-mannered middle-aged book editor about to be fired from his longtime gig. His saving grace comes when a wolf bite gives him powers not dissimilar to Spider-Man’s: enhanced hearing, better vision, greater strength, and vastly improved leaping abilities. The movie’s droll if somewhat repetitive central joke is that becoming a wolf-man gives Will the edge he needs to survive in New York (and take on a rival played by James Spader in yuppie-scum mode).
Director Mike Nichols tips his comic hand early, with a cut from a wolf’s growling to Nichols gargling mouthwash, safe at home. Even as it follows a more traditional horror/transformation story, Wolf isn’t especially scary; watching Nicholson stalk and kill a deer in the forest is more odd than truly unnerving. Having burned through much of its potential in its first hour, the movie slows down in its second hour before getting silly for an amped-up climax. Early on, though, Wolf feels both modern in its corporate-jungle subplot and retro in its relaxed sense of craft (and also, perhaps, in that its corporate-jungle subplot involves intrigue at a prestigious publishing house). Nichols’ framing of Nicholson and love interest Michelle Pfeiffer often has a classical vibe, and their dialogue has the half-cynical snap of an older romantic comedy. Their relationship doesn’t add up to much, but it aims for a baseline sophistication reminiscent of the era of filmmaking when the Universal monsters flourished.
Francis Ford Coppola also pursues an old-school vibe in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, down to the plethora of practical and in-camera special effects, and despite plenty of modern bloodletting and nudity. Coppola’s two subsequent ’90s movies, Jack and The Rainmaker, seem like for-hire jobs. His Dracula feels like an unholy alliance between a commercial play and a bizarre passion project: a lavish big-budget adaptation of a popular novel that tries to pay respect to the source material as it juices it up for the audience. Of course, Coppola’s The Godfather also adapted a pulpy, popular novel into a lush work of art, but anyone who’s seen Bram Stoker’s Dracula can confirm that it is not, in fact, The Godfather.
It’s not exactly a tribute to the Stoker text, either; like Branagh’s Frankenstein, it hits a lot of points from the novel often overlooked by other film versions without really digging into them. While the Branagh film rushes through its source material, Coppola’s Dracula is more like the Stoker novel remembered through a vivid fever dream. Its imagery, often bathed in bloody red, candlelit orange, or midnight blue, has the menace of the uncanny; it shares some lifelike qualities with “normal” movies while operating at a remove from their familiarity (sort of like Keanu Reeves’ performance as Jonathan Harker). Perhaps even moreso than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the technique of Bram Stoker’s Dracula outshines the characters. Gary Oldman’s Dracula toys with the classic fangs-and-cape vision of the character by shapeshifting, sometimes playing up the character’s dark, alluring romance (Winona Ryder plays both Mina Harker and the doomed bride that causes Vlad The Impaler to renounce God and become a creature of the night), and also appearing as a creepy old man, a disgusting wolfish creature, and, at one point, a green mist. It aids the dreamlike quality of the film, but in the end, all of the sumptuous costumes, makeup, and effects more or less render him as expressive as a matte painting—which is to say, quite expressive but not necessarily in possession of a human (or human-like) personality.
Still, Coppola’s filmmaking in Bram Stoker’s Dracula counts as some kind of mad triumph. With its dreamlike atmosphere and turbo-charged POV shots bitten from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, it’s the Sony monster picture that comes closest to provoking actual fear, though for many, it will probably come in a distant second behind wide-eyed bewilderment at its gothic frenzy. It’s a richer fantasia of shrieking and elaborate art direction than, say, Universal’s Van Helsing, but was only slightly more successful in bringing classic monsters back to movie theaters.
Rather than reviving monster movies for adults, the diminishing returns that greeted Bram Stoker’s Dracula (a sizable hit), Wolf (a sort-of hit), and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (emphatically not a hit) probably contributed to Universal’s decision to revive The Mummy in a more family-friendly Indiana Jones mode. But even if by default, they represent the most distinct re-imagining of the Universal Monsters since Hammer faded out from monster movies in the ’70s. During that same decade, Hollywood was undergoing something of a renaissance—and all three Sony monster movies have key personnel from that period, when De Niro, Nicholson, and Coppola made their names and Nichols was already established. In some ways, this unofficial trilogy isn’t much more effective than that generation’s previous bizarre attempts to mount a movie musical, like Coppola’s One From The Heart or De Niro and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York. Like those misbegotten but fascinating experiments, though, there’s great value in seeing modern directors grappling with familiar genre artifice. It’s almost more interesting to see Coppola, Branagh, and Nichols fail to revive the monster movie than to bring it roaring back. Understandably, present-day Universal doesn’t seem particularly interested in the risk associated with redefining these monsters beyond their capacity for interconnected sub-Marvel thrill rides. But as Sony demonstrated decades ago, other studios are always allowed to try.