Before your cinematic universes and extended galaxies and interconnected constellations, there were the Universal Classic Monster movies. A loose confederation of sequels and spinoffs, they were the biggest motion picture events in the early life of cinema. The 1920s kicked things off with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera before the franchise moved into its 1930s golden era. Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man all released between 1931 and 1933, and they remain masterpiece staples of the horror genre.
In the 1940s, Universal ramped up production, frequently outpacing quality control. Among the sequels was the introduction of The Wolf Man in 1941, as well as Universal’s turn to self-parody with the arrival of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The comedy duo would Meet Frankenstein in 1948, carrying well into the mid-’50s. Creature from the Black Lagoon was the final hurrah for the original line of Universal monster movies.
In 1999, The Mummy was revived in the summer blockbuster era, bringing in enough fans young and old to encourage two sequels. Van Helsing and The Wolfman also arrived in the decade or so after the Mummy relaunch, though the lackluster returns on those meant Universal was ready to try something new (read: what Marvel was doing).
2014’s Dracula Untold was to be the start of a so-called Dark Universe of connected monster movies. After that movie failed to draw much blood out of the box office, 2017’s The Mummy was going to be the “new” new start of the Dark Universe. Until that movie also bombed spectacularly.
And so we arrive at 2020’s The Invisible Man, which reportedly cost 30 times less than The Mummy to make, and with no aspirations to be tied to any larger universe. Now, we rank all Universal Classic Monster movies by Tomatometer!
Universal Studios may be chasing contemporary trends in launching its Dark Universe with the Tom Cruise-starring Mummy reboot, but Universal Monsters have been around for long before all this MCU, DCEU, DDS stuff…near 100 years, in fact! In this week’s gallery, we’re sorting every Universal Monster movie that has at least 20 reviews (qualifying it for a Critics Consensus, included with each image), ranked worst to best by Tomatometer!
The biggest home video release this week is a surprisingly satisfying action flick starring Keanu Reeves, but outside of that, most of the big releases received pretty poor reviews. That said, the smaller films on this week’s list are the real highlights, with three acclaimed Certified Fresh picks and another trio of highly rated films. Read on for details:
John Wick is about as pure a revenge flick as you’re going to get, and critics were quite pleased with that. The story is simple: Keanu Reeves plays the titular former mob hitman, who’s mourning the death of his wife when the son of a local kingpin breaks into his home, kills his new puppy, and steals his car. This is the last straw for Wick, and he unleashes a most brutal temper tantrum upon anyone foolish enough to stand between him and the puppy-killing car thief. Directed by longtime stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, John Wick is a stylish flurry of point blank shots to the face and brooding Keanu Reeves grimaces, and for most critics, the combination was a match made in heaven. Toss in a bit of the much talked-about “world-building” and a colorful cast of side characters, and you have the makings of an action franchise. At 83 percent on the Tomatometer, John Wick surprised a lot of folks and even took home the Golden Tomato Award in the Action/Adventure category.
Though ostensibly not part of Universal’s plan to reboot all of their classic monsters in a shared universe (kind of like The Avengers of horror), Dracula Untold doesn’t bode well for the studio’s future efforts in the genre. Untold purports to tell the “origin story” of the famous literary bloodsucker, in which Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans), the prince of Transylvania, enters into a blood pact with a vampire to receive the power necessary to turn back a Turkish invasion and save his son. Critics didn’t buy it, for the most part; while the visuals were sometimes impressive, they also tended toward bad video game imagery, and the narrative lacked both the edge and the necessary dramatic heft to justify its epic scope. At 22 percent on the Tomatometer, Dracula Untold is a poor attempt to put a fresh spin on a familiar tale.
As long as you’ve got a working knowledge of horror movie mechanics, a decent cinematographer, and a few million dollars to spare, you stand a chance at making a tidy profit, regardless of what the critics say. At least, that was the case for last year’s Ouija, which was produced for about $5 million and earned a mere 7 percent on the Tomatometer but went on to gross over $95 million at the box office. This PG-13 tale of terror revolves around a group of young friends who use a Ouija board to make contact with a malicious spirit; as the participants of the original séance begin dropping one by one, the remaining survivors struggle to identify the spectre and figure out a way to defeat it. Critics found the film egregiously derivative of better movies, filled with telegraphed jump scares and bland storytelling, even if it did sport a nice professional sheen. This is probably the kind of fluff that teen horror novices might eagerly devour and quickly forget, but more discerning adults will find little in the way of a real scare here.
Don’t look now, but they’ve gone and made another Nicholas Sparks adaptation, and following recent tradition, it did not perform well with critics. At all. This would-be tearjerker stars James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan as star-crossed teenage lovers Dawson and Amanda, who are reunited after 20 years apart when a mutual friend passes away. Between flashbacks to their past relationship, the pair rekindle their romance, only to discover it’s not so easy to shake off the past and move forward. By now, most folks know where they stand with Sparks’s weepy formula, and critics agree that if you’re a fan, you’re in for more of the same, and you’ll likely be pretty satisfied with the final product. If you’re anyone else, though, you probably already know you’re going to avoid this like a snotty handkerchief, so the 8 percent Tomatometer score is somewhat irrelevant.
Also available this week:
Nas: Time Is Illmatic (100 percent), a documentary about the prolific and influential hip-hop artist and the creation of his seminal debut album.
Starred Up (99 percent), starring Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn in a Certified Fresh drama about a violent 19-year-old inmate who is transferred to the same prison as his estranged father.
The Overnighters (98 percent), a Certified Fresh documentary focusing on the rush to find jobs during the North Dakota oil boom and the hardships experienced by prospective workers there.
Dear White People (92 percent), a Certified Fresh satire of race politics about a mixed-race writer and radio show host at a mostly white university who causes a stir when she becomes the head of the all black house on campus.
The Retrieval (34 percent), a Civil War-set drama about a 13-year-old boy working with white bounty hunters who unexpectedly finds himself on the run with a runaway slave after he’s been sent to lure him back to the South.
ABCs of Death 2 (75 percent), the follow-up omnibus film featuring 26 horror segments — one for each letter of the alphabet — helmed by 26 different directors.
A handful of films made their way to streaming video this week ahead of their DVD releases, including a reimagined take on the origin story of Dracula, an indie comedy with social satire on its mind, a relationship drama starring James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, and a revived HBO comedy starring Lisa Kudrow. Read on for details:
In 15th Century Romania, Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) makes a deal with an old vampire in order to protect his kingdom from an invading army. He’s granted a variety of supernatural powers, but at the cost of developing a taste for blood.
What do stars of Dracula Untold, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day and Hollywood’s most trusted sources for movie news have in common? They’re all fraidy cats, and confess what scares them in honor of Halloween.
<pTerrible, horrible, no good, and very bad? Or terrific, honest, noteworthy, and very good? Critics say Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day falls directly in the middle — it’s pleasant, charming, inoffensive, and a little tepid. Based upon Judith Viorst’s beloved children’s book, the movie stars Ed Oxenbould, who has a lousy day at school and subsequently wishes that his other family members are also stricken with bad luck as well. Hilarity and, ultimately, family bonding ensue. The pundits say Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is perfectly passable family entertainment — it’s well-meaning and reasonably funny, but nothing earth-shaking. (Watch our video interviews with stars Jennifer Garner, Steve Carrell, Ed Oxenbould, and more.)
It’s been a while since we’ve been treated to a weighty courtroom drama at the multiplex, so it’s not unreasonable to have high expectations for The Judge — especially since it stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, critics say that despite its fine performances, the film is overlong and far too predictable. Hank Palmer (Downey) is a big-city attorney who returns to his hometown in Indiana for his mother’s funeral. His estranged father Joseph (Duvall), the town judge, is accused of murder, so Hank ends up defending him, while trying to make peace with the past. The pundits say The Judge is impeccably crafted, and the stars play off each other quite well, but it’s got too much melodrama and not enough suspense. (Check out our video interviews with Downey, Duvall, and more.)
You can drive a stake through his heart, expose him to sunlight, and come at him with a convent’s-worth of crucifixes, and still, Dracula will rise again — since the silent era, we’ve been treated to hundreds of cinematic depictions of Transylvania’s favorite son. That said, critics say Dracula Untold is visually striking but narratively shaky, borrowing heavily from a wide range of fantasy/adventure movies. In 15th Century Romania, Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) makes a deal with an old vampire in order to protect his kingdom from an invading army. He’s granted a variety of supernatural powers, but at the cost of developing a taste for blood. The pundits say Dracula Untold offers some fun battle scenes, but it’s a bit unclear on the rules of being a vampire. (See interviews with Evans, Sarah Gadon, and more.)
In Up in the Air and Young Adult, director Jason Reitman crafted witty, portraits of lonely people trying to connect with others. Unfortunately, critics say his latest, Men, Women & Children, jettisons the wit in favor of a more hectoring tone that’s only partially redeemed by the strong cast. It’s a multi-stranded ensemble piece set in a small town in Texas, in which adults and their teenage children are immersed in their phones and computers, but have difficulty communicating offline. The pundits say Men, Women & Children is ambitious and well-acted, but its message ultimately overrides its storytelling.
We’d love to tell you what the critics thought of Addicted, but it wasn’t screened prior to its release. It’s the tale of a successful businesswoman who gets in over her head when she cheats on her husband with an artist. Guess the Tomatometer!
Certified Fresh on TV this week:
We’ve seen plenty of heavy, gritty superhero stories lately. What critics say makes The Flash (Certified Fresh at 96 percent) stand out is it light, likeable tone — it’s energetic, buoyant, and likely to have appeal beyond the comics crowd.
The fourth iteration of Ryan Murphy’s creep fest, American Horror Story: Freak Show (Certified Fresh at 79 percent) proves there are plenty more dark corners for the series to explore; Critics say it’s stylishly presented and well-acted by returning players Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett.