Leigh Whannells The invisible man was another attempt at bringing the Universal Monsters back, but this time it finally got stuck. Other recent attempts to revive the franchise, namely in 2014 Dracula Untold and 2017 The Mummy, failed to get negative reviews and overwhelm at the box office. What did Universal do right this time? Working with a director who knows the horror genre and working with Blumhouse Productions eventually helped them realize the true potential of the newly launched brand. So much so that the next Universal Monster movie was announced as Karyn Kusama-helmed Dracula.
Count Dracula as the next monster is exciting, if predictable. His story is a classic tale originally published as a novel by Bram Stoker in 1897, and it helps that it’s sexy – vampires in general are undeniably sexy. While Dracula is ultimately about the title character’s attempts to rule the world, the sexual undertones come into play when he uses seduction as a control tool. Do you need to distract Jonathan Harker? Dracula lets himself be seduced by his brides. Do you need to gain control of Lucy and Mina? Dracula seduces her and drinks her blood. Seduction is key to Dracula’s strategy, and unfortunately women are often victims of this strategy, as it is used for food (in the case of Lucy) or as reluctant spies (in the case of Mina).
While the story is marked by male heroism and female sacrifice, Kusama can turn this narrative into something that empowers the female characters more. Her films often address gender dynamics, explore varying degrees of sexual desire, and show complex female characters who are not afraid of clutter. Kusama’s directing could open up opportunities to explore Mina and Lucy’s characters further, rather than just serving as wives and negotiating partners. Kusama could even take a risk and cast female actors to play the story’s iconic male characters like the vampire hunter Van Helsing or even Dracula “himself”.
Such a risk would not be uncommon for Kusama, as can be seen in her film Jennifer’s bodywhich was panned by critics until recently. Indeed, if a single film should convince you that Kusama is the person directing Dracula, this one should be it. The 2009 horror comedy follows a student named Needy (Amanda Seyfried) who suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend – the hot school – Jennifer (Megan Fox). Needy soon discovers that Jennifer has been turned into a carnivorous succubus in a sacrificial ritual that went wrong, terrorizing the school’s boy population.
The film received almost universally negative reviews, but for the past 10 years it has been valued for its revolutionary portrayal of teenage girls and their sexuality. Jennifer’s body revolves around the surprisingly new idea that teenage sexuality shouldn’t be punished or judged. Dracula offers Kusama the opportunity to continue exploring nuanced and complex sexualities, be it through the head vampire himself or through the mortal characters around him. While previous adaptations, including Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the BBC’s limited edition Dracula series, have focused on sex and sexuality, there is so much more to explore in this next version of the story.
Plus, the title Jennifer of Jennifers Body (played badly by Fox) is a blood-sucking succubus, a creature very similar to a vampire. Jennifer doesn’t just eat and kill blindly; as she says she kills boys. She eats those who have objectified her body in some way and treated her like a piece of meat. So she’ll do it again right away. Jennifer’s numerous kills and her physical transformation are a good sign of any vision Kusama has for Dracula’s character design.
While Jennifer’s body is a gorefest about teenage girls and the dangers of high school, Kusama’s 2015 follow-up feature is, The invitationis an investigation into relationships and paranoia. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to dinner by ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Dinner is unfortunately in Will’s old house, and the situation is already uncomfortable for everyone involved. But then Will begins to suspect that something is wrong with the hosts, that they are planning something sinister.
This is comparatively an adult and contemplative film, a slow burn where the truth is murky until the last few minutes of the film. The invitation is Kusama showing her skills in building fear and creating two very charming and seductive villains. She is able to make Blanchard and Huisman both charming and beautiful while creating an aura of danger around them. She invites the viewer into Will’s paranoia and makes them both bewitched and afraid of these two rich, beautiful people. Kusama’s making of two charismatic killers is an insight into how she can shape and create a sensual, alluring, and terrifying Dracula.
Then there’s their latest and more realistic movie, Destroyer. While the crime drama kept critics and audiences apart, there is no denying that Nicole Kidman’s role in the film is powerful and transformative. She plays Erin Bell, a detective who has had a traumatic work experience for 20 years and is still trying to recover. She keeps trying to get things right and mending her life, but no matter how she tries to rebuild herself, she continues to crumble. It’s a messy portrait of a messy woman, and while it has some stumbling blocks, it shows Kusama’s commitment to studying the characters and building the world.
As seen in Destroyer, Kusama is able to persuade and encourage strong, emotionally motivated performances by actors, which is a good sign for all of Dracula’s characters, from the title monster to the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing to Dracula’s brides . Destroyer also proves Kusama’s commitment to making viewers feel like they are part of the world of film. While the movie’s pace is often at its disadvantage, Kusama’s attempt at a haunting experience brings the hidden beauty of Los Angeles to the big screen.
It’s important to also mention Kusama’s work as director of the 2005 Charlize Theron-in-latex vehicle Aeon Flux. While “good” isn’t a word often used to describe it, “stylish” is definitely. Theron plays an assassin who struggles to overthrow an oppressive regime but learns a dark secret in her search for revolution. It is a quintessential science fiction action film from the early 2000s that stands out for its ridiculous plot and stunning graphics. It’s also an adaptation of an animated series, the style of which can hardly be emulated through live action.
Even so, Kusama took that risk and created a movie that is undeniably cool to watch and has its own unique world. Aeon Flux is another world building exercise as Kusama wants to immerse the viewer in her films, even if it is science fiction. Your commitment to such a cinematic experience promises a detailed and well-explored world of Vlad Dracula.
So what can we expect from Kusama when we look at her style, thematic focus and method of storytelling? I would bet a bloody, sexy, terrible movie that will stand out from the already numerous retellings of Bram Stoker’s story. With Kusama’s story in the horror genre and her interest in studying the human condition, her Dracula is likely to feel more relatable and less terrifying, whether it’s through gendered classic characters or deeper exploration of the movie’s women. Whichever direction she takes, she will ensure the continued success of the newly launched Universal Monster film franchise.