Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man was yet another attempt to bring back the Universal Monsters, but this time it finally stuck. Other recent attempts to revive the franchise, namely 2014’s Dracula Untold and 2017’s The Mummy, failed by receiving negative reviews and underwhelming at the box office. What did Universal get right this time? Working with a director who knows the horror genre, as well as pairing up with Blumhouse Productions, finally helped them realize the rebooted brand’s true potential. So much so that the next Universal Monster movie has been announced as a Karyn Kusama-helmed Dracula.
Count Dracula being the next monster is already exciting, albeit predictable, on its own. His is a classic story, 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 at world domination, the sexual undertones come into play as he uses seduction as a tool of control. Need to keep Jonathan Harker distracted? Dracula has his brides seduce him. Need to gain control over Lucy and Mina? Dracula seduces them and drinks their blood. Seduction is key to Dracula’s strategy, and unfortunately, women are often victims of that strategy as they are used for food (in the case of Lucy) or as reluctant spies (in the case of Mina).
While the story is wrapped up in male heroism and female victimhood, Kusama can turn that narrative into something more empowering for the female characters. Her films often address gender dynamics, explore varying degrees of sexual desire, and feature complex female characters that are not afraid of being a mess. Kusama’s direction could open up opportunities to further explore the characters of Mina and Lucy, rather than have them serve as merely wives and bargaining chips. Kusama could even take a risk and cast female actors to play the story’s iconic male characters such as the vampire hunter Van Helsing or even Dracula “himself.”
Such a risk would not be out of the ordinary for Kusama, as seen in her film Jennifer’s Body, which until recently was panned by critics. In fact, if any single film should convince you that Kusama is the person to direct Dracula, it should be this one. The 2009 horror-comedy follows a high school student named Needy (Amanda Seyfried) who suspects something terrible has happened to her best friend — the school hottie — Jennifer (Megan Fox). Needy soon discovers that in a sacrificial ritual gone wrong, Jennifer was transformed into a meat-eating succubus who is terrorizing the school’s population of boys.
The film was met with almost universally negative reviews, but in the past 10 years, it’s become appreciated for its revolutionary representation of teenage girls and their sexuality. Jennifer’s Body is about the surprisingly new idea that teenage sexuality shouldn’t be punished or judged. Dracula offers a way for Kusama to continue to examine nuanced and complex sexualities, whether through the head vampire himself or the mortal characters around him. While past adaptations, including Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the BBC’s limited Dracula series, do focus on sex and sexuality, there is still so much more that could be explored in this next version of the tale.
Plus, the titular Jennifer of Jennifer’s Body (played pitch-perfect by Fox) is a blood-sucking succubus, a creature that is rather similar to a vampire. Jennifer isn’t just eating and killing blindly; as she says, she’s killing boys. She is eating those who have objectified her body in some way and treated her like a piece of meat. So, she does that right back. Jennifer’s numerous kills and her bodily transformation bodes well for whatever vision Kusama has for Dracula’s character design.
While Jennifer’s Body is a gorefest about teenage girls and the perils of high school, Kusama’s 2015 follow-up feature, The Invitation, is an examination of relationships and paranoia. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is invited to dinner by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The dinner, unfortunately, is being held at Will’s old house, and the situation is already awkward for everyone involved. But then Will begins to suspect something is wrong with the hosts, that they are planning something sinister.
This is a more grown-up and contemplative film, comparatively speaking, a slow burn in which the truth is murky until the film’s final minutes. The Invitation is Kusama displaying her skills in building dread and creating two very charming and alluring villains. She is able to make Blanchard and Huisman both charming and gorgeous, while also creating an aura of danger around them. She invites the viewer into Will’s paranoia and lets them be both enchanted and scared of these two wealthy, beautiful people. Kusama’s crafting of two charismatic murderers is a glimpse into how she can mold and create a sensual, tempting, and horrifying Dracula.
Then there is her most recent, and more realistic, film, Destroyer. Although the crime drama divided critics and audiences, there’s no denying that Nicole Kidman’s role in the film is powerful and transformative. She plays Erin Bell, a detective who had a traumatic work experience 20 years and is still trying to recover. She keeps trying to make things right and fix her life, but no matter how she tries to build herself back up, she continues to crumble. It is a messy portrait of a messy woman and while it has quite a few stumbling blocks, it showcases Kusama’s dedication to character study and world-building.
As seen in Destroyer, Kusama is able to coax and encourage strong, emotionally driven performances from actors, which bodes well for all of the characters of Dracula, from the titular monster to the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing to Dracula’s brides. Destroyer also proves Kusama’s dedication to making the viewer feel like they are a part of the world of the film. While the film’s pacing is often to its detriment, Kusama’s attempt at an immersive experience puts the hidden beauty of Los Angeles on screen.
It’s important to also mention Kusama’s work as the director of the 2005 Charlize Theron-in-latex vehicle Aeon Flux. While “good” is not a word that is often used to describe it, “stylish” definitely is. Theron plays an assassin who is fighting to overthrow an oppressive regime but learns a dark secret in her quest for revolution. It is a quintessential early 2000s sci-fi-action film that revels in its ridiculous plot and stunning visuals. It is also an adaptation of an animated series, the style of which is nearly impossible to emulate through live-action.
Still, Kusama took that risk and created a film that is inarguably cool to look at and has its own unique world. Aeon Flux is another exercise in world-building as Kusama wants to immerse the viewer in her films, even if they are science fiction. Her dedication to such a cinematic experience promises a detailed and well-explored world of Vlad Dracula.
So what could we expect from Kusama after looking at her style, thematic focuses, and methods of storytelling? I would wager a gory, sexy, dread-filled film that will stand apart from the already numerous retellings of Bram Stoker’s tale. With Kusama’s history in the horror genre and her interest in examining the human condition, her Dracula will likely feel more relatable and less terrifying, whether that is through gender-bending classic characters or deeper examinations of the film’s women. Regardless of the direction in which she chooses to go, she will ensure the continued success of the rebooted Universal Monster movie franchise.