It's rare that an actor can claim to star in one of the year's biggest successes and also one of the year's biggest flops, but Vin Diesel has managed just that, following the billion dollar grossing Furious 7 with The Last Witch Hunter, a would-be franchise starter that cost at least 90 million dollars and tanked so hard domestically that it was difficult for me to even find a theater still playing it three weeks later. It's fared better overseas, of course, but despite Vin's dreams, I doubt we will see him grab his magic runes and shoot the shit with Michael Caine again anytime soon - he can will Riddick into existence, but that was a franchise that at least had one hit movie in the bank (and far better overseas numbers for its sequel than Witch Hunter will ever get to), so there was less of a risk. Plus, Witch Hunter is a Lionsgate/Summit affair, unlike Riddick which was independently produced and given distribution from Universal, who can stand to do a favor or two for Vin since he's helped them earn a not-small fortune since returning to the Fast series.
But honestly, Last Witch Hunter wasn't terrible; despite a change of directors and a re-written script it wasn't as sloppy as I've come to expect from our blockbusters, and there's an undeniable appeal of watching a classy pro like Michael Caine engaged in one-on-one philosophical conversations with a sentient slab of roast beef. Plus I liked that it was kind of a ticking clock mystery, unfolding more like the Men in Black films (sans the humor) than I, Frankenstein, Dracula Untold or any of the other big-budget "action-horror" films of the past few years that attempted to start a franchise and were met with indifference. Which gets me thinking - should action and horror even mix on a big budget scale? Or should Hollywood just give up on this mini-genre?
Let me be clear on the sort of films I'm talking about before some smartass tells me that I'm wrong because Jurassic World was a hit. I'm referring to movies that take traditional humanoid monsters (werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, etc) and put them into what would otherwise be shoot 'em up action movies. On a small scale, they tend to work - From Dusk Till Dawn is a fine example (I wish I had a newer one, but alas) - but as the budgets climb into the high double digits the films tend to become overstuffed and identity-free. They often have voiceover by the hero, perhaps to help smooth over all of the missing plot points that resulted from what seems like a law that all of these movies go through excessive development processes. They're intended to start franchises, they usually feature A-list actors in the lead roles (or a B-lister backed by character actors who deserve better), and minimize the scares in favor of "cool" action. Giant monsters or dinosaurs don't count - the hero has to face the main villain in a one-on-one battle that involves a lot of wire work and terrible editing, preferably with a one-liner thrown in there. If you sense that someone behind the scenes was inspired by the Underworld films, chances are it counts. These are the movies that keep me subscribed to Moviepass; I let them eat the cost of my obligatory viewings of these things (though usually at a matinee - I'm not a monster).
The list of these "part 1 of 1"s is the definition of middling. There are the ones I mentioned above, plus Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, Priest and the granddaddy of them all, Van Helsing. I mean, sure, every now and then one of these films connect or technically even make money, but does anyone genuinely love them? Hansel & Gretel is a good example - it was actually profitable, but despite being designed as a franchise, it didn't really become one: the planned sequel was recently downgraded to TV show, and I doubt Jeremy Renner will be suiting up for that one, if it even happens. Maybe if they were already filming a sequel when the first film hit Blu-ray there would be a chance for the series to continue, but now it's been almost three years (which would probably make it four by the time it came out) - would anyone even remember the original by then? Does anyone even remember it now? Ditto for Constantine and (surprisingly) Van Helsing - they both actually made money, but without anyone actually seeming to LIKE them (more in the latter's case; Constantine actually had some fans but they were largely drowned out by angry comic fans re: Keanu), there was little reason to bother with mounting what would probably be a more expensive follow-up.
The two major exceptions of the past decade or so are the Resident Evil and Underworld series. While both can probably thank their lovely female leads wearing fetching leather outfits for a good chunk of their box office fortunes, they DO seem to have fans or, at least, a consistent number of people who will show up every few years for the next one. I don't know if I know any passionate followers of Underworld'snigh on incomprehensible mythology, but the werewolf vs vampire scenario (which predated the Twilight films) was novel, and Kate Beckinsale is always game for the action hero stuff (though, ironically, my favorite of the bunch is the one she sat out), so they succeed on their own low-key terms. Ditto the Resident Evils, which have the ongoing game series to convince people to come back, as the filmmakers pick and choose game elements to mix with their original Alice story (i.e. when the fourth film introduced the popular Executioner Majini from the fifth game). Again, I don't know too many people who genuinely love these movies and could recite excerpts from their screenplays from memory the way Friday the 13th fans can quote even the most obscure bits of dialogue, but they make money every time out and people seem to actually care about future installments. Folks have been asking Kate about Underworld 5 every time she's done a movie since Underworld 4; no one's asked Paul Bettany about Priest 2 since he was out promoting Priest 1.
During one of Last Witch Hunter's many goofy dream sequences (Vin's character is an immortal that has to relive his "death" in a dream in order to find an important clue - he does this like four times in the film), I started wondering about why it is these films fail to connect more often than not. I think a big part of it is the lack of satisfying either audience; action fans want real action, which is hard to do when the villains are all CGI monstrosities, and horror fans want their films to be scary, which isn't going to happen when the antagonists in these things tend to go on like Bond villains, with master plans that are carried out via convoluted schemes. A great number of them involve our hero betrayed by the people he's working for, as it turns out that his/her missions are actually helping the villains set their strategies in motion... it's the sort of thing that requires note-taking at times, which is a total 180 from the sort of plots that can get anyone's hair to stand on end.
And the action, even if you're not against CGI or actually prefer your editing to render the scene confusing, rarely satisfies on any level. Last Witch Hunter actually barely has any because it takes most of the film's 100 minute runtime to explain its storyline, leaving precious little time for Vin Diesel to shoot and/or punch witches (i.e. all we wanted to see). The film's biggest action scene is actually right at the beginning, and it's a disaster - twelve or so guys enter a dark cave, and there's only one that you could identify with in any way (guess who?). None of the others are given a name or distinguishing trait, and within a few minutes they're all fighting in the dark, with the editor cutting every few frames to make it seem more exciting or something (I don't understand the appeal of this technique), so you have no idea what's going on or why you should care about any of it if you did. Sadly it's nothing new for this sub-genre, but it's even sadder ninety minutes later when the movie ends and you realize that it was probably the most extensive action it offered. Again, the film's mystery plot was actually kind of engaging and allowed for some admirably peculiar beats (like when Vin visits a witch-run bakery where they put maggots in their cupcakes), but I'd rather see it applied to something low key - not a $90m movie that will ultimately devolve into its hero fighting a giant ball of CGI.
Interestingly, the original script for I, Frankenstein was also supposed to be more of a noir-ish mystery that just happened to feature Frankenstein's Monster, but years of rewriting turned it into a bland and soulless Underworld-y battle between gargoyles and demons. So instead of something potentially interesting we have another movie where solid actors (Bill Nighy in the Underworlds, Miranda Otto here) are forced to recite pages of incomprehensible "mythology" exposition while wearing a silly costume, in between scenes of generic action. And this one even added Jai Courtney, as if to hammer the pointlessness home. Dracula Untold was somewhere in between the two; not as terrible as Frankenstein but without the quirky stuff Witch Hunter brought to the table. But it's got an excuse of sorts: unlike the others it was not only trying to start its own series but also kick off a would-be shared universe of more heroic versions of the classic Universal Monsters, a horrible idea that will hopefully never come to pass. That said, it had some spark to it (Vlad the Impaler choosing to get his powers for a few days in order to protect, rather than AVENGE, his family was an interesting concept) and Luke Evans was solid, so like Witch Hunter, I wouldn't be totally against the idea of a follow-up... but I couldn't possibly care if I never saw these characters again.
(I wouldn't even watch I, Frankenstein, Too on a plane, for the record.)
Hopefully we will be spared any similar movies for a while. Sure, we're getting obligatory Underworld and Resident Evil sequels in the next year (a "Final Chapter" in the latter's case), but I can't imagine Lionsgate/Summit will risk another costly venture like Witch Hunter for a long time (they were behind I, Frankenstein too), and Legendary is mostly focused on their giant monster movies for the time being, as they're currently working on Kong, Godzilla and (possibly) Pacific Rim followups. The only one like the above in their lineup for 2016 that I can find is Spectral, which was pitched as a "supernatural Black Hawk Down," and that sounds ridiculous enough to warrant my curiosity, admittedly (however it's coming out in August, so you can guess how good it'll actually be). On the other hand, thanks to Blumhouse (and other studios wishing they were Blumhouse), we will be inundated with lots of traditional horror, with all the ghosts and creepy dolls and even a killer shark movie (!), which should keep expensive world-building and terrible voiceovers to a minimum. But if such films come along, I'll be there, watching them in empty theaters a week or two after release, laughing at the terrible dialogue, straining my eyes to follow the action, and mentally giving it a hug when it ends on a note that suggests more adventures will be coming.