As Iconic Cartoon Characters Come Into The Public Domain, There Will Definitely Be Slasher Movies About Them, And That’s Okay

This year, the legendary Disney short film Steamboat Willie, the first film to feature Mickey Mouse, entered the public domain. In theory, that means this version of Mickey Mouse now belongs to the people, who are free to share, reuse, sample, repurpose or perform works featuring him however they see fit, without fear of reprisal from Disney. Theoretically this could spark an entire organic folk revival of a character who played a part in all our childhoods.

In reality, though, things are a little different. Because in reality someone is going to make a cheap horror film about him. Variety has announced the existence of Screamboat, a film about some New Yorkers who go on a late-night ferry trip and end up being terrorised by an evil mouse. “The unlikely crew must band together to thwart the murderous menace before their relaxing commute turns into a nightmare,” reads the description.

In one sense, Screamboat holds quite a lot of promise, not least because the main character – whose name appears to have been changed to Murderous Mouse just to keep Disney at bay – will be played by David Howard Thornton, who most recently traumatised the life out of anyone who saw him in Terrifier 2. His presence suggests that the horror element is being taken seriously, at least. If his mouse can convey a tenth of the menace of his Terrifier character, then Screamboat has the potential to be something quite special.

But in another sense, there does seem to be something quite deadeningly inevitable about this. The public domain entry of works and characters that are still relevant and contemporary is still relatively new, and already a blueprint has been formed. As soon as the corporations lose control of their properties, the first thing out of the gates is almost always a horror movie.

Lovely old Pooh … a still from Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey. Photograph: Fetch Publicity

Last year’s Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey set the template: a cheap, opportunistic, largely unimaginative effort that hinged solely on the juxtaposition between lovely old Pooh and the worst excesses of the horror genre. That Steamboat Willie is receiving the same treatment suggests that this is simply going to be the way things will work. It’ll be the same when Bugs Bunny enters public domain. And when Popeye becomes public property. And Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog and Pokémon and Paw Patrol and on and on and on and on, stretching all the way into the future. As soon as any property becomes public domain, someone will make a tropey little horror film about it, and it’ll generate a little bit of rubbernecking buzz, and it will repeat again and again for ever.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I may attempt to stay alive until the year 2099, purely so that I can make an aggressively spite-filled horror movie about Peppa Pig. And it does make a lot of sense that the movies are always horror, too, because that’s the genre with the most recognisable structures and beats. It’s far easier to understand the sudden arrival of a beloved character in a horror than in, say, a gentle coming-of-age drama.

So this is how things are going to be. We may as well strap in and brace ourselves for what is to come. Popeye becomes public domain next year, for instance, so perhaps we should get used to the idea that there will soon be a horror movie about a one-eyed sailor who eats some poisoned spinach and transforms into a mutant. So does Tarzan, and if someone doesn’t remake Predator but with a semi-wild jungle human instead of an alien, I’m going to be incredibly disappointed. (Un Chien Andalou also becomes public domain next year, although it seems a bit redundant to make a horror of that.)

And then in 2026, Tintin, Pluto and Betty Boop all become public domain. More interestingly, the first iteration of The Three Stooges also does. Again, someone sorely needs to make a kind of Texas Chainsaw Massacre film, but with three clumsy, argumentative, chainsaw-wielding Leatherfaces who keep whooping and dismembering each other in increasingly hilarious ways. Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey and Screamboat have set this train into motion, so now this is what we expect and deserve. Hollywood, get ready.

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