|The Wolfman: Then & Now|
|Written by Will “the Thrill” Viharo|
Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright… — The Wolf Man (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)
When one thinks of werewolves—as I often do—images of foggy forests, the full moon, damsels in distress, terrifying transformations involving fur and fangs, violent attacks, torch-bearing angry villagers, and creepy gypsies spouting poetic curses spring to mind. Universal’s most recent incarnation of one of their signature monsters, The Wolf Man, first introduced to the Silver Screen in 1941 with Lon Chaney Jr. easily inhabiting his most famous role, has received the inevitable update—but without sacrificing a single one of these legendary trademarks. The transition from 20th to 21st Century is a relatively rewarding cinematic experience. The new howl echoes the old one, and that’s a good thing.
When I first heard that Benicio Del Toro was behind the remake, I was encouraged and excited. For one thing, unlike many modern filmmakers who arrogantly think they can improve on an iconic but dated piece of pop culture, Del Toro is an avowed, avid fan of the source material; he enthusiastically exudes his lifelong love for The Wolf Man as well as the classic Universal monster stable in general. Not only that, he physically resembles both Lon Chaney Jr. and Sr., so he fits right into that timeless horror star lineup. His passion for the project is evident in every detail of the troubled production, which had been delayed several times, largely due to Del Toro’s insistence that the remake pay visual tribute to the original, including the look of the titular character, over some reported studio objections. Eventual director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III, the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger) was obviously in sync with Del Toro’s vision, and, despite some choppy editing in the early scenes of exposition, there is little left on screen to indicate behind-the-scenes backbiting, as it were. It’s not a psychological thriller or a modern horror film—it’s an old school monster movie, a classic creature feature, and that’s precisely why, for my money, despite some of the critical backlash, it’s a howling success.
Both films feature a main protagonist named Lawrence Talbot, returning home from America after a long absence to his wealthy father’s British estate, with dreams of beginning a new life, only to be bitten by a werewolf and doomed to become one himself. There are several divergent plot points that separate the remake from the original, but this basic premise is left intact. This time, Larry is a stage actor, and the curse is actually a familial disease of sorts more or less “inherited” from Larry’s father, Sir John (the perfectly cast and gleefully hammy Anthony Hopkins, smoothly stepping into Claude Rain’s esteemed shoes), but apparently “triggered” by the unfortunate werewolf assault. The classy cast includes lovely Emily Blunt as Larry’s star-crossed love interest, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers in the original), and Geraldine Chaplin as the mysterious, mournfully maternal gypsy Maleva, originally played by the great Maria Ouspenskaya. The darkly melodic score by Danny Elfman—which also suffered initial rejection and revision during the painful production process—beautifully complements the relentlessly brooding atmosphere and the lushly nightmarish cinematography.
One curious artistic choice was placing the familiar story in 19th Century England, while the 1941 version was contemporary. The remake’s Gothic setting actually makes the tone and overall atmosphere more akin to Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961) starring Oliver Reed (reportedly another reference point per Del Toro), as well as the Spanish series of werewolf films starring Paul Naschy as the tormented but resilient Waldemar Daninsky, which ran from the late ’60s to the early ‘80s. In fact, Rick Baker’s makeup effects incorporate elements of both of these interpretations as well as the original, iconic Chaney Wolf Man design of Universal’s resident genius, Jack Pierce. The result is the coolest monster in decades, superseding even the inspired, innovative beasts of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London (both 1981). Baker was a consultant on the former and was in total control of the latter’s justly celebrated effects, so he is responsible for the first truly convincing werewolf transformations on screen. When he got the nod (after persistent self-lobbying) to create a somewhat modernized Wolf Man that was obviously inspired by the one we all know and love, I was even happier. This time, the impressive transformations scenes are naturally abetted by CGI. While this modern device is sort of a cheat, the primary prosthetics compensate for this inevitable short cut. This new Wolf Man is totally recognizable to us diehard fans – and he’s a true Wolf Man, not a big computerized dog, which has been the popular trend lately, to my personal chagrin.
As in Peter Jackson’s outstanding, similarly reverent remake of King Kong, the action sequences are superior (and more frequent) in the new version of The Wolf Man, if only because advances in modern movie-making technology and the more liberal ratings code allow for these improvements after nearly 70 years. Three standout scenes are the attack on the gypsy village, the rampage in London (obviously a nod to ‘81’s American Werewolf), and the climactic lobo a lobo battle royale, replete with House of Usher-style burning mansion. The final scene—resolving a romantic plot line actually lifted from 1944’s House of Frankenstein, the third of five Chaney Wolf Man films—is actually quite moving. Del Toro’s stoic, one note acting style is an apparent riff off the thespian standards prevalent back in the day. His consistently gloomy mood perfectly suits the somber ambiance pervading the entire film.
The Wolfman—as opposed to the 1941 spelling, The Wolf Man, apparently to somewhat distinguish itself—was well worth the wait, a true homage that is a better film than any of the successful, entertaining, epic Mummy remakes, or the ill-conceived, fun but overdone, CGI-heavy “re-imagining” of the Universal monsters, Van Helsing (2004). Del Toro gets props for doing the original justice, meanwhile creating a contemporary classic in its own right. I can only hope the long-rumored but apparently pending reboot of another personal favorite Universal monster, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, receives the same respectful treatment. I’m not holding my breath, but as this film proves, sometimes Hollywood actually gets it right. Cheers.
Will "the Thrill" Viharo is a freelance writer, beatnik lounge lizard at large, and host/producer of the long-running live cult movie cabaret "Thrillville," which he hosts with his lovely assistant and patient wife, Monica Tiki Goddess. The Thrills live on the exotic isle of Alameda, CA with their cats Chungking and Tiki. When in the mood for a cheap thrill, please swing by www.thrillville.net