The recent Wolfman movie is the biggest reason why I’ve been battling back to get current on my column here. A movie that I liked happened, and nobody went to see it. Now all that pre-release talk of resurrecting the Universal monsters seems to have subsided, and that’s a turn of events that just plain doesn’t work for me. I’m not so egotistical as to think that my opinion matters much at all , but since there was a lot of ink spilled and diskspace reserved towards bagging on this movie, I’d like to throw my positive thoughts into the court of public opinion and hopefully push the few and the bold who were teetering on the edge of checking out The Wolfman over the edge, at least in time for when the DVD comes out.
As one or two people may remember, I’m a big fan of the Universal monsters and in particular, I am a massive werewolf fan, soI was enthusiastically looking forward to this movie, regardless of the rumblings of a troubled production. The movie finally arrived in February, and it was neither a critical nor a financial success. However, I liked it. I liked it a lot! If I’m one of the few, or one of the only, then that’s just how it has to be. But if you’re reading this, and you love monsters and werewolves and old horror films anywhere near as much as I do, then I really do hope that you get the chance to check it out. It’s no classic and it’s certainly no revolution, but it has teeth and fur and blood and corsets and torches and castles and fog and forests, and that’s plenty of what’s fun about movies as far as I’m concerned.
To start, let’s get some context working. There are several elements you need if you’re re-envisioning the classic Wolfman…
You need a pained protagonist.
You need a pretty girl to get him all riled up.
You need a creepy old gypsy woman.
You need the makeup.
You need daddy issues.
You need an ending less than happy.
The new Wolfman, then, isn’t so far removed from the original as you might think. It’s interesting to look at the two side-by-side and notice how Curt Siodmak’s original story for the 1941 Wolfman was absolutely the blueprint for the new story. When I saw 2010’s Wolfman, I was surprised to see how closely the set-up mirrored the classic tale. Just as in the original, Larry Talbot is Americanized and way taller and incongruously related to his very British father, Sir John. (Benicio Del Toro looms over Anthony Hopkins just as Lon Chaney Jr. loomed over Claude Rains, and neither pair looks any more related to each other than I do to Yao Ming.) As in the original, Larry is brought back to Talbot Manor by his brother’s death. Gwen Conliff[e] isn’t his sister-in-law-to-be in the old movie, but she does run a home furnishings store. Somewhat creepily (though innocently), Larry spies on Gwen with his father’s telescope in the 1941 Wolfman – in the new version, the telescope is also a noticeable element: Sir John uses the telescope as a means to babble away about the moon to his son. The wolf cane is an essential prop – in the new movie, it’s a Talbot family heirloom, though in the original, Larry bought it from Gwen’s store. I could go on about all of these fidelities, but I won’t. The point to be made is that the new movie was made with great respect towards the old one.
There are changes and updates too, of course. Some are necessary, some are interesting, some work, some maybe don’t. The script credited to Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven, Sleepy Hollow) and David Self (Road To Perdition) makes one monumental change, in particular, which has to do with the aforementioned daddy issues, and gives Anthony Hopkins sharper teeth with which to gnaw away at the scenery. Let’s just leave it at that, without spoiling much further, but note that this development dramatically alters the climax of this particular Wolfman story – for the worse, if you read the majority of the reviews. As for myself, I found it a worthy experiment at the very least, and in fact I think I liked it, although I don’t know that the maximum of potential was reached here. The final scenes of The Wolfman are admittedly some of the less effective scenes.
The early scenes are somewhat gloomy and exposition-heavy and belabored, which again seemed to have bothered most of the critics, but for someone like me, who is immersed in the original Universal films, this is part of the tradition. There’s the slow build, and then the outbreak of monster activity, and by the latter half, pure calamity becomes a constant state until the end titles and the closing finale suite arrive. Benicio Del Toro, in my opinion, steadies the film – he has a terrific presence for a film like this one. He’s a guy who doesn’t work all that often, for the level of star he’s become, but it’s because he chooses his projects carefully and this one was clearly important to him. Not only do I respect that, but it’s so very clearly a fit for him. Benicio has an interesting face, able to portray inner torment that predicts the eventual rage he has to display here. He really does a strong job of conjuring the haunted air that is the hallmark of Larry Talbot.
Two interesting additions to the story are Singh, played by Art Malik, who is the aide and confidante to Sir John (and in that way has a role that becomes more interesting as the story progresses) and Inspector Abberline, who is played by Hugo Weaving, that wonderful actor who is a modern science-fiction staple (having appeared in the Lord Of The Rings and the Matrix movies). If that character name sets off your recognition impulse, it’s because it’s intentional – the movie suggests that its Inspector Abberline is the same Inspector Abberline who investigated the Jack The Ripper murders in late 19th-century London (and was played by Johnny Depp in 2001’s From Hell.) When I picked up on the reference, I got a kick out of it – it’s always fun when movies conjure up imaginary crossovers like this, when they’re well-reasoned and subtle enough. That added “star value,” if you caught it, only adds to the considerable antagonistic weight that Hugo Weaving brings to the role of Larry Talbot’s pursuer. Which is to say that it helps to have a worthy adversary for the Wolfman, considering that he’s an almost-unstoppable wild beast.
That, by the way, is the biggest and the most pronounced difference between the new Wolfman and its predecessor, and honestly, between it and most other werewolf movies ever made. The carnage and the body count are dramatically increased in this new version. It’s a hard R, and the werewolf attacks are brutal, thunderous, and bound to be thrilling to connoisseurs of this kind of stuff. I’ve never seen a werewolf rampage like the ones I’ve seen in this movie, and I dug the hell out of ‘em. The scene where Larry Talbot is strapped into a chair in a locked room in front of an unforgiving jury as the full moon approaches is fairly unforgettable, to name just one. Sure, there’s an unmissable CGI factor at play here, but it’s not distracting and unconvincing like computer graphics has been in shitty werewolf appearances as diverse as those in Van Helsing and those in the Underworld movies. This is superior CGI work, used relatively sparingly, and best of all, aided and abetted by unbelievable practical effects. The werewolf makeup by the legendary Rick Baker is convincingly detailed and ferociously intimidating. It’s a great new look for the character, almost inky-looking, almost infected by night. At the same time, Baker’s incredible work serves as a loving and faithful tribute to the iconic design by the legendary Jack Pierce.
I was at a dinner party not too long after The Wolfman came out in theaters, and I got into a conversation with a guy who had just seen it. He was disappointed, because he thought that the movie was only 80% good. I replied that he should be happy to have such a high percentage of satisfaction since, after all, on the sliding scale of werewolf cinema, 80% good is A-fucking-plus. He then asked me what makes me such an expert on werewolf movies, so I rattled off a preliminary short list of titles that I think have maybe only been seen by the moviemakers, their parents, a few dozen other werewolf nuts, and me. That was enough to settle the question, although this is one reason why you might not want me at your dinner party.
By the subterranean standards set by the majority of werewolf movies, you’re lucky if a werewolf movie has coherence and watchability, let alone terrific acting, interesting story ideas, a worthy villain, astounding makeup effects and fairly brutal werewolf-attack scenes – all of which are virtues of 2010’s incarnation of The Wolfman. Is it perfect? Maybe not. What is? Surely, there were some aspects I wish had been improved. Emily Blunt serves the movie more as something fun to look at than as a complex, compelling character in her own right. The intelligence and likability that the character displays seems to come more from the actress than from the page. Then again, let’s face it – you don’t come to The Wolfman for nuanced writing and gender equality. (When you do get it all though, as in An American Werewolf In London, it’s a true pleasure.) No, you come to The Wolfman to see a guy turn into a wolf monster and proceed to tear shit up, and that’s exactly what you get with this movie. It’s a werewolf movie that does precisely what it came to do, and it thereby deserves more credit than it’s been getting.
Let’s make this thing a hit when it comes to DVD – even if you don’t love it, even if you think it could be better, I hope that all of us monster fans can agree that we need many more movies like it.