I have this curse. I am a gnashing, slathering fanboy for monsters, in particular the classic Universal truimvarate of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, and especially when they are presented in a Gothic period setting and given a big budget treatment. This results in all manner of shame and heartbreak as I am compelled to not only watch but own and repeatedly view every new take these properties receive, even when as woeful and misguided as Stephen Sommer’s Van Helsing. When it was announced many full moons ago that Benicio Del Toro was spearheading a remake of the classic ’41 Wolf Man I couldn’t wait to see it.
And boy, did I ever have to wait. 2010’s Wolfman had one of the most storied and troubled histories in recent cinema — original director Mark Romanek leaving the project, Rick Baker voicing his unhappiness with how his make-up effects were being handled, multiple pushed back release dates, editing, scoring — it seemed like every step of this film’s evolution was a painful unhappy process of dissatisfaction and compromise. The film failed at the box office and even received a post-mortem slagging from the president of Universal calling it “a piece of shit”. On paper this movie was a resounding failure, and I’d be lying if I told you that it was really a maligned gem the way some of you crazies are talking about John Carter. It’s not. Objectively I can admit that The Wolfman is not a very good film.
But I love it.
Let’s start by acknowledging the flaws. Despite his apparent passion for the character, Benicio Del Toro exhibits very little passion in his performance as Laurence Talbot. It is a flat and un-engaging portrayal; Del Toro mumbles most of his lines like his character from The Usual Suspects and looks like he’d rather be taking a nap for most of the film’s running time. It’s a truly disappointing thing to witness and one can’t help but feel that Del Toro was unhappy with the way his passion project was turning out and just sort of decided to passive-aggressively sabotage the production. It kind of pisses me off and makes me lose a little respect for the man. I understand being unhappy with things behind the scenes, but be a professional dude. I want a little passion with my Wolfman and I don’t care about that insider baseball bullshit when it comes to the finished product. I have a tough time believing that Del Toro’s laconic performance was an artistically motivated choice, and if it was, it was a terrible one. It’s a failing of the film that simply cannot be ignored.
The theatrical cut of the film is edited at an uncomfortable pace to get to Talbot’s first transformation and the result is a story that doesn’t breathe. The director’s cut is better, but because of reshoots some scenes were changed and it causes continuity problems, like the fact that love-interest Gwen comes to visit Talbot at the theater, but later states that she summoned him by letter. It’s clear that no amount of editing was going to fix the film’s oblong pacing, and while those with patience will find more to enjoy in the longer cut, it really doesn’t change the overall feeling that this was a production that was cursed from the outset to be a bad movie.
There are other problems. Despite Emily Blunt’s undeniable allure, she has no character, no chemistry with sleepwalking Del Toro and the central romance is stillborn. There are moments where big budget CGI shenanigans take over and interfere with whatever old-school charm the film has earned. The ‘sins of the father’ storyline is tired and recalls another high-profile failure, Ang Lee’s Hulk. The script bears the unmistakable scars of changed hands and re-jiggering. No doubt about it, the movie is a bit of a mess. If you declare this film a giant piece of crap I can’t honestly argue the point and will go sit in the corner with my sad, dog-eared DVD copy and cry over what could have been.
But here’s the thing; when the fog of ‘what could have been’ clears away and if you can look past the glaring flaws, there’s a lot about The Wolfman to enjoy. First off is the atmosphere. I don’t know how much credit to give last minute gun-for-hire replacement Joe Johnston, but the movie looks great. It’s drenched in old school horror movie production design from the gothic setting to the rich, shadow-heavy lighting to the good old fashioned foggy forests. The movie looks exactly how I want it to, and as far as background noise/eye candy, my DVD copy more than pays for itself in entertainment value. You’d think that when updating a classic Universal horror property getting the atmosphere right would be a no-brainer, but past attempts prove otherwise. As much as I find shamefully amusing in Van Helsing, it feels like a Saturday morning candy-coated version of the Universal monsters milieu, where as The Wolfman feels like legit update. Considering how successful Captain America was at achieving a nostalgic WWII atmosphere, I have to credit at least a small amount of this to Johnston.
Then there’s the Wolfman himself. Combining design elements from the Lon Chaney original, Oliver Reed’s Curse of the Werewolf and Del Toro’s naturally wolfy features, make-up maestro Rick Baker crafted what in my opinion is the perfect modern take on the Wolfman. (And it is a “wolf-man” and not just a werewolf; there’s a goddamn difference). The make-up is fierce, expressive and when Del Toro is onscreen as the Wolfman the movie really comes alive. Baker won an Oscar for his work here and it is important to loudly remind anyone in earshot that The Wolfman is an Oscar winning film whenever one hears disparaging remarks being made about it in public. It’s a design that just works, and though I’ve heard crazy talk about how the face of the Wolfman is too mask-like, I feel like this interpretation takes the best elements of the iconic Lon Chaney Jr/Jack Pierce make-up and brings them into the modern cinematic era.
Now let’s talk about the original Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man. Full disclosure; 1941’s The Wolf Man is not among my favorite classic Universal horror films. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a strong entry and is possibly the single most defining piece of werewolf lore in popular culture, so I have the utmost respect for it. But as a film itself, I find it a little underwhelming. The main problem, which echoes my feelings about Del Toro in the 2010 version, is that I don’t find Chaney to be that compelling as a central character. Once he becomes tormented by the werewolf curse he does a good job of unraveling (which I attribute to his rampant real-life alcoholism; I imagine he’s just getting the shakes on set), but when he’s in smooth-talking Chaney mode I find him bland and uncharismatic. I just don’t buy him as a normal, charming guy. I’ll take Frederick March’s tormented turn as Jekyll and Hyde or even Henry Hull as the Werewolf of London over Chaney any day. Christ, Curse of the Werewolf is boring as hell but at least you’ve got Oliver Reed going bonkers for the last 30 minutes. Considering he’s playing THE iconic Wolf Man, I really don’t find that Chaney’s Laurence Talbot is a very interesting alter-ego, at least not in the original film.
There are other nitpicks I have of The Wolf Man that keep it from being in the upper most tier of Universal horrors for me. The vague, uncommitted setting. The inconsistent tone and pacing. The abrupt climax. These are not unforgivable sins by any means, but the point I’m trying to make is that the 1941 film is not some incorruptible text to me, not the way that Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon are. Hell, I enjoy watching Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man more, frank(enstein)ly. So while I would have preferred to see the remake turn out to be a modern classic, idea of an imperfect remake of The Wolf Man is probably more realistic and sits with me just fine. It doesn’t piss all over the original, and in fact it makes a real attempt to honor it. I think that judged solely on its intent, the 2010 Wolfman is pure of heart and even possibly says its prayers at night and all that.
And let’s not forget that the remake has some great R-rated gore, a pretty thrilling central action sequence (starting in the insane asylum, another cool touch), Anthony Hopkins enjoyably hamming it up in the villain role and Hugo fucking Weaving. If you can wade through the boring bits (and let’s face it, there are a few of them) and overlook the CGI bear, The Wolfman will entertain you. I don’t even mind the CG transformation; sure I’d like to see how Baker would have handled it all practical, but it’s not like what they delivered was bad. The flaws are large, perhaps too large for some to overcome, but for a Universal monster fanboy I think The Wolfman deserves a place on the DVD shelf, wedged between Coppola’s Dracula and Branagh’s Frankenstein. It certainly isn’t as shame-inducing as owning Van Helsing. Not that I’d know or anything. Ahem.
As far as classification, though it is intended as a straight-forward remake, I have to go with re-imagining. The Wolfman 2010 follows the general outline of The Wolf Man 1941, but enough of the story and details have been changed to put it into re-imagining territory. On the next full moon, why not give the movie a second chance? You may re-imagine your opinion on it. Or just tear it to pieces…again.
Up next: A Remake vs. Reboot triple smackdown covering all three versions of King Kong!