I’ve not been a fan of Hollywood’s frenzied desire to remake every film, television show, and cartoon that ever succeeded, but a remake of The Wolf Man actually made sense to me. The original film first appeared nearly seventy years ago. It features a great premise and it holds up, after a fashion. However, the hammy period acting, limited special effects, and underdeveloped backstory affect its reception in 2010. A clever director could transform those elements for the present, while composing a kind of Valentine to the great old horror movies.

Does this film succeed?

The Wolfman

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self.
Based on the screenplay by Curt Siodmak.

Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot
Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot
Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe
Hugo Weaving as Frederick Abberline
Simon Merrells as Ben Talbot
Art Malik as Singh
Geraldine Chaplin as Maleva
Mario Marin-Borquez as Young Lawrence
Asa Butterfield as Young Ben

Full cast and credits may be found at the imdb

Although not listed at the imdb, Gene Simmons performed some howls for this movie, some of which can apparently be heard in the film. His claim to be the “voice” of the Wolfman, however, may be something of an exaggeration.

Premise:

Lawrence Talbot returns to his ancestral home to learn his brother has been savagely slaughtered. The locals believe a monster lurks in the woods, and Talbot’s desire to learn the truth may prove his undoing.

High Points:

The film’s initial flaws are those of the films that inspired it. Yes, the actors frequently chew the scenery, but they fall far short of the set-munchery performed by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Lawrence Talbot. The music is overblown— and I suspect that was Danny Elfman’s intention. The film tries to capture the essence of Universal’s old horror movies and update it for a twenty-first century audience. The intention doesn’t preclude criticism, but careful critics should pause and consider whether their complaints are germane.

The opening sets exactly the right tone for the movie, and the ending almost returns to it, though in a more amplified and violent way. We’re treated to muted colours, dark shadows, artificial dialogue, an isolated village, superstitious villagers, a gypsy encampment, an ancient manor, and a sinister curse. The nearby woods feature gnarled trees, picturesque ruins, and splattered guts. A killer walks the land, and that killer is no mere human. Eerie howls pierce the night, and our protagonist learns that his father has been keeping secrets.

If the film had developed in this vein, I would have said that, while Universal may not have created a great film, it has, son of a bitch, made a strong modern-day successor to their fabled horror movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The first and third acts pretty much give you what you’d expect from a film called The Wolfman

Low Points:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough. This movie received numerous rewrites, reshoots, and revisions, and it becomes totally unhinged in the middle. The tone meanders, as Talbot finds himself in a mental institution. We’re treated to a feeding frenzy of special effects and a dog’s breakfast of confusing shots. Anthony Hopkins explains the film’s mysteries and backstory in a wordy speech. New characters appear so we can watch an over-the-top comic-book revenge sequence. The Wolfman runs amuck in a visually stunning recreation of 1891 London.

All of this is visually interesting, and none of it is relevant. The film has a village worth of characters; it needed to develop those. It boasts an interesting, if not wholly original, backstory, which would have been worth revealing slowly, through clues and clever writing.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6. This is a remake of both The Wolf Man and (to a lesser degree) Werewolf of London, films that developed the modern mythology of the werewolf.1

Effects: 5/6. The effects combine old-style make-up and clever camera work with contemporary CGI. I find it remarkable how often the former trumps the latter in effectiveness. The transformations are impressive, as is the look of the film. The only reason I’ve not awarded 6/6 is that, in places, the filmmakers include gratuitous CGI that looks like CGI. We don’t need some of those London leaps, and real bears are available for hire.

Story: 4/6. The story begins well and the ending, if predictable, was suitably thrilling and met with my expectations. I can tolerate clichés in a film of this nature. The middle clearly should have (and likely, at one time, did) featured prowls in the dark, development of existing characters, gradual revelation of mysteries, and a few deaths by extreme violence. Instead, the film spends enough money to finance a film festival’s worth of independent horror movies on scenes that sometimes work on their own terms, but (for the most part) don’t belong in this movie.

Acting: 4/6. Yes, it’s hammy. I’m okay with that, given the film’s genre and stylizations. This is a monster movie set in a goth kid’s version of the Victorian Era. It required developed characters, something neither the script nor the actors quite give us.

Production: 6/6.

Emotional Response: 4/6. The film varies from genuinely thrilling to funhouse-scary to laughably manipulative. It is, in its defense, a better homage to the old Universal films than Van Helsing

Overall: 4/6. I don’t quite consider this the dog most critics have named it, but it falls far short of expectations.

The conclusion clearly hints at a sequel. Abbott and Costello have long since passed; perhaps the next Wolfman can meet Flight of the Conchords.

In total, The Wolfman receives 30/42.

Lingering Question

When did it become an unwritten rule of genre fiction that every story set in the late nineteenth century must features some connection, however tenuous, to Jack the Ripper?

Note

1. Although werewolves exist in a few mythic traditions, our understanding of werewolves derives heavily from Universal Studios.