Werewolf movies, like roaches, don’t know how to die. The idea of a thick pelt, fangs and a taste for blood spawned seven decades of cinema lycanthropes with uneven results. This movie staple gave us “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” “Teen Wolf,” “Wolf,” plus American Werewolves in London, Paris, Washington, and Texas, “She Wolf” and “Bloodz -vs- Wolves.” The list is much longer. The full moon formula attracted the likes of Michael Landon, Michael J. Fox, Jack Nicholson — even Michael Jackson dotted his video resume with a werewolf.
Now it’s Benicio Del Toro’s turn. “The Wolfman” just hit the screen after multiple re-shoots and reedits amid sniping that the Hairy One just wasn’t beastly enough. You’ll recognize a familiar – and highly modified – storyline buried under the computer-generated effects, fog-shrouded moors and insistent sound track.
“The Wolfman” wants to sink its canines into the gold standard of the werewolf franchise, “The Wolf Man” from 1941. That movie defined the career of Lon Chaney Jr. and made him a star. Here’s the ‘Smackdown: Does “The Wolfman” raise the bar… or fall in with the rest of the pack?
It’s the end of the nineteenth century and Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to the family’s English manor after his brother Ben goes missing. By the time he arrives, the brother’s body is found, horribly ravaged. The victim’s fiance, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) is beside herself; family patriarch John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) maintains his reserve and estrangement from Lawrence. You know where this story is headed: Gypsies, bloody attack, transformation, lots of death. This movie could be sub-titled Like Father, Like Son and it has sequel stamped on it like a pentagram branded onto a forehead. Joe Johnston directed a script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self freely adapted from Curt Siodmak’s original 1941 screenplay.
The Defending Champion
Larry Talbot returns from America to Talbot Manor (in Wales here) after his brother dies in a hunting accident. Immediately, Talbot and his father (Claude Rains) reconcile their personal differences and Larry settles in for what he hopes is a permanent stay. He takes a shine to local shop clerk Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) and learns about the legend of the Werewolf, about wolfsbane and full moons. Soon enough, legend becomes reality: Gypsies, bloody attack, transformation, and several deaths. George Waggner directed Curt Siodmak’s iconic screenplay. Elements of this film figure into nearly every werewolf movie since.
It’s a fair guess we’ll always see movies made about wolf men and she-wolves. Why not: the better ones offer a touch of passion and impending doom. We never lose track of the humanity under all that fur.
Off and on, “Wolfman” has that, but also smirking performances by Hopkins and Hugo Weaving as a police inspector that seem too contemporary for the times portrayed in the movie. Benicio Del Toro looks a little uncomfortable throughout, especially in the mental hospital scenes where his treatment seems more like torture. In a way, none of that matters. The real ‘stars ‘of this movie are the dramatic transformations into beast and the rivers of blood. They are revved up to an extent that obscures the few real improvements “Wolfman” makes on the original material. Technically, “Wolfman” is quite impressive. Gwen Conliffe also makes more sense as Ben Talbot’s fiance. In the earlier movie her character is “discovered” by Larry Talbot in the creepy manner of a peeping Tom.
“Wolf Man” offers a more believable Larry Talbot. This guy’s really tortured: “I killed Bela.. I killed Richardson.. if I stay around here much longer you can’t tell who’s going to be next,” he laments. Lon Chaney is a pretty accessible monster. He’s surrounded by a cast of great character actors: Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya. They’re so good you forgive the non-sequiturs:
- Claude Rains – Lon Chaney are laughable as father and son.
- Lon Chaney changes into a werewolf… but retains his human ears.
- The beast tears up the moors in trousers and a black shirt.
- Bela Lugosi fears becoming a werewolf… but still has time to read a woman’s fortune.
- The first attack features a wolf… the rest, a wolf-man
This film is so well received it eclipsed the first wolf man movie, 1935’s “Werewolf of London.” Here’s something else: The “Wolf Man” you remember may not be that film, but pieces of the five werewolf movies Lon Chaney made. I always thought I saw his face change from human to beast in this movie. Nope. That happened in “Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.” As he dies in “Wolf Man” you see Talbot’s transformation from beast to human.
So… Does Universal Pictures have a new standard bearer for the werewolf franchise it created? No.
“The Wolfman” retells a story we know, but not better than the original material. This remake is more technically adept and much more graphic, but misplaces the torture within Larry Talbot, who’d rather die than become a monster with every full moon.
That may be the key: Audiences will never love Lawrence Talbot they way they love Larry Talbot. The older film is more human in scale and reach, and perhaps more frightening. “The Wolfman” is worth your time and deserves its place on the DVD shelf. In fact, it may lead the pack of werewolves and she-wolves stalking our winner, “The Wolf Man.”