Back in the 30’s and 40, Universal Studios reinvigorated to the horror genre the same way Disney did with the musical genre in the 90’s: with multiple films starring a diverse cast of creatures beyond the realms of reality. One of these terrifying beasts is the Wolfman. Created in 1941 and starring Lon Chaney Jr., it tells the tale of Lawrence Talbot: a man who returns to his home town after receiving news of his brother’s demise. While trying to mend the relationship with his estranged father, and meeting some of the townsfolk, Lawrence is bitten by a creature and is now cursed with an uncontrollable transformation. Can he find a cure before his alter ego spills enough blood to pain the town red (or in this case black and white)?
Despite having very little violence than advertised, the story evokes a sense of paranoia, fear, and sympathy for the main character. Talbot is very likeable as a human being, possessing a lot of skills and a knack for clever wordplay, which makes his predicament all the more tragic. He shows remorse for the actions that are carried out by the unruly monster within, and desperately tries to find a cure and make amends for these casualties. That’s not even mentioning the townsfolk who gossip like birds on a wire, increasing the hysteria with every new kill.
There are so many memorable quotes that stand alongside Roy Scheider’s bigger boat remark after spotting the shark, or Ellen Ripley’s battle cry to the queen xenomorph. Most notably the intro quote: “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”
The make-up will vary from person to person, but considering that it was created in the 1940’s, Jack Pierce still did an incredible job applying animalistic features to a human being. Meanwhile, the black and white framing aids the gothic night scenes as the fog swirls and encompasses the varied environments. The limitations of the time period actually work in favor of both the visuals and the storytelling. If anything, the short running time is its only silver in the works, reaching its end just as things start to take off.
The Wolfman still remains a horror classic that surprisingly gets by with very little violence to support a complex story. The cast is charismatic, the effects for the time still hold up, and the narrative is smart in portraying another sympathetic monster after the successful 1931 Boris Karloff vehicle Frankenstein. It might have elements that don’t hold up in the eyes of the twenty-first century, but that’s no reason to entirely dismiss this pioneering campfire memoir for future generations. If you love horror, you owe it to yourself to discover where the seeds were planted that formed the roots we take for granted today.
Pros: Charismatic cast, gothic framing, tragic story, impressive make-up, memorable quotes, sympathetic lead
Cons: Short running time
In 2010, Universal released a remake of The Wolfman, hoping to reignite interest in their household creature features. The project lingered in development hell since 2006, with directors coming and going from the production due to creative differences. These include Mark Romanek, Brett Ratner, Frank Darabont, and James Mangold, before Universal settled on Joe Johnston (Honey I Shrunk the Kids, The Rocketeer, October Sky, Jumanji, Captain America: The First Avenger).
Unfortunately, Johnston had to deal with looming deadlines that forced him to cut corners in certain areas during post-production. In the end, The Wolfman was a massive box-office bomb and has been shunned by fans, movie goers, and the president of Universal at the time, Ronald Meyer. “It’s one of those movies, the moment I saw it I thought, ‘What have we all done here?’ That movie was crappy. We all went wrong. It was one of those things… like I said, we make a lot of bad movies. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. It was wrong. The script never got right. [The Cast]…was awful. The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.” The company later rebooted their plans for a cinematic universe starring the rest of their abnormalities, but stumbled again when 2017’s The Mummy, starring Tom Cruise, cost the studio ninety-five million dollars after tanking with both critics and the box-office. This led to another reboot that focused more on stand alone remakes such as 2020’s The Invisible Man. And Universal Studios has never looked back ever since. A decade has passed since then, but was all the bad publicity warranted?
Actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is brought back to his hometown following the murder of his brother, Ben Talbot. There he reunites with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) and Ben’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Determined to track his sibling’s killer, Lawrence is attacked by a wolf creature and is cursed to succumb to the transformation when the full moon rises, in addition to having Inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving) hunting him with the rest of the police force.
The remake takes the expansion route to elaborate on vague details from the original, and for the most part it succeeds. While staying faithful to the core idea, there’s enough new material to justify its own existence, unlike Gus Van Sant’s Psycho experiment. Everything goes according to plan until the final act reveals a twist villain. That’s right, the wolfman, about a human fighting his inner demon, has a twist villain, and even then, the motivations behind their actions do not make any sense. This does lead to some frightening action sequences, but it completely goes against both the point of the character as well as the lycanthropy lore. It is less of a psychological study and more of a murder mystery from an Agatha Christie novel, not helped by shoehorning a forced romantic interest that has very little development. One could argue that the original is guilty of this sin, but that was at least kept somewhat platonic.
On the other hand, the production alone is worth the price of admission as Joe Johnston films always embrace the look and tone of any given time period, even if the final result like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is more style than substance. You can thank Johnston’s longtime cinematographer, Shelly Johnson, for upping the Halloween spirit from dawn to dusk. The night scenes swallow the entire landscape in a foreboding darkness, constantly playing with the lighting and shadows as if it was straight of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which can’t be said for many modern horror films, let alone remakes.
Then there’s the make-up, brought to life by the legendary Rick Baker, who is a huge fan of the 1941 film. In fact Jack Pierce was such an inspiration for his career that Baker opted to stay faithful to the original werewolf form. The Wolfman has never looked better and all the best scenes involve his carnage around town with some gruesome practical gore effects, making the monstrosity even more terrifying. Even better is Danny Elfman’s music heightening the tension once the werewolf leaps, bounds, and tears the meat out of his victims. This remake knows how to go all out in the creature moments and doesn’t hold back when the claws start to carve their prey for dinner.
However, due to the shorted work schedule, Johnston opted to use CGI on several key moments to save time, with mixed results. Sometimes it enhances the Wolfman’s powers, other times they scream “Look at my digital coating”. If this was made by a smaller studio, it would be understandable. But because it was produced by Universal itself, the lack of one more production delay for the sake of refining the details, fails to prove how much the company cared about their legacy properties. The gore could have also aided the message if Talbot had shown a pinch of regret after waking up with the blood of his victims staining his clothes. Instead there’s a huge focus on the mystery, romance, and hero’s journey that it strays away from what made this stand out from the other rogue’s gallery.
Cast members like Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, and Emily Blunt are perfectly suited for their roles. However, Benicio Del Toro is completely miscast as Lawrence Talbot, despite being a huge fan of the 1941 film. While the character is expanded upon, Del Toro is dull and monotone in deliver, not helped by the lack of repentance from his uncontrollable actions. There’s no sense of his past personality aside from exposition, and without that human connection, anyone could’ve been more suited for this imprtant role. Ironically, there are parts where we are supposed to root for the werewolf to enact his revenge on those who have wronged him. In any other story that would work, but in this fable of inner struggle, it feels out of place, which seems to be the running theme concerning the quality of this creature feature.
The Wolfman is a contempt remake on a timeless tragedy that doesn’t live up to its full potential. The cast is mostly well chosen, the production design marinates the viewer in an unsettling time period, Danny Elfman’s ominous score is perfectly paired with the gruesome gore effects, and Rick Baker’s Oscar winning make-up is at the center of the movie’s best moments. Unfortunately the main character is completely miscast, the story completely misses what made the original special from the other monsters, and Universal’s inability to delay the production one final time resulted in a lot of dodgy CGI effects that have aged as well as milk. For a remake that put so much effort into the look and style, it is disappointing that the story isn’t given as much attention. Had it kept the same spirit of the sympathetic character from the original, this could’ve stood beside the likes of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake: something that is on the level of its predecessor while updating all the important aspects for a new audience. However, considering this was released in the middle of the Twilight Saga’s popularity, the poor reception seems odd looking back as one would think that people would be more drawn to a more faithful take that doesn’t involve tween drama. It’s not the worst remake ever made, but between the two incarnations, the 1941 original is superior for being able to tell a complex story without the luxury of Hollywood tools in 2010. Fingers crossed that the upcoming modern day Ryan Gosling reboot will offer something with a bigger human connection. Until then, choose your monster wisely and make sure to leave your silver at the door.