2010/USA/Directed by Joe Johnston
Along with Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman was one of the ‘big four’ of horror characters featured by Universal Studios in their genre films of the 1930s and 40s. First featured by the studio in 1935s The Werewolf of London, the character would enter its classic period six years later when Lon Chaney Jr. played the title character in The Wolf Man, reprising the role in four follow-up films for Universal: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and the comedic classic Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Subsequent decades saw variations of the lycanthropy curse featured in such diverse films as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Hammer’s masterful The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, my personal favourite werewolf film), a string of Spanish horror films starring and directed by Paul Naschy, the 1971 biker flick Werewolves on Wheels, the 1981 double-whammy of Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (both enjoyable but somewhat overrated in my book) and the Michael J Fox spoof Teen Wolf (1985). And of course, who can forget Michael Jackson’s hairy transformation in his classic Thriller video.
Now Universal is attempting to resurrect their line-up of classic horror characters with this updating of the werewolf legend. One of the more troubled productions in recent Hollywood history, The Wolfman (the abbreviation of the title stops here) was initially set to be directed by music video veteran Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition). Sets were built at Pinewood for a February 2008 shoot, but Romanek quit four weeks before filming, citing creative differences (apparently Universal execs wanted much of the psychological angle cut out in favor of a more action-oriented film). Enter Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jurassic Park III), who is bought in to helm the film with barely a few weeks notice and is given little time to plan how to put his own stamp on the film. Even Danny Elfman’s gothic score is scrapped and replaced by a more modern industrial soundscape composed by Paul Haslinger, before they eventually went back to Elfman’s original soundtrack. As studio and director bickered over the final cut (with rumors that two different cuts of the film were being prepared, one by Johnston and one by the studio) and special effects constantly getting tinkered with, the release of The Wolfman continued to get pushed back, from November 2008 to February (then April and November) 2009, until the film finally saw the light of the cinema projector in February 2010.
With the addition of a couple of clearly telegraphed ‘twists’, Joe Johnston’s finished film is a fairly faithful remake of the 1941 original, with Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, a stage actor in 1880s England who returns home to his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) following the violent killing of his older brother, supposedly by a wild animal. While visiting a gypsy camp, Talbot is bitten by a wolf and soon succumbs to the curse of lycanthropy, sprouting excess body hair and snarling wildly as her terrorizes (and tears apart) the local countryside, before he’s captured and put in an asylum, given ice baths and exhibited to a medical board, and led on a chase across the rooftops of London (highlighted by a stunning shot of the creature perched on a gargoyle, howling at the full moon), all the while trying not to disembowel his brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt), with whom he’s fallen in love.
So, after all the struggles to get the Wolfman howling again on screen, was it worth the wait? Well, yes and no. Many critics of the film have signalled out its pacing and, at the risk of being clichéd, it is a valid criticism. Nowhere in the film is the behind the scenes bickering more evident than in its pacing. Slow as molasses in some parts, jarringly fast in others, the film never seems to find a natural rhythm. The combination of old-school make-up and modern CGI never quite melds, although thankfully the CGI is not of the ‘video game’ variety, and with the way the filmmakers wanted the wolfman to look and move, it’s clear that CGI was the only viable option. A lifelong dream project for him, Benicio Del Toro (who also co-produced) certainly does his best to look tortured, but never seems to really convince as Talbot (and he lacks the good-natured ‘chumminess’ that made Chaney Jr. so endearing in the role). And Anthony Hopkings puts in another fairly clichéd, by-the-numbers performance of the kind that he has been telegraphing in for the past decade. In Silence of the Lambs, I see Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, a complex, unnerving sociopath. In The Wolfman, I see Anthony Hopkins as, well, Anthony Hopkins. It’s almost as if he has become a caricature of his former great self. Emily Blunt is good but underused, and Hugo Weaving adds a bit of needed weight as a detective on the trail of the beast.
However, that isn’t to say The Wolfman doesn’t have a lot of good things going for it. It does. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is dark and moody, foreboding and foggy but still wonderfully lush, and many of the sets and locations give the film a nice, epic feel. The film drips with a thick, gothic atmosphere, and Rick Baker’s make-up is once again superb, the veteran artist creating a wolfman that combines elements on Lon Chaney, Paul Naschy and Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf. There’s a few genuine scares (even if they are of the ‘quick shock’ variety) and the film has a surprisingly visceral edge, with bloody limbs flying everywhere during the wolfman’s rampaging outbursts. As he showed more successfully in The Rocketeer, Joe Johnston (soon to helm the Captain America movie) clearly loves genre material, and that love does show itself throughout The Wolfman, and it is just plain great to see a good old-fashioned monster movie up on the screen, one that is not populated by idiotic teens looking to have sex and party down before getting tortured and skinned alive by some generic psychopath.
While far from being the disaster it could have been given the film’s troubled production, The Wolfman is unfortunately not the definitive modern interpretation of the iconic character that many of us were hoping for. But it’s still a solid, reasonably entertaining and occasionally arousing production, and a much more genuine evocation of classic Universal horror cinema than the studios' string of recent Mummy movies starring Brendan Fraser. It would be great to see a sequel that irons out all the wrinkles but, given the film’s much-plagued road to the screen, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.