Wolfman, The: Wolf Howls Again–Restoring Classic

Benicio Del Toro stars in “The Wolfman,” a remake of the legendary classic from 1935. The film, directed by Joe Johnston, is being released by Universal on February 12.

He has been given countless names by scores of cultures over thousands of years. There has long been a global fascination with the mythological creature known as the lycanthrope, a human with the unnatural ability to transform into a wolf-like creature when the moon is full. From the myths of the ancient Greeks to documentation by Gervase of Tilbury in 1212’s “Otia Imperialia,” horror stories about werewolves have dominated world cultures for centuries.

But it has only been in the past seven decades that the creature was committed to film. In 1935, Universal released Werewolf of London, from director Stuart Walker, but it was 1941’s classic The Wolf Man that firmly established the modern cinematic myth of the werewolf. The film created a lasting iconic character in

the tragic figure of a wayward nobleman by the name of Lawrence Talbot, played by Lon Chaney, Jr., son of silent film icon Lon Chaney, star of The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Directed by George Waggner from an original screenplay by Curt Siodmak, The Wolf Man was Universal’s latest creature film in an era that spawned imagination and nightmares. The Talbot character went on to reappear in films for the studio including Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

While the original, with its tagline of “His hideous howl a dirge of death!” became an instant classic, at only 70 minutes in run time, it was quite a short monster movie. It solidified the fame of star Lon Chaney, Jr. and included cameos from additional Universal “monsters,” including The Invisible Man’s Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot and Dracula’s Bela Lugosi as the gypsy who discovers the curse that’s been leveled upon Lawrence.

Actor/producer Benicio Del Toro has long been a fan of this genre and began to consider paying homage to the film with his manager and producer, Rick Yorn. Yorn explains his interest in beginning the project: “Growing up, these monster films really had an effect on my brothers and me. When I first came out to Hollywood, I wanted to remake one of the old movies. A few years ago, when Benicio and I were walking out of his house, I saw the one-sheet for The Wolf Man. It shows a close-up of Lon Chaney, Jr. as the monster. I looked at the poster, then back at Benicio—who had a full beard at the time—and said, ‘How would you feel about remaking The Wolf Man?’”

Del Toro was very interested in paying homage to the genre he’d loved since he was a boy. While he realized that would require him going deep into the makeup and prosthetics it would take to pull off the signature look of the creature, he was game for the challenge. “Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy… when I was a kid, I watched these movies,” Del Toro explains. “My earliest recollection of acting was watching Lon Chaney, Jr. play the Wolf Man. We wanted to honor this classic movie and the Henry Hull movie Werewolf of London. We knew it would be exciting to make it in the classic, handcrafted way.”

Del Toro didn’t want to remake the film frame by frame, but rather update it for modern audiences. He felt the story screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self created “gave the movie some twists and turns and a modern edge, while still honoring the original story.”

Del Toro and Yorn set about getting the project off the ground and, during a dinner with producer Scott Stuber, the men decided it was time this classic was updated. “We have put in a few twists, but we wanted to honor the original,” says Stuber. “The Wolf Man is so iconic because, on some level, he is within us. Every person feels a sense of rage. Each of us feels a sense of that time when we went too far, got too angry, did something we shouldn’t have done. Something primal exists within all of us, and we must control it or we are doomed.”

It was never a doubt for the producer that Del Toro was perfect for the title character. Of the Oscar winner, Stuber commends: “Benicio’s got such powerful

eyes. To feel so much emotion coming from under the transformation is critical to the heart of the movie. We didn’t want to separate the actor from the Wolfman…and end up having the beast here and Benicio there. The performance is always most important in order to feel for the character. The special affects are amazing, and they enhance the performance…they don’t create it.”

The three filmmakers were joined by producer Sean Daniel, who knew something about reinvigorating monster franchises himself; Daniel helped relaunch The Mummy series for Universal Pictures. Of his involvement in the production, Daniel notes: “It was really exciting to be asked to join in on giving new life to another of Universal’s great, classic monster characters that so inspired me when I was a kid.” Together, the producers began the search for a director who could not only translate the drama of the script, but also execute a horror film that would seamlessly blend visual effects, creature effects and CGI.

When director Joe Johnston was brought on to the project, he took over the reigns from Mark Romanek, who departed during pre-production. An Academy Award-winning art director for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Johnston’s resume as a director includes a strong combination of character-driven films such as October Sky and epic visual effects movies including Jurassic Park III and Hidalgo.

As with all of his projects, the director was far more interested in story before spectacle. In screenwriters Walker and Self’s tale, he found “underneath the action and the blood and the terror, a love story about Lawrence Talbot and his dead brother’s fiancée, Gwen. I wanted that relationship to be the element that held the story together…the key piece that invested the audience in understanding this horrible thing Lawrence is inflicted with.”

The former art director was excited by the visual challenges that would come from turning the script into an action-horror film: “I want to show the audience something they haven’t seen before in our process of turning a man into a werewolf,” notes Johnston. “We’ve all seen these transformations in werewolf movies, and they all rely more or less on the same visual elements. It’s stretching bones and hair growing on the face.

“We’ve done transformations in The Wolfman that you could only do with the help of computer generated animation,” he continues. “We have a great place to start the transformation, which is Benicio Del Toro, and we have a great place to end up, which is Rick Baker’s makeup. But it’s not a straight-line transformation…we go off in multiple directions to get to the end result.”