Wolfman, The

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It's too bad that the loose remake of Universal's beloved horror film of 1941 fell into the hands of Johnson, for there is nothing in his resume but mediocre films (the cheesy "Jurassic Park III," the dull "Hidalgo," despite star power of Viggo Mortensen) and there's nothing to indicate that he actually understands the requirements of the genre, the fears, anxieties, and joys it has offered viewers for over seven decades.
 

The original director was gone before production began and the release of the movie has been pushed twice (was meant to be shown by Universal in 2009). Watching the troubled and flawed "Wolfman" suggests the reasons for the delays. Which means that the picture might score with younger spectators (older ones will be bored) but for only one weekend or so. And the film may go down in history as another failed effort to reboot an iconic work, one that will become mostly known for changing the title from the original "The Wolf Man" (better title) into "The Wolfman."

"Part man, part demon, all cursed," read some of the 1941 movie's ads, but, alas, not much of this promise is evident in Johnson's rendition. Indeed, a very talented cast, headed by Benicio Del Toro in the lead (playing the Lon Chaney part), Anthony Hopkins, and Emily Blunt, is really wasted in a movie that's neither scary enough as a horror flick nor poignant enough as a tragic tale of the duality of human nature.

 

Inspired by the classic Universal film that launched a legacy of horror, "Wolfman" aims at—but does not succeed—in bringing the myth of a cursed man back to its mythic origins. End result is a schlocky feature narratively, half of which is dramatically inert, elevated one notch above the awful by some good production values (see below). 
 
Some context is in order: In the 1930s and 1940s, Universal produced a cycle of horror films that created a new genre, the monster movie. Iconic creatures like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy and The Invisible Man, were played by great performers, such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Claude Rains, all giant actors who have deservedly become cult icons. (See End Note)
 
One of the most haunting creations, a lone man forced to succumb and express his primal (primitive) side, was played by Lon Chaney, Jr. in 1941, forever haunting moviegoers, fascinated by his total transformation, physical, metal, emotional, into inhuman (or subhuman) creature. Following literary traditions, the change usually took place was the moon was full, allowing him to unleash primal rage from his psyche's darkest shadows.
 
Nothing if not versatile and risk-taking as an actor, the indefatigable Benicio Del Toro (last seen as Che in Soderbergh's flawed political epic) and Oscar winner of "Traffic") is well cast as Lawrence Talbot, a haunted nobleman lured back to his family estate after his brother had vanished. Reunited with his harsh, estranged father (Anthony Hopkins, looking uncomfortable), Talbot sets out to find his brother, and in the process discovers a new facet of his identity and a horrifying, totally unexpected destiny for himself.
 
We learn that Lawrence Talbot’s childhood ended the night his mother died. After he left Blackmoor, the sleepy Victorian hamlet, he went on spending decades trying to forget his loss. But when his brother’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt, looking good), tracks him down to help find her missing love, Talbot returns home to join the massive search.
 
In short order, we witness strange occurrences of brutal violent and bloodlust against the innocent villagers. Aberline (Hugo Weaving), a suspicious Scotland Yard inspector, is then assigned to investigate the bizarre mysteries.
 
Meanwhile, while Talbot pieces together the gory puzzle, he hears of an ancient curse that turns the afflicted into werewolves. He realizes, like other mythic heroes, that the only chance of ending the slaughter and protecting the woman he loves is to destroy the vicious creature in the woods around Blackmoor. However, bitten by the beast, what was a rather simple man haunted by a troubled past, is now forced to uncover a primal, latent side of himself.
 
Del Toro is credited as one of the film's producers, so I assume he had approved of the scenario, which is full of clichés, sort of a compilation of all the conventions of Universal's horror flicks, but not arranged or presented in any interesting ways; critics were laughing at some of the prepsoterous lines! 
 
Ultimately, what offers some compensation for the misbegotten, lethargic approach, deliberate tempo, and lack of sustained dramatic interest, is the technical polish of the production, though sometimes it looks like a variation of Masterpiece Theater.
 
The editing by Dennis Virkler and the gifted Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now") tries to fuse the various strands of the tale, albeit to varying degrees of success. 
 
There is impressive contribution from Oscar-winning production designer Rick Heinrichs (who designed several of Johnny Depp's features, the admirable Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," the goofy but fun "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest."
 
Best of all, however, is the work of the creator of the werewolf effects, six-time Oscar-winner Rick Baker, who also designed the far superior "An American Werewolf in London," back in 1981 (It's being remade now).
 
End Note
 
There's long been fascination with the mythological creature known as the lycanthrope, a human capable of transforming himself into a wolf-like creature when the moon is full. From the myths of the ancient Greeks to chronicles by Gervase of Tilbury in 1212’s “Otia Imperialia,” horror stories about werewolves have dominated various cultures for centuries.
 
In 1935, Universal made "Werewolf of London," from director Stuart Walker, but it was 1941’s "The Wolf Man" that firmly established the werewolf's modern cinematic myth. The film created an iconic character in the tragic figure of a wayward nobleman, Lawrence Talbot, played by Lon Chaney, Jr., son of silent film icon Lon Chaney, who made "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."
 
Directed by George Waggner from an original screenplay by Curt Siodmak, "Wolf Man" was Universal’s last creature film in a successful cycle that lasted for almost a decade; WWII may be responsible for that. Talbot's character went on to reappear in other films, including "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man," "House of Frankenstein," "House of Dracula," and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein," all of which are worth seeing.
 
While the original, billed with the tagline of “His hideous howl a dirge of death!” became an instant classic, at 70 minutes, it was quite a short monster movie. But it solidified the fame of star Lon Chaney, Jr. and included cameos from additional Universal “monsters,” including "Invisible Man" Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot and "Dracula" Bela Lugosi as the gypsy who discovers the curse that’s been leveled upon Lawrence.
 
Mike Nichols also made a semi-successful contempo version of the famed myth, "Wolf," with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Reviewed February 10, 2010