The Wolfman (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

The original Wolfman is one of the Universal horror classics that arrived a full ten years after the original Dracula, Frankenstein and most of the rest of the gang. Starring Lon Chaney (and with Bela Lugosi as the character that passes the curse on to Chaney) it isn’t my favourite of the old classics. While Chaney is suitably forlorn for a doomed character, he’s also not a remarkable actor, and the way his character pursues a woman who declares she isn’t interested borders on stalking. The special effects also date the film much more so than any of the predecessors, because they can’t manage the transformation smoothly, or much more than a slow-moving, particularly hairy man. More than anything else, the Wolfman feels closer to an abrasive punk on his way home from a bad night at the local pub.┬áStill, it’s an enjoyable enough film for managing a straightforward narrative and a solid atmosphere. And it isn’t every film that doesn’t allow a fairly likeable central character to survive.

What’s frustrating about the only direct remake so many decades later is that all it needed was some of the restraint of the first film. The effects are certainly impressive, though I’d agree with Roger Ebert that the werewolf could’ve used a little more weight — it looks a little cartoonish. And the atmosphere is there too. I thought it had a promising start when we only caught glimpses of the monster. For the first half-hour or so victims are suddenly carried off, or suddenly wounded, and the level of suspense is higher than expected. It takes about twenty-eight minutes for the film to decide it needs to show a close-up of a policeman with his face half-torn off, and suddenly the film has all the style and taste of Friday the 13th, part 8.

It’s unfortunate, because there was certainly a lot of potential here, and there’s a film in here somewhere that’s making the effort to be a lot more subtle — you can literally pick out those moments in the film — before somebody apparently went through the script and demanded five more decapitations. As Lawrence Talbot, Benicio del Toro is appropriately brooding and dark, and Anthony Hopkins and Emily Blunt are certainly solid supporting cast members. Hugo Weaving is fine as the inspector, but really should’ve been required to do something other than his Agent Smith drawl from the Matrix. There’s nothing wrong with having a lighter character to provide contrast.

As for the script, the setting bounces back and forth between London and the town of Blackmoor far too frequently, even as characters suffer wild mood swings that either have Talbot as an apologetic gentleman, or down at the pub throwing a drink in someone’s face. Weaving has a good line when he sits back and declares that while we hate rules, “They’re all that keep us from a dog eat dog world.” But it’s the only line he gets that tells us anything about his character, and he spends the rest of the film narrowing his eyes and aiming a pistol. I won’t ruin the end, except to say it’s a whole set of scenes that sometimes feel quite well-handled, and sometimes feel like sudden lurches in the plot to satisfy the need for another fight. And having watched the extended cut, it’s hard to forgive the decision to drop an early scene with the great Max von Sydow, just for the sake of getting to the action sooner. After all, anything that enhances your understanding of the characters only adds to the impact later on.

I know I’m being picky here. As a remake, it’s an entertaining enough film. It’s just unfortunate we’ll never see the more subtle, ultimately more effective film trying to get out. It might be pushing it a little to say on one level it’s a film about fathers and sons, and finding your own way despite having been gifted with a particular set of instincts. But that’s certainly a film I’d like to see.

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