The 2010 version of the 1941 Universal Horror classic “The Wolf Man” shares more than just a title (sans space) with its predecessor. In a lot of ways, they’re the same movie — same core group of characters, same premise about a guy returning to his family’s estate to deal with his brother’s death, and the same basic story of said guy getting gnawed on by a werewolf and becoming cursed to transform into a beast himself whenever the moon is full. But despite all that, 2010’s “The Wolfman”, directed by Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”), also boasts some pretty stark differences from the version directed by George Waggner nearly 70 years ago, differences that are telling about the way Hollywood has changed in that time.
In 1941, it was enough for “The Wolf Man” to be a 68-minute-long psychological thriller heavy on gothic atmosphere and light on graphic horror. It got by with just a bit of cutting edge monster makeup by artist Jack Pierce; it used shadows, tricks and clever visual storytelling to help our minds fill in the rest. Now, “The Wolfman” clocks in at over 100 minutes, drenched in blood and buried beneath layers of complex latex and hair appliqués by Rick Baker, and padded out with additional action, horror and chase sequences not featured in the original. No longer just a character drama and a monster movie, the new “Wolfman” is also something of a slasher film and a superhero movie, with just a dash of torture porn sprinkled on top. It’s as if the original film was bitten by a werewolf, and then transformed into this uglier, louder, angrier version of itself.
Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolf Man, often cited the role of Lawrence Talbot as the best he ever got the opportunity to play. His respect for the part came across in his performance. Chaney didn’t just phone it in and assume that all people cared about was the monster; he acted his guts out in every scene. One could argue Chaney’s intensely emotional style was too overwrought for a taut supernatural scares film — no other Universal Horror protagonist spends quite so much time blubbering — but you can’t deny that he brought genuine pathos, not to mention a deeply personal connection, to the material (like Talbot, Chaney Jr. was a man who lived his whole life in the shadow of a powerful, overbearing father).
Despite the fact that he’s credited as a producer on the film, Benicio Del Toro frankly looks a little bored in his turn as Talbot, a Shakespearean actor who becomes the subject of his own tragedy after he returns to his family’s enormous, decrepit English manor after decades abroad. Del Toro musters a little interest in his dead brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt), but he doesn’t seem the slightest bit concerned or confused by the strange behavior of his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins). If you returned to home and your father was living in filth, wearing garish leopard print robes and occasionally shooting at people with a shotgun, wouldn’t you be at least a little worried about his mental health? Larry doesn’t bat an eye. It doesn’t help matters that Hopkins looks only slightly more invested in his performance than Del Toro, and that he seems to be having trouble maintaining his British accent, which is especially strange, since last I checked, Anthony Hopkins is British.
Where this new “Wolfman” shines, where it unquestionably outperforms its inspiration, is in the realm of production design and special effects. The makeup by Baker, while clearly inspired by the distinctive look of the Chaney-Pierce werewolf, is far more credible and convincing than the original and fairly terrifying in its own right. And the transformations, now done almost entirely with CGI (as opposed to the time lapse dissolves of the 1940s or the practical effects of previous Baker lycanthropic escapades like “An American Werewolf in London”) are anatomical freakshows in the best possible sense. I also admired the way production designer Rick Heinrichs manages to evoke the feel of that tiny, foggy forest on the old Universal backlot while working on a much bigger and more lavish canvas.
Johnston and Baker also increased the level of gore significantly. While the film looks on the surface like a throwback to an earlier type of horror film, “The Wolfman” actually attempts to graft modern gore spectacle onto that old school model. Whether that is a good thing or a bad thing will vary by taste, but if you go to see “The Wolfman” for the graphic beheadings, I think it’s safe to say you will feel like you got your money’s worth.
But even at its very best, this is a good-looking production in search of a better movie. The genuine sense of human tragedy Chaney brought to “The Wolf Man” and even lesser follow-ups like “Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man” is barely present in Johnston’s version. Del Toro plays a character who is fighting for his soul with all the intensity of a man falling asleep while he watches a late night infomercial. And speaking of lesser follow-ups, without spoiling anything, Johnston’s film does leave plenty of room for its own sequel. The more things change, the more they stay the same.