The Wolfman remake, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Hugo Weaving, is a mostly faithful and sometimes worthy update of the original, 1941’s Universal classic starring Lon Chaney, Jr. and Claude Rains. The move alters a number of things, but the basic story is the same: Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) returns to his ancestral home in England after 20 years away upon learning of the death of his brother, reconciles uneasily with his estranged father (Hopkins), and deals with his cursed family history. Out at night investigating his brother’s death, Lawrence is attacked by a rampaging, wolf-like beast and wounded; most moviegoers can guess the rest of it from here, and but for an unexpected family back story, they’ll guess right.
In a sense, the predictability is refreshing, as it signals the filmmakers’ desire to revive a genre, not cynically co-opt it for other purposes. The film looks great: it changes the time period from the 1940s to the 1890s, and the Victorian trappings are perfectly suited to a story about curses and the supernatural, and where most of the action takes place on the fog-bound English moors. Del Toro is an appealing and convincing successor to Chaney’s haunted Talbot.
As for the wolf himself, well, this is 2010: you can imagine the effects will look pretty good, and they do, thanks to famous makeup man Rick Baker, who also did An American Werewolf in London. Baker is a longtime admirer of Universal’s legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce, who created and applied the iconic looks for Boris Karloff in both Frankenstein and The Mummy and for Chaney in The Wolf Man. Baker wanted to update that look, and when you see his final creation you understand why he is regarded as a modern master.
But during production Baker complained that the filmmakers had decided to do the transformation scenes — the highlight of any werewolf picture, when viewers watch the character change from man to wolf — in computer-generated imagery. Pierce, of course, did not have access to CGI, and his transformation scenes required a painstaking physical process. Baker wanted to make an attempt at emulating that effort. But the film’s real sin in the use of CGI is not so much in the transformation scenes as in the action scenes, when the wolf man catapults around like a superhuman creature. All is thunderous movement and blinding speed and improbable leaps in the air, including leaps between buildings in an urban scene that makes one think he is watching Spiderman with fur.
In this regard The Wolfman becomes the latest entry in the long-running trend to make all such fantasy films into superhero movies. I suppose the reason why the superhero approach always wins out is simple enough — it’s popular; in other words, it pays — but maybe someday a director will create a monster who, while no longer an ordinary man, is still subject to the mortal world that the rest of us inhabit. Most of that nuance is lost in The Wolfman and other films of this kind.
Nuance is also thrown to the winds when it comes to the film’s depictions of violence, which revels in ripped flesh and blood, relying on sensory assault to do what suspense and character development did in the days before computers made us all lazy.
But there are other aspects to like. The movie achieves one fine moment of tension in its most memorable scene, which also seems a sly homage to King Kong. Lawrence, who by now has been institutionalized, is wheeled into a medical class, strapped to a wheelchair, to demonstrate that his lycanthropy is an illusion from which he has been cured by psychological counseling (which in truth consists of brutal and sadistic torture, including a submersion treatment that seems a clear allusion to waterboarding). But as the audience knows, Lawrence’s problems are not in his head. The scene has the same kind of churning tension and cathartic violence as the scene in King Kong when Kong breaks out of his shackles on a New York stage.
Director Johnston clearly reveres the Wolf Man original (if not 1935’s Werewolf of London, the genre’s true ancestor, though it’s mostly forgotten now). He’s brought back the gypsies who played such a key role in the 1941 film, and though there is no one to fill Maria Ouspenskaya‘s shoes as Maleva, the old woman who sees Talbot’s fate clearly, Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) does a solid enough job reprising the role. The remake even features torch-bearing bands of men on the hunt for the monster, a staple of the old Universal films. That one detail alone put me in a forgiving mood.
The Wolfman is also blessedly free of the kind of ironic mockery that so many remakes of old classics seem unable to resist. There are no wolf jokes, no agitprop feminist characters comparing lusty men with ravenous beasts; even the Talbot family dog is principally used to illustrate the changes in Lawrence, not to provide a canine comic foil. In fact, The Wolfman‘s very earnestness, as refreshing as it is, may have met its match in the ironic consciousness of today’s audience. Throughout the movie, we hear the distinctive wolf howl echoing across the desolate moors; this works well so long as we don’t see the wolf man doing it. But when we do — and again, it’s in that urban scene, where the trappings are all wrong — it’s hard to suppress a chuckle or the suspicion that one has stumbled onto an excellent beer commercial.
Irony really is this culture’s silver bullet, against which even well-meaning tribute can only defend itself so much.