There have been scads of werewolf movies over the years. But someone at Universal decided to dust off the real thing, to do a period piece remake of that first one, but daring to change the title from “The Wolf Man” to “The Wolfman.” There are other changes, too, but that simple shortening of the title is the smartest one.
There was a time when Universal Pictures was the be-all, end-all of horror movies. The company pretty much invented the sound-era’s genre of moody, atmospheric studies in scariness.
Both “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” kicked things off in 1931, followed over the next two years by “The Mummy” and the frightening but oddly comic “The Invisible Man.” The success of those films led, inevitably, to sequels, and it was some years later before another original horror character showed up at the studio. “The Wolf Man” emerged from the foggy woods – hairy as heck, teeth gnashing, uttering a few growls while dealing with a Gypsy curse – in 1941, giving another hit to Universal.
But unlike its predecessors, it wasn’t a very good movie. It had some strong components: a charismatic performance by Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot, the good-natured but unfortunate fellow who’s bitten by a werewolf and then turned into one; the always enjoyable company of Claude Rains as his wealthy, advice-spouting father; and the iconic portrayal of the mysterious Gypsy woman Maleva by the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya. But the script was (enjoyably) dumb, and the direction and editing were sloppy.
There have been scads of werewolf movies in the years since (“An American Werewolf in London” is one of the best; “Wolf” – yeah, that Jack Nicholson number – is one of the worst.) But someone at Universal decided to dust off the real thing, to do a period piece remake of that first one, but daring to change the title from “The Wolf Man” to “The Wolfman.” There are other changes, too, but that simple shortening of the title is the smartest one.
It’s once again late 19th century England, and dashing Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) – after a very long absence – returns home to his dad’s (Anthony Hopkins) moldering manse because Larry’s brother has vanished. The father and son reunion is polite, at best, and before you can even let out a quick bay at the moon, it’s revealed that the brother is dead – his flesh torn from his body – and Larry is out and about looking for the brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) to see if he can, well, comfort her.
There’s a walk in the foggy woods, a troupe of Gypsies, a large hairy creature running on all fours, a bloody attack on poor Larry, and much talk about full moons (transformation time for werewolves) and silver bullets (the only way to kill them).
Up to that point, the movie might have worked. But the filmmakers went a different route from those old Universal chestnuts. Oh, they kept the moodiness, but thinking that modern audiences wouldn’t go for just that, they infused the film with MTV-style editing and gore galore.
The werewolves (note that the word is plural) in this film don’t simply go for the throat of their victims; they seem to be happiest only when there are intestines hanging from their jaws, or they’ve performed a perfect decapitation. The color red is quite prevalent here. Things are as garishly red as Danny Elfman’s annoying score is loud.
And the film is loaded up with poorly explained relationships: the one (in flashback) between young Lawrence and his dead mom, the one that never really develops and then suddenly blooms passionately between Larry and Gwen, the one between Larry and his dad (which involves ripping shirts off bodies).
Worse yet, the great Maleva (now played with a great look but no mystery by Geraldine Chaplin) is reduced to a character of no importance, when the first time around, she was at the center of things with her horse and buggy. But worst of all, there’s no attempt to instill sympathy in Larry Talbot, an apparently good guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Maybe it’s Del Toro’s fault. Maybe it’s director Joe Johnston’s fault. But it’s highly doubtful that Del Toro will keep this film on his resume.
(R for violence and gore) Cast includes Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Joe Johnston. 1 star out of 4.