Don't Clap for The Wolfman (2010)

When it was announced a few years ago that Hollywood would be remaking the Universal classic The Wolf Man (1941), I must admit I didn't bristle with adversity as I normally do when confronted with news of (the now inevitable) classic horror remake.  I was intrigued, and as heavy-hitter thespians began to become attached to the project, lending it legitimacy, I grew more excited.  I should have reserved my zeal, however, as this anemic and tepid "re-imagining" of a centuries old tale falls flat on almost all fronts.

2010's iconic horror reboot du jour is guilty of the gravest crime a film can commit: it is boring.  Director Joe Johnston certainly has a flair for the visual (though I wondered more and more, due to the excessive use of CGI, how much of that vision is Johnston's, and how much belongs to the art/VFX department), but pretty pictures do not a good film make, a fact nowhere more evident than here.

The Wolfman had great promise, and relies on a very simple story, one that should be very difficult to muddle up.  However, the filmmakers have achieved the extraordinary and done exactly that. The Wolfman falls prey to that which hobbles so many modern horror films: How many times must we endure pointless back story and tangential evidence that justifies a characters' actions?  Is it not good enough (and far more frightening) to simply have a criminal/monster/etc. acting without motive?  An evil act committed solely out of primal randomness is far more frightening than if the motivations or rationale for that same act were explained in great detail.  Have modern filmmakers learned nothing from Hitchcock?

The original 1941 film ran an economical 70 minutes; the "Unrated Director's Cut" on the 2010 DVD flirts with the two-hour mark, much of the running time devoted to Larry Talbot's (Benicio del Toro) bloated, unnecessary history.  The only effect this has is a "one step forward, two steps back" kind of reverse inertia, and The Wolfman sputters out of the gates and spends the rest of the running time trying to find a foothold, but merely ends up chasing its own tail.

Also missing from the remake is the darkly predatorial angle of the original.  There is, in George Waggner's film, a sexuality, an inherent concept in the idea of man as beast hunting prey.  In the new film, we get a laughable "love story" angle that is DOA.  The filmmakers manage to de-claw the most potent element of the story, crippling the film irrevocably. 

Lon Chaney Jr. gave his all as Larry Talbot, and while many scoff at Chaney's characterizations throughout his career as hammy or overacted, I see in his Talbot (as well as in his best, and much later, role in Jack Hill's Spider Baby) a great sadness, a real desperation of a man who has lost control of himself and can do nothing to stop his inevitable descent   Perhaps this was informed by Chaney's very real life problem, his overwhelming alcoholism - or perhaps by an innate sense of humanity and an understanding of the character - I don't know, but I can be certain that there is much more life in Chaney's Talbot than in del Toro's.  Or, in fact, in any of the principles in the new film.  Hugo Weaving puts up a game attempt, but his effort only underscores the dreary, mailed-in turns by Anthony Hopkins, del Toro, and Emily Blunt.  I know it's ultimately cinematic fluff, but please, guys, can you at least pretend you haven't swallowed a handful of Xanax before Johnston called "Action"?

Among the famous four (perhaps unfairly disregarding Claude Rains' Invisible Man) Universal monsters, the Wolf Man is unique in that he is primarily human, and only becomes a monster once a month, much like my girlfriend.  Dracula is an undead bloodsucker; The Monster is, well, a monster, a grotesque approximation of a man, cobbled together with rotting flesh and a diseased mind and brought to life by electricity; and Imhotep is a resurrected Egyptian Mummy hell-bent on revenge. Only Larry Talbot spends 30 days of the month a normal - though troubled - man, and one horrible night, a monster.  Also unique in the Wolf Man tale is that it is not simply derived from a single author's pen, but rather stems from ancient myths and pagan beliefs, and to this day holds very real credence in the mythologies and traditions of many cultures.  And it is certainly not difficult to make a simple psycho-analytic reading of the man becoming a wolf (literally or figuratively), as the consummation of the body by sexual and primal urges.  Take a stroll down Richmond or Adelaide on a Saturday night, full moon or otherwise, and you'll see a thousand Larry Talbots.  That the filmmakers of 2010's The Wolfman bafflingly side-step this aspect of the story in favour of dusty asides and CGI creature wankery is the great shame and ultimate failure of this film.

I must say, though, after all this, that I am thankful for this remake, which may sound strange, but is not disingenuous.  It reminded me of the wonderful power of the earlier film, and I can only hope that it will lead keen younger viewers back to the source and perhaps open a door of discovery to a whole realm of classic film monsters.  And whether or not they scare the modern viewer, at least they won't bore him.


Dropkick said...

I watched the 70 minute run while in Colombia, and am intrigued by this 2 hour cut. But it doesn't sound like it helps at all.

My biggest complaint about Wolfman was nothing actually happened.

It seemed to me that somewhere between pre-production and post what the filmmakers were hoping to achieve got lost through creative differences and probably head butts with studios. I remember reading about how the directors kept changing, even while filming had commenced. How there were many rewrites and versions of the script.

I'd like to believe someone originally had a grand idea for this modern wolfman but the studio opted for safe and boring.

Dropkick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
La Sporgenza said...

Ya, I kinda felt the same about this one. It looked amazing but didn't go anywhere.

robyn/rare treasure said...

hmm, interesting review coelacanth, except for one crucial error. your girlfriend is a monster for the whole month, minus one week-not the other way around. get your stories staight man!