Review: The Wolfman

The Wolfman. Directed by Joe Johnson.  Starring Benecio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, and Geraldine Chaplin.  Universal Pictures, 2010. Rated R.

My rating: 3.8/5.0

One going to see The Wolfman, Universal’s remake of its 1941 classic The Wolf Man, should not go in expecting a mind-wrenching drama meant to leave one thinking for days on end.  From a filmmaker’s end, one should also not expect revolutionary technical perfection.  From a film historical end, one should not expect a strenuous remake of the original.  Rather, when one views The Wolfman, it should be done with the same intent as audiences of the original: to have a few moments of intense, creepy, thrill-ride fun.

The classic monster film The Wolf Man was never meant to be ultra-realistic, nor intensely creepy in a psychologically disturbing sense.  Those are better left to darker films of the era by (generally) other studios such as United Artists’ White Zombie or international offerings like Carl Th. Dryer’s VampyrThe Wolf Man had a psychological element to it, to be sure; a werewolf movie of the modern age must.  However, the lasting effects of the film are more that of some few moments of some creepy moments and some (at the time) thrilling suspense set in a dark, foggy forest in the countryside of the British Isles.  Almost seventy years later, Universal’s new Wolfman echoes the same value of blockbuster fun that the original brought about in its day.

Major elements of the plot have changed.  One might think of this version as more of a fond, nostalgic homage to the original than a faithful remake.  It is a re-envisioning of the story.  Only in the loose sense of using many of the same character names, atmosphere, and nods in plot device does it bear a decent resemblance.  The loose skeleton of the plot remains, however Lawrence Talbot’s means of coming home to his father’s estate have been somewhat altered, a romp through downtown London is added, traits of many characters have been greatly restructured and, from the midpoint on, the story takes surprising turns to throw off those who were assuming the end would be identical to the original.  There is also a notable amount more violence in this film.  Perhaps this is the most off-putting part of the remake, however it is not nearly as bad as I have heard previously reviewed.  As a friend and coworker recently told me, “It’s a werewolf film. You should expect a few people to have arms and legs ripped off.”  Sure, the original did not show very much violence.  Then again, it was 1941… the Hays Code didn’t allow it.  They sensationalized all of the violence, horror makeup, and moody atmosphere they could for that endeavor as well, though it is tame and amusing by today’s standard.

The acting was spot-on.  Benicio Del Toro is great as the tragic character of Lawrence Talbot.  He plays it as a good man filled with a life of tragedy, whose soul is forever scarred.  He fulfills what Lon Chaney, Jr. (the original Lawrence Talbot/Wolf Man) said was always so great about the classic monsters, “All the great monsters were always played for sympathy.”  Del Toro does this and, occasionally, you think he is channeling a bit of Chaney’s ghost in his performance.  Sir Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery as a much different Sir John Talbot, Lawrence’s father… and the audience loves every minute of it because it is simply Hopkins doing his usual “clever, off-putting eccentric” role.  Emily Blunt is a sweet, sympathetic Gwen Conliffe, caught in the midst of a terrible trial.  She has Evelyn Anker’s sad blue eyes.  Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of the great Charlie Chaplin, is wonderful but underused as the wise gypsy woman Maleva.  I hope to see more of her in the 17 minutes the director promises to restore to the first third of the film for the DVD.

What I enjoy about The Wolfman most is that it tried to keep the atmosphere of the original.  The pale, foggy moors of England (Wales in the original, but close enough), cold, barren forests, and ancient village are a surreal playground for such a delicious romp.  Del Toro’s makeup by Rick Baker was an obvious homage to the original, though a definite expansion.  More than this, certain themes of the plot were left intact that were quite notable in the original.  For example, there is a running thread of difference from Almighty God that is inescapable in both.  The element of damnation seen in the appearance of pentagrams and Lawrence’s exit from the Anglican Church presented in the original are made more blunt in the explicit talk of curses, hell, and damnation in this version, and by things such as the intriguingly Anglo-Catholic blessing of Maleva to Gwen in a late plot point.

All in all, The Wolf Man was an enjoyable couple of hours of fun and nostalgic pleasure.  It is not the 1941 Wolf Man. Those expecting a shot-by-shot retelling of the original will go away greatly disappointed.  It is a suspense/action/horror/chiller film in the same vein if such existed seventy years onward and, for lovers of the original, a nostalgic reminder of what made us love the original in the first place.  If one wishes to see a different take on the characters and motif of The Wolf Man from a 21st Century perspective, The Wolfman will take you on a fun ride back through the dark, foggy moors of the English Isles that never really existed except on dry-ice laden sound-stages, but where the tragic beast within Lawrence Talbot continues to roam when “the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

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