The original Wolf Man managed to influence nearly every werewolf movie made after it; certainly most of the conventions it used became the rules for the genre and the monster. The Wolf Man established that lycanthropy is transmitted by bites or clawing, the bipedal wolf man, and that the werewolf transforms when the moon is full. While The Wolf Man was followed by 4 sequels, counting the spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and an arguable spin-off (the execrable She Wolf of London), it took until 2010 for an official remake to be made, although An American Werewolf in London is, in many ways, a thematic remake.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro, License to Kill) is an expatriate Englishman, raised by his aunt in America. Lawrence’s father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins, A Bridge Too Far) sent Lawrence away after his mother’s untimely death . When Lawrence receives a letter from his brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt) that his brother Ben is missing, he abandons his stage engagement (he is now a Shakespearean actor) to come home. Unfortunately, Lawrence arrives too late, as Ben’s body has been found in a ditch, horribly mutilated.
Speculation about who killed Ben runs the gamut from the nearby Gypsies (encamped near the Talbot estate) or their dancing bear, to a lunatic on the loose on the moors, to whispers of a werewolf, both from the townsfolk and from the Gypsies themselves. Lawrence attempts to figure out what is happening while dealing with his possibly mad father and with his own growing attraction to Gwen. At the same time an investigator from Scotland Yard, Abberline (Hugo Weaving, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), is also investigating the recent murders. When Lawrence goes to the Gypsy camp to see if they know anything about what happened to his brother, a werewolf massacres the Gypsies, and bites Lawrence. The wound feels unnaturally fast, and soon Lawrence is on the prowl as a werewolf. Can he find a way to stop the transformation? Who is the werewolf who killed his brother and bit him?
Production delays, re-shoots, changes in directors and studio meddling plagued The Wolfman. Reviews were unkind, and fan response was positively apoplectic, especially after famed make-up artist Rick Baker’s (The Funhouse) transformation effects were largely abandoned for computer effects. While there is truth to the bad word of mouth and reviews-the 2010 Wolfman is not a classic like its predecessor is-the film is not quite the unwatchable mess its critics claim it is, either. As director Joe Johnston’s first R-rated movie, and, arguably his first horror film (Jurassic Park III being more of an adventure film), the scares never really come together. Certainly Johnston’s directorial credits contain many family oriented films, including October Sky, The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which are not what you expect from the director of an R-rated horror film, especially one this full of blood and guts. In many ways it’s a strange decision-the original film would be PG, at most, these days, and yet the film goes out of its way to give us the hard R that presumably someone asked for, but whomever did was misguided. More time spent developing the characters, showing Talbot’s horror at his fate and conflict with his father, and fewer distractions and mass slaughters with more focus on tension and suspense would greatly improve The Wolfman.
It is amazing how little mileage the film gets out of its excellent cast, with the main exception being Hugo Weaving, who steals the show as the Inspector. Del Toro is decent; in many ways he’s perfectly cast as the original Lawrence Talbot was also a beefy sad sack, but the film is long enough and he, unlike Lon Chaney, is a good enough actor that more could easily be done with his character. Blunt is given next to nothing to do, and while Hopkins clearly enjoys munching on the scenery in his scenes, his character’s motivations make so little sense and change so often that it is hard to take him seriously. The special effects are very much mixed but, aside from a really awful and completely unnecessary computer generated bear, they’re passable. The make-up effects are very good; it’s a shame we don’t see more of them. The film definitely suffers from the overuse of desaturated colors, giving the film a washed out look that is hard on the eyes and makes the night scenes hard to follow.
Somehow, even with these problems, The Wolfman still manages to be a reasonably entertaining “rainy Sunday afternoon” flick. This is, in no small part due to the strength of the original tale, although the decisions made to update it are at times infuriating-changing the nature of the father-son relationship, the identity of the initial werewolf, the random little moments that shout back to scenes in films like An American Werewolf in London and Werewolf of London to little effect, and throwing the famous poem that explains the curse and the cane from the original into the film without doing anything with them beyond: “Hey! Old movie fans! We saw it too!”
Back when they still showed horror movies on Saturday afternoon double features, this film would fit right in, naturally edited for gore and with ads. Yes, it’s not a great film, it’s not even a particularly good one, but it gets monster movie job done, packs in some brief moments of atmosphere and horror, and features respected actors chewing scenery. Sounds like one half of a Creature Double Feature to me.