Bad Movies Done Right – The Wolfman

Every day Robert Saucedo shines a spotlight on a movie either so bad it’s good or just downright terrible. Today: Werewolves of London!

I am probably one of the biggest (non-furry) werewolf movie apologists you’ll ever meet. I have seen and enjoyed more werewolf movies than most and am so completely enamored by films of lycanthropes, I can even find stuff to enjoy in movies such as the later films in the Howling series or An American Werewolf in Paris. I love Project: Metalbeast, for crying out loud.

I say this as a bit of a warning — because, you see, I mostly dug The Wolfman, Joe Johnston’s critically panned remake of the 1941 Universal Studios movie.

Staring Benicio del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, The Wolfman contains a lot of stuff that works really well — especially on the second viewing and even more especially as part of the extended unrated cut recently released on DVD and Blu-ray.

With an extra seventeen minutes added back in (mostly pre-transformation character development — including a scene completely exorcised from the theatrical cut that features Max Von Sydow), the extended cut of The Wolfman heavily improves on certain aspects of the movie.

Unfortunately, the stuff that didn’t work in theaters (some dodgy CGI animation, the film’s “twist” and some heavy-handed dialogue) still doesn’t work — and is in fact made even more prominent by the improvements seen elsewhere in the film.

Del Toro stars as Lawrence, the black sheep of the Talbot family. Haunted by nightmares of his mother’s apparent suicide, Talbot was estranged early on from his family — growing up in America far away from the oppressive lording of his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins).

Coming home to England in order to investigate the mysterious disappearance (and subsequent murder) of his brother, Lawrence quickly finds himself on the receiving end of an ancient curse — doomed to spend his full moons sprouting fangs and fur and rampaging across the countryside in search of arms to dismember and villagers to disembowel.

Hugo Weaving appears as Inspector Francis Aberline, a representative from the Scotland Yard tasked with bringing an end to the murders that plague the tiny village of Blackmoor. Emily Blunt is Gwen, the fiancé to Lawrence’s recently diseased brother.

Where The Wolfman shines is in building a palatable tone as the movie’s plot builds. Several charming homages to the classic Universal Monsters movies of old provide an attractive nostalgic tint to the otherwise modern monster movie. Johnston’s well-executed visual palette and a subdued score from Danny Elfman help to ensure that The Wolfman looks and sounds very much like the classy period costume dramas that many of the original Universal Monsters used to invade.

Unfortunately, The Wolfman suffers from the same fate as 90 percent of all other monster movies that have been released in the last few decades — it fails to register as a horror film; choosing instead to tread in the nebulous region between action, drama and B-movie schlock.

The Wolfman tries hard (and mostly succeeds) in building a certain type of class and respectability about its plot. Weighty scenes of dialogue full of foreshadowing and enough metaphorical gobbledygook to fill a Chicken Soup for the Soul book help build up believable characters that are elevated by truly fine performances by the film’s top notch cast.

It’s when Larry Talbot turns into the Wolfman, though, were things get a bit hairy.

The Wolfman comes from the same school of film as Universal’s other recent monster movie updates, The Mummy series and Van Helsing. Close-up shots of blood, guts and CGI enhanced werewolves fail to give audiences a proper sense of dread — the type of visceral fear moviegoers of the ‘40s felt as they watched Lon Chaney Jr. prowl through fog-soaked forests.

When watching two werewolves go at it — rolling on the ground like a couple of hedgehogs having sex — it becomes apparent that The Wolfman‘s monster scenes owe more to a different set of creature features than Universal’s classic catalogue.

The Wolfman is much more of a direct descendant of the El Santo films from Mexico, where a masked wrestler would do battle with monsters of all shapes and sizes — including werewolves who bore a starkly semblance to del Toro’s fanged fury.

While the inner child in me smiled in glee as I watched del Toro’s extremely gory rampage across the woods of Blackmoor or the streets of London, I couldn’t help but pine for the days where monsters where treated as something to fear — not to cheer for.

There seems to be a common thought among filmmakers lately that monster movies can’t also be horror films. Directors fill their creature features with more action set pieces than scenes of real terror. Maybe filmmakers think audiences will have a hard time getting caught up with dread over a man covered in yak hair.

Audiences’ lack of fear over monsters only happens, though, when filmmakers insist on showing glory shot after glory shot of their monstrous creation. As impressive as the makeup effects are that turned del Toro into a werewolf are, showing close-up images of his snarling face only help to remove the sense of mystery and fear of the unknown that horror movies need to thrive.

My biggest problem with The Wolfman, though, has to do with the remake’s alteration to the father-son dynamic between Larry and John Talbot.

Understandably, when Universal was rebooting their premiere werewolf franchise, they saw the need to ratchet up the action and turn what had previously been a 71-minute (arguably simplistic) story into a sprawling toynamic epic with more than its fair share of trailer moments.

This hard fact, of course, meant that changes were bound to be made to a story I honestly felt was pretty much perfect in its original execution. Unfortunately, the direction the film’s writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self chose to go in when pumping up the action and establishing a true villain for the movie left me a little cold and annoyed.

I won’t go into too much detail — for fear of spoiling the film’s twist to the few of you unable to piece it out for yourselves early into the movie — but I found it disappointing that the filmmakers felt the need to establish a bad guy for the Wolfman to fight.

What worked so well for the original was the fact that Larry Talbot was at once both the film’s villain and hero. He was cursed to hurt the ones he loved and, combined with Lon Chaney Jr.’s sympathetic eyes, this helped propel The Wolf Man into the classic status it currently enjoys.

That, and I hate the fact that Anthony Hopkins continues to find ways to make himself look ridiculous.

Despite its many flaws, The Wolfman succeeds as the big goofy monster movie it sets out to be.

Full of gore (both CG and practical), some pretty impressive transformation scenes shepherded by Rick Baker and a top of the line performance courtesy of Benicio del Toro, The Wolfman has enough highlights to where it can be enjoyed by both casual monster movie fans and those with an automatic renewal to their Fangoria subscription.

With monsters that look like Todd McFarlane toys come to life and plenty of bloody death scenes, I have no doubt that The Wolfman will find its audience on home video in the years to come. After all, in a group of films as full of stinkers as the werewolf genre is, The Wolfman can’t help but rise to the top.

Robert Saucedo is amazed that anybody would cut Max Von Sydow out of their film. Follow Robert on Twitter @robsaucedo2500.

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