Twice-Told Tales #6: The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man

Twice-Told Tales is a feature in which I compare horror remakes to their originals. My goal is to find the remakes that justify themselves beyond the cash-in. Wish me luck.

The Wolf Man was released in 1941, days after Pearl Harbor and a full decade after Dracula and Frankenstein. The critics didn’t exactly embrace it, but it was a smash nonetheless. Its impact has been lasting and far-reaching: it spawned four sequels, carrying Universal horror through the ’40s; it defined the werewolf movie for generations just as Dracula defined the vampire movie; it gave the world a monster who remains iconic to this day.

Its plot is fairly straightforward. The Talbot family, headed by patriarch Sir John (Claude Rains) lives in a Welsh estate. Sir John’s firstborn son has died in an accident, prompting his younger son, Larry (Lon Chaney, Jr.) to return home from America. Larry has spent most of his life abroad, but the father-son reunion is cordial enough.

While adjusting a telescope in the mansion’s attic, Larry happens to catch sight of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), who lives and works in her father’s antique shop.  Larry is infatuated and drops in to hit on her. She rejects him, and he settles for buying a cane topped with a silver wolf-shaped handle. Not to be deterred, Larry shows up again at closing time and asks Gwen to join him in visiting a gypsy camp on the outskirts of town. She agrees to go but only with her friend Jenny tagging along.

At the camp, Jenny enters a tent to have her fortune told by Bela (Bela Lugosi) while Larry and Gwen take a walk. Bela sees a pentagram appear on Jenny’s hand and frantically sends her off. Jenny flees the tent and is soon attacked by a wolf. Larry hears her screams and rushes in to help. The wolf kills Jenny and bites Larry, who bludgeons it to death with his cane. Bela’s elderly mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), takes the injured Larry back to the estate.

The local constable, Colonel Montford (Ralph Bellamy), finds Jenny’s and Bela’s corpses but no wolf. Larry’s bite wound also mysteriously disappears by the time Montford questions him. Larry confides in Maleva as the town grows suspicious of him. She tells Larry that Bela was a werewolf who has passed the curse on to him via the bite. Larry soon learns that she wasn’t lying; he transforms into a werewolf that same night, prowls the woods, and kills Jenny’s gravedigger.

An increasingly distraught Larry tries to explain himself to his social circle. Naturally, no one believes him, assuming he’s mentally disturbed. Thus our protagonist is fated to a tragic end, which sets him apart from other monsters. Dracula knows what he is and what he’s doing, and he doesn’t much care if he hurts anyone. Frankenstein’s Monster doesn’t understand what he is or how he came to be or why everyone hates him, and he lashes out accordingly. Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man knows what he is and what he’s doing and feels horribly guilty about it. But he can’t stop himself nor convince anyone that he’s dangerous until it’s too late. It’s a hellish cycle, and The Wolf Man’s filmmakers – namely screenwriter Curt Siodmak – deserve credit for expressing it in a way that werewolf movies have borrowed ever since.

The Wolf Man himself is quite a sight, too, thanks to the work of makeup master Jack Pierce. Advances in special effects have allowed later werewolves to look more canine, but there’s still something unique and enduring about the Pierce design. We may have seen many werewolves in various media, but there’s really only one Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man

The movie has other merits as well. Its foggy black forest is an effective set and fine example of the Gothic atmosphere Universal brought to horror. Chaney and Ankers are solid as the leads while Rains and Ouspenskaya are especially strong in support.  In fact, those supporting characters are the film’s most interesting: Sir John the prideful skeptic whose worldview is due to be shattered, Maleva who alone understands Larry’s curse and shows him compassion even after he has transformed.

As for quibbles, Gwen’s fiancé Frank is a perfectly useless character, and it doesn’t make much sense that Bela turns into a regular four-legged wolf while the furry and fanged Larry stalks about upright. Speaking of stalking, Larry’s courtship of Gwen hasn’t aged well. You don’t have to be an ardent feminist to be put off by his privacy-violating, won’t-take-no-for-an-answer approach.

Even so, The Wolf Man is still entertaining and worthwhile for anyone interested in classic monster movies. It’s also very much a Universal property. Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man was not an adapted literary character but written for the screen and owned by the studio. So while various studios have released countless Dracula and Frankenstein movies since the ’40s, Universal did not get around to remaking The Wolf Man until 2010. The result was not well-received.

“One of the worst movies we ever made was Wolfman… It’s one of those movies, the moment I saw it, I thought, ‘What have we all done here?’ That movie was crappy. We all went wrong. It was one of those things… Like I said, we made a lot of bad movies. That’s one we should have smelled out a long time ago. The script never got right… [The cast] was awful. The director was wrong. Benecio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk… Wolfman and Babe 2 are two of the shittiest movies we put out.” – Ron Meyer, then President and CEO of Universal Pictures, speaking at the Savannah Film Festival in 2011.

First off, The Wolfman is not that bad. It isn’t great by any stretch, but consider for a moment that Universal also released the likes of Blues Brothers 2000, Patch Adams, and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat on Meyer’s watch, and it’s fair to question his ideas of “worst” and “shittiest.”

Once again, American resident Lawrence Talbot (Benecio del Toro) returns to his British family estate after a long estrangement from his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins). This time it’s Gwen (Emily Blunt) who compels Lawrence to come home. She’s engaged to Lawrence’s brother, Ben, and is worried when Ben goes missing.

Lawrence discovers that Ben has been savagely killed and visits the local gypsy camp to investigate. A werewolf tears through the settlement, slaughtering more folks and biting Lawrence. Once again, Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) is on hand to help Lawrence, who recuperates at the estate under the watch of Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving). And once again, Lawrence transforms with the next full moon, attacks villagers, and falls into the same futile, guilt-ridden cycle of appealing to people who assume he’s insane.

The remake’s largest departure from the original is also its central flaw: it converts Sir John into a full-blown villain. Not only is Sir John the werewolf who killed Ben and bit Lawrence, he also killed Lawrence’s mother when Lawrence was a child. Then he sent the traumatized boy to an insane asylum before shipping him off to America.

This decision both overcomplicates the story and dumbs it down. In trying to raise the stakes and freshen up a well-worn origin, the remake weighs itself down in backstory. Do we need flashbacks and multiple references to Lawrence’s bleak childhood? No, but the filmmakers cram them in anyway should we forget that Lawrence is a tortured soul.

The father-son dynamic was the heart of the original, and Larry’s duality – his being both hero and villain – gave that movie all the depth it needed. In recasting Sir John as a monster, the remake loses that heart and depth. It further victimizes Lawrence (which the character hardly needs) and reduces the family tension to boring old good versus evil. The conflict plays out exactly as you’d expect, in a silly CGI werewolf smackdown.

Of course, nobody really cares about such writerly concerns. What matters is how spectacular the transformation scenes are and how awesome the werewolves look. On that front, The Wolfman was good enough to win the 2011 Best Makeup Academy Award, the seventh such Oscar for legendary artist Rick Baker. It’s only fitting that Baker would win for this film; his phenomenal effects for An American Werewolf in London won the first-ever Best Makeup Oscar back in 1982, too.

Honestly, though, I can’t say The Wolfman’s effects are very special. They’re not shabby, either; they’re just kind of there. We’ve seen a lot of creature transformations since American Werewolf, and I wonder if we’ve become numb to them. American Werewolf’s practical effects wowed 1981 audiences, but the CGI-heavy Wolfman left little impression three decades later. In that sense, The Wolfman is a sibling to 2011’s The Thing, both suggesting that it may take more than updated effects to lure viewers to remakes of beloved classics. For his part, Baker griped a bit about The Wolfman’s transformations relying on CGI and retired in 2015, citing the changing nature of his field.

As to Meyer’s assertion that the studio should have “smelled out” The Wolfman, it certainly was a troubled production. Universal first announced the project in 2006. Director Mark Romanek came aboard in 2007 and backed out in 2008, replaced by Joe Johnston just one month before shooting began. The initial $85 million budget would balloon to $150 million. There were reshoots in 2009, nearly a year after principal photography had wrapped. The studio replaced Danny Elfman’s score with one composed by Paul Haslinger then went back to Elfman’s score.

If anything, The Wolfman is surprisingly decent given its conception. Visually it’s lavish; its gloomy English countryside, Talbot estate, and 1891 London are a treat for old-school horror fans. Del Toro may have been miscast, which is unfortunate seeing as how he co-produced the movie and was an avid fan of the original. He doesn’t stink, though, and the rest of the cast is also better than Meyer indicated. Care, talent, and effort clearly went into this movie, along with some reverence for the original, all of which make it hard to hate.

The Wolfman lost money, but it didn’t seem to ruin any careers. Johnston went on to direct the 2011 blockbuster Captain America: The First Avenger, which co-starred Weaving. Blunt and del Toro reunited for the highly praised hit Sicario in 2015. Meyer was promoted to the Vice Chairman seat of parent company NBCUniversal in 2013. Even Larry Talbot emerged unscathed. Determined to (re-)reboot its monsters and assemble them Avengers-style, Universal has announced yet another go-round for the character slated to arrive in 2018.

No word yet on how this new project smells to Meyer, but we can confirm that the 2010 version has been banished to the netherworld of would-be franchises. It was last seen commiserating with Hulk, Van Helsing, and John Carter. Apparently our moviegoing duty is to forget it existed. When the next Wolf Man comes out, you might think, “Hey, wait, didn’t they just do that a few years ago?” The studio-approved answer is no. You’re imagining things. It was all in your head. There was no wolf in those woods on that moonlit night, and you were never bitten.

Share this post and may the Great Old Ones smile upon you.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *