Of the core Universal Monsters, the big three are Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. This is an undeniable fact. Of those, two are based on books, while the third is a product of a screenplay. Now both Frankenstein and Dracula were gothic novels that have been adapted large and small over the years with varying degrees of success (or dare I say appreciation). However, the Wolf Man has no great gothic novel to draw atmosphere and grandeur from and often relies on cliched tropes to flesh out its film. All that changed when Universal took The Wolf Man and remade it with The Wolfman (notice the subtle title change?) with grand style that gave the monster a lush playground to feed in.
Now, when I refer to the film, I am referring to the director’s cut as the theatrical film was lackluster and choppy. I admit this and was gravely disappointed in the final product. The film seemed hurried and inconsistent in tone. The bones were good though so I waited patiently for the home video release. Now 17 minutes (which is what was added) is a lot of film to add. For example, only two minutes were added to Natural Born Killers and it becomes even more graphic and nihilistic because of it. Every second counts. The Wolfman goes from being choppy to being exquisite. I know that is a strong word but it’s how I feel. The 1941 original is a less than awesome film that came at the end of the original cycle of Universal horrors. The production is cheaper compared to the early ’30s and the story has little substance. I feel that if Werewolf of London (which is a better film) were released further apart from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde it would have done much better. In any case, The Wolf Man was a hit and took its place among monster royalty.
Now, where his brethren have been remade time and again due to their literary status, this is only the first time the Wolf Man has been remade so comparisons are inevitable. Let’s talk about atmosphere. It feels cold just watching it. From the mansion to the streets of London, there is a chill in the air that puts you at the center of the action. In contrast, the interiors are warm and intimately lit. The film is also near monochromatic and that dulling of the color adds to the gray area in which all of these characters live.
Lawrence Talbot. Though Lon Chaney Jr. has a presence, he comes off as more of a big oaf for most of the film (and of course a parody in the later films). He is happy and playful and doesn’t have a lot to him. Benicio Del Toro’s Lawrence is a tortured artist with a troubled past who only returns home to join in the search for his brother. He is a striking presence and you get the sense that he has grown into a strong man because of his abusive upbringing. He will not allow himself to be a victim of his fathers wrath again. Though he walks the walk and talks the talk, when in his father’s presence, there is a sense of uneasiness for he is out of his environment and deep within his father. I could go on but the point is that Del Toro’s Talbot is a fully formed person that lives and breathes as much as say, any Stephen King character.
The supporting cast is filled with powerhouse actors. No one missteps. We all know Anthony Hopkins can do no wrong and his presence here is as strong as ever. You believe that not only was Lawrence once terrified of him but you also believe that he may still be. The respect (and fear) that he incites in others comes off natural and palatable. He is a powerful man and remains so for a reason.
Emily Blunt knows how to play a Victorian woman with reserved lust. She is strong willed and minded, but never so much that it seems out of place. You can almost feel that the reason that she gravitates toward Lawrence is because he is the strong man that her fiance was not. He is gone but god has given her an even better replacement. These are the themes that play in her eyes during scenes between her and Del Toro. There is a lot going on there. The film is really about the relationship between these three and how they deal with the supernatural circumstances they find themselves in.
The Wolfman 2010 is just a better film in either form. Once you strip the original of its status as a CLASSIC, it is simply an exercise in brain candy, nothing more. There are many detractors to this film and I feel that it is the victim of the information age. Universal did not know what they wanted and edited two separate versions at the same time. There were extensive reshoots that were only extensive because Universal cut important scenes that they ended up needing. There were scoring issues, director issues and a CGI denouncement by Rick Baker which he later recanted.
Another gripe leveled at the film is that it isn’t scary. Let’s face it, few films are and our constant exposure to these monsters over the past 80 or so years has rendered that a mute point. These were the same criticisms that both Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein received as well.
All of this played out in the public eye thanks to social media, up-to-the-nanosecond news reports, and a general lack of confidentiality. Would this film have been as reviled if we didn’t know it was a troubled production? I doubt it. People hear that and carry it with them. Would the lack of that knowledge made the theatrical cut a better film? No. But I feel it would have lessened the blow and the excellent director’s cut would have been judged on its own merits rather than perceived as a film that is trying to fix its own messy existence.
The director’s cut presents a film that plays out its moody themes at a pace it should. It is as lavish as Bram Stoker’s Dracula or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and stands as a gothic horror in the age of Underworld. Everything is rich in the film, from the set pieces to Danny Elfman’s score. There is so much depth that it can be explored several times and still reveal something new. To those that complained it was not scary. This is a monster and a tale that we’ve seen time and again. We are desensitized to it as we are to most every horror film made. If you go in looking to be disappointed, you will make sure that you are.
This was the last outright horror film for the Universal Monsters and it may be the last considering the current state of Universal towards their property. With a new, action-orientated wolfman on the way, The Wolfman is a final farewell to a bygone era. It gave the Wolf Man an epic appearance that may never be revisited. For that reason alone, it deserves another look.