From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Wolfman: Another Shaggy Dog Story

Werewolves always seem to get the shaft in popular culture. They constantly take a back seat to all those brooding, sexy, immortal bloodsuckers. Anne Rice never interviewed a werewolf, after all. But a rising tide floats all boats, they say, and the ascendancy of vampire-dominated urban fantasy brings out the shape-shifters, too.

So perhaps a remake of The Wolf Man, the 1941 Universal classic starring Lon Cheney, Jr., was inevitable. But it seems unlikely that the new Wolfman will do much to move werewolves to the front of the horror movie bus.

I have to say that I’ve never understood the logic behind remakes. If the original is truly a great film, then why go to the trouble of redoing it? The best you can hope for is to match it. And if the original is somewhat less than stellar, what makes you think it will be better the second time around?

I don’t buy the notion of “updating,” either. Classics are known because they stand the test of time, because they speak to something universal in the human condition. They’re classics, in other words, because they don’t need to be updated.

Doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying, of course. Sometimes the modernization of a horror classic manages to equal the original–The Thing and The Fly come to mind–but most of the time, remakes leave the viewer wondering what the point was

. . . like a (forgive me) shaggy dog story.

Maybe The Wolfman isn’t as shaggy as most, but it sure could stand a good washing and combing.

wolfmancast

One cannot complain about the cast, with Oscar winners Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins filling the shoes of Cheney and Claude Rains, respectively. Emily Blunt and the ever reliable Hugo Weaving join the festivities. The Danny Elfman score is nicely evocative of the original. Likewise, the script is nothing if not respectful of the source material: Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), a famous American actor long estranged from his emotionally distant father (Hopkins), is called back to his childhood English home by the disappearance of his brother. By the time Talbot arrives at the estate, he discovers he’s too late: the brother’s body has been found. Seems some horrible beast had at him. Talbot himself is later attacked by the same monster, but is saved by a band of Gypsies . . . and comes to wish he hadn’t been. Transformations and eviscerations ensue.

Fans of the original film, penned by the legendary Curt Siodmak, will find all the familiar elements–the fog-shrouded forest, the Gypsies, the superstitious villagers, the silver-tipped cane–pretty much right where Siodmak left them. A few tweaks here and there, sure, but nothing too radical. About midway through, though, comes a twist that significantly alters the story line . . . at which point, the movie stops making sense.

Up to that moment, The Wolfman is a tepid gothic tale. The twist is a genuine surprise–but one that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I’d be willing to give director Joe Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self some credit for trying to bring something new to the table, if only in so doing they hadn’t made a major character’s actions more baffling than terrifying.

And that gets at the nub of the real problem with this Wolfman: for a horror movie, it’s woefully lacking in scares. Oh, there’s plenty of gore, to be sure, and lots of “seat-jumper” moments. But stage blood is easy enough to ladle on, and there isn’t much artistry involved in shouting “Boo!” at the audience every ten minutes or so. Instead of those moments of high terror that mark the best of the genre, we’re treated to a pointless sequence in a nineteenth-century London asylum, complete with the requisite sadistic assistant and the psychiatrist with–I kid you not–a German accent. Guess what happens to them.

It doesn’t help matters that the monster itself lacks a certain menace. Now, to be fair, the original had the same problem. Let’s face it: Cheney’s creature had a kind of . . . cuddly quality to it, like an overgrown puppy (or a shaggy dog). Rick Baker’s makeup job is a nice update and a fitting homage, but it just isn’t very frightening. If you’re looking for truly scary werewolves–snarling, slavering brutes capable of ripping out your throat without hesitation or remorse–you’re much better off with the hulking beasts from The Howling.

wolfmanclose

Even the transformation sequences in The Wolfman are a tad disappointing. Though light years beyond the match-dissolves that turned Cheney into a monster, they nonetheless feel rather obligatory. Perhaps we’ve just grown too accustomed to CG wizardry to be astonished by sprouting hair and elongating snouts. Or maybe CG’s inherent lack of physicality undercuts the horror. For whatever reason, Michael Jackson’s Thriller featured a more frightening metamorphosis.

Emily Blunt, as Gwen Conliffe, is wasted here as the archetypal Pretty Face That Exists Only To Be Menaced–notwithstanding lame attempts to beef up her role by having her search frantically for a lycanthropy cure. Hugo Weaving fares marginally better. As an inspector from Scotland Yard sent to investigate the murders, he lends quality support–but spends far too much time firing lead at the beast, even though he’s fully aware of the need for more lustrous ammunition.

So it seems the vampires have won another one. At least this new and improved werewolf doesn’t sparkle.

Neither, unfortunately, does the movie. Rather than a silver bullet, The Wolfman needs a flea collar.

rotundoMatthew S. Rotundo is an award-winning author whose fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Volume XXV, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Jim Baen’s Universe. Though he lives in Nebraska, he has husked corn only once, and has never been detasseling, so he insists he is not a hick.

Visit his blog.

Tagged as: ,