The much-maligned 2010 remake of the classic horror film is a lot better than you might remember.
Universal’s attempts to create a Monster Universe, rebooting and reinventing the films that made the company in the 1930s, has been a notorious disaster. Unlike other ‘universes’, there was little to connect the films – an irony, given that back in the 1940s, Universal pioneered the idea of interconnected films and characters with their multi-monster movies – and the fact that most of these characters are in the public domain doesn’t help – pretty much anyone can make films based on Frankenstein, Dracula or The Invisible Man. Only The Wolfman and the Creature from the Black Lagoon remain exclusively Universal characters, and the attempts to rework those films have been oddly difficult – there have been attempts to remake Creature… since the end of the 1970s, for instance, all of which have fallen apart. The Wolfman, made in 2010, was a box office bomb and put the reboot series back at square one, something that has repeatedly happened with each attempt at reviving the films as part of a contrived series. But a decade on, I would argue that The Wolfman has been unfairly treated – if this had been the template for an ongoing series of gothic horrors, I think it would have been no bad thing.
Watching The Wolfman recently for the third time – the first being on its original theatrical release, and the second when it was first released on disc – I remain baffled at why this film seems to be so disdained by horror fans. Maybe I shouldn’t be – they are a fickle, hard-to-please bunch all to often – but this film to me seems a decent, if not entirely successful attempt to make a no-nonsense gothic horror film for adult audiences. Perhaps people wanted another Mummy sequel that rejected the supernatural in favour of mindless action.
The film takes its lead from the 1941 original, but to call this a remake is a bit of a stretch, frankly – while certain plot elements and character names remain, this is very much an original piece. Here, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) is an actor, persuaded to return to his Blackmoor home after the mysterious death of his brother. Rocking up at the crumbling family pile, he reunites with his too sinister by half father (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt). Father and son have been estranged since Lawrence’s childhood, when his mother apparently committed suicide, resulting in the boy being institutionalised.
The Talbots are the cause of some mistrust in the local town – a fine bit of Universal horror angry villager referencing here – because Talbot’s mother was a gypsy, and everyone seems convinced that it was a dancing bear at a local gypsy encampment that killed the brother. Soon, the locals are raiding the camp, only to find something rather more aggressive than a bear attacking them. Lawrence is wounded, but finds that his injuries heal suspiciously quickly. The superstitious villagers – and Lawrence’s father – know only too well what is to come, and sure enough, on the next full moon, he transforms into a werewolf, courtesy of impressive effects by Rick Baker.
From hereon, the film offers several plot twists, some of which are non-too-surprising, but all of which are pretty satisfactory and keep the film moving at a fast pace. In a nice bit of Victoriana cross-referencing, appearing to investigate the killings is Inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving) – the real life Scotland Yard inspector in charge of the Jack the Ripper case (Talbot himself seems to be based on actor Richard Mansfield, himself sometimes named as a Ripper suspect). Events travel from Blackmoor to London (allowing a great set-piece transformation in an asylum) and back, ending with a final battle between Lawrence and the werewolf responsible for cursing him to begin with (no prizes for guessing who that might be).
I suspect that much of the dismissal of this film is due to its well-documented ‘troubled production’ – director Joe Johnston arrived on the project shortly before production began after Mark Romanek left, Danny Elfman’s score was dumped and then reinstated, the release was continually delayed as the film was re-edited. But I rather suspect that if people didn’t know about these problems, they might well be more kindly disposed towards the film (there’s nothing critics like more than kicking a movie while it’s down). Certainly, the story – much criticised for being incoherent – isn’t actually messy at all (this version is, admittedly, the extended cut, which is 17 minutes longer than the theatrical version). I’ve seen many highly praised genre films that are more incoherent than this, and it moves fairly smoothly throughout the narrative. The set pieces are handled well, and Baker’s effects are possibly more dramatic (the final werewolf certainly is) than his work on An American Werewolf in London, taking as they do the ideas he developed on that film and expanding them. There is, of course, a lot of CGI involved – but it’s better than in many a film, and rarely calls attention to itself.
There are problems of course, and the main one, I fear, would have been there in any version. Del Toro seems woefully miscast, even after the film goes out of its way to explain how Anthony Hopkins would have a Latino son, and at no point do you feel any connection to his character – a major stumbling block as he is in more or less every scene. He seems less tortured than bored, which is odd given that he was also one of the film’s producers, and his mumbling, sluggish performance lets the film down badly. Hopkins is better, even if he is chewing the scenery with abandon – his character is always interesting. The same can’t be said of Emily Blunt’s character, who is a romantic lead with nothing much to do for most of the film. She gives a decent performance, but her character is woefully thin.
Casting faults aside though, The Wolfman is a handsome looking, fast-paced, surprisingly gory gothic romp, one that never becomes boring and which shows more respect to the source material than pretty much anything else in Universal’s remarkably woeful Monster Universe. Compared to those films, from the assorted versions of The Mummy to Van Helsing to Dracula Untold, have been genuinely embarrassing and misguided, and I rather rather suspect that as that series stumbles on (even if The Invisible Man turns out to be as good as the trailer suggests), a lot of people will start to look back at this film with more affection than they do now.