Happy Halloween, fair readers! I’ve returned from my summer abroad just in time to celebrate our high holy day, and I come bearing one of the only films that I can truly call an October tradition in my household. To make it work in the context of the column, I have to take a slightly different angle than usual, as instead of focusing on a lesser-known work from an iconic actor or director, I’m going to be focusing on an overlooked movie featuring an iconic character. This particular character is known for a particularly intense monthly cycle that ends in all manner of hair growth and a craving for raw meat. I’m talking, of course, about The Wolf Man, one of the OG Universal Monsters made famous by Lon Chaney in 1941.
Today, however, I’d like to fast forward 69 years to give some love to the oft-dismissed, Joe Johnston-helmed remake from 2010. I get why fans of the classic would be put off by this attempt by Universal to give a classic B-movie the A-movie treatment. With a budget of $150 million and a star-studded cast lead by Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins, I’m sure plenty of horror fans were put off by the overly polished, CGI-laden feel of Johnston’s effort.
That being said… dammit, gang, this movie is just so much fun. The initial premise is very similar to the original version: popular stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is called back from London to his childhood home in Blackmoor to look into the disappearance of his brother. Things take a dark turn when he arrives to discover that his brother has been brutally torn to pieces by an unidentified beast, and things take an even darker turn after he’s bitten by said creature during an attack on a local gypsy camp. As he recovers from his wounds, he starts to experience certain changes that indicate a hankering for human flesh and an aversion to fleas as the full moon draws near.
It’s from here that the film starts to take a different path than its source material, as Talbot’s transformation dredges up memories of a childhood trauma involving his father, Sir John (Hopkins) and a mother who committed suicide when he was very young. This divergence gives the film an interesting twist, as Lawrence is forced to deal with not only this canine transformation, but also with some deep-seeded daddy issues and mental health physicians operating way out of their depth.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to claim that a film directed by the same guy who brought us The Rocketeer, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Jurassic Park III is going to offer a layered, nuanced exploration of mental health and trauma. But he at least gives us a little extra meat to chew on as a means to get at what I want from a Wolf Man flick: over-the-top melodrama and fun creature designs.
And make no mistake, this movie doesn’t ooze melodrama, it positively gushes it starting with a cold open kill within minutes of the first frame, followed by a smash cut into a delightfully overdone credits sequence. Del Toro’s performance is a big factor as well, starting with a casual listlessness that comes close to phoning it in until he’s bitten and ramps up to eleven faster than Spinal Tap.
But the movie’s undisputed MVP is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is clearly having a ball as the gleefully demented Sir John Talbot. Hopkins gnaws on every inch of scenery in this movie with a gleam in his eye that screams, “Screw it, I’ve got an Academy Award and I’m at a point in my career where I can both slum it and ham it up all at the same time.” And in the film’s climax where (SPOILER ALERT) he reveals himself to be the one who murdered both Lawrence’s brother and his mother, any last vestiges of restraint are demolished with psychotic abandon. He just lets the crazy erupt in a volcano of situation appropriate overacting that even bleeds into his post-transformation scenes.
Which brings me to the wolves themselves, and specifically Rick Baker’s creature design. I’m sure this is a touchy subject for some, as Baker’s breakthrough was perhaps the greatest transformation sequence of all-time in An American Werewolf in London. His work in London is the benchmark for practical effects, and when he agreed to take on the effects work for The Wolf Man remake, he originally planned on doing another practical-based scene. So, he was just as disappointed as everyone else when he found out that due to time constraints he was going to have to rely heavily on CGI. And yes, these sequences don’t hold the same visceral, bone-crunching power of London’s famous transformation.
But here’s a hot take for you: while the transformation in London is one for the ages, the resulting creature design is largely forgettable. I think this is due in large part to personal preference, as I’m more drawn to the humanoid versions of Wolf Men as opposed to those who go full quadruped. I like it when some personality can peek through, and that’s just what we get from Baker’s design. Rather than erase Del Toro completely, Baker allows him to act through the prosthetics, particularly in the eyes.
Look, I don’t expect Joe Johnston’s take on The Wolfman to ever have that Halloween III resurgence where people one day celebrate it as an overlooked masterpiece. But having just watched Universal try to kick off a Marvel-style “Dark Universe” with an ill-advised Tom Cruise lead version of The Mummy, I can’t help but think The Wolfman was actually the studio’s best shot at reigniting a demand for the monsters of the ’30s and ’40s, with the main problem being that it was far too expensive to make to ever have any real hope of making a profit and warrant follow-up films. So, while we may never see a true Universal Monsters resurgence, I’m hopeful that I can win a few of you over on this very rewatchable slice of lycanthropic fun.