Bark at the Moon: The Wolfman

Universal Studios has been really sticking it to horror fans over the past few years. They’ve maligned their greatest cinematic legacy: “The Universal Monsters.” First with a mediocre action-oriented retread of The Mummy (that isn’t bad as a Summer blockbuster, but is terrible as a successor to the Karloff version) then with the absolute prostitution of it’s best properties with the cartoon-ish, soulless monster mash/toy commercial that was Van Helsing. Being as bias as I am towards the original Universal Monsters (probably the VHS tapes that got the most use in my childhood, outside of Jaws) these last few years have seen my patience wear thin. Over the last year or so the internet has been abuzz with stories of trouble on the set of Universal’s latest attempt to breath new life into one of their monsters. This time it was Lon Chaney Jr’s furry-footed alter ego: 1941’s The Wolf Man (my second favorite monster growing up, next to The Creature from the Black Lagoon).

It may come as a shock, and I know I’m going to be in the minority here but… I thought The Wolfman was pretty good.

Now wait a second, I didn’t say “great” I said “pretty good.” The Wolfman is the kind of remake that really shouldn’t get under anyone’s skin, as it has very little to do with the original film. With the exception of the character’s names and a few in-nods to the original (Lawrence’s cane, the old “when the wolfsbane blooms” poem, etc.) this is an in-name-only remake of the classic: different time period, different origin story, different location, and lots and lots more blood and guts.There are some truly eye-rolling moments in Joe Johnston’s version of the story (the director took over the project shortly before shooting, after the first director quit due to problems with the studio, never a good sign) but there are also some fairly great parts.

First: the bad news. The script has some clunky dialogue and pacing issues, but The Wolfman‘s real problems mostly come near the climax of the film. It is during the Wolfman’s rampage through London that viewers may get a sinking sense of big budget crapfest deja vu. There is also a climactic showdown (between who and who is a slight spoiler) that is lame with a capital L.

The effects are mostly good which is why the segments that aren’t stand out so prominently. There is some shaky CGI (especially when the Wolfman goes from biped to quadruped) and while Rick Baker’s makeup is mostly awesome there are a few times that you feel the director is showing us a bit too much of the wolf costumes.

The real strength of The Wolfman lies in the fact that these problems, which would normally be debilitating, never stopped me from enjoying the film. That’s in large part due to the inspired casting of Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro. The rest of the cast is no big shakes (Hugo Weaving seems to be doing his “Agent Smith” with a slight British accent and cooler facial hair) but it’s really del Toro and Hopkins’ show anyway.

The transposition of the story to Victorian England is a good change merely from a stylistic perspective. The lavish costuming and intricate Gothic locations will probably remind horror fans more of Hammer’s lush costume pieces than Universal’s original Wolf Man. There is minimal obvious CGI-enhancement (with the exception of the aforementioned London rampage) and all these sets and costumes are lovingly photographed, making The Wolfman one of the more visually interesting big budget commercial films to come along in a while.

Lastly, there’s the gore. Oh the gore. I’m by no means a gore hound, I like Fulci just as much as the next guy, but a man can not survive on viscera alone. That said, I think that it’s both remarkable and refreshingly ballsy that Universal released The Wolfman with an R-rating. Limbs are hacked, heads severed and innocents are not spared. The horror of Talbolt’s moonlight benders are reinforced through intense bloodletting, serving a narrative point in highlighting how even a likable guy like Larry is powerless to the curse.

You can call it rose-tinted glasses, call it the result of lowered expectations, but I don’t think you’d be right. I’m pretty sure I sincerely enjoyed The Wolfman and that you might too.

Oh and one more (non-Wolfman related) thing: don’t text message during the movie. If your really going to have ten emails to send on your Blackberry, stay home.

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