“Hold That Ghost” is frequently called a precursor to the Abbott and Costello Meet the Monster series. And it is, sort of. But, at the same time, every comedy duo of the era made an old dark house comedy. The clichés and traditions of that genre were as ingrained in the culture in the 40s and 30s as the rules of the slasher film are to today’s world. So parodying them was natural. Anyway, the point: Is “Hold That Ghost” funny?
Yes. It’s very funny, in spots actually. The film takes some time getting to the not-quite-haunted house. Abbott and Costello are waiters in a fancy night club, featuring plenty of screen time for dancer/singer Ted Lewis and the Andrews Sisters. (And Lewis doing a rendition of “Me and My Shadow,” with a black guy dancing behind him. Ouch.) Cue skits involving grouchy customers and food orders, cummerbunds, and tumbling over dishes. The two quickly get fired, get work at a gas station, and, through some typically contrived circumstances, end up by a dying gangster’s side. Gee whiz, turns out that the gangster’s will gives his fortune and creepy old mansion to the people who just happen to be next to him when he dies. In the old dark house tradition, a group of other characters wind up at the dusty mansion with our bumbling duo. There’s a vitamins obsessed young scientist, a spunky young radio actress, and soon-to-be-scream-queen Evelyn Ankers as a woman who appears to be going blind. Hijinks, many of them involving people dressed as ghost, secret passageways, and dusty rooms, ensue.
|Put some pants on him. His wolf dork will show|
“The Wolf Man” is an actor’s film, a sophisticated affair. During a period when the studio was relegating horror to B-picture status, it’s a surprisingly classy film. Lon Chaney Jr. received considerable critical acclaim for his star-making role in “Of Mice and Men” while Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, and Maria Ouspenskaya were all Oscar-nominated actors. George Waggner’s direction is surprisingly atmospheric and classy, considering his previous efforts. (Among them the previously reviewed “Man Made Monster” and “Horror Island.”) The musical score was widely considered ground-breaking and influential. All of these factors contribute to making “The Wolf Man” a classic. I personally believe no factor was more important then Curt Siodmak’s screenplay.
Like all of the best horror films, there’s a level of subtext and themes that resonate deeply. Larry Talbot is one of the most human protagonist out of all the Universal films. He comes back to his home town for the first time in years. I’m not sure if this was intentional but, despite being born in the Welsh village the film is set in, Talbot has spent so much time in America there’s no sign of an accent at all. It’s tempting to say the relationship between Larry and his father is the emotional backbone of the film. Any one who has had a tense relationship with their own father can find a lot to relate to here. Sir John and Larry shake hands, talk tensely, desperately trying to forge some kind of bond through years of separation and estrangement. As the story and their relationship evolve, they come close to something resembling a proper father/son connection. The scene were Sir John decides to tie Chaney down in a chair seems to be the father’s own, strangled way to reach out to his son, whom he sees as a very sick individual. Still, the finale, when father beats his own son to death, can’t help but be read in a tragic text. Sir John is so unable to connect to his own son, he becomes a wolf in his father’s eyes. Oddly, compared to his reaching out but still cold father, Maleva the gypsy cuts a clearly maternal figure. She seems much more caring and nurturing then his actual parent.
Russian Wurdulac, the Wolf Man is compelled to seek out and kill the person he loves the most. It’s inevitable that the creature turns his claws towards the lovely maiden. The genuine chemistry Chaney and Ackers share makes up for the somewhat unseemly fact that Larry starts the relationship as a peeping tom.
After years of absence, the heavy English Fog makes a strong comeback with this film. The scenes of the Wolf Man roaming the moors, stalking a grave digger, are so singularly atmospheric. The forest is dark and deep, indeed. The town the film is set in is very much alive. The townspeople quickly ostrasize Larry, realizing he’s a bad omen. When he enters a church during the grave digger’s funeral, the entire congregation turns to stare at him. In another surprising scene, the mother of the first werewolf’s victim blame Gwen for her daughter’s death. After watching “The House of Seven Gable” so recently, you can’t help but feel there’s something Hawthorne-ian about this location. Rumors and guilt are certainly enough to bring a person’s reputation down.
The musical score is very good and seems to intentionally invoke a wolf’s howling. (In addition to featuring a slight musical motif rather reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s “Batman” theme that has cropped up in several of these studio films.) On his audio commentary, Tim Weaver spends a lot of time deconstructing the film’s various continuity flaws and plot holes. Some of them you can’t help but notice as well, like Larry changing into a work shirt before becoming a wolf-man. However, the prestige cast and powerful story makes the film a true classic. It’s not wonder why the Wolf Man quickly ascended to the same echelon of horror icons like Frankenstein and Dracula, in addition to mostly forming the popular conception of the werewolf. [9/10]
The Wolfman (2010)
When I first saw the remake of “The Wolfman,” I was frustrated. Many of the sequences were fantastic. Everyone knew the movie went through a troubled production. While I admired many of the things it did, a much better film obviously existed in the editing room at some point. So I was looking forward to Joe Johnston’s extended director’s cut… Though only enough to wait until the DVD hit the five dollar bin.
The director’s cut is better, though barely. Over ten minutes are inserted. It expands on Lawrence Talbot and his relationship with Gwen. Max Von Sydow’s excised sequence, which introduces the famous silver cane, is reinserted. The new scenes add a half an hour to the first act, moving the first transformation to almost an hour in. After that, the film plays more or less the same.
The edit doesn’t fix the major problems. The jump-scares are maintained, as is the ramping. The over-the-top fantasy scenes in the asylum are even more protracted. The most incredulous element, the father-son subplot, is still here. The werewolf kung-fu fight, against the grain of the film’s gothic Victorian atmosphere, is just as goofy. Sure, that expands on the daddy issues present in the original but the whole thing is handed in an obvious, ham-handed fashion. It weakens the entire film. You could cut the entire subplot without changing the story much at all. (These changes should have taken place during the scripting stage.)
Benicio del Toro should’ve been great, given how animalistic he can be while having the same sad sack quality Chaney had. It’s such a gruff, unsatisfying performance. Del Toro is… Off. Anthony Hopkins does his scenery chewing villain shtick. It’s horribly out of place and gets worse as it goes on. Emily Blunt does all right while Hugo Weaving is the only one that really acts here. He has a lot of fun.
It’s not the best remake of “The Wolf Man” we could have gotten. Moving the story into the Victorian era was smart but I object to lessening the role of the gypsies and Maleva. I object to removing the pentagram and other mythological elements. I think the romance in the original was more entertaining. Overall the remake is too somber. It doesn’t work all the way and, on second viewing, the flaws start to overshadow the good moments. [6/10]