Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Director Report Card: Joe Johnston (2010)

9. The Wolfman

Three times in the last ten years, Universal Studios has attempted to reboot their pantheon of classic monsters. The previous two attempts, in 2014 and 2017, took the form of big budget action spectacles intended to launch cinematic universes. (This is after “Van Helsing” tried something similar in 2004.) The studio is currently preparing a fourth attempt. These latest remakes will be low-budget horror movies, the approach Universal should've been taking all along. Because the Universal Monsters are immensely important characters and movies to me, I have been unnaturally invested in all these reboots. The first of these attempt the studio made to retrofit their monsters for modern tastes was a big budget remake of “The Wolfman” in 2010.

Conceptually, a new "Wolfman" was a great idea. It's one of the few monsters Universal created whole cloth, without adapting a public domain novel. As the film was nearly seventy years old at the time, there was certainly plenty of room for expansion and updated special effects. It quickly became a passion project of Benicio del Toro, who is apparently a great fan of the original. Rick Baker, saint of the monster kids and practical effects god, also insisted on doing the make-up. Initially, music video auteur Mark Romanek was attached as director. After he left though, it seemed “The Wolfman” became cursed. A number of directors rotated through the project, from sensible choices like Frank Darabont and Bill Condon, to utterly baffling names like Brett Ratner. Finally, Joe Johnston signed on weeks before production was scheduled to begin. The studio meddled, countless reshoots followed, the budget ballooned. After numerous delays, “The Wolfman” was dumped into theaters in February. Critics dismissed it. Audiences ignored it. As a seasoned Universal Monster fan, however, I certainly have many thoughts about the remake.

In 1891, Ben Talbot is torn apart in the night by a mysterious beast. His brother, traveling actor Lawrence, is summoned back to Talbot Hall in the Welsh countryside. Since the death of their mother when he was a boy, Lawrence has always had a tense relationship with his father, Sir John. Also waiting at the hall is Gwen, Ben's beautiful finance. When investigating what killed his brother, Lawrence is in a gypsy camp just as the beast attacks. He is bitten. Soon, Talbot finds he is the latest inherent of a family curse. For when the moon is full and bright in the sky, he becomes a terrifying beast, half man, half wolf.

Out of the many films I've seen, 2010's “The Wolfman” remains one of the most frustrating for me. Simply put, this “Wolfman” was so nearly a perfect remake. It makes so many good expansions on the original. Explicitly setting the story in Victorian times was a great idea, alighting the Wolfman with the other classic monsters. (And also getting around the vague use of time and place in the Universal films.) “Larry” Talbot, the lovable oaf that Lon Chaney Jr. played in 1941, becomes Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean actor carrying around a life of pain. Yet despite the changes the movie makes, it's spirit and heart remains faithful to the original. It takes the original classic and adds a beefy modern budget, along with a more mature screenplay.

A big element of that maturation is addressing much of the hidden subtext of the original. The Wolfman transformation, a likable guy becoming a murderous beast at night, has always been a metaphor for alcoholism. The remake makes Lawrence explicitly an alcohol, someone who is rarely seen without a drink in his hand. Smartly, the film doesn't foreground this too much, to the point that you can miss it if you aren't looking for it. Like all of the classic monsters, the Wolfman is also an outsider to polite society. The film directly links this with the racial persecution the local gypsies face, the same people initially fingered for the deaths. His mother was Romani and Lawrence carries her appearance. (This explains what the rather brown Benicio del Toro is doing in 1890s Europe.) It can't be a mistake that the actual perpetrator of these crimes is a wealthy white man.

More than anything else, what Johnston's “The Wolfman” gets so very right is the visuals. After peppering an occasional bit of gothic atmosphere throughout many of his other films, Johnston gets to make a full-on horror movie and clearly relishes it. The natural habitat of a werewolf is present: The fog-strewn moors of the English countryside, the moonlight shining through the black trees to cast sinister shadows all around. Yet the other gothic trademarks, such as the long and cold halls of ornate Talbot Hall, are also present. When the story relocates to London, there's even a vintage steam engine rolling down the blue-black coddle stone streets. It looks and feels exactly like how a modern day Universal Monster movie should look and feel.

The original “Wolfman” already had some Daddy issues. The reason Larry was returning home was because his father's favored son died. In the original, this was largely an excuse for the very American Lon Chaney Jr. to be in the Welsh setting with Claude Rains playing his dad. The remake, meanwhile, makes the tension between father and son the main driving force behind the story. In some ways, this choice is really interesting. Before his internal monsterhood expresses itself as a terrible transformation, Talbot is an outsider in his own home. The eventual change into a wolf has its root in a traumatic childhood, with the death of his mother, the loving and caring parent. It seems somewhat inevitable that his father would quickly be revealed as responsible for that death, making the cause of his childhood pain and his hairy curse one and the same.

It's a smart and logical progression of the original film's themes. Yet, in other ways, this change is quite frustrating for me. Claude Rains' Sir John Talbot looked into his son's eyes and saw only disappointment. When he clubs the wolfman Larry Talbot to death at the end, it's a tragedy. In the remake, Sir John is also a werewolf, the one who infected his son with the curse. This forms into a bloody, fangs-barred rivalry. Father makes plans to destroy his son, largely because his heart has rotten into vindictiveness and because he doesn't want his would-be daughter-in-law to leave Talbot Hall. Realizing Sir John killed his mother, son makes plans to destroy the father. So the gothic tragedy of the original is morphed into a harder, nastier game of escalating carnage in the remake. This is not the direction I would've taken.

However, when focused on scenes of werewolf mayhem, “The Wolfman” frequently works fantastically. This is an R-rated horror movie that is unapologetic about its gore. The first night Lawrence transforms, he goes on a gruesome rampage. He tears arms out of their sockets. Faces are slashed to ribbons. Guts are yanked opened. One especially memorable moment has him tearing a head off easily with a single swipe of his hand. It's frenziedly directed, an intense blast of nastiness. The movie never really tops that moment, though Lawrence's rampage through London – which has him tearing a guy's liver out and slashing his was through the aforementioned steam engine – comes pretty damn close.

Rick Baker's immediate involvement with a new version of “The Wolfman” couldn't have made more sense. His love of the classic monsters is what inspired Baker to become the leading practical make-up effects man in Hollywood. Naturally, Baker's version of the Wolfman is fantastic. It's a beautiful update of the original Jack Pierce make-up, looking more canine without sacrificing the classic silhouette. It is the iconic werewolf but updated with all the innovations of modern day effects work. Baker crafted this monster with love and it shows. He would rightfully win his seventh Academy Award for his efforts.

Sadly, Baker's work only makes up some of the creature effects in the film. All the transformation sequences utilize CGI... Mediocre CGI. Del Toro's fingers and face twisting out of place and looks cartoonish, distracting from the wonderful make-up that is in the film. The worst example of the film's cheesy CGI are appearances from a computer-generated bear and elk, neither of which look even remotely real. This is, of course, another causality of the film's fractured production. Johnston's late entrance onto the project, and the multiple reshoots, meant there was no time for costly practical transformation scenes.

The unconvincing and gratuitous CGI is far from the only obvious sign of studio meddling and reshoots in the movie. In fact, it's very obvious that Universal big wigs wanted “The Wolfman” to be a very different type of horror movie than what was originally intended. Rather obnoxious jump-scares are inserted throughout the film. At least two times, the snarling face of a werewolf leaps into frame suddenly and loudly. What bugs me even more than these are bizarre montages, in which Lawrence's memories morph in odd ways. Moments like this feel hopelessly over-produced, the result of a group of executives trying to make a scary movie but totally cluelessly about what is frightening.

How clueless were the Universal boss men who oversaw the film's production? One of the directives for the re-shoots were to make the movie more like the “Underworld” series. I guess those were the only movies with werewolves in them that the producers had seen. And, okay, they made money, despite being terrible. Anyway, this odious order is most evident in the film's inexplicably action-packed climax. Once Lawrence returns to Talbot Hall, he has a showdown with his werewolf father. What follows is a ridiculously over-the-top monster fight. The creatures are suddenly leaping around the walls and kicking each other through the air. Listen, I love silly monster fights but this shit could not be more out of place here.

When I saw “The Wolfman” in theaters, I was a little disappointed in Benicio del Toro's performance. On paper, it seems like ideal casting. Del Toro has a similar quality to Lon Chaney, able to summon an incredible ferocity but with an inner sadness in his eyes, a sad-sack quality to his face. (And they've both played simpleton man-children.)  Yet Del Toro plays Lawrence in a more reserved way. He is, basically, an awkward theater nerd that uses alcohol to repress the trauma swirling inside him. Later, Del Toro swings from this muted approach to wild screaming and shouting, which comes off as rather over-the-top. Still, it is a better performance than what I initially thought. The inconsistency in del Toro's acting seen in the final film may be another result of the reshoots.

Another smart decision made for the remake is making the romance a bigger part of the story. In the original, Lon Chaney becomes attracted to Evelyn Anker's Gwen after spying on her through her bedroom window via telescope. Though the two performers had chemistry, it was a rather uncomfortable basis for a romance. The remake makes Gwen the finance of Lawrence's dead brother. The two feel an immediate connection but are reluctant to act on it, out of respect for the dead. Their feelings for each other show through in scenes involving skipping stones or in pensive glances across rooms. Emily Blunt is well-cast in the part and the classical Beauty and the Beast images invoked near the very end of the film are among its best.

The other big marquee name in the film was Anthony Hopkins as Sir John. Hopkins, in some ways, was ideally cast. Few people can make ominous proclamations sound as chilling and effective as him. His reaction to the townsfolk or finding his son after his first rampage make the best use of Hopkins' abilities. A scene where Hopkins explains the toll the death of Lawrence's mother took on him is even rather frightening. However, eventually, Hopkins slides into an unseemly hamminess. Another obvious reshoot has him explaining his origins and plans to Lawrence, a scene that Hopkins plays like a comic book supervillain. A better supporting player is Hugo Weaving as the Scotland yard investigator sent to look into the killings. Though the part adds little to the film, Weaving brings his typical amount of wit and grace to the role.

After seeing “The Wolfman” in theaters, I remember leaving feeling very frustrated. It was so obvious to me that a better version of this film existed at some point in the editing room, in-between all the reshoots and studio tinkering. When an unrated director's cut was announced for the DVD, I was hopeful that might be it. The director's cut is better than the theatrical version. The first act is much longer, giving us more insight into Lawrence's personality before he transforms, which doesn't happen until almost an hour into the movie. (It also reinstates the 1940s Universal Studios logo and a wonderful cameo from Max von Sydow.) Sadly, the director's cut doesn't fix any of the story problems in the film and includes all the obvious re-shoots. It would seem the ideal version of this movie existed probably in the scripting stage, not the editing room. I still dream of cutting my own version of the movie though.

Ultimately, “The Wolfman” would flop at the box office and receive tepid at best reviews. The president of Universal even referred to the remake as one of the worst movies the studio has ever made, which is blatantly not true. It's a film I still feel very torn on. There are things about this film I love and respect. You can tell Joe Johnston did a good job directing it. The cast is decent, the production design and make-up is fantastic. It is, sometimes, an effectively nasty horror film. Yet the film is also a mess, a clear victim of wrong-headed studio executives. It's still a much better Universal Monster movie than the next two attempts the studio made to reboot the monsters. [Grade: B]

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