“Even a Man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.
The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t very good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).
The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career (damn few out of literally hundreds of films). He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was best when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment. Chaney’s performance as Talbot was better in the mediocre assembly line follow-up Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but the character became increasingly tiresome and repetitive. Jack Pierce’s make-up for the beast cannot compare to the work he had done in Frankenstein(1931) and The Mummy (1932), either.
Despite all the negatives, there is enjoyment to be had in the 1941Wolf Man, mainly in overall atmosphere and some of the character performances. The inimitable Maria Ouspenskia steals every scene she is in and makes the film memorable. Claude Rains, Warren William and Ralph Bellamy give the film far more class than it deserves. Finally, there is Bela Lugosi, very good as the doomed, aptly named gypsy, Bela. Lugosi often excelled in character parts such as this, his performance as Roxor in the otherwise awful Chandu The Magician, as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein (his best role), and as Joseph in The Body Snatcher. These roles are far more memorable than the bulk of his “starring” roles. Patrick Knowles, however, is stiff as a board, and Ankers’ only descent asset is her lungs.
Even by 1941 standards, The Wolf Man is chock full of logic gaps, narrative loop holes, and stock cliches. The Wolf Man may not have much in the way of individual personality in the way the best 30’s films had when the witty James Whale, the poetically obsessive Tod Browning, or the delightfully black Edgar G. Ulmer were at the helm, but it is the last time a Universal Horror Film does not seem a “too rushed” assembly line production. It was all downhill from here; hence the necessity for Val Lewton in the 40’s. However, that “rushed” quality to come is certainly seen creeping in here. The forest sets seem artificially planted, the fog machine was in overdrive, and there is a cheesy hallucinatory sequence, complete with the scream queen doing a still-photographed, horror stricken pose.
The 2010 remake does have atmosphere aplenty and, overall, it is an improvement over the original, but not by much. The biggest surprise is the lackluster performances from the two leads. Most people count Anthony Hopkins as one of the leading actors from the past twenty years, but he’s clearly just collecting a check here, and it’s certainly not the first time. It is unfortunate that Hopkins’ attitude of slumming shows, because he could have given as wonderfully nuanced performance as Claude Rains. More surprising is Benecio De Toro’s performance. He invests little in the role. He sulks, he broods, he carries angst, but it is pure surface, echoing Chaney’s performance while adding little to it. He creates no real sympathy, which, at least, Chaney, with soulful eyes, did manage to inspire.
Director Joe Johnston wisely sets the 2010 Wolfman remake as a period piece near the end of the nineteenth century. This allows for some marvelous Gothic atmosphere and production sets that seem more Hammer than Universal, which is not a bad thing. Composer Danny Elfman actually seems to be composing again here, which is an effective, pleasant surprise. Certainly much time, care, and money went into the remake, so it escapes the B-movie quality of the original in production values.
The CGI effects, however, are a mixed bag. The Wolfman himself seems too sprightly and, despite some terrifying, gory mayhem, never seems real enough to evoke a threat that we can identify with. For the most part the transformation scenes are well done without being innovative (An American Werewolf in London and The Howling already went there). The one exception is the superb transformation in the asylum.
Emily Blunt is a vast improvement over Ankers as the love interest, but the underrated Geraldine Chaplin is given nothing to do with her thankless role, which is a pity.
Despite a few narrative deviations from the original, this remake winds up being more homage than a truly imaginative re-thinking, which adds up to an “A” funded “Back to Gothic” horror with “B” results. It’s a good “B,” but it could have been the quintessential film for the genre character. It’s better than the bulk of the rot that has been churned out over the last 20 years in horror film, but it falls short of being the classic it could have been, a bit like its 1941 namesake.