The Beast Will Out: The Wolfman (2010)

While the full tale of Dracula Untold‘s fortunes will continue to play out, the movie appears to have done well enough in this first weekend of release to remain a part of Universal’s plans for their famous monsters. With news of recent reshoots meant to keep Universal’s options open in terms of folding Dracula Untold into their proposed Universal Monsterverse (set to begin in earnest with 2016’s The Mummy), the film provides our first glimpse of just what they have in mind for these iconic characters. (SPOILERS) The film’s epilogue, which was reportedly the result of these reshoots, features Luke Evans’s Dracula strolling down a modern city street and meeting his reincarnated wife, now named Mina, while the mysterious vampire who sired him spies on them. The mind races: will that old Master Vampire (Charles Dance) be dispatched with in another solo Dracula movie or will he prove to be this series’ Loki? will Dracula need to recruit the other monsters to help defeat him? wait, Dracula isn’t the villain? Essentially, how does Dracula (and this movie in particular) fit into the Universal game plan, now that it did well enough to not just forget about? (END SPOILERS) While we wait a couple of years for the answers to these questions, you’ll forgive this monster fan for looking back at the last time a Universal Monster movie filled him with these kinds of questions. Yes, I mean 2010, when the critical and financial failure of The Wolfman scuttled one nerd’s dreams of Universal’s early adoption of the Marvel method.

The Universal family of monsters is broadly made up of characters from the studio’s horror output from 1931’s Dracula through 1953’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon (though even more broadly, there are those who include earlier characters like Lon Chaney’s Quasimodo and Phantom of the Opera or later creatures like the Metaluna Mutant in This Island Earth). The Wolf Man is the only one of the Universal Monster “Big Three” (Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man) without a direct literary basis (of the next tier, the Mummy and the Gill-man are also relatively original cinematic creations). Invented for the screen by writer Curt Siodmak, the Wolf Man/Lawrence Talbot was an original creation and was ground zero for much of the werewolf lore that we take for granted today (chiefly, Siodmak introduced, in this film and its sequels, the notion of transformation under the full moon and the use of silver bullets to kill a werewolf). The first wave of Universal horror movies wound down in the mid-1930s, with monster movies dropped from the production schedule. But when a revival double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein was a surprise smash hit, Universal returned to the genre with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. They followed this success with some Invisible Man and Mummy programmers before introducing the biggest monster of this second wave and the predominant horror star of the decade when Lon Chaney, Jr. played the title character in 1941’s The Wolf Man. Chaney would go on to be the only Universal actor to have portrayed Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Wolf Man, and the Mummy. And unlike all of the other monsters who had multiple performers over the years, Chaney was the sole actor to portray Larry Talbot, the lycanthropic main character of The Wolf Man. Talbot also appeared in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

As one of the Big Three, the Wolf Man certainly seems like fair game for further adaptation in the same way as Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster. But since he was an original character for the screen, Larry Talbot stayed behind in the 1940s, as other studios just tried out their own werewolf movies. Hammer took their shot with Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf in 1961 (a good one, but it didn’t lead to a series like their Dracula or Frankenstein films did). Paul Naschy (“the Spanish Lon Chaney”) played werewolf Waldemar Daninsky in twelve films from 1968 to 2004. 1981 saw a one-two punch of classic werewolf films with the release of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London.

Talbot would have to wait for Universal themselves to circle back to their famous monsters. They released an adaptation of Dracula, with Frank Langella reprising his Tony-nominated performance in the title role, in 1979. They sat out the 1990s, apparently at work developing remakes of Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Mummy (perhaps after seeing the success other studios were having with films like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Wolf). In the early 2000s, they turned the franchise over to Stephen Sommers who turned The Mummy into an adventure series and gave us one of the shriekiest films of the 2000s in his 2004 monster mash Van Helsing. And then finally, at the end of the decade, they pulled the trigger on a remake of The Wolf Man.

Originally scheduled for release in November 2008, the film lost director Mark Romanek over creative differences with the studio, hired Joe Johnston as a replacement less than four weeks out from the start of production, and was delayed a number of times (also missing out on an October 2009 date) before being dropped on February 2, 2010. It received generally middling-to-poor reviews and failed to match its production budget at the box office, seeming to slow development of Universal’s other monster properties and sending the studio back to the drawing board.

Which was a shame, because the movie is pretty good! As in the 1941 original, the film follows the story of Lawrence Talbot returning to his father’s home after the death of his brother. Shortly after his return, he is attacked by a creature on the moors and as he recovers from his wounds, an inspector from London investigates him as a suspect for the recent violent attacks in the area. Lawrence is met with the double horrors that he is now cursed to transform into a werewolf under the full moon and that the curse of the werewolf has a very direct tie to his family history.

The horror landscape was in a bit of transition in 2010. The Saw cycle (and its attendant wave of torture horror) was ending and the success of the first Paranormal Activity film had just signaled the beginning of a new wave of found footage ghost stories. The Wolfman arrived as a full-blooded gothic monster movie, and with it’s marquee cast and beautiful production design it stood in gorgeous contrast to both trends. Benicio del Toro makes for a good Lawrence Talbot, this version a somewhat louche actor, and he provides a sensitive and modern update of Chaney’s tortured hero. Anthony Hopkins is a hoot (a howl?) and a half as Sir John Talbot, chewing through his lines with obvious pleasure. Emily Blunt is as sympathetic a heroine as this kind of movie can get, and the film turns the Gwen Conliffe character into the fiancee of Lawrence’s deceased brother, giving her much higher emotional stakes in what is happening with the Talbots. Hugo Weaving rounds out the main cast as Inspector Abberline, former investigator of the Ripper murders. Weaving brings his usual purring credibility to the role, making at least one audience member dream of seeing his Abberline in another film. The Wolfman himself is a frightening creation. The film makes use of atmosphere and suspense to build its horror, but it also makes liberal use of modern gore, and the combination makes the film’s Wolfman a truly formidable monster (I had mixed feelings about the gore, which seemed to violate the elegance of the original films, but also makes this one viscerally horrifying in a way that honors them). And the film’s show-stopping rampage that takes Talbot from an asylum viewing gallery to the rooftops and streets of London is terrific. Of course, reports of creative struggles dogged the film even throughout the post-production process. They reportedly brought in two additional editors (including Walter Murch) and there were reports that Danny Elfman’s score (a good one! scary and romantic) had been thrown out and replaced and then brought back to replace the replacement. Makeup genius Rick Baker was also publicly disappointed with the filmmakers’ decision to discard the physical-effect transformation he’d planned for the Wolfman and replace it with a digital version using his designs. Some evidence of the film’s troubled creation can likely be spotted in the finished product, as the pacing at the beginning of the picture feels a bit abbreviated and the film trades some of its atmosphere and horror for old-fashioned monster brawling for its climax (don’t get me wrong, it’s fun monster brawling, but I understand if it’s hard for some to settle back in for the tragic horror ending after that). And the love story doesn’t really land as hard as it should for the role it plays in the climax.

Still, despite any misgivings, in many ways The Wolfman is a monster fan’s dream of a modern Universal Monster movie. It honors the original in ways large and small, and brilliantly re-captures that film’s iconic fog-and-horror-on-the-moors atmosphere. Baker’s Wolfman design maintains the bipedal profile and basic character of Jack Pierce’s original design, but gives him a shaggier and more fearsome appearance. While the casting of Anthony Hopkins and Benicio Del Toro as father and son might seem counterintuitive, it’s also a clever update of the strange energy the original film gets out of having lumpy Lon Chaney Jr. as the son of urbane Claude Rains. The story is a savvy and honest updating of the original’s, but it also offers surprises for fans who know the original by heart, offering added drama and tragedy in Gwen’s new relationship with the Talbots, taking a mid-film detour into the world of 19th century treatment for mental illness, and complicating the relationship between the elder Talbot and his son. Heck, it even opens on a fancy digital recreation of the twinkling stars Universal logo from the 1940s.

And beyond the ways it satisfied this Wolf Man fan, it also seems like it should (in theory at least) have been a studio’s dream for a franchise starter. In a move that seems to have been somewhat controversial amongst purists, the screenplay (SPOILER) makes the modern franchise move of turning the curse of the werewolf into a family affair, giving the Talbot family a tragic backstory and turning Sir John into the film’s true villain. (END SPOILER) Most of all, though, the movie had the perfect thread to tie together a shared monsterverse in Hugo Weaving’s Inspector Abberline. The way things resolve for the character in the film could complicate this, but it was incredibly easy (and exciting!) to imagine a series of equally well produced big-budget monster movies featuring Abberline showing up to investigate the latest horror, or at least to check in with the surviving heroes (imagine him protecting Frankenstein from his creation, or arresting Van Helsing for mutilating a corpse). Basically, he could have been Universal’s own Nick Fury. The film came out about midway through Marvel’s first wave of films, so while we knew what they were up to, The Avengers hadn’t come out and made the other studios lose their minds yet. That timing, coupled with the film’s under-performance, means that we now get to wait and see what Alex Kurtzman and company have planned for Larry Talbot and his best fiends. But in the meantime I think I’ll put on The Wolfman again.