Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bad Moon Rising: Universal Studios' The Wolf Man - Then and Now

The one thing that director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) has actually improved upon from George Waggner's 1941 original The Wolf Man is that we're made well aware that the wolf man's transformation from man to blood thirsty beast is a gruesome and horribly painful ordeal (though let's be honest, 1981's An American Werewolf in London showed us first). The shame is that we no longer care about Talbot's struggle against the animal within.

Much has changed since the 1940s when the wolf man first prowled the moors of England, and this goes far beyond the aesthetics of his transformation. In 1941, Jon Chaney Jr.'s monster stemmed from the repression of his perversions. While his transformation from man to wolf involves but a few fades revealing the growth of hair on his legs, the turmoil ran far deeper than the pain he might have experienced in transit. This man's pain comes from the mayhem he knows he is capable of, and the harm he fears he'll bring upon those he loves. By contrast, Benicio Del Toro's wolf man appears to enjoy every act of carnality, or at least hopes we get a kick out of the spectacle he creates.

This alteration in attitude might open up the new film to a few entertaining sequences along the ride but it also kills the mood before the film ever has a chance to take off. What has always been fascinating to me about the original was that we follow Chaney's Talbot as he regresses into a tragic monstrosity of which he has no control. We learn from the beginning that he's a practical man who lacks faith in the supernatural, and he's a bit of a Peeping Tom. The terror manifests once we find out that a wolf is on the prowl and Talbot defends a woman he'd been courting by killing it with a silver cane in self-defense. All of his desires now take shape when the moon is full because of a bite he was awarded with for his heroics. He then denies himself the pleasure of the kill because it conflicts with his moral core. Ultimately, he is tragically hunted by the townsfolk because they all think he's a threat that lurks in the brush.

Towards the finale of the original film, the townsfolk become the true monsters of the film. (Sheep hunting the wolf so to speak.) They stop his assault on the woman he had once protected from someone like himself and his father beats him to death using the very same cane he used to thwart the previous predator who attacked him. Clever twists like these that bring the narrative full circle are gone in the new film. In fact, much of what worked so well (thematically and narratively speaking) in the original is absent. We're still treated to some lovingly eerie set design and brilliantly grotesque make-up effects (courtesy of Rick Baker) but the dramatic core of the origin story is replaced by mean-spirited characters, an unbridled hunger for over-the-top gore, silly plot twists and flashbacks which try to mask what is old for new again. The story actually plays out better as a tribute to the ridiculous but fun sequels that the original Universal monster films spawned in the 40s like Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) and House of Dracula (1945), but ultimately it fails as a remake of the original tragic horror story.

As the original wolf man, Lon Chaney Jr uncovers the horrors he is responsible for and begs for his father to strap him into a chair and see him for the monster he truly is. A similar scene appears in the remake, but Del Toro's Talbot is secured to a chair in the operating room of an asylum surrounded by men of science hoping to debunk his claims of transformation. Embracing the violence he is about to unleash upon the room full of white jackets, he declares "I will kill ALL OF YOU." Such a bold statement might ignite glee in some viewers, but it fails to give us what we sorely need in horror films nowadays: restraint.

-- Andrew Dupuis is a devoted cinephile and graduate of Brock University's Film Studies program with an extensive background in Canadian and popular cinema. He is currently working on his first book.

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