It’s pretty well known that Universal Studios don’t like keeping valuable properties locked up. There have been a barrage of dodgy remakes and sequels, even in the earliest days of the studio’s success, but with a pick-and-mix of semi-successful remakes in the last decade or so it was inevitable that The Wolf Man would make a return. It’s always been one of the big three in Universal’s monster canon, and though it’s certainly not my favourite of the early horror flicks it’s a classic film that practically invented the werewolf as the monster we know today.
This remake has been a long while coming, not just because it’s been a fair few years since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Mummy and even Van Helsing proved there was still room to play with the old monsters. The Wolf Man is one of those films whose production histories is best called “troubled”, swapping directors, producers and composers around so often its release was delayed by two years. It’s understandable then that the film doesn’t really know what it is. One minute it’s pretending to be a gothic piece in the style of Bram Stoker’s Dracula;, the next it’s a silly monster-versus-monster action flick in the style of Van Helsing or The Mummy, then it decides it’s a psychological thriller with a hint of From Hell, before switching into a Sam Rami inspired gore-fest.
If that weren’t schizophrenic enough, it’s principal cast seem just as confused. Benecio Del Toro tries his best to add depth to Lon Chaney Jr’s original role and while his version makes more sense than Chaney’s ever did he still has a hard time keeping check on just how his character takes to the transformation. Anthony Hopkins camps it up ludicrously, playing Sir John Talbot as a hybrid between Hannibal Lecter and his awful version of Van Helsing. Poor Emily Blunt tries not to become part of the scenery in an anaemic love-interest role, but at least Hugo Weaving has some fun as police inspector, and probably the only fully sane person in the film.
For the most part it’s a horrible mess but there are little glimmers of hope here.
On the plus side the special effects are impressive: wonderful creature makeup and physical effects designed by Rick Baker, who famously created the incredible werewolf transformation in An American Werewolf in London, to which this owes a great debt. The music, composed by Danny Elfman, is basically a re-hash of his work on Sleepy Hollow, though it’s pleasant enough to listen to. The gorier sequences are a lot of fun too; there’s plenty of nicely savage attacks and limbs flying messily everywhere, great for those of us who like a bit of silly splatter. One of the best sequences is a wonderfully nasty section set in an insane asylum, with some suitably horrible psychological nonsense neatly segueing into a blood-splattered rampage.
Unfortunately these fun bits are a little too few and far between, padded out with Del Toro brooding or Hopkins acting like a lunatic. Just as I was starting to warm to the thing it devolved into a downright stupid monster mash. Now, one of these days filmmakers are going to realise that movies with multiple monsters are rarely frightening, just look at every other flick from Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman to Freddy Versus Jason, you can just about get away with a handful of ghosts but once you start pitting monsters against each other it just starts to look like something a five year old boy would dream up when playing with his toys. It’s particularly daft in The Wolf Man’s case as the monster mash involves multiple werewolves. You see, what makes werewolves frightening is one of two things: either the fear of being stalked by something horrific (see Dog Soldiers for a good example) or the crippling fear of being turned into something inhuman in an incredibly painful way (a la American Werewolf in London or Ginger Snaps). The Wolf Man nips both of these fears swiftly in the bud by having us identify with the werewolf but also including another werewolf who is fairly sane and well-adjusted and has been able to keep his existence a secret for a good few decades, thus rendering the fear of becoming one rather less potent.
If you’re in the mood for an incredibly daft gothic-psychological-action-splatter-mess then this is fairly fun in a brainless sort of way, but if you have an aversion to utterly mind-numbing stupidity, I’d recommend turning off the DVD before the final fight.