Directed by Joe Johnston
“Terrible things, Lawrence. You’ve done terrible things.”
Why Did I Get This?
I’m honestly not sure if I saw this before the 1941 version, but was interested in checking it out from the moment it was announced. This was before any of that Universal Dark Universe nonsense, and my interest was based pretty much solely on the involvement of Rick Baker and Benicio del Toro – more specifically, on this incredible picture that did the rounds when the casting was announced…
… as I understand it, there’s no makeup involved there with the exception of maybe some hair product, but it looked like del Toro was ready to have fun with the role, and Baker’s effects legacy is solid enough, so I was sold from day one.
I don’t recall much about it, except for a predictable ‘twist’, but I’m curious to see how that plays out all these years down the line.
For clarity, if it were needed, I chose to watch the ‘Unrated’ version on the fancy steelbook Blu Ray (picked up for less than £2 in a charity shop, thank you very much!), which runs a little longer than the theatrical cut, but I’m not sure exactly what the differences are.
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will contain spoilers for the movie. If you want to avoid them, scroll straight down to the next heading!
The Wolf Man is the story of actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro), who returns to his rural family home when his brother disappears. He finds unusual welcomes from his father (Anthony Hopkins), and sister-in-law (Emily Blunt), as he tries to establish the circumstances around his brother’s death, until a violent attack at a nearby Travellers’ camp changes his life forever, dooming him to become a werewolf whenever the moon is full.
Beginning with an homage to the Universal logos of the 1940s, followed by a very 21st-Century jump scare, the updated version of The Wolfman shares echoes of the original while trying to be its own thing.
We’re in 1891 – England, not Wales – and a few years down the line from the Whitechapel Murders of Jack the Ripper – something that’s not immediately mentioned, but which causes nice tension between Lawrence and Scotland Yard’s Inspector Frederick Abberline (Hugo Weaving – a man who really suits the Victorian fashions and facial hair), when the latter comes to investigate the gory murders around the village.
And very gory they are too, with The Wolfman really testing the limits of its 15 rating – heads are lopped off, guts are spilled, lycanthrope claws tear through the jaws of unsuspecting peasant folk, and there’s more blood than you can shake a stick at (though why exactly you’d shake a stick at some blood is beyond me).
These attacks are swift, loud and brutal – often accompanied by huge, booming effects to add to the jump scare which, if I’m honest, I didn’t really care for. The movie shares its predecessor’s love of moody, misty woodlands for people to be stalked through, but goes about it more loudly than ever before, with ominous choirs and drums accompanying the chase. For me, there’s a lot to be said for a little silence and stillness in your movie stalkings, but maybe that’s just me.
Like the original, Laurence has returned to his ancestral home after an extended period away, following the disappearance and subsequent death of his brother. Whereas Chaney’s Lawrence spent the film trying to woo a shop assistant then despairing over his new affliction following the werewolf attack, del Toro’s Lawrence intends to solve the mystery of his brother’s death, which leads him to the Gypsy camp run by Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin), and ultimately to his encounter with the local wildlife.
Anyone watching the film even for the first time would be hard pushed to be taken by surprise when the identity of the werewolf is revealed – as Sir John Talbot, Anthony Hopkins plays his entire role with a wink, letting the audience in on the secret from the get-go. Whereas Claude Rains was distraught but level headed about his son’s plight in 1941, Hopkins is delighted that del Toro has finally discovered his inner beast, and boasts of the power he has felt since giving himself over to his animal side each month.
So while it’s no surprise that Hopkins turns out to be the villain of the piece (thus setting up a werewolf versus werewolf finale in a burning mansion), what’s a little more interesting is how long he’s been doing it.
We learn that Lawrence spent time in a mental hospital as a child, following the apparent suicide of his mother. However, as the movie progresses and Lawrence spends more time looking back to his past, he realises what he actually saw that night as a child was his father as a werewolf, tearing out his mother’s throat.
Naturally, young Lawrence’s story was written off by the authorities as the ramblings of a traumatised child, so he was sent to your standard Victorian asylum to be, essentially, tortured back to improved mental health. There’s a nice symmetry as the story progresses that sees the authorities accuse Lawrence of slaughtering local villagers and send him to the same facility for involuntary ice baths (which look genuinely painful and distressing), and to be studied by vile doctors who by the very nature of their roles and pantomime villain performances, are sure to get their comeuppance once the beast is unleashed.
On then to the beast itself, and more specifically, the transformations. Looking back at the 1941 version, I found myself a little underwhelmed by the changes which seemed sedate and quiet, but the 2010 version is all popping sinews and tearing flesh as the human shape is reconfigured by the emerging wolf. Johnston uses a nice trick of removing a few frames here and there to make Lawrence’s movements during the transformation more jerky and disturbing, which works really well. There’s almost a gooey delight to the changes, not quite as dramatic or painful as An American Werewolf In London, but the CGI-enhancements work a lot better than the pathetic, weightless computer generated lycanthropes in An American Werewolf In Paris.
Benicio del Toro’s wolfman is less human than Lon Chaney Jr’s, although still walks on tippy-toes in what could be a nice nod to the original, but is probably just a common design choice. By contrast, Hopkins’ wolfman is a barrel-chested beast, slightly more like the actor than del Toro’s appearance, but necessarily so as once the two start leaping and clawing at each other in the final fight, it’s easy to get confused. Thankfully, Sir John tears off his shirt at the end of his transformation for the final fight, while Lawrence keeps his on (though not as smartly buttoned as Chaney’s), to help us differentiate the pair.
There are a few bum notes, to be sure – Emily Blunt doesn’t get given a massive amount to do other than play the grieving widow who falls in love with the tragic lead. There’s an attempt to have her research some sort of cure for lycanthropy, but it never really goes anywhere.
Similarly, we don’t really get enough of Art Malik as Singh, Sir John’s manservant – a man fully aware of his master’s secret, and armed with silver bullets, who chains him up every full moon to prevent tragedy, who is then horrifically murdered off screen towards the end of the film. Bit of a shame really.
Overall though, it’s a good watch and a nice take on the traditional material. Even with its flaws, there’s enough cool imagery (Hopkins’ bloodied hands playing a mournful tune on the piano as things really start to go south is a really nice touch, as is his cheeky harmonica playing as he leaves his son in the asylum after revealing his dark secret to him), to keep it interesting.
It runs a lot longer than the 1941 version, and occasionally you can feel the drag, but it’s interesting to see a new take on the father/son dynamic between Lawrence and John. Not that there’s ever a doubt Hopkins is playing a wrong ‘un, as he’s got a mischievous, malicious twinkle in his eye throughout, but seeing del Toro work out what’s going on and rediscover his repressed memories is a nice twist on the formula.
Would I revisit this one before the Lon Chaney Jr one? I’m honestly not sure – that one has an undeniable old-school charm about it, while this is a lot slicker and gory, but I think there’s an argument for both. That being said, the ’41 version is far shorter, so easier to squeeze into a lunch break!
Lots to like in 2010’s The Wolfman though, and well worth a look if you’re considering giving it a try.