To me, the key to a truly great “remake” of a pre-existing horror film is simple. Would the new update make a good double feature with the original movie? When it comes to programming a double bill, the goal is to find two movies with a similar theme that would complement each other. And there’s no better test to see if a remake works than by watching it back to back with its inspiration and seeing if it respects its source material and tells a similar enough story, yet does its own new thing. Each week, we’re going to pair up two horror films – its original and its remake as a double feature and see if it makes for a great double bill. Welcome to Double Take!
This one’s pretty special for me. I cite the Universal Monster movies as my gateway into the horror genre. Before Freddy Krueger and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET made me a full-fledged horror fanatic, my earliest introduction to the genre was watching these fine fiends on Sunday afternoons on Channel 11 back in Long Island, NY. I immediately loved them all. The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, Dracula… but for me, my absolute favorite, the one that meant the most to me was The Wolf Man.
I can’t fully explain what it is about the original 1941 George Waggner film that resonated so deeply with me. I’ve always been attracted to duality stories. The Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or even The Incredible Hulk. Maybe it’s the sympathetic performance given by the great Lon Chaney Jr. Or just the fact that visually, The Wolfman is one of the coolest looking monsters in cinematic history. And while I, of course, loved Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein’s monster, Lawrence Talbot was the one I felt the most sorry for. There was a pain behind his eyes for having to live with this terrible curse that comes through not only in Chaney’s performance in this film, but every subsequent time he reprised the role.
In the original, Lawrence Talbot returns home after a lengthy absence and reconnects with his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). While at a local antique shop in town, Lawrence meets and immediately falls smitten with the proprietor’s daughter Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and while out together, later that night, her friend Jenny is viciously attacked by a wolf. Lawrence intervenes and kills the wolf with his silver-headed cane, but not before getting bitten by the beast himself. At the next full moon, he undergoes a metamorphosis and becomes a half man/half wolf-like creature, on the prowl for victims. Aware of his alter ego and the damage he’s done as the Wolfman, he struggles to rid himself of the curse.
What can I say? The original WOLF MAN is a classic. It runs a lean 70 minutes long and while everyone has different favorites when it comes to the Universal Monsters movies, I think this is the best one to introduce a newcomer with. And while dozens of sequels and various reinterpretations of the Wolf Man have graced the silver screen over the decades, it wasn’t until 2010 that Universal Studios themselves set about remaking their classic character with Benicio Del Toro in the Lawrence Talbot role, Anthony Hopkins as his father and Joe Johnston at the helm as director, taking over the troubled pre-production from original director Mark Romanek. FX artist Rick Baker, most well-known by genre fans for orchestrating what’s arguably the greatest werewolf transformation on screen with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, was brought on to handle the updated design and creature FX.
The plotline for this version of THE WOLFMAN follows fairly closely to the original, except for the fact that instead of taking place in the 40’s, like the original, or even modern times, this story is set back in 1891. Lawrence is a working actor, and upon learning of his brother’s horrible death, returns home to London. The Gwen of this version (played by Emily Blunt) is the fiancé of his brother Ben. The locals are convinced that the recent murder was the work of the bear in the traveling carnival, but soon discover there is a giant wolf amongst their midst. The wolf attacks Lawrence, and inflicts him with the curse of the werewolf.
The majority of the people that discuss this film unfortunately come into it with the previous knowledge of all its production woes. But I recall rather liking it quite a bit when it initially came out, and I still to this day think it’s a solid gothic horror movie. Sure, some of the narrative is a bit of a mess due to studio interference and reshoots, but look… it’s a movie called THE WOLF MAN, and all I want to see is the Wolf Man kick ass and tear people apart. And that’s exactly what he does, literally!
I have a strong memory of first experiencing AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, a movie that scared me so bad, it took me multiple attempts to make it through the whole thing. And then, of course, Rick Baker’s amazing work on Michael Jackson’s THRILLER, in which he turns the famed pop star into a were-cat creature. While the actual transformation scenes are sadly CGI, once you see Benicio in full Wolf Man make up and he’s ripping people’s limbs off in the goriest of ways, I was in awe the same way I was when I’d first seen any of the above mentioned werewolves. In other words, the movie is worth it for the awesome Wolfman attack scenes, even if they are few and far between.
The greatest sin of this remake is that they didn’t let Baker go wild on the actual transformation. I’m not sure why they opted to do these scenes in CGI, but they’re so quick that it almost doesn’t matter. Almost. On the Blu-Ray, there’s some fun make-up tests from Baker’s personal video collection. The FX artist (like most) is often known for trying out make up tests on himself. And the brief glimpses we get of his new transformation very easily couldn’t been on par, if not better than his groundbreaking work on AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Now the Blu-Ray also features the longer “unrated director’s cut,” but for this double feature, I stuck with the original and shorter theatrical. While there are interesting things that further flesh out the story in the director’s cut, it moves at a snail’s pace and still leaves far too much narratively at question. Do they work as a double bill together?
I say yes.
Because of the nearly 70 year difference between the two films, they of course, stylistically, feel drastically different, but in terms of the gothic horror story they both tell, they’re in sync. Benicio seemed like an ideal casting choice when I first heard about him, but he never fully gels with his version of Lawrence Talbot. He actually seems kind of bored, whereas every time Lon Chaney Jr is on screen, I’m captivated. Regardless, I like both WOLFMAN movies and they pass my double take test.
What do you think?