In 1941, Universal Pictures released the archetypal werewolf movie, The Wolf Man. Chilling and atmospheric, the film told the story of a man (Lon Chaney Jr.) who, upon returning to his father’s home in Wales, was bitten by a werewolf and inherited the now-infamous curse.
In addition to providing moviegoers with 70 minutes of fright, The Wolf Man offered a contrast between the Americanized, modern life Chaney’s character led and the superstitious, traditional style his father followed. The clash of old and new, as well as the family drama, gave the film added depth and made The Wolf Man an instant horror classic.
Now, 59 years after the original, Universal Pictures has remade The Wolf Man as The Wolfman. Many concerned fans of the original worried that the classic concept and character wouldn’t hold up in an era characterized by the Saw franchise and Twilight-style werewolves, but the new film stands as positive proof of the strength of the source material. The Wolfman is a horror film in the classic sense, echoing the style of the original and creating a compelling, frightening movie for modern audiences.
Following the death of his brother Ben, Shakespearean actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his home in the English countryside. Haunted by tragedy in his childhood, he reunites with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) and Ben’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt). However, while hunting Ben’s killer at a gypsy camp, Lawrence is attacked and bitten by a werewolf. Now doomed to transform on the full moon, Lawrence struggles to find his humanity and escape those who would kill him for what he has become.
Director Joe Johnston keeps a steady handle on the pace of the film, quickly setting up the plot without rushing into things. The film does stumble in the second act where it hits its weakest part as Lawrence is taken to an insane asylum in London. Beyond a terribly cliché German doctor, the segment adds little to the film and seems like a contrived attempt to put the Wolfman in a metropolis — perhaps as an homage to the original’s 1935 predecessor, Werewolf of London.
However, the film recovers from the bumps, and the entirety of the third act is a tense, dramatic culmination of the relationships and conflicts in the film. Part chase, part fight and with more than a few shout-outs to the original, the climax of the film is perfectly handled.
The film’s tension relies on the characters’ relationships with each other, and the cast does not disappoint. Del Toro’s haunted take on Lawrence is subtle and effective; as the Wolfman, he is primal and animalistic, his body language conveying the raw aggression of the character sublimely.
Hopkins’ Sir John Talbot is a wonderful take on the classic archetype of the “great white hunter,” complete with a loyal manservant and the furs of exotic animals. Hopkins avoids delving into camp, and instead plays John as an eccentric, reclusive figure with his own demons.
Blunt pulls off the Victorian lady with ease, and her chemistry with Del Toro feels natural, giving her character a larger role than her 1941 counterpart. Rounding out the main cast is Hugo Weaving as police inspector Frederick “Francis” Aberline, the man who led the investigations in the Jack the Ripper murders. With a sharp, cynical wit and a commanding authority, Weaving is a thrill to see on screen, and his scenes with Del Toro are among some of the film’s best as the two are a perfect match in both intellect and presence.
The cinematography and design of the film is exquisite and classic in style. Foggy countrysides dominate the film, with decrepit manors covered in overgrowth adding to the traditional horror vibe of the film.
Rick Baker’s makeup for Del Toro is detailed and scary, with sharp fangs and a large amount of fur. The film avoids CGI and instead sticks to realistic effects. It is refreshing to see the classic werewolf on screen, standing on two feet with tattered clothes. It is an iconic image, and Del Toro and Baker pull it off.
What makes Johnston’s movie so effective is that it is actually frightening. Harkening back to classic horror films, The Wolfman favors moody, fog-covered forests and suspense over the excessive gore and sudden surprises that dominate the torture porn and horror films of today. This classic style of horror actually turns out to be far more effective than any of the modern techniques. That’s not to say there isn’t violence in the film — because there is. However, the build of tension and suspense serves to make the bloodshed far creepier.
The Wolfman isn’t a perfect movie; it has its faults here and there, however, they are truly minor. The overall story, terrific acting and classic horror tone make it the best werewolf movie in a very long time, if not one of the best horror movies in a long time.
It strikes the delicate balance of being true to the original while still being its own film. The Wolfman is proof that movies don’t need gore and cheap thrills to be frightening and that sometimes a traditional approach is best.