Universal’s spate of horror films in the 1930s are some of the most iconic and memorable films in Hollywood history. But while Hammer recreated Dracula and Frankenstein with more colour and gore in the 1960s; Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man was left to languish in black and white… until now.
Universal’s remake of their 1941 classic The Wolf Man is not an attempt to ‘redefine’ horror films; but in the same way that Hammer revamped old films with colour and gore, so Joe Johnston has injected this old story with frenetic editing and gut-churning special effects.
The film follows Lawrence (Del Toro), the estranged son of Sir John Talbot, as he returns to his family’s country seat to mourn his murdered brother. The local villagers blame the gypsies; but when the villagers approach the gypsy camp, a horrific creature attacks them all. Lawrence chases the creature escapes and is bitten.
By the next full moon his wounds have completely healed, and Lawrence accepts that he has become a monster himself. He sends his brother’s wife, Gwen (Blunt), to London to spare her a gruesome death; and goes on a murderous rampage that results in his arrest and internment in a well-guarded mental asylum. But the story does not end here… as Lawrence notices inconsistencies in his memories of his childhood and the nature of his mother’s death, he begins to suspect that he is not the only ‘Wolfman’ in his bloodline.
This is a fairly straight ‘Creature Feature’, and all the real positives are to be found in its homages to early horror films. Hugo Weaving is superb as the moustache-twiddling, Peter Cushing-inspired Scotland Yard detective, who relishes his power in this backwards country village. And the Wolfman himself, once the transformation has occurred, is delightfully camp: he is gangly and awkward, like Lon Chaney Jr. in a hairy suit, and barely scary at all except for the fact that he is ripping people’s limbs off.
But unfortunately there is no way to truly recreate the eeriness of the grainy footage, cheap sets, and camp acting that defined those old horror films. This is a well-manicured hollywood film with a gigantic budget, and there is something far too comforting about that. Even after all the shocks and loud noises, you will feel cheapened by this experience and eager to watch Christopher Lee lurking in his colourful mansion drinking luminous blood out of a ditzy blonde.
The transformations themselves are far too smooth and weightless in that yet-to-be-truly-believable CGI way; but the bone-crunching sound effects and agonising roars really do get you wincing. Joe Johnston clearly has Clive Barker’s respect for the abject horror of the ‘transformation’.
Del Toro should have been perfect for the Wolfman, and it is his involvement in the project that attracted most critics to it, but his performance is mostly disappointing. He is mundane as the grieving, troubled prodigal son, and barely even acting as the Wolfman; and it is only in the brief section between being bitten and first transforming that he is at his magnificent, terrifying and brooding best.