Editor’s Note: Don’t blame the author for the punny headline. Although he’s a self-admitted fan, it was the fault of management. Thank you for understanding our petty, grammatical vulnerabilities.
After Universal Pictures remade one of their classic monster movies, The Mummy (1999), you would expect they would remake or reboot every major monster movie franchise they own.
However, that turned out not to be the case.
Universal continued with their Mummy franchise and even tried to spin-off route with the Scorpion King character. Then, Stephen Sommers tried to pay homage again to the Universal Monster films with Van Helsing. All eventually failed.
Universal didn’t get serious again about rebooting their monsters until their failed Dark Universe, but there was one reboot they made between the Stephen Sommers Mummy series and the Dark Universe defunct franchise: Joe Johnston‘s The Wolfman.
The Wolfman released after lengthy production issues and a crowded February release slate, which included the first Percy Jackson adaptation. The film flopped at the box office and scored a meager 35% on Rotten Tomatoes. It was forgotten and Universal moved on without looking back. (Well, seriously looking back.)
The theatrical cut was a mess, but watching the Director’s Cut, we get the movie we should have gotten in the first place.
It still isn’t perfect but it has a lot going for it: fantastic werewolf sequences, an atmospheric mood, and maintains the Greek tragedy that was baked into the DNA of the 1941 original.
The Wolfman is a movie worth going back too for a second look and this is why…
It’s A Greek Tragedy
The original screenwriter of the 1941 Wolf Man, Curt Siodmak, constructed his script as a greek tragedy. Siodmak escaped and emigrated from Nazi Germany so tragedy is baked into his work. This idea has really helped define the legend of the modern-day werewolf.
The Wolfman (2010) understands this important aspect to Siodmak’s foundation and builds this story around a man cursed by faith. He’s good at heart despite facing a tough life. There is no reason for him to become a creature of evil (whose only function is to kill and eat innocent people) outside of him belonging to the wrong family and being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The film follows Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a man who has faced one tragic event after another and lives a life separated from his estranged father (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins). After the death of his brother at the hands of a beast, Lawrence is forced to return home where he must confront the horrors of his past in a town that views him and his family as outsiders.
Joe Johnston keeps his film focused on Lawrence because we have to feel for his plight in order for this story to work. Over the course of the film, Johnston slowly unveils insight of Lawrence’s past, which helps to garner sympathy for the character.
There aren’t many happy endings for a werewolf, which is why if the audience is left feeling nothing, then the film failed. The film develops those feelings successfully so when Lawrence becomes a werewolf, the audience can’t root against him because that’s where the horror lives and gains steam over the course of the film.
The horror of the werewolf comes from both being horrified of the beast, seeing a good person doing terrible things, and finding yourself willingly indulging in those things.
A werewolf is only as strong as its makeup. The iconic 1941 original film features an iconic makeup design from Jack Pierce with many memorable sequences. In 2010, Johnston enlisted the help of a makeup effects artist with previous experience in the werewolf world, Rick Baker of American Werewolf in London fame.
Baker’s design is faithful to Pierce’s design without becoming an exact replica. It is a little more animalistic with more pronounced wolf features. Viewers will recognize it is apart of the same DNA but still see two different takes.
The best part is the werewolf is a practical makeup effect. CG werewolves can range from good (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) to hideous (Van Helsing). Wisely, Joe Johnston uses CG to fill in the moments and space a normal actor wouldn’t be able to do on his or her own, but this werewolf consists primarily of practical effects and outstanding makeup.
There are moments where the visual effects look unconvincing, especially almost a decade later. Thankfully, the movie spends most of its time in the practical world. The amount of detail Baker is able to inject into the makeup design is staggering. It took three hours for the makeup team to place everything on Del Toro, and an hour to remove. The filmmaker took no shortcuts when it came to bringing this creature to life.
Blood, Guts, and Gore
One thing this movie doesn’t skip out on is the gore.
Even with a production budget of $150 million, this movie brings the blood, guts, and gore from the first werewolf attack to the last fight (which is, admittedly, slightly goofy). As a horror fan, you have to love that consistency. With that high of a budget, it would’ve been easy for Universal to play it safe but instead, they allowed the filmmakers to inject the edge this project needed.
Joe Johnston is a bit underrated when it comes to directing action and shouldn’t be…at all.
He isn’t one of the greatest of all time but his action scenes are always exciting and entertaining to watch. On my last rewatch of Captain America: The First Avenger, I was surprised how well his action sequences held up in comparison to the rest of the MCU. Here, each werewolf scene is different from the last and Johnston displays creativity in each one of them.
A Gothic Atmosphere
The biggest defining characteristic of the Universal monster films was the German expressionistic Gothic atmosphere they all share. In remaking a Universal monster film, it is almost sacrilegious to not try to emulate it. Nailing that tone and atmosphere is half the battle with monster movies and while The Wolfman isn’t going to “scare” you like The Conjuring will, the movie is dripping with that brooding atmosphere.
Joe Johnston is able to bring back that old Universal flare to a modern age.
Set in the Victorian Era, the movie feels timeless. Throughout the film, the audience is taken through a maze of cold, dark, empty hallways, wax-dripping flickering candles, and even an insane asylum. Among those scenes, the experience wades through religious undertones, classical costume design, and practical makeup. The production design brings the wet industrial world to life.
Putting It To Rest
Unlike a few movies that I’ve covered on “The Unders” series, The Wolfman isn’t a masterpiece and the laborious production didn’t help smooth things over. The theatrical cut is choppy and is missing important character pieces in the very beginning of the film, but the Director’s Cut restores much of what is lost in the theatrical edition.
Joe Johnston managed to find a way to update the Gothic atmosphere of classic Universal while bringing a more modern bloody and kinetic action flare to the horror. The performances from the all-cast that also includes Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are all excellent with gorgeous production design.
Some shoddy CGI aside, the practical makeup effects are done with love and care. It isn’t perfect, but it’s the monster film that Universal should have tried to emulate when they approached Tom Cruise’s The Mummy as a horror version of Mission Impossible.
The Wolfman is worth a second look for all monster fans.
4 thoughts on “The Unders | Joe Johnston’s ‘The Wolfman’ is Still Howlin’ Good”
This version of the Wolfman often gets overlooked, but I think its really good. I love the grim, gothic tone, and aside from some ropey CGI the plot and film overall holds together very well. The Wolfman is certainly worth checking out and one of the best modern versions of the classic Universal Monsters that we’ve seen so far IMOP.
I actually liked this movie. Although it would have been better with more practical effects and not so much CGI. Its an underrated monster film with some good sequences.
I was kind of annoyed that they abandoned the premise that (in the original) Talbot believes he’s a werewolf and how the movie constructs the entire thing; that Talbot may not be a werewolf at all. That in fact he is suffering from severe paranoid delusions.
I actually really enjoyed this movie. It was pretty brutal and I enjoyed the werewolf. I think there could have been more practical effects rather than CGI and werewolf fight scene was a little blah. But it was fun.
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