The intention was that it would be different. Nothing makes the powerful within Universal Studios gnash their teeth more than remembering how the small time British stole the Dracula and Frankenstein monsters that Universal Studios had blessed with movie fame in the 40s. Twenty years later British thieves presented the monsters as their own brand and persisted through decades of profit making success. The imitated decided to imitate the imitators. Universal would remake their 1941 hit The Wolfman and simultaneously prepare a couple of sequels. Joe Johnson met the moneymen who had vengeance in their hearts and he was hired to direct. Johnson knew how to integrate special effects because creating them was how he first earned his living. His previous films had also enjoyed significant commercial success. And just in case anybody would suspect cheap motives the producers would recruit classy actors and the film would be introduced with the original Universal logo, more a badge of pride than an advertisement.
But life is not fair. The Wolfman cost $150m to produce but critics thought the remake uninspired and audiences preferred other films in other cinemas. Horror fans and cineastes were disappointed but nowhere near as much as the moneymen in Universal who had expected to build a bigger and better gravy train than that steered by cheapskate Hammer Film Productions. The top men at Universal remembered those pathetic British efforts and cardboard sets and lousy matte shots. Somehow across the Atlantic serious money had been earned.
Before he directed The Wolfman Joe Johnson had made one decent movie. It also had a good title, October Sky. This was a heartfelt biography of a working class young man who became a physicist. The end of the movie dries the throat and inspires thought about social class and its consequences. The rest of the time Johnson has produced nothing more than popcorn for the eyes. It has earned him a more than comfortable living. These films have revealed logistical command but been short on real flair. The nostalgia in the inoffensive Captain America, though, has attracted some fans. In retrospect it is obvious. Joe Johnson had spent too much time reading comic books and getting rich at the Walt Disney Company to ever make a success of a confused lycanthrope. Horror requires paranoia and dark skies. It is present in The Wolfman but Johnson is at his best creating adventure under American sunshine. October Sky is a fine sensitive film but it examines success. Nothing could be further from Gothic fatalism than the optimism of practical technicians. And nothing in horror represents fatalism as well as the werewolf. He is the equivalent of the doomed hero in film noir. One bite and you are finished. Even unscrupulous vampires sometimes get a second chance.
In The Wolfman the monster creates mayhem when it runs riot across London. The sets and special effects are a tribute to skilled effort and hard cash. Yet it is difficult not to imagine Mary Poppins landing on the shoulder of the werewolf and pushing the end of her umbrella through his chest. It is that kind of artificial London. Indeed, Mary Poppins is the darker film. Her songs and jokes may be fun but Ms Poppins understood the punishing side of existence. She warned the family about how lives can be wasted earning cash. The best Joe Johnson can manage in The Wolfman is to remind us not to be bitten by a wolf. The Disney feel of the picture means that the violence, when it does occur, is risible. The legend of the werewolf is gloom laden. Violence that is not taken seriously undermines the suspense and drama and even the poignant romance.
Novels are different from movies. Much of the fiction we read is written by the uninspired and the dim witted. It has to be that way. Publishing is an industry that needs product in order to make money. Exceptions always exist but accomplished rather than successful novels are not written by the talentless. Movies contain many elements and demand effort from an army of contributors and each has specialist skills. Sometimes the talentless can produce classics and the gifted embarrass us with duds. The Wolfman neither has sufficient terror nor romance to be great but somewhere in there amongst its not always obvious objectives there is accomplishment that has to be acknowledged. The film is not unlikeable. The contribution of the actors is important. Benicio Del Toro has eyes that always look ready to leak tears, and Emily Blunt appears to be an independent spirit and a woman who would find it impossible to lie. Anthony Hopkins has seasoned as well as an Iberian ham and, true, he can leave a similar aftertaste but he does have a physical presence. His characterisation in The Wolfman is eccentric and a little daft but it adds grit.
If the creation of London is misjudged, the, shadowed streets and urban comfort in brightly lit rooms remain impressive. In The Wolfman there is a strong sense of Victorian luxury and the comfort that it brought to the privileged. The Tower Bridge in the movie is more spectacular than the one that exists. The British landscape consists of both real scenes from Derbyshire and Wiltshire and fake shots of mist and sunsets but these elements do not clash. No attempt is made to exaggerate the scenic splendours with higher hills than normal. Instead we see endless moorland and out of reach boundaries. Some of the images in The Wolfman deserve to be retained as still photographs. The moment when Anthony Hopkins uses his lantern to inspect the detail on the tomb of his wife is fabulous, as is the scene on the side of the Thames when Del Toro recovers from his transfiguration. Inspector Aberline is added to the plot. Those who worry about whether the failure to identify Jack The Ripper weakened the London detective can be consoled by knowing that in The Wolfman the policeman has acquired the skills of a horse rider and a marksman. This is not uninteresting but again it adds to the Mary Poppins dimension that weakens the film. Neither can it be a coincidence that the love of the Wolfman, Emily Blunt, has been selected to play Mary Poppins in the new version.
Still, credit has to be given to Andrew Kevin Walker who wrote the script. Not everything is perfect, and none of the main actors make the whole journey back to the 19th Century. Walker avoids howling anachronisms but his dialogue somehow echoes modern colloquialisms. While he retains much of the original plot his additions enrich the textual themes within the story. The werewolf Lawrence Talbot is now an American actor. More than one reference is made to acting. Inspector Abberline, understandably desperate to identify the killer, wonders what is inside the head of a man who has played murderers like Macbeth and Othello. Sir John Talbot tells his thespian son, ‘You’re not the only one in the family that can act.’ The inference is that acting and the responsibility of impersonation will leave a performer with the sinister presence of others in his or her identity.
Changes are also made to the original roles of the father of the werewolf and the woman he loves. With the help of well-bred Emily Blunt the devoted Gwen moves up the social scale. It enables her to be more independent and spirited. Sir John is a much darker character than in the original 1941 film, and this facilitates a more complex Oedipal tale. Rather than the emphasis being on sexuality as it is in An American Werewolf In London the savage animalism of the werewolf instead enables Lawrence to commit the act that many sons must at some point undertake. This is the destruction of the father, the brute that has ruined the mother adored by the son. The Greek myth fits the werewolf legend rather well. The sexual elements identified by Freud are not emphasised but there is phallic significance in the walking stick that is left in the railway carriage by Max von Sydow near the beginning of the film. The scene was so brief and inconsequential to the plot it was cut from the original theatrical release. Von Sydow, though, was hired for a reason. The presence of the Bergman stalwart connects our subconscious to the agonised frustrations expressed in 60s sexualised Swedish cinema.
The talented actors Anthony Sher and Brian Glover were hired to represent what was available to support the mentally ill in the 19th Century. Both overact and ensure that The Wolfman for all its knowingness tips into failure. Glover is obliged to be sadistic and charmless. It is not in his nature, and he is not convincing. Anthony Sher is either off his head or too inspired by the Mary Poppins London backdrop. A more subtle and restrained performance would have revealed a savage approach to mental illness taken by a rational man. But if the recreation of the 19th Century British approach to healthcare is wild and extreme, it will do no harm if The Wolfman reminds us of the primitive alternatives being planned for the NHS by the present Government and its oligarchical amigos. There could be more howling at the moon before we are finished.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.