Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Wolf Man

There was a report in yesterday’s Variety that Benicio Del Toro is attached to a remake of the 1941 Universal horror film The Wolf Man. The remake is being penned by Seven-scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, with an eye towards a Summer 2008 release.

Surprisingly, in spite of the fact that the original film remains one of my favorite Universal monster movies, I have no problem with a remake of The Wolf Man. I don’t see the current trend in Hollywood rehashes as anything new or even remotely controversial. Hollywood is in the business of making money, not art. Sometimes that means taking a cult favorite with an established hook, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre where most people know the name but haven’t seen the original, and releasing a glossed up redo for a new audience. And it’s nothing new. Take The Maltese Falcon for example. Everyone knows the 1941 Huston/Bogart version, but how many people bitch that it’s a remake of the 1931 version, or the subsequent 1936 version entitled Satan Met a Lady with Bette Davis?

So, no, I don’t take issue with a remake of The Wolf Man. After all, hindsight not withstanding, the original was only a B-movie. Released on in December, 1941, the Universal film had a budget (estimated) of $180,000. To put that in some perspective, 10 years earlier, Universal’s Frankenstein had an estimated budget of $291,000.
This was the studio’s second attempt at delivering a werewolf picture. Seven years earlier, Universal had released the Henry Hull staring vehicle Werewolf of London, also with make-up effects by the great Jack Pierce. That film failed to ignite at the box-office, coming at the tail end of the first horror boom. Some people attribute the film’s poor reception to the fact that its plot was too close to the superior and Oscar winning Fredrick March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, released just a year earlier.

Ironically, it would be The Wolf Man that would launch the 40’s horror film revival, although I’d argue this round of features, which included Universal’s Ghost of Frankenstein, Curse of the Mummy, and Son of Dracula, left a lot to be desired when compared to their 30’s counterparts. Compared with the other features that would follow it, The Wolf Man is obviously the cream of the crop. Featuring atmospheric direction, a winning cast and a rather interesting script, the film manages to retain much of its drama and power even now. In fact, The Wolf Man is the source of the now common ideas that werewolf transformations are triggered by the full moon, that silver is necessary to destroy them, and that the pentagram plays a role in identifying a werewolf and a werewolf’s victim. These are all the inventions of screen writer Curt Siodmak, who also gave us Donovan’s Brain and I Walked With A Zombie.

While all the other films in this second wave are sequels, The Wolf Man is wholly original, borrowing more from Greek myth than from an existing literary property like Dracula, the Invisible Man, Jekyll and Hyde, or Frankenstein. Unlike the other monsters featured in the prior Universal films, The Wolf Man features a villain that also happens to be the motion picture’s hero. While I suppose our sympathies tend to gravitate towards Frankenstein’s monster or even RKO’s King Kong, keep in mind that the Frankenstein monster was given the mind of a criminal and murdered (albeit accidentally) a little girl, and Kong was similarly seen are more beast than hero, shaking the crew of the Venture to their dooms in a deep crevice. Similarly, Jekyll and Hyde is the story of Henry Jekyll’s hubris and folly, so that even while we may be able to separate the good doctor from the crimes he commits as Hyde, the latter would not exist at all if not for the sins of the former.

In contrast, The Wolf Man gives us a hero who becomes a monster as a consequence of an act of heroism. What Larry Talbot does while in wolf form is totally and completely beyond his control. This makes him unique in the pantheon of modern monsters and represents a true stroke of genius for screen writer Siodmak. He gives us a man that is tortured by his crimes and, short of killing himself, is completely unable to prevent himself from committing them. He is a prisoner of his own body, his soul suppressed and buried beneath another creature that takes control of his form under the light of the full moon. He is, truly, a good man doing horrible things.

Compare this with Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll or The Invisible Man’s Jack Griffin – all men who toyed with forces beyond their understanding and, despite the better angels of their nature, must pay the price. They are cautionary protagonists. Not so poor Larry Talbot, who became a beast simply by virtue of daring to defend someone else from death.

Of course, for my money, the most fascinating character in The Wolf Man is the character who most resembles the former mentioned Drs. Frankenstein, et al. That would be Larry’s father, Sir John. In Sir John Talbot, we have a man too proud and rooted in science to acknowledge that his son is a murderous werewolf. He’d rather believe his child suffers from a mental disorder than grant the existence of something beyond his understanding. While it’s arguable how much Sir John could have helped Larry even if he had acknowledged the boy’s supernatural affliction, it’s pretty clear given the ending of the film that Sir John must be held somewhat accountable for how things turn out. As far as I’m concerned, Sir John’s own feelings of culpability are captured beautifully by Claude Raines’ body language in the final moments of the movie, as he watches the beast he’s killed turn into his son. There’s real tragedy there and it makes the end of The Wolf Man one of my all time favorite moments in any horror film, period.

I think Del Toro will do just fine as Talbot (or whoever the equivalent character turns out to be), but I’m very interested to see who they get to play the Sir John character. There is great drama in the conflict between Sir John and Larry in the original and I hope that finds its way into the remake.

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