Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Wolf Man (1941) and The Wolfman (2010)

My love of horror films began when I was a kid with the classics from Universal Pictures. When I wasn't playing football in the neighborhood streets or reading a Hardy Boys book, I was waiting for Saturday night to roll around when SINISTER CINEMA would come on at 11:30pm on KATU Channel 2. Often, I would sleep over at my aunt's house in northwest Portland and she would stay up and watch DRACULA (1931) or THE ISLE OF DEAD (1945) with me. She lived in an old house that creaked a lot and we spent half the night watching the movie with a blanket covering our eyes. What better way to enjoy a horror film!

The golden era of horror films from Universal Pictures was from 1931 thru 1945. It is these films that have forever etched in my memory the quintessential horror film motifs that even today I still adore: castles and foggy moors and graveyards and spooky abbeys and crypts and forests and laboratories like the kind Dr. Frankenstein created the monster in.

One of my favorite Universal horror films is the 1941 THE WOLF MAN directed by George Waggner which is a B movie at heart but one of the best B horror films ever made. I've probably seen it a dozen times but only with my most recent viewing have I come to the conclusion that Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) is one of the great tragic characters in cinema.

Larry returns to his ancestral Talbot Castle from America where he's been estranged from his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Larry's returned because his brother has recently died. Talbot's luck rapidly goes from bad to worse. He falls for local gal Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) but she's engaged to another man Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). Talbot takes Gwen and her girlfriend Fay (Jenny Williams) to a local gypsy fortune teller (Maria Ouspenskaya) where another werewolf (Bela Lugosi) kills Fay and bites Talbot. Now, Talbot is cursed to be a werewolf. The woman he loves he now wants to devour and when he stalks Gwen on the misty moors, it's Talbot's own father, Sir John who unknowingly kills his last living son. It sounds like a Shakespeare play but the original screenplay was written by Curt Siodmak, the godfather of werewolf lore,  that future werewolf movies will borrow from again and again.

THE WOLF MAN is Lon Chaney Jr's pinnacle performance. The son of silent horror star Lon Chaney Sr (PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME), Chaney Jr plays Talbot beautifully with the right mixture of pathos and horror. Chaney's size and physicality work well in the scenes where he's the werewolf. Chaney Jr would play a few other notable monsters in his lifetime including Frankenstein, the Son of Dracula, and the Mummy but the Wolf Man was his signature character.

Another reason THE WOLF MAN is a cut above most B horror films is the supporting cast. Claude Rains (THE INVISIBLE MAN), horror legend Bela Lugosi (DRACULA), B movie horror queen Evelyn Ankers (JUNGLE WOMAN), a young Ralph Bellamy (THE AWFUL TRUTH), and Patric Knowles (THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD) all bring a freshness to their respective roles. Lastly, let's not forget the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya as the gypsy Maleva. She loses her werewolf son Lugosi but gains another werewolf son in Chaney. And she voices the haunting werewolf mantra, "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, will become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the August moon is bright."

THE WOLF MAN's special effects were groundbreaking for 1941. Make-up artist Jack Pierce glued yak hair to Chaney's face, shot in time lapse to give the illusion of a man transforming into a wolf. It's that kind of originality that makes THE WOLF MAN so much fun.

Sixty nine years later, Universal has brought back THE WOLFMAN for a whole new audience. Director Joe Johnston seems to be well-versed with the Universal horror icons as the film is full of foggy moors, creepy crypts, and even Druid ruins. Johnston smartly hired famed werewolf make-up artist Rick Baker (AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON) to design the werewolf make-up. I liked the decision to go with a mostly erect werewolf like Chaney, Jr performed as opposed to a creature on all fours. The make-up is state of the art but still in the tradition of the classic and not so much CGI (computer generated images).

This time Benicio Del Toro plays Larry Talbot who returns to his ancestral home Blackmoor and Talbot Castle from America when his brother is mysteriously killed. Many critics feel Del Toro is miscast in this film but he reminds me of Lon Chaney, Jr. They are both tall men with expressive, jowly faces. Anthony Hopkins is the Sir John Talbot character, a tragic patriarch who guards the secrets of Talbot Castle both past and present. THE WOLFMAN adds some nice layers to the original characters. We learn Larry Talbot is a famous stage actor back in the states and Sir John was a big game hunter who traveled the world.

Emily Blunt rounds out the the cast as Gwen Conliffe, the fiancee of Talbot's dead brother and Hugo Weaving is a new character Inspector Abberline sent by Scotland Yard to investigate the town's rash of bloody deaths. Johnston even resurrects the career of Geraldine Chaplin who plays Maleva, the gypsy. I haven't seen Chaplin in a film in a long time and this casting reminds me of the return of Mia Farrow as the sinister nanny in the recent remake of THE OMEN (2006).

Director Johnston does a nice job of moving the action to interesting locales. He stages a nice werewolf attack on a gypsy camp and the Wolfman loose in London reminded me of the nighttime prowlings of another monster that terrorized London in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931).

However, one problem with this WOLFMAN is it probably should have been made sooner. Besides referencing the original film, THE WOLFMAN borrows much from recent films like BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (1992), SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), and even a nightmarish character in one of Larry Talbot's dreams reminded me of Gollum from THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002). Maybe I shouldn't be surprised as composer Danny Elfman did the music for this film and SLEEPY HOLLOW and co-writer Andrew Kevin Walker also wrote SLEEPY HOLLOW.

The film has great thrills, a nice helping of gore, and atmospheric sets but it badly needs a sense of humor. Both Hopkins and Weaving have their moments to bring a chuckle to the audience but the laughs are few and far between. Hopkins had so much fun as the hammy Dr. Van Helsing in BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA but he's much more reserved in THE WOLFMAN. Another problem is the film at times bogs down with strange transitions from one scene to the next that leave the viewer confused at times.

But I have no problem with Universal bringing back THE WOLFMAN for a new generation of audiences. Today's films have more substantial budgets and technology at their disposal than the horror classics did and I hope it will make audiences look back to the past and check out the original THE WOLF MAN and many of the other great classic Universal horror films.

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