Wolf Man aficionado Jeremy Cropf tries to come to terms with Benicio del Toro’s 2010 Universal monster movie offering, a film he excitedly tracked during its development, but finds himself once again howling at an indifferent moon.
Of all the monsters in Universal’s Classic Monster catalog, my favorite has always been the Wolf Man. In fact, as portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. in George Waggner’s 1941 film, the titular Wolf Man is less of a monster and more of a tragic figure, a good man cursed with an affliction that causes him to give into his most basic, violent impulses. Cheney Jr.’s affecting performance is the beating heart of the film; his struggle to control the beast within lending a sense of sadness and poignancy to the film that helps it set it apart from most of the other Monster movies from that era (James Whale’s impeccable Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein notwithstanding). The character is so inextricably linked to Cheney Jr.’s pitch-perfect performance that The Wolf Man was the only Universal monster to be played by the same actors across all six of his film appearances during the 1940s and continues to set the standard by which all other onscreen representations of lycanthropy are judged.
Unfortunately, the cinematic legacy of the Wolf Man is frequently overshadowed by fellow Universal counterparts like Dracula and the Mummy. While werewolves are undeniably iconic, there’s a surprisingly sparse selection of film offerings featuring these creatures, and even fewer that are actually good. The argument could even be made that the genre hasn’t really been relevant since 1981, a breakthrough year that saw the release of not one, not two but THREE classic werewolf films with The Howling, Wolfen, and An American Werewolf in London. Since then, it’s been slim pickings with just a handful of films like Ginger Snaps and Dog Soldiers finding any kind of traction within the horror community. Yes, werewolves did make a bit of a comeback in the early Aughts with the Underworld and Twilight films but, even then, they were playing second-fiddle to their much more financially dependable vampire brethren.
In 2006, Universal announced they would be reviving the Wolf Man character in a remake of the original 1941 film. At the time, I was a junior in high school and a budding film fanatic with a complete and total preoccupation with movie gossip blogs. JoBlo, Arrow in the Head, ComingSoon.net, AintitCoolNews and IndieWire were my go-tos; I visited them multiple times a day to stay up-to-date on all the newest film scoops. It’s important to remember that this was still two years before the start of the MCU era, when the concepts of cinematic shared universes was merely a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye, and it was almost a full decade before Universal’s Dark Universe failed to launch with 2017’s abysmal The Mummy. This new iteration of the Wolf Man was designed to be a one-off and if there had been talks of kick-starting a new franchise, the lingering stench of 2004’s Hugh Jackman-starring flop Van Helsing probably kept expectations realistically in check. The idea of giving ol’ Wolfy a makeover for the 21st century certainly seemed ripe with potential, but there hadn’t been a truly great werewolf movie in years and the film’s success seemed predicated on finding the right director and the right star to tackle the material. Fan interest was further piqued when Mark Romanek was brought on board to direct from a script written by Se7en scribe Andrew Kevin Walker. At the time, Romanek only had one feature under his belt—the 2002 indie thriller One Hour Photo with Robin Williams—but his experience directing a handful of notable music videos including “Closer” for Nine Inch Nails and “Criminal” for Fiona Apple made him an inspired choice. Stepping into the leading role was Benicio del Toro, a fan of the original and collector of Wolf Man memorabilia. With a proven screenwriter, an up-and-coming director, and a talented star on board, it seemed like the studio might actually be handing the reins of one of their most valuable IPs to some truly exciting filmmakers. Romanek even stated that he wanted to “infuse a balance of cinema in a popcorn movie scenario.” For a teenage horror fan with an affinity for this particular character, it all seemed too good to be true. I had a clear picture in my head of what this film would be—a dark, gritty rendition of the story that would be a complete 180-degree turn from cheesy shenanigans of Van Helsing and Underworld.
At the time, I wasn’t really familiar with the concept of a “troubled” production. I had read a few articles here and there, but I wasn’t aware of any notorious ones of the Heaven’s Gate, Alien3, Apocalypse Now variety. The idea that a director could exit a project midway through due to “creative differences” still held the power to confuse and upset me. When Romanek vacated the director’s chair in early 2008, it bummed me out. The Wolfman was one of my most anticipated films but as more information began to leak, the more worried I became. While del Toro stuck with the project, director Brett Ratner became the frontrunner to take over directing duties and I was enough of a film snob to know that this wasn’t a fair trade. Luckily, Ratner didn’t get the gig. Instead it went to Joe Johnston (Jumanji, October Sky, The Rocketeer), an industry pro who would guarantee the film was made on-time and within budget. But the biggest name for me was Rick Baker, the special effects makeup artist behind An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome, and The Howling. Once his name was attached to the project I knew, if nothing else, the transformation scenes would kick ass. There was still a chance this film would come close to matching the version that existed in my mind’s eye.
The teaser trailer popped up on my radar at some point and it was a clever little piece of marketing. The music. The quick flashes of creepy imagery. It nailed the tone perfectly. And it was pretty great to see such reliable actors as Emily Blunt, Anthony, Hopkins and Hugo Weaving in the mix. I especially dug how the film seemed to lean into a dark gothic aesthetic that had served Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Burton’s Sleepy Hollow so well in the ’90s. This could actually be one of those “problem” films that turned out to be good. Horror wasn’t in the best state at the time, with the Saw films largely representing the epoch, and Paranormal Activity was just starting to reactivate the long-dormant found-footage sub-genre. Sure, the release date had been pushed back like five or six times and there were rumors of some studio-meddling in the editing room but still, I held out hope that Johnston would stick the landing.
The Wolfman finally hit theaters on February 12th, 2010. I attended a midnight preview in New York City, not out of any particular excitement but because I had been sexiled by one of my roommates. Reviews weren’t great with the film landing a 34% on RottenTomatoes and 43 on Metacritic and I tried to lower my expectations accordingly. But still there was a part of me that held out hope. 110 minutes later I exited the theater seething. I didn’t just dislike the film…I loathed it. Nothing about this movie was anywhere close to what I had imagined. It was clunky. It was cheesy. The story was incomprehensible, the editing a mess and the lead performance at the heart of the film fell completely flat. Yes, there was gore, but it was clearly CGI and the film’s extreme violence felt weirdly out of place. It was a patchwork affair, the obvious result of studio interference and too many conflicting visions. There were a few elements that worked—the makeup, some neat production design—but it wasn’t enough.
We were only six weeks into the year but I already had an early contender for worst film of 2010. For someone who had tracked the film’s progress from day one, it was a crushing disappointment and a pitch-perfect example of what exactly was wrong with genre studio offerings at the time: an overabundance of CGI and muddled action sequences to make up for a severe lack of genuine scares. Anyone who knows me knows I get inordinately worked up about movies that disappoint me. It’s a problem and I’m working on it…kinda. I ranted and raved about the film a lot that weekend, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. But once it was out of my system I moved on.
The film opened in second place at the box office with a better-than-expected $31 million at the box-office but it quickly disappeared from theaters, grossing just $61 million domestically and $139 million worldwide. While those numbers may seem reasonable for a horror film in the Blumhouse era, where films like The Purge and Happy Death Day are produced on the cheap (usually less than $10 million), reshoots and extensive retooling of the film had caused the production budget to balloon to $150 million. Adding insult to injury, Shutter Island hit screens just one week later. Scorsese’s much-anticipated return to the suspense/thriller genre took all the wind out of The Wolfman’s sails, causing the film to drop over 68% the following weekend. Universal must’ve known there was no way they’d recoup the investment and after a somewhat robust marketing push before release, all publicity for the film vanished. By March, the film was out of the top ten and all-but-forgotten. Also telling: Almost no new werewolf films were released in the decade following the film’s release (the exceptions being the aforementioned Twilight and Underworld movies and 2011’s Red Riding Hood). In the weeks that followed, more information came to light about the film’s rocky that was initially designed to be slower and more somber. An Unrated version was eventually released road to the screen. Over thirty minutes had been cut from the end product and Danny Elfman’s bombastic score was drastically reworked, creating a faster pace for a film on home video, restoring 10 minutes to the film but I doubt anyone cared much. I sure didn’t. I never watched the film again. At least until last week.
I’m not exactly sure why I wanted to re-view this movie for Ten Years Ago. I was pretty set in my opinion of the thing and there was little possibility the film had aged well. But my interest in and fondness for bad movies had grown significantly in recent years and I felt a reappraisal was in order. After all, I didn’t really remember anything about the film except that I hated it. Maybe there would be some redeeming qualities to the film that I had overlooked the first time around?
The verdict: It took me three days to finish re-watching this film because I fell asleep watching it three nights in a row. That right there is pretty telling. 10 years on, The Wolfman is still bad. Really bad. It’s a film completely bereft of personality. It’s hard to believe that Benicio del Toro was a fan of the original film based on the listless performance he gives here. He alternates between looking bored and irritated, and there’s never any real sense of the inner torment based on his situation, something that Lon Cheney Jr. sold effortlessly in the original. The central relationship between Lawrence (del Toro) and his late brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) lacks chemistry and feels forced. You get the sense that much of Blunt’s character’s arc was left on the cutting room floor. One area where the filmmakers do switch things up and try something interesting is with the character of Lawrence’s father—Sir John Talbot, played with scenery-chewing relish by Anthony Hopkins. In the original, the relationship between John (Claude Rains) and his son is strained but John is still generally a decent person who’s at least trying to be a good father. As played by Hopkins, John is ostensibly the villain of the film, a werewolf himself responsible for the deaths of both Lawrence’s mother and brother. John advocates for father and son to share a future together, free to be “cursed and damned,” superior because they embrace rather than shun their basest, most violent impulses.
While this twist could’ve resulted in an interesting examination of generational trauma within the Talbot family and the ways in which violence is passed down from father to son, Johnston doesn’t explore the concept fully, opting for trite histrionics over real dramatic heft. There are a lot of “big” moments in the film, such as an extended sequence where Lawrence lays waste to a room full of doctors while imprisoned in a mental asylum, but none of them feel earned. The story just kind of lurches from plot point to plot point, with no sense of rhythm or pacing. It’s handsomely mounted and sometimes quite lovely to look at, and Rick Baker’s makeup is pretty awesome, but that’s really all the film has going for it.
The Wolfman is a film that constantly struggles with what it could’ve been and what it is. Who knows what film this could’ve been had Romanek not left the project midstream? Perhaps it could’ve been a modern gothic classic that matched the vision I had in my head. The version that I envisioned when the project was first announced was pretty awesome but I don’t know if it was ever really meant to be. Part of the original’s charm was its modest scope and character-driven focus. In eschewing those elements for quick editing, stylized action, over-the-top gore, and surface-level pop-psychology, Johnston’s 2010 remake loses its way early on and never recovers. Maybe the beast will once again have its day, but I’m not in a rush for Hollywood to revisit this one anytime soon.
— Jeremy Cropf