A Bite off the Old Block

Old monsters never die. They just keep coming back, in an endless series of unnecessary remakes. So get ready to hear once again legendary screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s famous line: “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.”

Based on the classic 1941 horror film The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence (Larry) Talbot, a soft-spoken nobleman who returns from America to run the country manor of his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and has the rotten luck to get bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi), the 2010 re-telling, for no logical reason, changes the spelling to “The Wolfman.” A lot of other things change, too, and not always in ways you could call improvements. The tense pre-war setting is now an ornate and over-produced Victorian England. Larry, now a hopelessly adrift Benecio Del Toro, is no longer a California student but a New York actor playing Hamlet in London. Sir John, his father, is now a weird, disappointing Anthony Hopkins with a spectrum of curious accents. Chaney was a soft, fleshy actor with a wimpy voice and clammy skin, but he brought a sympathetic sweetness to the role of the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot. Del Toro may be a stronger screen presence than Chaney, but he looks so baggy-eyed and ravaged before the wolf ever appears that there’s nothing to build his character on. Gwen Cunliffe (Emily Blunt) no longer runs the village antique shop, but is a mixed-up girl betrothed to Larry’s dead brother, who has a sick penchant for wandering around in the fog and makes the dumb mistake of thinking she can cure lycanthropy.

After the werewolf rampages through the gypsy campsite, the movie makes a number of tactical errors from which it never recovers. The folks at the local tavern still wisely melt their silver into bullets, full moons still rise like white pumpkins, and snarling creatures still pop out of the swamp with teeth that need a dentist, but any resemblance to Siodmak’s 1941 script ends there. Siodmak was a Polish Jew who escaped the Nazis and retained a lifelong hatred of the Germans; many symbols of horror in the film were references to Nazi persecution and the pentagram that appeared in the palms of the werewolf’s next victims was an obvious substitute for the Star of David. This time, there are no pentagrams to make your blood run cold. Elegant Talbot Hall is no longer a safe refuge from a world gone mad but a mausoleum that looks less like one of England’s fanciest estates and more like the House of Dracula.

The monster is now a computer generated behemoth in Rick Baker makeup that drools noisily, severs heads with a single claw, and makes an awful mess on the carpet. Larry is hounded by a Scotland Yard inspector played by Hugo Weaving and dragged away in chains to a gothic madhouse where a primitive brain doctor (the great English stage actor Anthony Sher) tortures his patients with horrors of his own—dunking Larry screaming into vats of ice and jamming foot-long hypodermic needles into his jugular vein. (Think Dr. Fogg’s Asylum in Sweeney Todd.) While these lunatics treat lycanthropy as a self-induced delusion, you can hardly wait for them to experience their first full moon. In the resulting carnage, the Wolf Man rips out human kidneys and spleens with bare teeth in a bloodbath that is not for the squeamish or faint of heart, followed by a leap frog across the roofs of London that looks like outtakes from Godzilla, King Kong and Mighty Joe Young.

The direction by Joe Johnston (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids) sacrifices originality for computer graphics and stop-motion camera tricks, and the script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self bulges with real howlers.

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