On the list of crimes against cinema, the remake stands just above the sequel as an offense against the artform.
The sequel, of course, is an indicator of a dangerous loss of imagination, though there are those rare examples of sequels that do more than simply repeat the formula of the original film.
But the remake blends both a death of imagination with hubris – not just that an old product can be resold in a new package but that no matter how classic the original, the re-maker can somehow improve upon it.
Not that there aren’t remakes that work; people have been reworking Shakespeare and other classics for years. The best remakes reimagine the material in a way that brings new insight; I always point to “The Magnificent Seven” as an example of a remake that stands on its own.
Most remakes, however, are simply crassly commercial projects. Someone somewhere said, “Hey, this is available and no one’s seen it in a while. Let’s cash in.” Exhibit A: The upcoming film of “The A Team.”
Which brings us to “The Wolfman,” which attempts to retell the story that originated with a 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. that was called “The Wolf Man.” The Chaney film isn’t a classic in the sense that James Whale’s “Frankenstein” or Todd Browning’s “Dracula” are, as a formal piece of cinema. It was a corny horror programmer that happened to star Claude Rains and the wonderfully named Maria Ouspenskaya.
But it’s a classic in the sense that it has legs – that it’s the werewolf story that spawned all cinematic werewolf stories. There’s always room for a new one – and there’s no need to retell this old one.
Still, to be fair, Joe Johnston’s remake isn’t dreadful – certainly not as awful as the commercials make it look. It’s not a good movie, by any stretch – but it could have been a lot worse.
What it’s got going for it is Johnston’s willingness to go for the throat with the action – literally. When the title character runs wild, he doesn’t just bite people or claw them – he defenestrates them, dismembers them, decapitates them – and all the other dis- and de- words that have to do with horrible things that can happen to the human body.
And this Wolfman isn’t selective: Once he’s turned loose by a full moon, he’s a little like the Tasmanian Devil in the “Looney Tunes” cartoons – a one-man tornado of violence cutting a swath through the closest available crowd of humans, leaving a wake marked by gallons of fake blood and rubber guts and limbs.
That gives “The Wolfman” an undeniable visceral power – pun intended. Every time ol’ Wolfie gets busy ripping folks to shreds, things get downright thrilling. On the other hand, the sequences in which he alternately runs upright and lopes on all fours – whether through the woods or across the rooftops of London – add nothing.
There’s a lot of boilerplate and melodrama to pad the movie, getting to the set-up. Most of this has to do with American actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro), who is touring England in the 1890s, playing Hamlet (talk about coals to Newcastle), summoned from London to his ancestral home on the moors from which he was sent away as a youth. His brother has been savaged and killed by a wild animal and his father (Anthony Hopkins) needs him.
So does his late brother’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt). But Talbot has barely set foot on the ancestral grounds when he’s attacked by a large hairy creature that takes a bite out of him and nearly kills him.
Everyone but Larry seems to know that once bitten, well, nothing shy about what happens next. What doesn’t kill you makes you super-strong, apparently, and ultra-hairy – not to mention doing wonders for your teeth and nails (if claws and fangs are part of the look you’re going for).
It’s only a question of how many killing sprees this monster gets to indulge in and how stylized director Joe Johnston will make the action. Most of the silliest stuff has to do with Talbot being institutionalized and then tortured by the mental-health practitioners of the day, with ice-water immersion and crude electro-shock therapy.
Yet the script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self has a surprising economy; for all the dawdling, the dialogue that del Toro has to deliver is relatively concise, unburdened by long explanations or ruminations on man’s animal nature and the like.
Still, this movie seems mighty casual about the time frame. Talbot (and the werewolf who attacked him) are both controlled by the full moon – and those seem to last for weeks in this film (in fact, an actual full moon lasts, at most, two nights – but this movie seems to favor an inclusive attitude toward a moon that’s in both waxing and waning gibbous phases).
There’s also a sequence near the conclusion where Talbot, having escaped the mental asylum in spectacular fashion, heads home to settle scores with his maker. He apparently walks from London to his distant village – and seems to hike across England either in a single day or in a full month, because he arrives in time for another full moon. Neither interpretation makes much sense.
I’m don’t mean to go all high-hat on del Toro or Sir Anthony Hopkins, Oscar-winners both. Still, there’s something incredibly goofy about their final face-off – it’s almost like watching Mexican professional wrestling, except instead of wearing colorful masks, they’re covered with fur instead.
“The Wolfman” is one of those middling films that’s neither terrible nor laudatory. In other words, it doesn’t suck – but it doesn’t have much bite, either.