Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Wolf Man (2010): The Signs Seem to Hint at a Classic Movie Renaissance

When it comes to iconic horror characters, Universal has the catalog to beat all catalogs. The classic Universal monsters include The Mummy, Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon -- classics all. Each of these monsters touches at a different "fear button" deep within the human psyche. For many, it is Dracula -- with his vampiric combination of death and sex -- who resonates most deeply and draws viewers and readers to peer into the abyss that can await.

For me, it has always been Lawrence Talbot -- the Wolf Man -- who seemed to both capture my empathy and fear. In the classic Universal film, gentle Lawrence Talbot acquires the curse of lycanthropy and nearly destroys all that he holds dear. The Wolf Man is a wonderful deconstruction of the typical hero narrative. While I am often critical of narratives that deconstruct the hero, I am quite fond of this particular deconstruction. A part of the reason for my fondness is that this particular deconstruction ends in tragedy -- when the hero through the act of heroism becomes a force of terror tragedy should result. It is when a hero becomes a force of terror and is narratively rewarded that I find myself often annoyed. Talbot is an extremely sympathetic man. He has a virtuous heroic streak and has found someone who may be the love of his life, yet it is his actions that will doom his happiness -- actions that were noble and not vicious. This is where the horror of the Wolf Man lies, it lies in the fact that we might destroy the things we love even without action ignobly -- or at least without initially acting ignobly.



It is a timeless and classic tale, as are the tales of all the Universal monster catalog. Yet, it is not a tale that is always captured well. The original Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney was a delight (itself a descendant of Werewolf of London), as were the Hammer Curse of the Werewolf with Oliver Reed as the cursed man and John Landis' 1981 An American Werewolf in London. Each pulled the right heartstrings. There have been historic "campy" tellings of the of the tale as well -- in fact most of the Universal monsters have become fodder for parody throughout the years.

By the late 80s, the "Universal Monsters" had pretty much become "universal monsters." The creatures, and their look-a-likes, could be found everywhere in popular culture. So it was no surprise that Universal Pictures claimed the right to redefine these classic characters for themselves in the early 90s. It's no surprise, but it largely lead to disappointing films that lacked the heart of the originals.

Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) by Francis Ford Coppola lacked visual appeal, had terrible costumes and makeup, and included mediocre performances by talented actors. The film, which was the film my wife and I saw on our first date, was lackluster and an unworthy descendant of the Bela Lugosi film. Frank Langella was a more haunting Dracula in the 1979 film than Gary Oldman. Coppola's venture into the Universal Monster was a misfire that lacked heart.





Wolf -- full film at link --
(1994) starring Jack Nicholas Jack Nicholson (I blame my recent viewing of Back Nine at Cherry Hills for the error, but it's pretty unforgivable.) seemed more a Mike Nichols film than a true werewolf tale. It tried to hard to be topical and not enough time exploring the psychological aspects of the deconstructive narrative. James Spader plays the same character he played in Baby Boom (1987) -- with a bit of a twist. The film entertains as an allegory for how the business world can corrupt and consume, but it fails as a "horror" movie.

It wasn't until 1999 with the release of Stephen Sommers' take on The Mummy that Universal had a new "Universal Monster" movie that both captured the magic of the original and added a magic of its own. Brendan Fraser was such a compelling pulp hero, as Rick O'Connell, that it became easy to envision Fraser as the titular star of a Doc Savage film. Arnold Vosloo was a compelling Mummy with a compelling story -- audiences both loved and hated him. The film worked as blockbuster and as Mummy movie.




Sadly, Universal made audiences sit through The Mummy Returns and handed Sommers the reigns to Van Helsing -- more than balancing the 1999 gem with subsequent drivel. The Scorpion King "prequel" to The Mummy Returns was fun, and Sommers showed with GI JOE that he still knows how to have fun without needing to use Frankenstein as the circuit breaker for Dracula's electrical/mechanical Uterus (yes...that's the plot of Van Helsing).

Looking at the newly release trailer for 2010's The Wolf Man starring Benecio Del Toro as Talbot, it appears as if Universal has found the right director in Joe Johnston. Johnston has an extensive filmography that includes Hidalgo, October Sky, The Rocketeer, and the upcoming The First Avenger: Captain America. The inclusion of the talented and beautiful Emily Blunt as the romantic interest is a good choice. Blunt was one of the three bright spots in 2006's The Devil Wears Prada, the other being Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. The inclusion of Anthony Hopkins among the cast hints at a nice balance of drama, and Hugo Weaving adds some additional geek appeal.

If the trailer is any clue, then The Wolf Man will stand next to Sommers' The Mummy as a film that captures the old while adding new inspiration.


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