Sunday, 18 July 2010

The Wolf Man VS The Wolfman

The Wolf Man 1941 US
Directed by George Waggner
Universal DVD Region 1


The Wolfman 2010 US
Directed by Joe Johnston
Universal DVD Region 2

There’s been a lot of disappointing reaction and bad stuff said about the new “reimagining” of The Wolfman over the last few months since its initial cinema release. I wasn’t disappointed with it at all at the cinema but I suspect one of the main factors in the generally negative reception, at least when it comes to the original cut shown at the cinemas, is because people were expecting it to be a “scary” horror movie. I (and also one of my friends so I know it’s not just me) really enjoyed it because it seemed to me about being more of a movie trying to catch that pseudo-gothic atmosphere that Universal were so good at catching with their classic 30s and 40s Horror cycles, of which the original version of this movie was one.

I thought therefore that before rewatching and reviewing the new version, I would put the 1941 version on for another spin so I could compare the “ramped up” new version to the original... what I wasn’t expecting, however, when I rewatched the new version, was the way that they’ve screwed up this new version on its DVD release.

The Wolf Man, was made in 1941 and starred Lon Chaney Jr as the titular character Lawrence Talbot. Chaney Jr was certainly the most universal of Universal’s monster actors in that, not only was he the sole person to play The Wolf Man in this and its sequels - Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (the new movie is the first time another actor has played Talbot) - but he was also the actor to play, at some point in the 40s, the other big three monster characters on the studio books... Dracula (arguably) in Son of Dracula, the Frankenstein monster in Ghost of Frankenstein and The Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse - but The Wolf Man was his first stint under Jack Pearce’s painstaking and pain inducing make-up.

This original film, it has to be said, did not plunder exclusively from myths and previous writings on lycanthrope (as it implies it does within the body of the film)... a lot of these so-called myths were created by Universal but it’s amazing how, once Universal had created some of these trappings, they became part of the "Legend" of these kinds of pictures for years to come.

This movie, set in Wales, has Lawrence Talbot returning home to “bond” with his father (played really well by Claude Reins) and look into running the grounds and estate of his inheritance. However he gets bitten by a werewolf (played by Bela Lugosi in a very brief role) who he kills with his new silver wolfs-headed cane - referred to at one point early in the proceedings as “a stick with an ‘orses head handle” but I can’t imagine many of the American audience at the time of the films release picking up on this reference to one of Stanley Holloway’s more famous monologues. This particularly iconic Universal cane is brought back for the new movie and also makes a welcome cameo appearance in Wes Craven’s Cursed.

After being bitten, Chaney is the epitome of self-tortured looks and he transforms a couple of times and kills people, although the gypsy Maleva played by the incomparable Maria Ouspenskaya tries to help him as best she can (Geraldine Chaplin was okay in the role in the new one but she’s no substitute for Ouspenskaya). Eventually he tries to kill his love interest (played by Evelyn Ankers who was paired off with Chaney Jr a couple of times after this although they couldn’t stand each other) but his father beats him to death with the same cane before he is able to “wolf her up”.

I love this movie... the atmosphere is wonderful, the lightness of the dialogue, the stand out performance by Claude Reins, it all adds up to an entertaining 70 minute movie and was popular enough that the Talbot character would be resurrected for the movies I listed above.

It has to be said, though, that this is only my second favourite werewolf movie... my absolute favourite would be Universal's first (and bizarrely failed) attempt to create a popular werewolf character, as played by Henry Hull in the 1935 movie Werewolf of London.

Ok... flash forward to the new The Wolfman. I saw this at the cinema and wasn’t expecting it to be any good... but I loved it. Benicio Del Toro is not an actor I like but in this one he won me over because he seems to have been able to perfectly mimic that perpetual worried look that Chaney Jr brought to the original. In fact, his performance is great as is those of his co-stars although it has to be said, while Anthony Hopkins as Talbot’s father was excellent... he’s no match for Claude Reins... but then he plays it differently so it’s not really fair to compare those two performances.

I wasn’t expecting a scary movie, so I wasn’t disappointed on those grounds, and the addition of Hugo Weaving (another actor I don’t usually like) as Inspector Abberline did not attract unnecessary comparisons to the way other actors have portrayed him over the years (Johnny Depp’s spellbinding performance in From Hell being foremost in my mind as I write this). I even didn’t mind the changes to the characters and plot which I accept are a necessary evil to bring this yarn more up to date - Talbot is now an “actor” and Hopkins is now a werewolf (a twist which will take you all of 30 seconds into the character to figure out) - even though the credits do give a shout out to Curt Siodmak’s screenplay for the original.

One of my favourite things about the new movie is how they’ve got the new CGI Wolfman to walk. Up on it’s toeses just like the horrendous built up overshoes (overpaws?) that Chaney Jr had to endure. This does a lot to endear us Universal Monster Maniacs to the new movie right there...


And this is where it gets bad people...

This film has a very troubled history and was a long time in development. I believe a few directors went through this project, some of them possibly after having already shot some of it. Then a bunch of reshoots where it now becomes pretty obvious to me that they were shooting from different versions of the story (I’ll come to that in a minute). I remember score guru Danny Elfman getting fired off the project after his score had gone on it (this is not uncommon, you get a bad test screening and by that stage the cheapest thing to change is the music) only to see his replacement fired after his shot at it and then being brought back to the project to either rewrite a new score or tweak his old one (I’m not sure which). And a release date which kept shifting six months or more either side of its original release date as various elements of the film were... “corrected”.

Now all well and good in the end I thought because I really liked the movie in its cinema version and it felt like whatever they did really worked (loved the rampage in the streets of London with those moody shots of Tower Bridge)... but when it came time to release the DVD they got really silly.

Due to the negative reviews and presumably low box office, owing I suspect to it being marketed as some kind of “scary movie”, the powers that be have decided to “add” 17 minutes into the cut for its home video release resulting in what is called the “extended cut” over here in the UK and “Unrated Director’s Cut” in the US (although I can’t believe that what they’ve done to it here can be in any way anything like what the director would have wanted released). Now I’m a bit ambivalent to Extended Cuts, Director’s Cuts, Expanded Editions and what have you. I think sometimes they can work really well (Brotherhood of the Wolf) and sometimes they can really screw a movie up (Ridley Scott’s “adrenalised” recut of A L I E N).

In the case of The Wolfman, well, they’ve really turned it into a mess of a movie. Despite the US tag of being “unrated” I really didn’t notice any extra scenes of violence or gore in this newer version. Nor did I, sadly, find any added “erotic naughty bits”.

What I did see was a whole lot of extra background and exposition which the film doesn’t need and which turns it into a plodding nightmare. But worse than that, some of this new footage (like the stuff where Emily Blunt goes to see Benicio Del Toro in London where he’s “treading the boards”) is in direct contradiction to what is still made implicitly clear a little later in the movie - like the fact that these two characters have never met before Lawrence comes home. Oh sure, they’ve tried their best to muffle the most obvious references to stuff like this... by removing previous footage as readily as they put the alternate stuff in, but the contradictions are still quite implicit in the script if you’ve got your ears half open. Guys! Go back to Sergei Eisenstein and learn how to edit a movie!

This is a classic example of a movie that worked pretty well on one level at the cinema being “improved” by unnecessary tinkering and being left in a state which is far more dreadful than the version they originally released. So I can’t really recommend this new version to anyone except the most obsessive of Universal Monster watchers... who are the only ones who are really going to find anything of value in this cut.

And now I’m left in the terrible position of... having been punished for buying a legitimate version of the movie with a terrible cut... I now have to try and seek out a poor bootleg copy if I want to ever see the proper version of this movie again. Not a good position to be in.

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