Movie Review: The Wolfman.

Lon Chaney, Jr. (1941)

Benecio Del Toro (2010)

My adult son Neal and I went to see the new version of “The Wolfman” yesterday. As a lifelong fan of the classic horror films, I could not have missed it for anything, although I must admit to some expectation of disappointment that I carried with me into the Cinemark Theatre at Memorial City Mall. The great early Karloff, Lugosi, and Chaney flicks about Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolfman all had that beautifully seductive storyline and the measured pandering to our fear of the unknown going for them to make them great. Modern horror films too often give way quickly to “slash and claw” scenes of nauseating visual results. They also have those animated wonders of modern technology going for them full speed in place of plot quite often too. There is usually nothing mysterious about them. Once the gore starts, it doesn’t stop. It’s as though the young producers play every new horror movie to an audience they assume suffers from a group infection of attention deficit disorder.  They assume that there  has to be a kill or a sight-thrill every fifteen seconds just to keep the audience from walking out.

I won’t spoil the plot for you here, but I will comment on certain elements – and how they registered with me. First of all, you go to a new movie like “The Wolfman”  knowing that most films today are produced for younger audiences. That’s why we older folks have Turner Classic Movies on its own cable channel. Other than a few people like Martin Scorsese, older Americans are the forgotten consumer group in the new American cinema.

“The Wolfman” wasn’t bad. It gave much more attention to storyline and the dysfunctional history of the Talbot family than the 1941 Chaney version ever did. Benecio Del Toro was terrific as Lawrence Talbot, the man who gets bitten into becoming a werewolf and, of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins is his usual brilliant self as Lawrence’s emotionally distant father, Sir John Talbot, the Lord of the grisly looking Talbot Manor in rural England. Emily Blunt is fine as Gwen Conliffe, the grieving former fiance of Lawrence’s murdered-in-the-forest-and-moors-under-the-full-moon brother, Ben Talbot.

The time is 1891. Lawrence Talbot is a succesful actor in New York after being raised in America from the time he was a small boy, following the throat-slashing murder of his mother back at the English manor. His older brother Ben remains there and is raised by their father. Lawrence is called back to England by a letter from Gwen when Ben turns up missing. Lawrence returns to find that his brother had been savagely murdered in the forest under the full moon by either an unheard of animal or an extremely crazed human. The movie unfolds from there. I will not ruin the rest for you with further specific comment on the plotline, except to say that it contains a new twist in the old tale.

I think director Joe Johnston did a nice job by 2010 standards. The story was full and the movie wasn’t overrun with visual gore by today’s standards, although there definitely are some images you may not care to see. A couple of heads and a few body parts get severed along the way. I certainly see it as too violent for small children.

In spite of the special effects we have today, I still prefer the man-to-wolf metamorphosis of Lon Chaney, Jr. to the much more complex one we see in the Benecio Del Toro transformation. The old Wolfman was far scarier to me – and maybe that has to do with the fact I was something like a first grader when I first saw him at the Studewood Theatre in the Heights a few years after the movie’s first release and then had to walk home by myself at movie’s end.

The visual settings in the forest, and on the moors, and on the streets of London, were fantastic. I had two problems with The Wolfman’s visual personification: (1) he reminded me too much of an Incredible Hulk that hadn’t shaved in about two months; and (2) he simply moved too fast for a creature his size, tackling victims at almost lightning speed. In fact, The Wolfman took people down the way the Houston Texans hoped Mario Williams would sack quarterbacks as a defensive end when they drafted him at the number one spot back in 2006. This Wolfman guy is a shoo-in for Canton if he ever plays in the NFL.

One more nice touch. Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of Charlie Chaplin, is perfect as Maleva, the wild-eyed old Gypsy woman who knows too much about werewolves to not be spooky.

One final take: Hairy terrorists beware! At one point, The Wolfman is captured and taken to London for psychiatric treatment in his Lawrence Talbot state. The first treatment of choice is waterboarding! I’m not sure if there’s some kind of tongue-in-cheek political message intended there, but I rather think there is.

The movie’s worth a look, but not as good as the original Chaney film. If you enjoy the visual trip to turn of the 20th century English forests in the dead of a misty full moon light, it will still be worth your time.

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2 Responses to “Movie Review: The Wolfman.”

  1. Marilyn Biles- Olean New York Says:

    Bill, You are amazing. I think you missed your calling as a movie critic. I am now going to see this movie. I might not would have before reading this. Please continue to do this, as well as the historical issues regarding baseball you so creatively put together for our unquenchable thirst for the history of such a great sport!!!! We love the sharing of your present and previoius life stories. YOU ARE A GREAT MAN and an asset to the world in many ways and it is our family’s pleasure to have you in our life.

  2. Sue Says:

    Thanks for the review, Buff; I trust you and Roger Ebert! As we seldom get out to a real theatre, I can’t promise we’ll make it to “The Wolfman”…but there’s a much greater chance of it due solely to your comments. I could perhaps sit through a little gore to see Anthony Hopkins, and those moonlit 20th century English forests.

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