The unrated director’s cut of THE WOLFMAN offers few improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.
When this Gothic horror show howled into theatres this past February, it was with a certain amount of baggage, being a remake of one of Universal Pictures’ most fondly remembered monster movies from the 1940s. Over the past couple decades, Universal has shown an interest in mining their classic horror legacy (which dates back to the silent era) for new chills and/or revenue dollars, releasing restored prints of old titles to art houses in the ’90s under the “Universal Horror” banner and later packaging the titles into various DVD releases (”The Legacy Collection,” the “Classic Monsters Collection,” etc.), often loaded with lovely bonus features. Unfortunately, Universal’s previous attempts to resurrect their long dormant monsters for modern audiences, with THE MUMMY (1999), its sequels, and VAN HELSING (2000), turned out to be (financially successful) artistic disappointments that betrayed the Gothic horror legacy by opting for action-adventure heroics, hyped with lots of computer-generated effects but few real scares. THE WOLF MAN, it was devoutly to be wished, would correct this mistake, hewing closer to the source material. The remake does successfully recreate the template of the 1941 original; sadly, it does so in the wrong way. The DVD and Blu-ray release of an unrated director’s cut allows a second chance to assess the results; curious fans will want to check out the longer version, but it offers few if any improvements and creates a glaring continuity problem.
What the 2010 THE WOLFMAN has going for it is production value and atmosphere; what it lacks is a compelling, original vision. With contributions from production designer Rick Heinrichs, composer Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, all of whom worked on the similarly spooky SLEEPY HOLLOW (1999), THE WOLFMAN feels like an ersatz Tim Burton production, without the director’s unique eye to fashion these contributions into macabre visual poetry. Instead, we get the competent but prosaic work of Joe Johnston (JURASSIC PARK III); he knows how to get the story in the camera, but he doesn’t know how to imbue it with the uncanny resonance that will send shudders up your spine.
In this regard, THE WOLFMAN is a too faithful recreation of what Universal Pictures was doing in the 1940s: the 1930s’ Golden Age of Horror had past, and the company was recycling old ideas, with great technical achievements still in place (sets, special effects, makeup) but without distinctive directors (such as James Whale and Tod Browning), who could add a recognizable personal touch. THE WOLFMAN (1941) was very much of this mold, competently executed by producer-director George Waggner but not necessarily inspired. What saves the black-and-white film from mediocrity is the tragic trajectory of doomed protagonist Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), a likable, even ebullient man whose life goes to hell after he is bitten by a werewolf.
The WOLFMAN remake updates the atmospherics, replacing black-and-white photography with color but utilizing a muted, almost desaturated palate that captures a similar kind of almost Expressionistic atmosphere. The sets and costumes are marvelous. Rick Baker’s makeup is a worthy tribute to the Jack Pierce’s work in the old film, recognizably similar but updated and improved. The computer-generated imagery is not as out-of-place as it might have been (although the werewolves running on all fours are not particularly impressive.) For fans of old-fashioned Gothic horror, the movie looks like a dream come true – or rather, a deliciously delightful nightmare of fog-bound moors and ancestral manses, layered so thick with sinister ambiance that you can almost taste it.
And yet, THE WOLFMAN is a curiously hollow and unmoving experience. The screenplay is muddled in its attempt to expand upon the original, throwing in bits and pieces lifted not only from the 1941 film but also Universal’s earlier THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) – which featured a conflict between two werewolves – and Hammer Films’ later CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) – which had its lycanthrope running across rooftops while pursued by a mob at street level (not to mention the fact the WOLF MAN’s star Benicio Del Toro resembles CURSE’s Oliver Reed much more than Lon Chaney Jr). Even Inspector Abberline, the real-life detective previously played by Johnny Depp in FROM HELL, shows up.
Although a successful Shakespearean actor, Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot is dour from the beginning, a far cry from the happy-go-lucky character portrayed by Chaney. This interpretation is dictated by the script (which gives Lawrence a childhood tragedy in the form of his mother’s death, followed by bad blood between him and his father, played by Anthony Hopkins), but it robs the story of any visible arc: things looks bad from the beginning, and they pretty much stay that way, with no ray of sunshine to offer any hope. Yes, this is supposed to be a tragedy about a doomed man, but you at least want the audience to feel the sense of a potentially happy life lost to unfortunate circumstances. Instead, the manifest inevitability robs the narrative of any suspense, warning us to never fully identify with Talbot and empathize with his plight. Without that dramatic involvement, the movie is just so many pretty moving pictures.
THE UNRATED CUT
When THE WOLF MAN was in theatres, word leaked that the film had been heavily re-edited (the original 2009 release date had been pushed back, giving more time for post-production tinkering). It was hoped that a more complete version would fill in the emotional gaps needed to make the story more compelling. Unfortunately, this proves not to be the case.
Now available on DVD and Blu-ray, the extended cut (called the “unrated version” on screen and the “unrated director’s cut” on the box art) restores a few expository scenes and several moments of bloodshed, but it does little to solve the problems inherent in the theatrical version. THE WOLFMAN remains a dour downer from beginning to end, one that never invites you into its world, forcing you to watch events at arm’s length, with the ironic result that it feels more distant from us than the 1941 film does decades after its release.
The extended version begins with a modern mockup of Universal’s 1940s black-and-white logo, instead of the contemporary color one seen in theatres. The first editorial change occurs during the prologue, which is extended past the point when Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) flees in panic after being attacked by a briefly glimpsed creature. Whereas the theatrical version faded out on a wide angle shot of Ben running away in the background while a werewolf’s clawed hand filled the right hand side of the frame in foreground, the unrated cut shows Ben collapsing before the mausoleum and looking up in horror, followed by a reverse angle shot of a werewolf lunging at the camera. It’s a little too early in the running time to reveal the monster. Also the creature’s appearance has been fudged slightly: seen later, Rick Baker’s makeup for the monsters tries to suggest the human countenance underneath; what’s seen here is a more generic werewolf, in order to main the mystery of who is hiding beneath the fur.
As before, the prologue segues to the WOLFMAN’s opening title*, followed by a scene of Lawrence Talbot on stage. In the theatrical version, this was part of a montage that quickly set the story in motion, with Ben’s fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt) writing a letter to Lawrence, seeking help in finding out what happened to his brother. In the unrated cut, Gwen actually shows up back stage after the performance to see Lawrence in person. He demurs, because he is contracted for another thirty performances, but then changes his mind without any negative consequences (guess that contract wasn’t so iron-clad).
On the way back to the ancestral home, we see another restored scene, this time of Lawrence waking up in a train car to find himself in the presence of an old man (played in an unbilled cameo by the always wonderful Max Von Sydow), who insists on making a present of a wolf’s-headed cane. As intriguing as the scene is, it raises expectations that go unfulfilled: the almost magical presence of Sydow’s character (he appears and disappears while Talbot is asleep) suggests an angel bequeathing a special gift that will play a crucial part in the later proceedings; although the cane is used in the final werewolf battle, it doesn’t tip the scales one way or the other, so it’s easy to see why the set-up scene (figuratively loading a gun to be fired in the third act) was omitted.
From this point forward, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN more or less follows the theatrical version, with a few additional bits of dialogue here and there (the locals have more to say in the tavern, and we see more of the awkward domestic situation at Talbot hall). In London, Lawrence buys a boy’s entire stack of newspapers to prevent anyone from seeing his wanted picture on the front page. Plus, there is more blood spatter and somewhat more lingering takes during the scenes of graphic mayhem. Although it’s hard to fault a film about a savage monster for depicting that savagery upon screen, the gore feels a bit misplaced in this old-fashioned milieu, and it has a “neither here nor there” quality about it: too graphic for fans of classic horror, too mild for the hard-core gorehounds.
There is also a slightly generic quality about the mutilation. There is no particular reason for a werewolf to be knocking peoples heads off; it’s just an over-the-top monster moment. It would have been nice if someone had figured out something more specific: What does a werewolf want: the blood of its victims, or their flesh, or just carnage for its own sake? And how would a hybrid monster – half-man and half-wolf – go about achieving this? (There is a sly joke with makeup man Rick Baker appearing briefly as an armed villager killed by the werewolf; had the film resorted to gratuitously gory evisceration at this point, instead of a mere flash, the humor would have been magnified several fold.)
The the most glaring problem with the unrated cut is not carnage but continuity. The theatrical version cleverly used Gwen’s letter, delivered in voice over layered on top of a montage of Lawrence heading home, to compress the opening exposition into half a minute of screen time. The extended version adds unnecessary scenes that take over seven minutes to achieve the same results, and the inclusion of Gwen’s backstage scene with Lawrence creates an embarrassing gaffe: after Lawrence returns home, there remain at least two dialogue references to his having been summoned by Gwen’s letter, when we have clearly seen him summoned by her in person (and in fact the letter does not exist in this cut).
In the end, the unrated cut of THE WOLFMAN remains much the same as the theatrical cut: a glossy, good-looking production that never fully delivers on its promise of resurrecting one of the great movie monsters for a modern audience. Horror fans will find it worth watching, and even casual viewers may get a kick out of seeing Oscar winners Del Toro and Hopkins indulging in an old-fashioned genre piece. We just wish that the results had lived up to their potential, creating a new millennium version of an old monster that would reignite interest in the form and launch a whole new cycle of Gothic horror thrillers.
Universal’s DVD of THE WOLFMAN includes both the R-rated theatrical version (1 hour and 43 minutes) and the unrated version (1 hour and 59 minutes). Both fit on one side of a single disc, using branching technology (there is a warning that the unrated director’s cut may cause problems for older DVD players). Both versions are divided into the same 20 chapter stops with the same titles, offering no indication of where to look for restored footage.
The Anamorphic Widescreen transfer (1.85) captures THE WOLF MAN’s atmospheric beauty. The audio offers options in English for Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo; in French DOlby Digital 5.1 Surround; and in Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. (There is also Descriptive Video Service on the Theatrical version only.) Subtitle options include Spanish, French, and English for the hearing-impaired.
Much of THE WOLFMAN’s missing material shows up not in the unrated cut but in the Deleted and Extended Scenes section, which is the DVD’s only bonus features. This includes five sequences:
- Lawrence Talks with Glen. This is a short dialogue between the two characters, which takes place before the villagers’ first (unsuccessful) attempt to seize Lawrence. Lawrence thanks Gwen for nursing him through his illness, and Gwen expresses concern that she is the cause of all that has gone wrong (which turns out to be true when we realize that Sir John killed Ben to keep him from marrying Gwen and taking her away).
- Singh’s Story. Brief additional dialogue: in the scene wherein Lawrence finds Singh’s silver bullets, the servant explains his loyalty to Sir John by recounting the English’s lord’s saving his life.
- Extended Mausoleaum Transformation. We get a longer look at Lawrence’s change from man to werewolf, including shots of him crawling up the stairs out of the mausoleum.
- Extended London Chase. Lawrence Talbot’s escape and brief race across the rooftops of London is one of the film’s highlights. The longer version contains a silly interlude with the Wolf Man crashing a costume party; while he approaches a female singer (who is apparently blind), the guests fail to notice that he’s a real monster – until he bites one in the skull. The scene seems to be suggesting something about the Wolf Man (he is clearly interested in the singer but he does not immediately attack her) but what? That music soothes the savage breast? Perhaps this is supposed to offer a suggestion that, later in the film, Gwen may stand some chance of taming his wild impulses?
- Extended Final Fight. Not much more action here; mostly, it’s more pauses between the action as the dueling werewolves catch their breath and/or size each other up.
ADDITIONAL BLU-RAY DETAILS & BONUS FEATURES
Universal’s Blu-ray disc offers a high-def transfer of the theatrical version and the unrated version, with English tracks in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and English DVS Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, plus the French and Spanish 5.1 Surround mixes heard on the DVD. In addition to the Deleted and Extended Scenes, there are several bonus features exclusive to the Blu-ray release:
- Two alternate endings
- Return of the Wolf Man: a featurette on remaking the classic
- The Beast Maker: a profile of Rick Baker
- Transformation Secrets: a look at the visual effects
- The Wolfman Unleashed: the team behind the stunts and action
- Digital Copy
- Take Control: Rick Baker, effects producer Karne Murphy-Mundel, and cinematographer Shelly Johnson reveal details of the filmmaking process.
- Werewolf Legacy, Legend and Lore: a virtual tour through Universals’ Wolf Man films.
- BD Live and Pocket Blu: access additional content and apps through an internet-connected player or your smartphones, including a high-def streaming version of the 1941 version of THE WOLF MAN
With a sticker emblazoned on the DVD box, touting the WOLFMAN’s availability on Blu-ray, it is clear that Universal Pictures is pushing the format. But was it necessary to release a DVD minus bonus features that would, not so long ago, have been no-brainers for inclusion? Yes, Blu-ray can do things that DVD cannot, but that is no reason to omit alternate endings and featurettes that could have been included. As in the days when Hollywood was phasing out the laserdisc, it seems that additional bonus features are being used as leverage to force consumers to adopt the new format, whether they like it or not.
UPDATE: Apparently, there is an exclusive two-disc DVD available at Best Buy, which includes some (but not all) of the extra features from the Blu-ray.
- The WOLFMAN’s closing credits were clearly designed to go up front, right after the opening title: they tease us with animated imagery (such as medical-type drawings of hair growing out of folicles) that was meant to whet our appetite for the horrors to come. Seen at the end of the film, the imagery is anti-climactic.
THE WOLF MAN (February 2010 theatrical release; June 1 home video release ). Directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the 1941 film “The Wolf Man,” written by Curt Siodmak. Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Roger Frost, Simon Merrells, Max Von Sydow (unrated cut only).
Read more about June 1, 2010 Home Video by clicking the links below:
- The Wolfman: Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast - Volume 1, Number 1 (0.869)
- Del Toro as the Wolfman (0.639)
- Thriller: DVD Box Set Preview (0.236)
- Cinefantastique Video Podcast Excerpt (0.234)
- Birthday Greetings to Christopher Lee, Vincent Price & (belatedly) Peter Cushing (0.211)