The night before they filmed the famous murder-suicide scene, Stanley Kubrick told Vincent D’Onofrio on the set of Full Metal Jacket: “Just remember, it has to be big. It has to be, like, Lon Chaney big.”
You’ll get a good idea of what Kubrick was talking about when you watch Chaney’s memorably anguished performance in The Wolf Man (1941). Here’s a horror movie so romantic, scary and well made it took Hollywood nearly 70 years to screw it up.
The Wolfman (2010) stars Benicio Del Toro, an actor who in previous films has proven himself a worthy successor to Chaney. His performances as Fred Fenster in The Usual Suspects, Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Jackie Boy in Sin City are so larger than life the screen can barely contain them. The director and screenwriters of Wolfman keep Del Toro on a very short leash. He spends most of his screen time either hidden behind makeup or delivering monosyllabic lines. The filming of this movie must have been a very frustrating experience for him.
Inexplicably written by two of Hollywood’s most talented scribes – Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition) – the script makes numerous alterations to the original film, none of them for the better. The girl the Wolf Man pursues is now the fiancée of his dead brother, a change that has exactly one effect: to make his character an insensitive douchebag. The new film also adds an origin story that’s no less absurd than, say, "The Honking" – the Futurama episode in which an evil “were-car” kills people because it has the left turn signal from Charles Manson’s VW.
The filmmakers have pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of making a werewolf movie with no subtext. In the original, the Wolf Man was a genuinely tragic figure, an essentially decent but aloof man who ignored the warnings of the villagers who told him “even a man who is pure in heart… may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms.” There’s real poignancy when Chaney says, “I can’t help myself.” The film uses the werewolf as a metaphor for “the good and evil in every man’s soul.”
Exactly what is this new Wolfman about? Beats me. The werewolf has given the horror genre some of its most thematically rich movies. Ginger Snaps is a brilliant werewolf movie that puts a terrifying spin on the adolescent “growth spurt”. Even a B-movie cheapie like I Was a Teenage Werewolf gives us something to think about, as Stephen King notes in his epic 1986 novel, It, when Richie Tozier goes to see it:
“…the kid who turned into the werewolf was full of anger and bad feelings. Richie found himself wondering if there were many people in the world hiding bad feelings like that.”
The Teenage Werewolf is Richie’s worst nightmare. I can’t imagine The Wolfman keeping Richie Tozier or anyone else up at night. It had the opposite effect on me: I fell asleep watching it at the theater.
The movie has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Makeup, thus proving once and for all that you don’t have to make a good film to qualify in one of the technical categories. Thanks to modern visual effects, we get to see the transformation of the Wolf Man in real time. But I actually prefer the use of dissolves in the original film; you don’t stop and think, “I’m looking at a special effect.” I’m rooting for Barney’s Version to win in this category, but Wolfman is the more obvious choice. Rick Baker has won six Oscars for Best Makeup, and I’m guessing he’ll be collecting his seventh.