Original vs. Remake: The Wolf Man vs. The Wolfman

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May 26, 2017

So Universal has announced its new monster movie shared universe, The Dark Universe! Maximum spoopitude!

And while I am plenty excited about The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein and even The Inivisible Man, which have all been announced, I'm also interested in the future of The Wolf Man, a movie whose only rumor is that Dwayne Johnson might be the lead.

Werewolves are notoriously difficult to get right. I can really only think of one movie that is widely accepted as a great wolf man movie: An American Werewolf in London.

Even the original Lon Chaney Jr. movie, The Wolf Man, is sometimes maligned by horror fans. And likewise, its 2010 remake The Wolfman (only one word this time) starring Benicio Del Toro, has fallen into relative obscurity.

But, lo and behold, as I looked upon the Syfy movie schedule (as I often do, don't judge me), I saw that the 2010 Wolfman is about to air. So, as I often do, I gave it a watch.

Then I rewatched the original The Wolf Man. And I found myself thinking about how they stack up, both on their own and in comparison to one another. So here are a some categories where I pit the original and the remake head-to-head and see how they fare.

THE TITLE

I know this sounds silly, but there's something appreciably different about Wolf Man as two separate words and Wolfman as one. All I'll say is that it isn't Spiderman, it's Spider-Man. And, comic-related, if I saw a movie titled "The Wolfman" I would have my fingers crossed that it's a biopic of Marv Wolfman. Who wouldn't want to see a movie regaling the story of how Marv Wolfman and George Perez created The New Teen Titans?

Winner: The Wolf Man

THE COSTUMES AND SETS

This section does not include the werewolf makeup (we'll address that at the end). The Wolf Man came out in 1941 but is meant to take place at the turn of the century. One of my biggest criticisms of the original film is that, like many Universal monster movies of the time, there's little to no effort to establish the time period. The clothes and sets don't look turn-of-the-century, they look like the 1940s.

Talbot Castle looks pretty good, and I would say that the werewolf cane Lawrence purchases borders on iconic (enough so that it's used again in the remake), but there's not really anything else staggeringly impressive about the wardrobe or set dressings. The gypsy costumes are just north of Halloween costumes and it's really only Bela's performance that elevates those scenes.

Costumes and sets are, I would say, comparatively The Wolfman's strongest suit. The film is explicitly set in 1891 and everything about it exudes late 19th century. The costumes are far more period accurate -- and, moreover, they feel worn and lived-in.

Even more notable is the state of Talbot Castle, which is a wreck. It sort of reminds me of the original Castle Dracula from Lugosi's day. And the town of Blackmoor is a tremendously unsettling place. Everything about it is dingy and unsanitary.

The Wolfman feels more real and most of that success comes from the fine folks who designed the costumes and sets.

Winner: The Wolfman

ACTING

I have said this before, but Lon Chaney Jr. is no Lon Chaney Sr. His portrayals of Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein's Monster are not exactly what I'd call the best examples of monster movie acting.

That being said, I've always thought that Lawrence Talbot is the best thing Chaney ever did. I've watched him play the Wolf Man over the course of many movies and his ability to portray the sadness and the defeat of being cursed by the wolf has always impressed me. Monsters are always at their best when there's a bit of sympathy for them, and certainly that is Chaney's strength.

There are a number of stand-out performances in the original The Wolf Man, including Bela Lugosi as a cursed gypsy fortune teller, Claude Rains as Lawrence's father John Talbot and especially Evelyn Ankers' performance as Gwen Conliffe is a real show-stealer. A huge part of what makes Lawrence sympathetic is the pity Gwen takes on him.

Conversely, I think there's a great irony with The Wolfman in that there is so much talent but not much in the way of great performance. Benicio Del Toro is a fantastic actor but there's something almost anemic in his performance as Lawrence Talbot. He's just so subdued most of the time. Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance may have been sad, but it was seldom low energy.

Anthony Hopkins' turn as a more villainous John Talbot (he is the original werewolf in this version of the story) is equally disappointing. I'm not sure Hopkins is capable of giving a bad performance, but I know the sound of a check cashing when I hear one and that's mostly what this was. The worst part is the accent, a weird almost Irish thing Hopkins half-heartedly attempts in a few scenes but largely abandons later in the film.

Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are also both in this movie, but they simply aren't given enough to do. The parts just aren't well-written on the page and neither actor winds up rising above that.

Winner: The Wolf Man

THE STORY

The original The Wolf Man has a pretty basic story: Lawrence Talbot returns home because his brother has been killed but no one can tell if it was by man or beast. He meets a beautiful woman and they travel to see a gypsy caravan with a friend of hers to get their fortunes read. Their friend is killed by what appears to be a wolf. Lawrence is also attacked but dispatches the wolf with his cane. Later, it is revealed that Lawrence actually killed a gypsy (Bela). And, naturally, now that he has been bitten, Lawrence becomes a werewolf himself.

There's not a great deal of complexity to the original Wolf Man story. Most of what makes it work as well as it does lies within the performance. But considering that it's only an hour in length, there isn't exactly time for something more complex. I would say the original Wolf Man is very functional: it knows what it wants to do and it sets out to do it very competently.

The Wolfman starts similarly: once again Lawrence returns to Castle Talbot because of his brother's demise. But, in this case, the focus of the story is more on the relationship between father and son. And that is both the advantage and the weakness the remake has over the original. The Wolfman really wants to explore who John and Lawrence are, what their relationship is and how they reached this point. When Lawrence was a child, for example, he sees his mother immediately after she has seemingly ended her own life with a knife. As a result, Lawrence is sent to a sanitarium for a time. But we later discover a repressed memory of what actually happened: John, who is a werewolf, actually killed his wife.

It's an interesting premise, one that plays on an estranged father and son, but ultimately none of the pieces quite fit together. When Lawrence becomes a werewolf, he is sent again to an asylum, but the film plays with his insanity in a way that's confusing to the audience and feels atonal from the rest of the film. And why, exactly, John goes from locking himself in the basement during the full moon to thrilling in the kill isn't entirely clearly stated and doesn't make much sense.

And while there's an interesting juxtaposition between the villagers who believe in the curse of the wolf and the scientists who do not, by the time the scientists get their comeuppance, things have gone from grim to camp so fast it feels like you've got werewolf whiplash.

So, while the original is overly simplistic, the remake's revamps aren't compelling enough to make up for the slap dash way they are executed.

Winner: The Wolf Man

THE WEREWOLF

The original Wolf Man is one of the great icons of monster movie history. There are legends about the makeup process and how they managed to so successfully create the feeling of transformation from man to wolf. People have used the original Wolf Man design over and over again across decades of time.

The original Wolf Man is also, however, bloodless. Yes, he kills, but the one thing I have to say has always been true about the original Talbot werewolf is that he's just not very menacing. He looks cool, but I've never been particularly afraid of him.

The remake Wolfman is the exact opposite: it's a bit of a CGI mess that tries to blend the original design with something a little more modern, but it's also much more gruesome and scary by way of the execution. There is a lot of gore in The Wolfman. And while there are comedic moments with the sheer volume of gore, this werewolf simply feels more threatening.

Winner: Tie

OVERALL WINNER: THE WOLF MAN

I went into this with a totally open mind. I just want that to be clear on that. Anyone who has read articles of mine I think, at this point, knows I'm not afraid to give a contrary opinion that makes everyone hate me. But the original The Wolf Man is simply superior in most regards to the remake.

But, hey: have you seen the remake? I wouldn't say I was angry for having watched it. It was one of those movies that happened to fade into obscurity before I had a chance to catch it back in 2010. So I'm glad I gave it a chance. There are, after all, some of the better actors in modern cinema featured in The Wolfman. And the gore is a hoot. So if you haven't seen it yet, I'd say give it a shot.

And if you prefer the remake over the original, I'd love to hear that defense.