Archive for July, 2010

Every Halloween I take out my boxed set of classic monster movies from Universal Studios and try to decide which one to spend my favorite holiday with. While I had a major Dracula obsession as a child, and Boris Karloff remains one of the film actors I love most, the film that I return to again and again is ‘The Wolfman’. For years I could never quite explain why. Now I think it’s because of the three major Universal monster franchises—Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman, the Wolfman is the most human.

When I heard that Universal Studios was releasing a new film called ‘The Wolfman’ it never occurred to me that it might be a fresh take on the original Curt Siodmak script about the tormented Talbot family. After all, in nearly seventy intervening years of werewolf movies, no one (no one I know of, anyway)  had used the original characters and story-line of the 1941 Universal classic, and there was no reason to believe that anyone was going to start now.

It was when I saw the two male leads that had been cast—Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins—that the alarm went off in my head. The difficult father-son relationship was a central element—perhaps the central element—in the 1941 film, and when I learned that the new Wolfman was, in fact, going to use the original characters and story-line, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Predictably, most of the discussion comparing the merits of the old and new ‘Wolfman’ focuses on special effects—CGI versus Jack Pierce’s makeup-box—and the new version’s more graphic maiming and bloodletting.

What’s really wrong with the new ‘Wolfman’ has nothing to do with special effects or CGI, nor with graphic versus implied violence. It’s about character—specifically, Larry Talbot’s character.

In the new film, Del Toro’s Larry Talbot is a brooding Byronic figure, a Shakespearean actor with a successful international career and (apparently) groupies. Del Toros’s Talbot has “family issues” too, but they haven’t stunted him—instead, they’ve simply made him even more darkly brooding and attractive. In some scenes he resembles nothing more than Heathcliff striding purposefully across the moors. (You can almost feel the latest “mash-up” novel coming—‘Wuthering Heights and Werewolves”.)

Some critics have commented on the physical resemblance between Del Toro and Lon Chaney, Jr. There’s the bear-like physique, the mournfully haggard face—but the resemblance stops there.

I remember watching the scenes in which Chaney’s Larry Talbot attempts to flirt with Evelyn Ankers’ character in the antique shop, thinking that the discomfort I felt over Chaney’s stiffness was not what I was supposed to be feeling, that Chaney was simply failing as an actor to embody the suave leading-man quality that the script seemed to call for.

What’s perfectly clear to me today is that the wince-inducing cloddishness of Chaney’s attempts at romancing are a central part of who Larry Talbot is (or, more precisely and painfully, who he is not).

Chaney’s Talbot is a misfit of the first order, the lumbering tongue-tied doofus who never got a date in high school. Even as a grown man attracted to a woman, his first move is to buy a telescope and spy on her through the window of her home. Picture watching how a young Cary Grant would look handling this same material—stalking transformed into something gallantly comedic. When Chaney does it, there’s nothing gallant or comedic about it. It’s embarrassing, and more than a little disturbing.

For a real eyeful of Chaney’s mastery at embodying a horribly uncomfortable and uncertain man-child, just look at the way he holds his hat in his hands—has any actor ever held a hat more tragically?

Unlike vampirism, lycanthropy is not an empowerment fantasy. It’s an anti-empowerment nightmare. An ultimate and horrific loss of control.

The “morning after” scenes in most werewolf movies have always been reminiscent of hangovers, the aftermath of an alcoholic blackout—they have never looked so real as when Chaney did them.

Chaney’s portrayal of Larry Talbot is a walking embodiment of bone-deep discomfort and wracking guilt. The antithesis of the expression comfortable in his own skin. Chaney-as-Talbot is so uncomfortable in his own skin that he seems to want to tear it off and crawl right out of it—and, in a sense, that’s exactly what he does.

More than anything, The Wolfman is a story about a father and a son.

Being the black sheep of the family isn’t always a romantic, enviable role. Sometimes the bad things our families think of us turn out to be true—or, there is a place where they feel most true, where the adult egos we have carefully build-up for ourselves feel most fragile.

For many of us, that place is “home”, which is precisely why many of us leave that place and so seldom return. This is the place that Larry Talbot returns to, hat (literally) in hand, his failures unspoken, his sins unspecified.

From the moment Chaney’s Talbot returns to his ancestral home (and his father’s house), there is not a visible trace of rebellion in him. There is something broken about him, almost abject. Even when he attempts to act like an independent man-of-the-world, there’s something mildly pathetic about it. He’s like a child trying to act like an adult, just barely pulling it off.

Claude Rains, as Larry’s father, dispenses with the cliched mannerisms of the disapproving/domineering patriarch and plays Sir Henry Talbot as a long-suffering man of deep disappointments and sorrowful patience. His disappointment in his son is palpable, but so is his guilt over having these feelings toward his own son.

Rains’ Sir Henry seems to recognize from the very start that his son isn’t a dangerous renegade, but a wounded creature who is already beyond hope. One gets the strong sense that he has probably felt this way about his son long before the fateful wolf-bite—most likely since he was old enough to walk.

Still, watching Rains’ performance, you never doubt for one second that Sir Henry loves his wounded offspring. That “tough love” reaches its climax in the scene in which Sir Henry ties his son to a chair to prove to him that his werewolf fears are nothing more than fantasies. That Rains somehow makes this come off like a loving act is a testimony not only to his skill as an actor, but to Siodmak’s script and how it has brought these two men (and us) to this moment.

In the boxed set of classic Universal monster movie CDs, every jewel-box opens up to reveal an iconic image from the films, pretty much the ones you’d expect. For Dracula, it’s Lugosi standing alone next to his coffin in the subterranean crypt. For Frankenstein, it’s Colin Clive, Dwight Fry, and Karloff in the laboratory.

When I opened the Wolfman CD I was floored to see—not Chaney in full hairy makeup snarling from behind a tree, but the human Larry Talbot tied to a chair, Sir Henry leaning over him, father and son locking eyes, each one deperate to make the other understand, both of them knowing it’s impossible but both unable to give up trying.

Someone at Universal Studios had recognized that this was the film’s primal human image to honor and preserve. Who am I to argue with that?


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