It's one thing to make a film about a werewolf. It's another thing if you claim to base it on a screenplay by Curt Siodmak and open the film with the famous verse, "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night..." Even if you mess with the spacing, presumably to pre-empt the instant rip-off artists out there, I presume that you're making a film about Larry Talbot. You can dandify him a little, make him an actor instead of an engineer and insist that everyone call him "Laurence," but I have a right to expect that this is basically the same person Lon Chaney Jr. played in the 1940s. At the very least, Talbot should re-enact his distinctive character arc, or else why bother using the name? But what's distinctive about his story? The big deal about Larry Talbot was that he knew something was terribly wrong with him, that he had, in fact, become a monster, but could not make people understand that fact. They wouldn't listen, you see, because they could hardly even imagine a "wolf man," much less that a gypsy curse could make you one. This was 1941, after all. There's no place for superstition in our streamlined modern world. But maybe you don't want to set your remake back in the Forties. That's fine. A remake true to the spirit of the original could easily be set in the present day. In fact, it probably should be.
Well, guess what? Writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self and director Joe Johnston set their Universal-approved remake in 1891, and they planted poor Talbot in possibly the most superstitious community in the entire United Kingdom, one more credulous, quite probably, than any actual place of the period. These villagers pretty much assume that Talbot will be a werewolf before he even grows a hair out of line. He has no problem convincing them of his trouble. His challenge is to keep from getting lynched. But our masterminds do bow in the direction of the original film's prevalent incredulity by relegating a captive Talbot to the custody of London scientists who appear to have ignored all reports from the field on Laurence's exploits. They refuse to believe he can become a monster, but they torture him anyway to dissuade him of his delusion. It's as if, between the scientists' stupidity and their viciousness, the filmmakers want us to root for the Wolfman to massacre them. That gets us about as far as Forties Universal as we can get, and it's really just about as far from Victorian England.
But let's go back to our old friend Larry. The main reason he can't get people to believe that he's a Wolf Man is that no one sees him as one until it's too late for them to report what they've seen. In part, that's the Wolf Man's fault. From what we can tell, Larry would get itchy, take off his shoes, and then the Wolf Man would go out, find some lone person in a dark, isolated location, rip the person's throat out by grabbing their shoulders and shaking them vigorously, and then go home. Afterward, Larry could claim to have killed someone, and folks would scoff. They might concede that Larry's a little loony, but they won't do anything to stop him from what they don't think he's doing. That's the horror and tragedy of his situation: he can't stop himself and he can't get anyone else to stop him.
In the remake, the Wolfman prefers to attack in crowded areas and doesn't seem to tire easily of disemboweling, amputating, decapitating and so forth. Since he is still not the most efficient killing machine, he invariably leaves dozens of witnesses who can attest to the existence, at the least, of a murderous lunatic, and more likely, depending on the location, of the devil himself in action. So again, Talbot has to be transported far away before he can find people who wouldn't believe him. All of this seems to miss the point of the original Talbot story, and if you want to argue that that point isn't relevant, then why do you want to have a character called L. Talbot in your movie?
The remake misses just about every point possible. It tries to make points of its own -- and misses those, too. It wants to be about fathers and sons in a more antagonistic way than the original, and it also wants to indulge in silly homages to King Kong when the Wolfman runs amok in London. Nowhere in the two hours of the director's cut can the naive sincerity of George Waggner's original film be found. Lon Chaney Jr. may have had his limits as an actor, but you couldn't accuse him of phoning in his performance as Larry Talbot. You can't do that with Benicio Del Toro, either; it'd be more accurate to say he tweets it in. There's definitely a character limit to his work. The man is playing a 19th century actor; you'd think he might project a little? Instead, he seems to be taking lessons in alienation from Sir Anthony Hopkins, who manages to make no human contact with anyone else in the picture. Maybe that's just the character he plays, you might suggest, but I've seen him do this before. He's doing "Anthony Hopkins" the way Samuel L. Jackson does "Samuel L. Jackson" so often. Enough gruff bluff and he's earned his money, and somehow people keep paying him to keep doing it. There are other actors in the film, but there's no point in reproaching them. They're just as much victims as we the viewers are, I suspect.
How badly did the remake fail? I watched it with my friend Wendigo, who is as much a werewolf fan as he is a vampire fan. The Wolf Man, Larry Talbot is his favorite movie monster. There came a point in this film, after Hopkins had clarified some plot points, made a Shakespearean allusion and winked at Del Toro, when he almost asked me to turn the film off. When you consider what he's sat through for our weekly vampire screenings, that's pretty damning.
The experience left me wondering whether the essence of Larry Talbot could be recreated today. You could argue that Larry's increasingly desperate effort to learn how to die made him an appropriate antihero for male audiences during World War II, but I might save that argument for another time. For now, I'll leave you to ponder whether such a struggle could have the same impact, consciously or subconsciously, acknowledged or not, that I presume it had back then. Maybe the remakers had to take a different approach. I just wish they'd taken a different different one.