The Wolfman
The Wolfman

THE WOLFMAN Directed by Joe Johnston

Of all the classic monsters created by Universal Pictures, Lawrence Talbot, aka the Wolf Man, holds a rare distinction: he managed to stay dead the longest. Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Invisible Man (1933) were based on novels and have been remade countless times, and in 1999 Universal rolled out its high-decibel remake of The Mummy (1932). There have been plenty of werewolf movies since The Wolf Man (1941). But Universal’s new release, The Wolfman, is the first-ever remake of the 40s film, which makes Benicio Del Toro the first actor to play Talbot since Lon Chaney Jr. retired him in 1948.

Chaney was possessive of the role: “He was my baby!” he often said of the only great monster he created for the screen. The son of master of disguise Lon Chaney—who starred in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) for Universal—Chaney Jr. spent most of his professional life staggering under the weight of other people’s legacies. After The Wolf Man established him as Universal’s go-to horror star, he inherited the studio’s costume closet: by the time Universal let him go in 1946, he’d played Dracula (in Son of Dracula), the Frankenstein monster (in The Ghost of Frankenstein), the Mummy (in three sequels), and the Wolf Man three more times (in such monster-rally items as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man). He tried to commit suicide in the late 40s, six weeks after returning to Universal to play Talbot for the last time in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Quoted in the Los Angeles Examiner, a close friend of Chaney’s blamed his breakdown on the stress from trying to carry his father’s mantle and endure endlessly grueling makeup sessions.

In the years since Chaney starred in The Wolf Man, the details of his life have made the movie seem even more personal. The werewolf myth has always provided a potent metaphor for addiction, and Chaney, an alcoholic, must’ve known what it felt like to wake up in the morning wondering what in God’s name he’d done the night before. Born Creighton Chaney, he was the son of Cleva Creighton, an alcoholic theatrical trouper who’d once attempted suicide onstage while her husband, Lon, was performing. According to legend, Chaney Jr. once told a director, “Get everything you can out of me before 1 PM, because after that I can’t guarantee anything.” In fact, a salient disgrace of his career was his chaotically drunken performance in a 1952 live TV broadcast, playing the monster in an adaptation of Frankenstein. An actor of real craft and emotion, Chaney gave fine performances in A pictures like Of Mice and Men (1939), High Noon (1952), and The Defiant Ones (1958), but his career was badly compromised by the drinking.

The Wolf Man also echoes Chaney’s life in its tense father-son relationship. When Universal produced a color biopic of the elder Chaney called Man of a Thousand Faces (1956), the final scene showed the dying actor (in the unlikely person of James Cagney) calling for his fabled makeup box and using a stick of greasepaint to scrawl “Jr.” on it under his own name. In real life, Chaney pressured Creighton to pursue a career in business, and when he died of throat cancer, the young man was working as a plumbing contractor. The Wolf Man opens with Lawrence Talbot returning to Talbot Castle, his ancestral home in Wales, after being educated in the States; his older brother has just died mysteriously, and his gentle but sharply assertive father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains at his best), wants Larry to settle in as heir to the estate. But then Larry’s bitten by a wolf, and people begin to turn up dead in the woods, and to his father’s consternation he begins to believe Gypsy legends about men turning into beasts. By the climax of the movie, Sir John is forced to defend himself against his own son with a silver-headed cane.

For Universal, the classic monsters—or, more specifically, the distinctive makeups created by Jack Pierce, which are the studio’s intellectual property—have been an estate worth more than any old castle. The original run of horror talkies kept the studio afloat during the worst years of the Depression, and once the old monsters were rediscovered on TV in the late 50s, they became a merchandising bonanza. Now firmly ensconced as company mascots at Universal’s various theme parks, they rank as some of the studio’s most valuable pop-culture assets. Most recently director Stephen Sommers has revived them for a series of frantic CGI blockbusters, including the abysmal monster mashup Van Helsing (2004). Even the scaly Gill Man, a late arrival in Universal-International’s The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), is being considered for a big-bucks remake.

Benicio Del Toro, a confessed horror geek, was the prime mover behind The Wolfman; with producer Rick Yorn (The Aviator, Gangs of New York) he managed to sell Universal on the idea of an old-school monster movie that would keep the digital effects to a minimum and instead focus on audience identification with the star and his makeup. Like most of the great horror actors, Del Toro seems to understand that sympathy is the hook to any monster, and he taps into the same crawling guilt and remorse Chaney brought to Lawrence Talbot as he realizes what he’s done in his nocturnal state. Screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self (Road to Perdition) have moved the setting from the 1940s back to the 1890s and turned Talbot into a Shakespearean actor, for no apparent reason other than the opportunity to show him in a gaslit performance as Hamlet.

They’ve also turned the father-son conflict inside out, making Sir John a malevolent character and Lawrence his unsuspecting victim. This revision strips away the most poignant aspects of the original version: Lawrence’s shame before his loving father and Sir John’s painful disappointment as he begins to wonder whether his wolf-obsessed son has gone mad. (Anthony Hopkins’s lazy, disinterested performance as Sir John is no match for Rains’s force and sensitivity either.) It turns The Wolfman into a markedly different story from The Wolf Man, though it probably makes some sense from a generational standpoint. Seventy years ago, children in America were far more likely to fear their parents’ displeasure, much like Creighton Chaney knuckling under to his famous father. Nowadays when children bear grievances against their parents, we’re encouraged to sympathize with them. The little monsters.