For many years, there have been tales of men who turn into beasts or some sort of amalgamation of man and beast in every culture throughout the world. However, what many people may not realize is that much of what we consider to be pivotal pieces of werewolf lore were fairly recent inventions.
Werewolf bites turning the victim into a werewolf and folkloric poems and prayers explaining the curse and even the idea of killing werewolves with silver weaponry all owe a majority of their legacy to screenwriter Curt Siodmak, the man who wrote the original screenplay for “The Wolf Man,” which is the subject of today’s installment of Monster Clash.
Representing the old, we have Universal’s 1941 classic starring Lon Chaney Jr. Representing the new, we have Universal’s 2010 remake “The Wolfman,” starring Benicio Del Toro. Apparently, Universal thought condensing “Wolf Man” into one word would make it easy to tell the two apart, but try explaining that to Google.
Round 1: Atmosphere
While I may get a lot of flack for saying this, “The Wolf Man” is not what I would call the strongest of the Universal monster films. This was when the studio relegated horror films to B picture status, and it really shows in how this film was made.
Over the course of the film we see three primary locations; those being Talbot Hall, the town and the forest where we see both the gypsy camp and the sites of the werewolf’s attacks. While it does a good job making the locations presentable, with the forest having that classic Universal eeriness, the film’s short runtime doesn’t really allow for the scenery to really sink in.
In the case of the 2010 remake, you immediately identify the advantages they had in terms of technology and what locations they had access to, which include large scale sets, a locale that really communicate the secluded feeling of the rural English town of Blackmoor.
However, the remake also has its fair share of problems with its reliance on computer generated effects and weird shot and editing choices for a few key scenes. On top of that, for a film shot in color, it isn’t really that colorful; everything appears to be dulled or washed out a la “Saving Private Ryan.” The film attempts to remedy this by creating a few eerie lighting effects, but it needed a great deal more contrast to make the images more visually appealing.
Both films have some good points and bad points in how they set up their worlds, but I’m going to give this round to the 1941 version, as the images in that film are more interesting to look at than the images in the remake.
Winner: 1941 version
Round 2: Story
The stories of both films offer some redeeming qualities as a whole, but they are also not without their fair share of problems, some of which are caused by formulaic writing.
The stories are identical in the sense that they are both about the son of a lord returning to his ancestral home after they’ve learned about their brother’s death. They both feature a “tragic love interest” and the wary townsfolk.
However, the 1941 version falls into the kind of traps that older movies tend to be known for during the post-WWII years, where there are formulaic beats that were almost required for films to be released. The romance feels a tad forced and doesn’t really bring anything to the story aside from a potential damsel. The suspicions from the townspeople and the mystery at large don’t really get a lot of development or screen time.
By far, the best moments come when Larry first faces off against the werewolf, has his nervous breakdown upon learning his fate and the exchange between him and his father that takes place prior to the final transformation/ending of the film.
When it comes to the 2010 version, the story is both an improvement but also incorporates a few ideas from Siodmak’s original screenplay, such as Lawrence being incarcerated in an asylum midway during the film.
The bigger key difference is that it has a more in-depth exploration of the main character’s psyche, exploring how his traumatic past could have left his mind unhinged and how the curse has made it even worse.
However, some moments, such as the nightmarish dream sequences, are a little too over-the-top and distract from the film as a whole.
Like I said, both have their fair share of flaws in how their stories are presented and both have some good moments. However, I’m giving this round to the 2010 version, as its story, while flawed, narrowed its focus on the main character a little more and allowed for a little more drama as a whole.
Winner: 2010 version
Round 3: Best Transformation/Reveal
Unlike last week, we won’t be doing a “Deadliest Warrior” style comparison; both characters are on equal footing in terms of strength and weaknesses. Instead, we’re going to take a look at two things that can make or break a werewolf story— the transformation scene and the first reveal of the titular monster.
In the case of the 1941 version, we don’t really see Chaney transform into the Wolf Man. We see him check his arms for any sign of growth, allowing him to be mildly relieved before feeling the transformation in his legs. His legs are all we’re shown as make-up is slowly added to his legs. Continuing that motif, the shot follows his legs as he walks through the forest, cutting briefly to the victim, a grave keeper, and then tilting up to reveal the full make-up in its classic glory.
The 2010 version opts for a more direct and visceral approach with its transformation, as we see Del Toro’s bones contort and twist into more wolf-like features, making the experience appear to be a lot more painful. When it comes to the reveal, there’s a great deal of build up as earlier we saw the townsfolk setting a trap for what they believe to be a lunatic. We are then shown a first-person perspective of the wolf running through the forest, falling down the pits and attacking the hunters before he’s revealed in full.
I also like how, while the transformation is done in CGI, the fully-transformed Wolf Man is done with practical effects and makeup. That is how you do an homage, folks.
So which transformation and reveal is better? While the 1941 version is no doubt a classic, much of the strength of the film comes from what is not shown. When Chaney transforms a second time, we don’t even see it; it’s done off-screen after Larry’s father restrained him back at Talbot Hall.
The 2010 version is definitely the kind of transformation that inspires fear, building upon what was done in the original version and giving us an update on the concept, as well as presenting us a more painful and therefore terrifying vision of the werewolf curse.
For those reasons, I give this round to the 2010 version. It’s a lot more fast-paced and builds up the destruction that lies ahead for our characters.
Winner: 2010 version
The original is a classic and has its place in history, but it’s not without its flaws from a writing and filmmaking perspective. While the remake is equally flawed, it’s at least one of the better horror remakes that actually builds on the established ideas of the story without making things too complex or losing sight of the story’s focus.
I feel that if Universal took the pieces of both the 1941 and 2010 versions and placed it in the hands of the right director, who’d hopefully cast some better actors, then I feel that they’d finally get a version of the story that satisfies as both a horror film and a character piece, as the werewolf mythos contains many elements that still resonate with people today.
A man can only dream, until he can get the millions of dollars together to make it possible, but I digress. This battle now closes in favor of the 2010 version of “The Wolfman.”
Join me next week, where we’ll hop back across the pond to witness the blending of fact and fiction in a cozy little suburb, where we may even spot a Time Lord.