Friday, November 20, 2009

The Wolfman

Promotional image of Benicio del Toro as Universal's new 'Wolfman'
It has teeth, but will it have legs?
When the trailer for Universal's The Wolfman debuted as an aperitif to Quentin Tarantino's WWII thriller, Inglourious Basterds--also one of Universal's--the irony was irresistible. The sly pairing of werewolves and Nazis evoked Rob Zombie's campy, fictive, Werewolf women of the SS, the faux teaser for which was one of the guilty pleasures of Tarantino's 2007 Grindhouse. If self-mockery is an indulgence that only the supremely confident can afford, Universal obviously felt pretty good about Basterds. And their faith was rewarded: according to Box Office Mojo, the $70 million actioner has grossed over $180 million worldwide since opening on August 21st. Compare that with the $42 million Dimension Films lost on Tarantino's previous opus (see Grindhouse), and it's easy to understand why Universal might be feeling a little smug.

Universal may need the extra confidence when The Wolfman opens on February 12th. With a budget of $85 million, the new horror flick is not the most expensive in Universal's portfolio--Stephen Sommers's 2004 Van Helsing cost the studio $160 million, while Peter Jackson's 2005 King Kong weighed in at a wallet-busting $207 million--however The Wolfman's checkered history of re-shoots, resignations and canceled release dates suggests Universal's latest creature feature may turn out to be more dog than wolf. 

The new film is a remake of Universal's 1941 classic, The Wolf Man, which starred the charismatically mournful Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lawrence Talbot, a Welsh-born American who returns to his ancestral home to visit his father (Claude Rains). While there, Talbot is attacked by a werewolf gypsy (Bela Lugosi), and becomes the Wolf Man, turning into a savage half-man, half-wolf during the full moon. At the end of the film, Talbot's father bludgeons the monster to death with a silver-headed cane only to realize that he has killed his own son. 

Lon Chaney as the Wolfman in Universal's 1941 classic horror film
Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man
The Wolf Man established many of the conventions of werewolf mythology in the cinema, such as vulnerability to silver bullets and the transformational effects of the full moon--and was one of several iconic horror/fantasy features produced by Universal between 1923 and 1954 that would come to be known collectively as the Universal Monsters. They were: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which starred Chaney's father, Lon; The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which also starred the senior Chaney; Dracula (1931); Frankenstein (1931); The Mummy (1932); The Invisible Man (1933); Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Werewolf of London (1935); and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

Plans for the Wolf Man remake were announced in 2006. The plot would be similar, albeit with an expanded back story and a change of location from 20th century Wales to 19th century London. In an inspired piece of casting, Oscar-winner Benicio del Toro (Traffic) was tapped to play Talbot. Del Toro had long been a fan of the original, and what's more, he even resembled Chaney. Rounding out the cast were Anthony Hopkins (The silence of the Lambs), Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta), and Emily Blunt, of The Devil wears Prada. Creature effects would be done by Oscar-winning monster maker Rick Baker (How the Grinch stole Christmas, An American werewolf in London), with costumes designed by Milena Canonero, who had won Academy Awards for her work in such films as Barry Lyndon, and Marie Antoinette

The dream project with the to-die-for cast jumped its first curb when director Mark Romanek up and quit. According to LA Weekly's Nikki Finke, Romanek--who had previously directed the somewhat less expensive One Hour Photo--resigned because he felt hobbled by the film's $85 million budget. He wanted $100 million. Universal balked, and Romanek walked. (Read the story here.) The directing job eventually went to Joe Johnston, who had previously helmed October Sky, Hidalgo, and Jurassic Park III

'LobbySubsequent difficulties were evidenced by the film's ever-shifting completion schedule. After announcing that The Wolfman would open on February 13th, 2009--a Friday, appropriately enough--Universal postponed the release date to April 3rd, then bumped it back even further to November 6th. The November slot was reportedly nixed due to concerns over holiday competition from the teen horror flick, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and Disney's animated, IMAX, 3D version of A Christmas Carol, starring a motion-captured Jim Carrey as Scrooge. (Think Lemony Snicket meets The Polar Express on a giant screen, in 3D.)

So far, the February 12th date is sticking. 

The Wolfman's initial delays apparently had to do with dissatisfaction over some of the set pieces. According to Hollywood North Report, the cast and crew were called back to England to re-shoot critical action sequences with master stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, who had worked on Valkyrie, and Mission Impossible III. More baffling were reports that Joe Johnston hadn't filmed any transformation sequences, which are kind of de regueur for a werewolf movie. In a July 29 interview for, effects master Rick Baker lamented: "The only thing I'm a little disappointed about is the transformation. Because we made stuff, but didn't shoot anything. I'm still pushing more to be involved in that, even if it is CG."
The startling transformation effects that earned Baker an Oscar for An American werewolf in London were all decidedly non-CG. If Johnston goes the digital route, the effects had better be good, otherwise he's bound to disappoint a legion of blogging fans who will be drawn to the film on the strength of Baker's attachment to it. 

If, as Irish writer Brendan Behan observed, "there is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary," Universal's sweat pumps are doubtless in high speed over The Wolfman. The eleventh-hour re-shoots and hop-frogging release dates have attracted too much of the wrong kind of attention; expectations are high for the film to fail. Whether it does so may determine the fates of other classic remakes Universal has in the pipe, such as the upcoming Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is already in pre-production. According to and The Hollywood Reporter, Universal is also planning reboots of The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, however a dead-on-arrival Wolfman could leave their futures in doubt. 

The good news is that if The Wolfman turns out to be as good as its crackerjack trailer, fans and execs alike will be breathing a sigh of relief. Production designer Rick Heinrichs and cinematographer Shelly Johnson have artfully re-created the eerie, atmospheric look of the 1941 original in high definition color for modern audiences. Shots of the Wolfman darting through the forest are iconically chilling. And the film has a few other things going for it, namely Hopkins, del Toro and Blunt. Interesting scenery or no, they'll still be fun to watch.

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