Universal Studios has arguably the most prestigious and classical horror movies and characters in North America. The Universal Monster movies of the 1930s, 1940s and even the ‘50s have become iconic, inspiring an entire generation of filmgoers, creators and filmmakers. When someone says the name #Frankenstein, people will imagine the monster that Boris Karloff first played in James Whale’s 1932 Frankenstein film (with Jack Piece’s infamous makeup design) before they think of Mary Shelly’s original novel. People will think of Bela Lugosi’s immortal performance as #Dracula before they will think of Gary Oldman or Bram Stoker. The list only grows from there.
The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Invisible Man, and, of course, The Wolf Man have survived the times in our pop culture memories. There have been countless other interpretations and reimagining’s of these characters by both fans and acclaim filmmakers. #Universal themselves is also dormant with its own updates after decades upon decades.
We’re only a short time away from Alex Kurtzman’s version of the Universal Mummy movies that’s supposed to kick off a new interconnected Monsters Cinematic Universe (#TheDarkUniverse). I know a lot of people are worried about this, but I’m actually excited. This is a throwback to when Universal did crossovers in the 1940s.
This got me thinking, out all the remakes that Universal has attempted over the years, which one was the best? Most would go to Stephan Sommers’s The Mummy, and I might agree with them. But as much as I love it, it doesn’t scream Universal. It’s a fun Indiana Jones-style of adventure-action movie, not exactly Universal horror. It’s certainly not the 1979 Dracula (does anyone even remember that movie?), nor is it the Luke Evans-starring Dracula Untold.
No, I think the best Universal Monster remake is without a doubt Joe Johnston’s 2010 #TheWolfman. I know that this film wasn’t well received upon its release (and it doesn’t appear to be gaining any fans), but I really believe this movie is underrated (not perfect) and easily the best Universal remake for a few reasons.
(Note this article is only concerned with the “Unrated Director’s Cut” and will assume you have already seen the movie)
1. It Captures The Tone Of The Originals
The original Universal films had a very specific feel to them. Many of them had a gothic look and tone. Stephan Sommers’s The Mummy captured a little of the original ’32 film, but as I mentioned before, it was more of an Indiana Jones film (and the sequels only continued down that trend). The 2010 Wolfman is dripping with the Universal feel.
Set in the Victorian Era, the movie feels more timeless; it has the cold, dark, empty hallways, religious undertones, dimly lit candles, classical costume design, practical makeup (more on that later), and, of course, an insane asylum. The production design gives the movie its feel. It’s an aesthetic that I don’t think we see enough anymore and that was beautifully captured in the movie.
2. It Maintains Its Greek Tragedy
The Wolfman captures the Greek tragedy of the original film. Lawrence, in both versions, (played in the original by Lon Chaney Jr. and in 2010 by #BenicioDelToro) isn’t a bad man. There is a pain to them. They didn’t really deserve their fates, but once bitten by a werewolf, the curse forces an inherently good man to do horrible things and go on a murderous rampage, killing people of all kinds.
Both versions get you to care about the main character. The 2010 version goes a step further and gives Lawrence a tragic backstory, which only adds to his misfortune. Just as Richard Roeper noted in his review, there isn’t much you can do dramatically with a werewolf because he doesn’t remember who he is. There is some truth to that, and that’s part of the tragic quality.
It all comes down to whether or not, as a werewolf, Lawrence Talbot will kill his new found love, Gwen (played by Emily Blunt). Will Gwen have to kill him in order to save him? It ends in typical Shakespearian fashion, but still open ended where the audience knows the tragedy will continue.
3. It's Faithful, But Not Too Faithful
How many times have we seen a remake that either strays too far from the source material or too close? The Psycho and Poltergeist remakes were too close to the original films to the point where you wouldn’t have to watch the new version. If you saw the old one, you saw the new one. Then again, most fans don’t want a remake to stray too far away either. To me, being faithful to something doesn’t make or break a film. Whatever makes the best film possible is the avenue a filmmaker should take.
This movie was made with the intent of evoking the feeling of the original film (as outlined above). However, what really works is that the movie isn’t afraid to stray further away and be a little unfaithful. The stories share similar qualities, but they are not copies. Lawrence is given a new story, there some new subplots surrounding Lawrence’s father (that only add to the tragedy), the love interest, the werewolf sequences, and so many other things are different. The movie evokes the feel of the original, but it doesn’t pretend to act like it — it carves out its own place.
4. It's Fun And A Little Campy
There is one quality of the Universal monster movies (especially once we get into the 1940s) that is escapable: They are a bit campy. There really isn’t any way of getting around it, they are campy. Campy almost feels like a dirty word (especially in the age rebooting campy films into darker and gritty films), but there is some fun to be had in campiness.
The movie is not overtly campy, nor goes out of its way to be so, but there is that quality that I would dare say is precious. It’s refreshing to see a movie that isn’t ashamed to be just a little self-aware. Aside from the campy undertones, the werewolf sequences are fun. The movie feels modern once the blood starts to fly, and oh man is there a lot of it. Limbs and guts fly everywhere in this movie. The movie is serious when it needs to be, but it’s certainly not afraid to indulge a little into a fun side.
5. The Makeup
One of the best qualities of the original movies was Jack Pierce’s makeup. He created all the famous designs of those films and no one did it better (as evidently by the quality of makeup when he got replaced in the 1940s). His makeup inspired many in the special effects industry, including one of the best in film history, Rick Baker.
Baker has worked on countless films (including An American Werewolf In London), but here Baker got to work on a film update of his hero. The makeup work in this movie is without a doubt some of his best and most detailed work. It allows Benicio del Toro to give so much expression underneath it all and look menacing. The look is faithful yet different enough to distinguish it from Lon Chaney’s makeup. Baker would go onto to win an Academy Award for his efforts here.
Is this movie perfect? No, some of the CGI isn’t the most polished, the transformation scenes clearly got the most money thrown at it, and for the most part those scenes still hold up (a few shots none withstanding). But in spite of those flaws I still really like the movie for all the reasons I’ve listed above. This movie captures a lot of what I loved about the original movies without being afraid to add some new elements to it to keep it feeling fresh. I think we live in an age where there is a portion of the moviegoing audience either thinks a movie is a ten or a one.
The Wolfman is a movie that isn’t perfect, it’s not a ten, but it’s far from a one. I hope with The Mummy more people will check this movie out and find some enjoyment in it. For my money, this is the best remake of the classic monsters Universal film that there has been. While you’re waiting for The Mummy, check this movie out — you just might like it.
What is your favorite Universal Monster?