Werewolves, much like vampires, have evolved into chiselled romantics in recent times.
But the new remake of the 1941 original werewolf film The Wolf Man slaps no gloss over the concept of men becoming savage beasts on a full-moon.
The 1941 horror starred Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr (who would play the Wolf Man in seven other films of declining originality). It not only succeeded in frightening its audiences, but it has also been a strong influence over the portrayal of werewolves since. The last great lycanthrope uprising was in 1981 with the year delivering the classics of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling.
In 1994 Jack Nicholson starred in Wolf which avoided horror trappings for a romance between Michele Pfeiffer and Nicholson’s wimpy book editor made newly assertive after being bitten More recently, both the Underworld and Twilight franchises have had vampires and werewolves going at it, tooth and nail.
Director Joe Johnstone’s very gothic The Wolfman is set in the 1890s, rather than the 1930s, but it does not stray from the original characters and storyline.
The film was initiated by actor Benicio Del Toro, a long-time horror film buff and memorabilia collector. He convinced his manager they should approach Universal, which owns the rights to many enduring movie monsters. After all, he was certainly furry enough.
“I was probably doing Che at that time, so my beard and my hair was really long. So I think that is why I got that part.”
Also brought on board by the film’s original director, Marc Romanek, was makeup wizard Rick Baker, who did the groundbreaking work on American Werewolf. Here though he had a little less to do.
“Going from Benicio to Benicio as the Wolf Man isn’t a really extreme difference,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “Like when I did An American Werewolf in London, we went from this naked man to a four-legged hound from hell, and we had a lot of room to go from the transformation and do a lot of really extreme things. Here we have Benicio del Toro, who’s practically the Wolf Man already, to Benicio del Toro with more hair and bigger teeth.”
As well as switching directors in the early stages of its production, the movie has struck other difficulties along the way. First due for release in late 2008, it has been repeatedly bumped down schedules as Johnstone re-shot and re-edited, reportedly changing the creature’s stance from two-legged to four-legged.
It finally arrives in the world’s cinemas next week, at a time which is a traditional dumping ground for Hollywood’s more unloved films.
Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot who returns to the rambling country estate of his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) after he hears his twin brother is missing.
When his brother’s body is found terribly disfigured, Lawrence promises his brother’s fiance Gwen (Emily Blunt) that he will find out who, or what, killed him. But during the search he finds himself plunging towards a horrifying destiny himself.
A suspicious Scotland Yard inspector, Abberline (Hugo Weaving), arrives on the scene to investigate the strange murders – the victims’ wounds are so revolting that it seems no creature of God would be capable of inflicting them.
Australian actor Weaving (Lord of the Rings, The Matrix) describes his character as a “classic type”, who attempts to attribute reason, not myth, to the series of inexplicable events.
“I think he is a classic, realistic, circumspect detective who isn’t going to believe a werewolf has been committing these murders; he’s much more inclined to think it was someone who knew the victim or lived in the area,” Weaving says.
The Abberline in this version of The Wolfman is modelled on the real Chief Inspector of the London Police who investigated the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888.
Weaving says this is just one way that shifting the film’s setting back a few decades enhanced the eeriness of the story.
“I think what they have done by setting it in the 1890s is a vast improvement. It’s a much more interesting era. It’s more evocative from a lighting point of view, as well as being pre-automobiles, pre-electric lighting and set at a time when God was being questioned and science was on the march but people could still believe in werewolves.”
Weaving says the portrayal of werewolves through history taps into interesting territory of human instinct versus animal instinct, to what extent humans are civilised and to what extent they can be civilised.
“In that era (the late 1800s) you think about Darwin and to what extent he was questioning the Earth, and whether maybe we descended from apes. And so you get this idea of humans transforming from animals over a long period of time – if that was the case then perhaps they still were animals.”
It was also a time when wolves were a very real threat, especially in the villages.
“In Northern Europe wolf packs did roam with insufficient light and not enough food. Wolves were seriously scary beings back then. It would have been easier for those communities to blame an animal, rather than a human being for a suspicious murder,” Weaving says.
He says he couldn’t help thinking there was something more to the historical tales of werewolves he researched before shooting the film. Something in the human psyche that is still relevant today: “There is a dark side within us that is suppressed, there are very selfish instincts that would kill rather than be killed. There may be other instincts in us that might be even worse,” Weaving says.
Combine these ancient fears with special effects, elaborate costumes and prosthetics and Weaving thinks modern audiences will jump through the new version of The Wolfman.
Well, certainly more than they would if they watched the 1941 version today: “It seems such a funny old museum piece now, that old film.”
What: The Wolfman, a remake of the 1941 monster classic The Wolf Man.
Director: Joe Johnstone (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, Honey I Shrunk the Kids)
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving
Where and when: In cinemas now
– Additional reporting Michele Manelis