“Even a man who is pure of heart
and says his prayers at night,
may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”
— original poem written for The Wolf Man
In 2010, when I watched The Wolfman in the theater, I’d never seen the 1941 original The Wolf Man. I think I’m incredibly lucky for not having watched the older version first, as my opinion couldn’t be skewed by the original source material. I’m not a big horror fan, but I do have a thing for werewolves. This is probably from my first introduction to werewolves, Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of a nobody teen turned popular wolf in Teen Wolf. From that point on, whether I’m given a kind, sensitive werewolf like Jacob from Twilight or a confused but ready to get-it-on werewolf like Andy from An American Werewolf in Paris, I’ve never been too disappointed by overall themes or lack of themes or lack of any continuity in the world of werewolves. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not a purist. I’m fine with screenplay writers twisting the legends to meet the needs of the story.
I really liked the 2010 adaptation of The Wolfman and I’m almost sure I still do. I took it at face value as being a blood-and-gore monster movie. However, now that I have watched the original, I’m hard pressed not to question the need for the adaptation. There is something to be said for the simplicity of the original and its ability to follow an obvious storyline.
The general story between the two movies stays the same, with main character Lawrence Talbot returning to his family home after his brother’s death. He meets the beautiful Gwen and instantly falls in love. Other plot similarities include a dog who knows a wolf when he smells one, a very wise mystical woman, a gossipy town quick to condemn, a beating with a silver-handled cane, and a tragic ending. Each has an eerie forest filled with stark, bare trees and an ominous score to assist in creating tension.
And that’s where the major similarities end. In the 1941 version, the events of the story take place in or around the early 1940s. There are carriages pulled by horses along with cars filling the streets of the small village in Wales. Lawrence Talbot, affectionately called Larry by everyone, returns home after an eighteen year absence to mourn the death of his brother. The reunion between Larry and his father, Lord Talbot, is a jovial one. It’s all smiles and pats on the back for Larry, who has been abroad in America living up the lack of responsibility that comes from being a second son.
His first order of business is to help his dad set up a telescope big enough to spy into town and right into the bedroom of a beautiful blonde. Larry then heads down to the blonde’s antique shop to bully her into a date. Not the only cringe-worthy part of the movie, but definitely the hardest to understand. But Gwen isn’t just some pushover broad, and she quickly shows this by rebuffing Larry’s creepy advances and selling him a fifteen dollar cane with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf. She then recites the wolfsbane poem and explains the legend of the werewolf. Good for Gwen for sticking to her guns (only she doesn’t for long). But Larry’s inability to take no for an answer ultimately lands him in trouble.
Larry shows back up to the antique store at closing time and, lucky for Gwen, her friend Jenny shows up too. The trio decides to check out the traveling Romani wagon to have their fortunes told. From this point on things progress without any twists or turns; there’s no mystery to be solved. Jenny is chased by a werewolf through the forest. Larry kills the werewolf by beating it down with his silver handled cane. Larry is bitten before the werewolf dies. The werewolf turns out to be the fortune teller, Bela, who turns back to human form. Larry then turns into werewolf. Everyone but the elderly lady, Maleva, thinks he is crazy for thinking he is a werewolf. He kills a grave digger and later tries to kill Gwen. His father beats him to death with the silver cane and everything comes full circle.
The simplicity I mentioned above drives this story. Lord Talbot plainly states the theme more than once (in case anyone gets confused) as the legend of lycanthropy is based off of the good and evil that resides in every man’s soul. Every person has the capacity to be a monster. For Larry, he just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and actually became a monster. I’m satisfied with this storytelling. Not everything has to be complicated. With a total of only four deaths, it’s a light horror film that won’t give me nightmares.
Fast forward sixty-nine years to the retelling, and this story takes place in 1891. I have to stop and say this change of time period is fantastic. The Victorian era costumes add to the dark vibe from the start of the movie. Another change that pleased me is Gwen’s role as the catalyst in bringing Lawrence home to Blackmoor. She’s written to Lawrence about the disappearance of his brother, who also happens to be her fiancé. Lawrence has been away for many years in America living as a stage actor who fortuitously is in London when she writes to him. By the time Lawrence arrives home, his brother’s body has been discovered in a ditch. The reunion with his father is filled with tension. There are no smiles or pats on the back for this Lawrence.
Lawrence immediately suspects a monster has killed his brother, and he has good reason to think so. When he was a boy, he believed a werewolf killed his mother. He spent some serious time in an asylum as a kid because of his “delusions.” Lawrence plans to hunt this monster at night and goes to a Romani camp, because the villagers’ slurs and hate directed toward the travelers make them “most likely” to be the villains.
It is at the camp where the werewolf first strikes and takes out no less than eight people. There is lots of blood, gore, and flying limbs. Lawrence is then attacked and bitten by the werewolf. When he doesn’t die, every single villager accuses him of becoming a werewolf too.
And they are right, but Lord Talbot does not allow them to take Lawrence yet. First—and here is the big twist time—Lord Talbot must enact his evil “muahahahaha” plan and have Lawrence kill people. This is where we find out that Lawrence’s father is the original werewolf and an all-around asshole. There is no rhyme or reason to his madness other than he has slowly turned mad over the years. Probably. After Lawrence has killed several more people, his father turns him over to the inspector with the hopes he’ll be taken to London and kill more people. He does and then he walks home. It’s a long walk montage.
While all this is super exciting and suspenseful, my focus always goes back to Gwen. Gwen wants justice for her dead fiancé. Gwen wants to believe that love can conquer all. She tries to find a way to save Lawrence but in the end knows she must be the one to end his life.
Gwen deserved more screen time.
Thankfully before Gwen can mercy-kill Lawrence, he decapitates his father, and bites the inspector so at least somewhere a werewolf lives on and Teen Wolf can come to be.
Like I said above, I liked this version of The Wolfman too. The pace moved along much quicker than the first movie. Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, and Benicio del Toro did not disappoint as each character dealt with their own angst. I’d have been more impressed if the character names had been changed and not linked to the original movie. This movie might have fared better with critics had it tried to stand on its own as a separate story.
I counted approximately twenty-two deaths and would rate this as a moderate horror most likely to give me some nightmares. I just wish there would be more of a theme to tie those nightmares together.
My recommendation would be to watch them both back to back with the understanding that neither is perfect but both are pretty good.
Merry Scary Christmas.