Movie News & Reviews

'The Wolfman' might revive the werewolf-movie genre

Vampires and zombies have staked their own popular patches of film and TV, if the Twilight movies, HBO's True Blood, the CW's Vampire Diaries and living-dead movies are any indication. With The Wolfman, opening Friday, will werewolves get their day in the sun?

It depends. Like zombies and vampires, the werewolf might need to be regroomed: The Twilight vamps are daywalkers who glisten in sunlight, and zombies, who almost invariably shambled through the years, sprint as if they're in sneaker commercials in the likes of 28 Days Later (2002) and the remade Dawn of the Dead (2004). Werewolf movies have become so laden with mythology, one wonders whether The Wolfman can offer anything new.

"It's an action-packed movie, and the wolves are ferocious and have great speed," says co-star Anthony Hopkins, speaking by phone from California. That's a considerable difference from the quick but hardly superhuman lope of most movie werewolves. More subtly, says director Joe Johnston, the title character played by Benicio Del Toro is a "wolfman" — one word — as opposed to Lon Chaney Jr.'s character in the 1941 Universal Pictures classic The Wolf Man, of which this is a remake.

"I don't think anybody said, 'Hey, let's make it one word,'" Johnston says. "But it did become integral to the character. It identifies him as an entity that's not a wolf and not a man. I think that sets it apart from the original, and it gives him his own species. He's a wolfman."

Since the 1913 silent short The Werewolf — which filmed a genuine wolf as the creature — werewolf movies have largely split into two packs: wolfman and wolfman.

The former is a man, a tragic monster who is eaten away by guilt. The latter is a wolf with a human mind, and the only things being eaten away are you and me. Free-spirited predators who live to hunt, these werewolves don't identify as human.

The tragic monster was the standard for years. Universal's Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man each gave us an innocent man afflicted through the bite of a supernatural creature.

"A person, usually a man, becoming an out-of-control, animalistic killer is more relatable than somebody becoming a vampire or creating a Frankenstein monster," says Michael Weldon, author of The Psychotronic Video Guide and a longtime authority on genre movies.

Brad Steiger, author of The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings, says Chaney's acting made The Wolf Man the model for years. "The pain we saw in his face, that of a good man who's under this curse and trying to fight it, became representative of all of us," Steiger says. "We have to continually keep the wolf in us in check."

An American Werewolf in London was one of three werewolf films in 1981. "We saw our dancing Dr Pepper guy (David Naughton, of that era's familiar soda commercial) stretch into this wolf, and he was so human that we could relate to the agony of what it might be like to transform," he says.

In the interim, we had related to teenage werewolves (1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf with a young Michael Landon), biker werewolves (1971's Werewolves on Wheels), a divorced-dad werewolf (1973's The Boy Who Cried Werewolf) and European werewolves, notably 1961's The Curse of the Werewolf starring Oliver Reed, which upped the blood and sex quotient.

Yet, after The Howling and Wolfen (both 1981), Stephen King's Silver Bullet (1985) and the Michael J. Fox comedy Teen Wolf (1986), we stopped relating. Werewolves began stalking mostly low-budget, direct-to-video fare — although concurrently, the werewolf-as-metaphor aesthetic became prominent: Literal werebeasts do appear in The Company of Wolves (1984), Wolf (1994) and Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001), but the archetype is used more as a psychological linchpin than a monster-movie trope.

With the advent of computer- generated imagery, lessening dependence on tricky and expensive special-effects makeup, werewolves returned and went all action-y in the Underworld trilogy (2003-2009, with a fourth scheduled for 2011) and all romantic in the teen-novel-based Blood and Chocolate (2007), featuring a swoony female werewolf, and in the Twilight films.

So, are werewolves back in vogue?

"If we want to see a true revival, it's time to get back to the folkloric roots of belief in werewolves, and start telling some new stories," says Noel Clay, creator of www.werewolf-movies.com. "I think the time has probably come for us to do away with silver bullets, full moons and all of the other Hollywood mythology we've inherited from the 1940s."

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