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We love the dark, freaky thrills of movies about werewolves, and this remake of the 1941 original of The Wolf Man takes its credentials seriously, says Andrew L. Urban.

A few years ago, Benicio Del Toro was walking out of his house with his manager and producer, Rick Yorn; as they walked past Del Toro’s beloved classic poster for the original The Wolf Man, with a close up of the legendary Lon Cheney as the beast, Yorn glanced at the then bearded Del Toro and asked: ‘How’d you feel about remaking The Wolf Man?’ Del Toro’s piercing eyes lit up. Both men had been fans of monster movies since childhood – movies that had their genesis in the 1930s and 40s. The Wolf Man was made in 1941 – and Del Toro had seen the film on TV as a child.

Later, during a dinner with producer Scott Stuber, the specific approach to the film was firmed up. “We have put in a few twists, but we wanted to honour the original,” says Stuber. “The Wolf Man is so iconic because, on some level, he is within us. Every person feels a sense of rage. Something primal exists within all of us, and we must control it or we are doomed.” But of course with The Wolf Man we are talking something more than, say, road rage … and his bite is infectious.

"dark, freaky thrills on offer"

Monster movies have always found audiences eager to explore the dark, freaky thrills on offer, while safely seated in a crowded cinema. But fired with enthusiasm that this new monster movie should be a monster success, the filmmakers have gathered an A List cast – including Australia’s Hugo Weaving in a brilliant portrayal.

The story relies on the original but has a few new elements. While in London on a theatrical tour in 1891, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), the son of nobleman Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) now living in America as an actor, receives a letter from his brother's fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), requesting his help after his brother’s disappearance. Reunited with his estranged father, Lawrence sets out to find his brother. A mysterious but brutal and powerful being is terrorising Blackmoor. The villagers are hysterical. Even the gypsy mystic Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) is unable to help. Scotland Yard inspector Francis Aberline (Weaving) has come to investigate, but as Lawrence’s own search intensifies, he discovers shocking family secrets that trigger a tragic and bloody chain of events.

Writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self cleverly make credible both the casting and the plot – and through the budding romance between Talbot and Gwen, audiences get a real understanding of the torment this curse has caused.

One other major difference between the original and the new film, of course, is that the tools of cinema to create such illusions have developed enormously since 1941. It is now possible to seamlessly fuse prosthetic make up effects with digital work that enables audiences to watch in horrific fascination as the actor (Talbot, I mean, not Del Toro) turns into the wolfman, his bones stretching, joints deforming, his fingers becoming claws, his face turning from human to animal … with veracity that Lon Cheney would envy.

Master make up effects wizard Rick Baker (six Oscars stand on his shelf) worked on the film, as did Australia’s Dave Elsey, as Creature Effects Supervisor. The computer generated transformations begin with Del Toro’s features and end up with Rick Baker’s make up; it’s visually arresting stuff.

"the terrible family secret "

But the effects are merely tools in the service of the story and the characters; like the terrible family secret that adds layers to the story and gives the characters recognisable context, helping to make this a classy gothic horror/action movie with substance.

Published February 11, 2010

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