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You can’t beat a good werewolf film.
      That’s because he’s an interesting monster, your werewolf. He doesn’t just stomp around and go “Raaagh!” and eat people (although there’s nothing wrong with those monsters who do make that particular lifestyle choice). I bring this up because I watched the recent remake of The Wolfman and, while it’s not a bad film, it’s not a great film either. And the thing it’s missing most is an understanding of why werewolves are fascinating. It ticks all the obvious werewolf movie boxes, except the one marked ‘soul’. Which is a shame.
      The werewolf is an inherently tragic character. He is trapped in a monthly cycle that leaves him outwardly normal for 27 and a half days then out of control, a whirlwind of savage, bestial fury, for a single night. He knows this is going to happen, he knows exactly when it is going to happen, and there is absolutely damn all he can do about it. It’s his own personal Terminator: it can’t be reasoned with, it can’t be bargained with, and it absolutely will not stop. In that sense, the werewolf himself is as much a victim as the villagers he tears to pieces on the night of the full moon. Well, except he’s usually still alive the next morning, obviously. But the monster attacks him as much as it attacks others, just in a different way.


      Now Frankenstein’s monster, he’s a tragic figure too, of course. But he’s a child in a grown-up body (technically, several grown-up bodies stitched together). He is tragic because he is out of his depth and because everyone is frightened of him, even though all he really wants to do is be accepted and loved. He’s not afraid of himself, the way a werewolf is. A werewolf knows - and fears - his own strength. Your vampire fella, well he’s a complex sort. There’s a full spectrum of vampires from revoltingly rat-like Count Orlocks to suave pretty boy Twilights. Some are tragic, some are monstrous, but most seem to get some sort of kick out of it. Then there’s your zombie (who doesn’t really care), your mummy (who is akin to Frankie in that his tragedy is to be lost and alone and rejected), your Godzilla-type (who doesn’t really care) and your Creature from the Black Lagoon-sort (who just wants people to leave his swamp alone - suggesting a curious evolutionary link to Shrek...). I think that’s all our monstrous archetypes. You can see how the werewolf is unique among this lot.

      Oh wait, I suppose we could include Jekyll and Hyde in that round-up. Dr Jekyll, he’s basically in a similar situation to the werewolf, just better dressed and with a more flexible appointments calendar. Henry Jekyll and Wallace Q Werewolf are both tragic souls, slaves to the beast within. The essential difference is that Jekyll (who I may deal with separately in a future column) has unleashed this tragedy upon himself, whereas the werewolf has had it thrust upon him, either by outside forces or by accident.

      The soul of a good werewolf film is, appropriately enough, the tortured soul of the protagonist. (Well, unless, the werewolf is the antagonist - Dog Soldiers would be a good example - in which case it’s just a groovy monster.) This is what the Wolfman remake seemed to lack. Benicio Del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot went through the motions but we never got a glimpse into the conflict inside him. Where as dear old Lon Chaney Jr in the original, for all that - let’s face it - he wasn’t the greatest actor in the world, somehow clicked with the character and his situation. Chaney bundled up pathos, fear and tortured, introspective angst into a package that has rarely if ever been beaten. Love the remake or hate it (or like it quite a lot but wish it was better, which seems to be the majority view), the one point that everyone apparently agrees on is this: the best thing in the film is Hugo Weaving as Inspector Abberline. (And bravo to the script for establishing that powerfully effective, tangential connection with the Ripper murders without making a big song and dance about it.) Weaving is great but he has the distinct advantage that Abberline is a terrific character, given much more to do - internally and externally - than Talbot himself.

      Sorry, but - the Dog Soldiers variant notwithstanding - there’s something wrong with a werewolf film if your most interesting character is the person hunting the werewolf. Mind, there’s not a lot of competition on screen here. With just four major roles, Weaving’s Abberline only has to also outclass Emily Blunt’s wooden turn as a largely decorative leading lady and Sir Anthony Hopkins being his usual OTT luvvy self as he takes his character’s accent for a walking tour of the British Isles. Of course, there was a whole saga behind the development and production of The Wolfman. Mark Romanek was going to direct; Danny Elfman wrote a score; the release was scheduled for early 2007. Interesting though such stuff can be (stories like that provided me with freelance income for twelve years so I can’t complain!), ultimately it shouldn’t matter. In film-making, as with any creative endeavour, the finished product has to be able to stand on its own. Indeed, theoretically, spending longer on development and pre-production ought to make the movie better. Theoretically..

      The one aspect of the film where such gestational tinkering was very obvious was in the almost complete absence of a major character from the original: Maleva, the old gypsy woman. Maleva was played in 1941 by the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya who looked as if she had been carved from a single walnut. In 2009 she was Geraldine Chaplin, whose role was so truncated that her performance can’t even be adequately judged. Sir John Talbot’s dog gets more screen-time - and more characterisation too. Had Maleva been removed entirely from the remake - like her son, famously played by Bela Lugosi - then all would have been fine. But somewhere down the development road, the significance of the gypsy troupe was reduced and reduced until the whole load of them became entirely incidental to the plot - a red herring for the audience and for the rent-an-angry-mob locals. Yet for some reason Maleva’s later scene with Emily Blunt’s Gwen was left intact. So a character who had by that point been established as having absolutely no connection whatsoever with this or any other werewolf, suddenly turned up, out of context, to impart wisdom and advice - which never subsequently became relevant anyway. Maleva might as well have sold Gwen a bag of clothes pegs for all the influence she had on the plot.

      That sort of thing niggles me. It’s a plot loose-end flapping around and, as such, it sticks out like a sore thumb in the finished movie. It’s like writing a sentence, then changed it from past tense to present conditional, but forgetting to adjust the suffix on the verb. At this level of film-making, the least we should expect is satisfying plot resolution. The Wolfman was a long way from terrible. Now, Van Helsing - that was terrible (though I enjoyed it in a trashy way). The Mummy Returns -  that was lazy and  terrible. And The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was terrible in a way that made me want to break all Sean Connery’s fingers and then use them to scratch my own eyes out. Oh yes, classic monsters have been widely mistreated in recent decades. But The Wolfman was just frustrating because it came so close but, ultimately, got no cigar.
      (Apropos of nothing, I can’t remember the last film I saw where so many characters looked like characters from elsewhere. Del Toro in his early scenes, bedecked in a heavy coat and bedevilled with a bad hair day, looked like either Moe from the Three Stooges or Patrick Troughton as Doctor Who, depending on your preference. Antony Sher’s looney doctor appeared to be a homage to Peter Sellers, sounding like Dr Strangelove and looking like a taller version of Inspector Clouseau impersonating Toulouse-Lautrec. And at the climax (you may want to spoiler-protect this, Denis!) Anthony Hopkins stopped chewing the scenery long enough to rip his shirt off and transform into Oddbod from Carry On Screaming.)

      Can a werewolf film really work in this day and age? Probably. Ginger Snaps comes immediately to mind as a (relatively) recent werewolf film which took the sub-genre and did something new and interesting and powerful with it. In fact, it did that three times because they managed to get a good sequel and a top-notch prequel out of it. But arguably the best werewolf tale around at the moment is on TV in BBC3’s hit series Being Human. Which is odd, because of course it’s not strictly a series about a werewolf. It’s about a werewolf and a ghost and a vampire: a sort of high-quality Rentaghost for grown-ups. Nevertheless, in Russell Tovey’s lycanthropic George, there’s a magnificent portrayal of werewolf angst. The desperation to live a normal life, the determination to somehow conquer the monster inside. George is tortured by his werewolf in a way that the modern incarnation of Lawrence Talbot should have been but wasn’t. Of course, the effects exist now to do a decent werewolf transformation without resorting to the groundbreaking but cumbersome prosthetics that were pioneered in the 1980s by the likes of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. And without the lap-dissolves of earlier werewolf pictures. That helps enormously, although there are still significant effects required - which may be why the werewolf has never really caught on at the lower-budgeted end of the monster movie spectrum. Need a vampire? A pair of fangs and a dribble of fake blood and you’re there. Zombies, squire? Line ‘em up and I’ll cake their faces with gunge till they look like a traffic accident victim. No bother. But a werewolf, that requires a great deal more. Not just because a werewolf is distinctly less human than a vampire or a zombie but also because the transformation really has to be shown. Or at least, strongly implied. So you need not just make-up effects but make-up effects that can change. On screen.

      Some people have tried it. My pal, Brummie teenage auteur Thomas Lee Rutter roped me in for a role a few years ago in his debut feature Full Moon Massacre, quite possibly the lowest-budgeted werewolf movie ever made. It probably cost as close to none pounds whatsoever as it is possible to go. I don’t think the Royal Mint actually makes coins of a sufficiently low denomination to describe this film’s budget. Maybe if we still used farthings.. The werewolf was a dodgy rubber mask with pingpong ball eyes. It was terrible but enjoyably silly. Well, for those of us who had made it anyway. I’m pretty sure it never played to a paying audience. Maybe a paid one.

      No, the werewolf remains, on the whole, the province of the more fiscally-endowed filmmaker. Which gives the genre a certain exclusivity that - let’s face it - zombies will never have. You don’t meet ‘werewolf fans’. I’m only aware of one popular tome on the subject (Stephen Jones’s The Illustrated Werewolf Movie Guide). As far as I know there has never been a werewolf film festival. Actually, that’s not a bad idea. We could show the original Wolf Man, and a Ginger Snaps triple bill, maybe a few Paul Naschy titles. It would be great.

      And how’s that for a record? Two thousand words into a werewolf article before I even mention Paul Naschy. Never mind - that can be a whole other column...

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.