Thursday, February 25, 2010

Wolves of a Different Color: Chaney vs del Toro

The Wolfman of my youth:
Lon Chaney Jr. as Lawrence Talbot
When I was growing up, I had two favorite Universal monsters. The first was the Creature of the Black Lagoon. The second was the Wolfman. So when I heard that Universal was putting out the remake of THE WOLFMAN, I was filled with both excitement and trepidation. After all, to take such a time-tested horror classic and remake it using modern special effects (namely CGI), as well as the expanded freedom of an R rating, could either be a huge positive or negative, depending on how well such resources were used.
My doubts grew even more when the film reviews were mostly bad and the posts on the horror message boards on the internet gave less than glowing endorsements of the new film. I almost decided not to go see it... to just wait until the DVD was released and watch it then. But since my oldest daughter had been wanting to see it, I decided that we would take in a matinee showing last Sunday. And I'm glad we did. It just goes to show that you shouldn't put much stock in other folks opinions. It's better to see it for yourself and make up your own mind on whether it's good or bad.

Benico del Toro as The Wolfman

The new version of THE WOLFMAN was a welcome surprise. It was a rip-roaring period piece, set in England of the late 1800's, with lavish sets and creepy nocturnal landscapes. The movie used many of the same characters from the original 1941 film -- Lawrence Talbot, Sir John, Gwen Conliffe,and the gypsy woman, Maleva -- but their motivations in the storyline were changed somewhat for the new film. Also two new characters, Scotland Yard detective Francis Alberline and Sir John's Indian servant, Singh, were added. Other differences from the earlier Wolfman was Talbot's occupation as a Shakespearean actor, Talbot's torturous time in a London asylum (and his horrifying transformation in a medical gallery in front of dozens of physicians) and his final confrontation with Sir John toward the end of the film.

The 2010 film was extremely gory, with much beheadings, dismemberments, and disembowelments; something I personally believe could have been toned down a bit. Much criticism has been leveled toward the amount of computer generated imagery that was used in this movie, but it didn't seem to take away from the flow of the film, in my opinion. There was a CGI bear and deer that seemed somewhat lame, which caused me to wonder why they couldn't have used real animals in these two brief scenes. It seems that today's movie directors would rather cut costs by using as much CGI as possible during the course of a film, rather than go the extra mile and go for the realism that non-CGI effects would provide.

So how did the performance of del Toro differ from that of Chaney Jr.? Both actors conveyed the angst of being cursed with lycanthropy, but I would have to prefer Chaney's Lawrence Talbot over del Toro's. I reckon I've grown up with Chaney's torturous fear and torment, not only in the original WOLFMAN, but in the movies that followed (FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, HOUSE OF DRACULA, and even ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEETS FRANKENSTEIN). One thing that is similar about both Chaney and del Toro is their physical attributes. Neither one are overly handsome men and their facial features seem to perfectly convey the agony a human might suffer if inflicted with a monsterous curse.

One thing I always yearned for when I was a kid was to see more of the Wolfman, which only appeared two or three times during the course of a film. The Wolfman's appearance was plentiful in the 2010 version. But whereas Chaney's werewolf attacked one victim at a time, del Toro's was a whirling-dervish of bloody destruction, slaughtering multiple victims at a time.

So which movie do I prefer? I'd still have to go with the original 1941 version of THE WOLFMAN. Yes, it was much more restrained than the remake, but, in my opinion, it was the actors and actresses of the early film that made it number one in my book. Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Raines, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya... all were excellent in their characterizations and set the stage for the moody black & white film that has become a staple of monster movie watching for decades. Also the old version is a safe introduction to the Wolfman for children to watch. Given the amount of violence and gore in the new version, I wouldn't let a child under the age of twelve experience it until they were old enough to handle it.

So, although I thoroughly enjoyed the new version of THE WOLFMAN, I still think Chaney's version wins, hands-down. As Lon Chaney Jr. liked to say "The Wolfman was my baby." And I think that's still true. He infused a humanity in the character of Lawrence Talbot that lives on. Whether del Toro's Talbot will live on in the minds of moviegoers, only time will tell.

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