Even a remaker who is pure of heart…

“Even a remaker who is pure of heart,
And says his prayers at night,
can make a turd when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”

Those are my thoughts on the recent remake of The Wolf Man. The 1941 film (FULL REVIEW) is one of my all time favorites. Sure, the effects are dated and the beast looks a bit like a toothy hipster with a Jew-fro, but the story has a lot of heart. Larry Talbot is a likable lug and a bit of a doofus, as we see him clumsily corner Gwen for a date in her antique shop. He falls into the werewolf curse by pure circumstance, and suffers the fatal destiny it bequeaths upon him. It is a sad and tragic tale. What it lacks in gore and terror, it delivers in pathos for its protagonist, who turns into a beast under the full moon and attacks those he loves. It can be taken as allegory; rather like the Nick Lowe song “The Beast in Me,” about a drunk.

The remake, despite giving us Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins and even Art Malik- the bad guy from True Lies– goes for pure gore and a hackneyed, tortured artist story that generates zero pathos and instead makes us sit around wondering what orifice we’ll see wolf claws sprout from on a Bobby’s agonized corpse next. As special effects go, Rick Baker does a great job. The mastermind behind the excellent An American Werewolf in London (FULL REVIEW) effects, he goes hog wild here, making a hunkering, slavering beast of a wolf man to terrify the moors. The CG effects that make the beast hop around the landscape as realistically as Mario on Nintendo seriously detract from the mood. He hops on policemen like they are goombas, eviscerating them and moving on to the next. In most werewolf movies, they at least take a bite out of you. This one seems to make a game out of how many people he can kill before dawn.

Which is fine for a slasher. But this one wants us to take it seriously, with its Daddy Issues and having to make a good wolf man vs.a bad wolf man, which we already saw in Jack Nicholson’s Wolf, a much better re-imagining of the original. This one has its moments, but doesn’t serve as a respectable homage. If anything, it is worth seeing to watch Rick Baker pull out all the stops. Director Joe Johnston, who brought us decent adventure with The Rocketeer and Hidalgo, goes the same route that Stephen Sommers did for The Mummy, but without the fun. I would have preferred someone who loved the first movie, or the genre. Like Joe Dante, for example. I can’t imagine watching the remake again, and it makes me dread the planned remake of An American Werewolf in London.

And what’s with the title? Wolfman? Maybe his full name is Lawrence Talbot Wolfman.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

24. The Ghost Ship (1943)

Schlocktoberfest #24: The Ghost Ship

I have a soft spot for Val Lewton’s horror movies of the ’40s. It begins with Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, a masterpiece of psychological horror that took terror out of spooky castles and foreign locales and put it on the street. Mark Robson directed The Ghost Ship, and it is a weaker entry in the repertoire in some ways because it pulls a switcheroo; there aren’t any ghosts. But there’s plenty of atmosphere and suspense, which is what Lewton and his directors did astoundingly well on shoestring budgets.

The story begins with a blind man begging by the piers; he’s an old salt himself, and he can tell a lot about you just from what he hears. When young sailor Tom Merriam meets him, he knows he’s an officer from the suitcase he drops instead of a gunny sack. He gives the old man a coin and he wishes him well on his journey, and repeating for us that a sailor doesn’t ask for luck, because he’s supposed to live on his wits. And Third Officer Merriam is going to need all he’s got to survive.

Before he even gets settled onto the ship, the first body is found; it’s a dark night aboard, and an old sailor lies lifeless aboard, found after roll call. The pock-faced Finn the Mute gives us an internal monologue warning of the tragedy to come: “The man is dead. With his death, the waters of the sea are open to us. But there will be other deaths, and the agony of dying, before we come to land again.” Finn comes off as a mystic, and he plays an important part in the story.

As Merriam settles in, he meets Captain Will Stone; a stern man who seems affable enough. Unfortunately we soon learn he does not tolerate any form of dissent, and the story becomes a mild fascist allegory. A smart-aleck sailor who the Cap’n dislikes finds himself locked in the chain room, as the anchor is hauled up. The noise drowns out his screams, and the simple terror of an industrial accent is made up close and personal. The massive anchor chain piles into the room like the coils of a boa constrictor, and when Merriam peeks through the door to check on the sailor, the look on his face is all we need to imagine the bloody crushing death inside.

He immediately confronts the Captain, filled with his youthful idealism and concept of justice. And he won’t let it go. He approaches the First Mate, who suggests he forget it. When they make land, he tells a higher-up his concerns with the Captain’s sanity, but crew all speak up for their leader. All except Finn of course, because he can’t. On land he meets a woman who knows the Captain, and she tells him not to let the power of his position go to his head, as with Captain Stone. That would make him a ghost, and he’d be on a “ghost ship…” See what they did there? Sneaky.

He knows that he can no longer sail with Stone after denouncing him, but when he helps a cheerful Trinidadian sailor out of a fight, he gets sucker punched out cold. To keep him out of trouble, the sailor brings him back to the ship- thus sealing his fate. Captain Stone isn’t painted as a caricature; on land, he talks to a good friend and is concerned about his behavior. We haven’t seen him kill; he just said that the dead sailor was no good because of his jokes and dissent. Is the young officer just confused about what it takes to lead? That’s what makes the short movie compelling, how it keeps us wondering.

It all comes clear in the end, when Merriam conspires with the radio man to contact shore, against Stone’s orders. Finn may not have been able to speak up, but when the time comes he stands up- and protects the helpless from a man drunk with power. It may not be the best of Lewton’s run, but The Ghost Ship manages to be a compelling thriller, despite having a distinct lack of ghosts. I guess the title got bodies in the theaters. The movie is available now after 50 years, when it was kept from view due to a battle over plagiarism. It’s worth seeing, especially if you like the other Lewton films.


2. The Wolf Man

Schlocktoberfest #2: The Wolf Man (1941)

One of my favorite old horror films. At only 75 minutes, it creates a mythology out of the whole cloth, thanks to Curt Siodmak’s script and the naturalism of the cast. And what a cast. Lon Chaney Jr. embodies the practical everyman, horrified by what he becomes. His name is Larry Talbot, but the opening credits just call him The Wolf Man- so much for surprise, folks! Claude Rains, always excellent, plays his Dad back at the castle. He’s the perfect vehicle for the script to rationalize the fantastic goings-on, trying to explain them away with psychology. Claude has that superpower of classically trained actor: to say utter bullshit and have it come off as undeniable fact.
Larry returns home to inherit the family estate, and finds himself enamored with a local shopgirl named Gwen that he’s been spying on with a telescope. Stalking always works out so well in the movies, doesn’t it? He keeps pressuring her for a date and she relents, and they go visit the local Gypsy cart that has rolled into town. The gypsies are Bela Lugosi, playing a fortune teller imaginatively named Bela, and his mother, played by the always intense Maria Ouspenskaya, who fittingly enough was known as a giant pain in the ass on movie sets for remaining in constant contact with astrologers before she made any move. They didn’t warn her that she’d die of a stroke after setting the bed on fire with a cigarette, sadly.

While they are waiting to get their fortune told, Gwen and Larry hear a woman scream and run to help, and he fights off a bloodthirsty wolf with his silver-topped cane. But not before he is wounded. The next morning no wolf corpse is found, but Bela’s is found instead, and Larry’s wound has disappeared… dun dun dunt!!!

Your life line just dead ended, bro.

Okay, so the wolf man sounds like an angry Schnauzer, and looks like Robin Williams with a dental plate, but his curse was made iconic here. The infamous lines, “Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” would be more memorable than similar, earlier werewolf films like The Werewolf of London. That movie is delightfully droll and spawned a great song by Warren Zevon, but seeing the horror on Larry Talbot’s face as he feels himself transforming into a murderous creature is so empathic that the movie is elevated from a mere monster picture into the world of Jungian archetype.

I like how you handle a man’s cane.

The film is quite short at 70 minutes, but doesn’t waste any time with romance, or unnecessary subplots. It’s the simple, tragic story of a man who knows he will destroy the woman he loves, and can do nothing about it. It has been endlessly copied, homaged, and spoofed- a testament to its enduring power and influence. An American Werewolf in London, The Curse of the Queerwolf, and Full Moon High– which I’ll be reviewing shortly- all owe their existence to this monster movie classic, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s uncanny ability to both play an easy-going everyman and a slavering beast under pounds of movie latex.

The famous silver cane.

This goes on my favorite list as #8. It is being remade with Benicio del Toro in the Chaney role for next year, and I hope they do it justice. Jack Nicholson already did an interesting take in Mike Nichols’ Wolf, so something a bit more gory and campy would be refreshing. And yes, I know I’m a day behind on the marathon since I’m not counting the 8 movies I did mini-reviews of. Don’t worry, I’ll catch up.

So much for suspense!