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

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!


The Wolfman, by Nicholas Pekearo

I don’t read a lot of horror novels. It tends to be juvenile sometimes, even with the better authors. Though when something comes well recommended, I will stick my nose in a book of grue and gore, and Nicholas Pekearo’s The Wolfman came with kudos from Andrew Vachss and Joe R. Lansdale, two writers with a lot of cred. I was not disappointed.

The best pulp novels transcend their material. Let’s face it, when we pick up a book called The Wolfman, we know we’re either reading the bio of a famous disc jockey, or about a guy who barks at the moon and likes his steak rare, preferably torn screaming from a human body. The werewolf legend is one of the oldest and touches a place deep in our psyche, the part that sees we are different from wild animals, but knows that is whence we came. The most famous “wolfman” story is of course Lon Chaney Jr. in the movie of the same name, where even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers at night, can become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright. It gave us the tortured tale of the man cursed with an affliction that makes him prey on his fellow men, for which death by silver is the only cure.

Nicholas Pekearo plays off of this classic tale by bringing it home and making it real. Instead of Lawrence Talbot, our protagonist is Marlowe Higgins- a foul-mouthed long-haired bum who slings hash at a local greasy spoon in a backwater Midwestern town. Marlowe seems as common as dirt, but once a month he becomes a voracious creature whose bloodthirst cannot be denied; while he remembers nothing of these late-night snacks, he has learned to guide the meat-seeking missile by leaving scents and clues around him before he transforms, and sends the beast after bad people.

The character is reminiscent of “Dexter” from the Showtime series based on the books by Jeff Lindsay in that way only- he is a creature of our nightmares who hunts other predators. In tone and style it is completely different; Dexter is a psychopath programmed to kill other killers, and while the show is terribly entertaining, in the end it is all fantasy. Dexter would never care about people if he was what he purports to be. The werewolf on the other hand, is a tragic hero as ancient as the berzerker, or Jekyll & Hyde. The problem has always been that Jekyll is boring compared to Hyde.

Pekearo’s choice to have Marlow Higgins take a bite out of crime is a clever one, but he drives it all home by making Marlowe Higgins even more interesting than his Wolfman side. At first he’s just a smart-ass slob in a small town, with a cop named Pearce as his only friend– the only one able to see through his shell and find the good man beneath. We learn the secrets of his past in pieces, as a serial murderer called the Rose Killer winds his way to his little town. Of course he sets the wolf loose on the killer, but things go awry; and Marlowe has to figure out what went wrong before the next full moon.

The story is a bit unpolished; Marlowe himself is complex, realistic, and fun to follow, but there are a few times when you can see what’s coming. But you can hardly blame Nicholas Pekearo. He was a member of NYPD’s Auxiliary, and was tragically murdered by a gunman robbing a Greenwich Village pizzeria. He had handed his latest draft of the novel to his editor not long before. It is his only published novel, though he had written a few others, that were in the editing process. The Wolfman would have been the first of a great series, and not only did a criminal rob us of a heroic officer, but also a nascent storyteller whose raw talent is evident in this novel.

If you enjoy “Dexter,” or just a good murder yarn that romps through backwoods and honkytonks, Nicholas Pekearo might not have yet had the edge of more experienced writer like James Lee Burke, or Andrew Vachss. But he had the spirit, and he manages to give his character great depth. The book itself has a more satisfactory end; it feels like an introduction to a great character I’d like to spend more time following. Sadly, this one story is all we’ll have.

The Rocketeer

One of the best movie posters ever.
This week, I watched one of my favorite flops of the 90’s, The Rocketeer. Disney stupidly released it on the same weekend as Terminator 2, arguably the best action movie of its decade, preceded by a huge hype machine including music videos by Guns ‘n Roses, video and pinball games, Slurpees and sunglasses behind it. The li’l Rocketeer was trampled under Arnie’s motorcycle boot like a box of flowers in the mall.

That’s unfortunate, because while Rocketeer isn’t a perfect movie, it’s good popcorn fun in the pulp tradition. It tried to ride on the coat tails of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade‘s immense popularity, but misses the mark by embracing the old timey innocence instead of riffing off it, as Ebert put it in his rather scathing review. Only Ebert can make you not want to see a movie he’s given a decent rating. (His recent review of Mongol, the Genghis Khan epic, gets 3.5 stars and the entire review is complaints of how it’s nothing but blood and slaughter with a dash of torture flakes).

Not just blowing smoke.
I’m guessing Disney wanted to aim it at kids, which doesn’t really work in a story about a stunt pilot fighting mobsters and Nazis over an experimental jetpack. Based on a comic book that recalls the adventures of Skylar King of “Sky King,” and other “King of the Rocketmen” and “Commander Cody” serials, it doesn’t really update things except in visual flair. The end battle especially, which has a huge zeppelin with a Nazi insignia appear out of nowhere over Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, fits in a cliffhanger serial but not in a summer blockbuster. I’m reminded of the excellent Superman serials, where one episode would end with a car exploding in flames, and then the next would begin with Superman zipping in to save the passengers just before it crashed.
Despite the movie’s flaws, it’s a lot of fun. Too much fun, in fact. Cliff Secord, played by wholesome all-American Bill Campbell, is flying an experimental plane (a model of which actually broke the speed record in the 30’s) when G-men chasing mobsters burst through their airfield, shoot at his plane for no reason, and cause all sorts of mayhem. One of the mugs hides a mysterious package in their hangar before he’s captured.

Peevy and Cliff
Cliff and his handyman buddy, played by grumpy Alan Arkin like Pops from “Speed Racer,” are now broke and need to fly in the goofy airshow again… until Cliff finds the hidden package, which turns out to be an experimental jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (played decently by Terry O’Quinn, Locke from “Lost”). The movie reveals all its villains as it unfolds. Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino, Goodfellas) leads the mobsters, working for Hollywood heartthrob Neville Sinclair– played with relish by devilish Timothy Dalton, channeling Errol Flynn. The Flynn vibe is so obvious they even parody the classic Adventures of Robin Hood, lest you not guess which star he’s supposed to be.

Everyone wants the jetpack, including a hulking giant named Lothar who also works for Sinclair. In a movie made for adults, he would have been more fun- he folds people in half to silence them, and when a troop of Feds open up on him with tommyguns, he pulls out two .45’s and starts blasting right back at them. The scene quickly fizzles, and I think director Joe Johnston is less suited toward adventure movies than stuff like Honey I Shrunk the Kids and October Sky, which I enjoyed. He also made the tepid Jurassic Park III, which makes me concerned about his upcoming remake of The Wolf Man with Benicio del Toro. That should be more of a horror drama, so hopefully it won’t be as silly as this movie is.

Hotter than the jetpack

The movie has a lot of special effects, but little of the action really engages you. After Cliff and Peevy figure out the jetpack, he saves a wayward barnstorming pilot with it, and not much else. His steady girl Jenny, played by a vivacious and practically bursting out of her clothes Jennifer Connelly, falls in with nefarious Neville Sinclair, who seems much more aware of her womanhood than flyboy Cliff, who feels like he walked out of an Archie comic. When he flies in to save her, it’s more like comic relief than heroics, with our Rocketeer buzzing around the supper club like a gadfly. There’s no rocket punches, or firing his pack to singe anybody; the best I remember is him kicking Lothar when he comes at him with a wrench. Indy used to shoot people, too. I guess it’s out of style for pulp heroes for now.

Too wholesome hero

A pulp hero needs to be good with his fists, and ours doesn’t get a lot of time to use them. He does fly off to deal with the Nazi zeppelin with a Luger in his hand, but Disney decided gunplay was too rough for the kiddies, I guess. Every chance for breathtaking action just peters out- there’s a fight on top of the flaming dirigible vs. the monstrous Lothar, and a battle between G-men, gangsters and Nazis who pop out the bushes that has a lot of flash, but feels more like Dick Tracy than Indiana Jones. Despite this litany of complaints, the movie manages to be entertain. TV prettyboy Bill Campbell just isn’t a great lead, and everything is dialed back to be kid-friendly. There’s nothing wrong with kid-friendly, but I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark was kid-friendly, when I was a kid. Now it would probably garner an R rating.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow did a great job of updating a pulp concept into an exciting modern movie, helped in part by spectacular special effects. Rocketeer has so-so effects, with the rocket man glowing like lightbulb against the backgrounds. The movie is screaming for an update that keeps the story in adult territory. He’s such an iconic figure, with the art deco helmet and leather aviator jacket. And with Indy fighting Soviets, we could use a pulp figure to beat up hordes of Nazi thugs again.