I was a squeamish little kid. To prevent me from entering the den, all my older brother had to do was let me know he'd left a picture of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster or Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man inside the room where I could stumble on it.
By the time I reached junior high school I had happily devoured the first two Karloff Frankenstein movies. But "The Wolf Man" had such a mediocre reputation among my movie-savvy friends I never bothered to catch up to it. So I was relieved to discover thanks to the recent Universal Legacy DVD that it's a trim piece of myth-making. George Waggner's direction is negligible, but Curt Siodmak's script sucks you right into the anguish of Larry Talbot (Chaney), a man who never seems comfortable in his own skin even after he becomes a powerful furry creature. An engineer who returns to Talbot Castle in Wales after 18 years in California, Talbot has mere minutes to bond with his distant astronomer father (Claude Rains) and come on to a cute local girl (Evelyn Ankers) before a werewolf bites him and infects him. "Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright," goes the local legend. Talbot is like a Jekyll who never drinks the Kool-Aid but turns into Hyde anyway. Talbot's dad and the local doctor (Warren Williams) are 20th-century men of science who can reckon with the power of a delusional mind but can't understand the black magic that could turn a man into a literal beast. Their disbelief gives the film some comic bite; so do the connections the script makes between Talbot as a blunt, leering wolf and as a werewolf.
Director Waggner has no instinct for image-making -- it's nutty that marsh gas gets more screen-time than the moon -- but Siodmak provides classic visual symbols as compensation, including a walking stick with a silver wolf's head, and the pentagram that proves to be the werewolf's mark. At a nimble 70 minutes "The Wolf Man" hatches a complete and enduring legend with characteristic turns from stolid Ralph Bellamy as the constable and juicy Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi as mother-and-son gypsies.
The 2010 "The Wolfman" has one less space in the title and a lot more dead space in its running time. (That's the most subtle and atmospheric shot from it, above.) The Andrew Kevin Walker-David Self script makes literal and lumbering everything that the original kept suggestive and fleet. It quintuples the body count and doubles the number of active werewolves, as if that would make the story new and epic. At first it's refreshing to see brooding Benicio Del Toro enjoy himself as Lawrence Talbot, here an actor-impresario in late-Victorian times. But director Joe Johnston's super-sized production and the script's wall-to-wall gloom weigh down Del Toro and nearly everyone else, except Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard detective and Geraldine Chaplin in the Ouspenskaya role. Makeup wizard Rick Baker's werewolf transformations should be impressive. But without a director who can showcase them with glee the way Joe Dante did Rob Bottin's effects in "The Howling," they're just in-your-face. And Anthony Hopkins is bizarre as Talbot's father. You wonder why a lovely, sensible woman like Emily Blunt's Gwen Conliffe (Talbot's late brother's fiancee) would spend an extra nanosecond in Talbot Castle. The director's cut on the DVD and Blu-ray is worth seeing only for Max von Sydow's deft, ominous cameo. Even then I wished I was watching this great actor play chess with Death instead of simply handing Talbot the now-obligatory silver-headed cane.
What are your favorite classic horror films or remakes? Do you think I under-represented the horror genre in my just-completed list and photo gallery of unabashed movie ecstasies?