When "The Wolfman" snarls its way into theaters Friday, it will carry with it more than the usual expectations and financial projections of any major studio franchise hopeful.
The film bears the added weight of very likely determining the future viability of Universal Studio's legendary monsters, a ghoulish gallery made up of Dracula, Frankenstein and his bride, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and of course, the Wolf Man.
Think about it. The last time the Wolf Man was a major box office player, the world was at war, milk cost $.84 cents a gallon, and vampires were still monsters that wanted to suck your blood, not whiny, Abercrombie-wearing Emo teens.
Nowadays, film fans get their fright fix from brain-slurping Zombies, serial killers and deranged torturers like Jigsaw from the "Saw" franchise. Is there still an appetite for a traditional monster movie?
"Old-fashioned monster movies do face a greater challenge in scaring audiences today as people are more accustomed to more conventional scares, like the psycho next door, psychological and reality-based horrors," said horror expert and former "Fangoria" magazine editor Tony Timpone.
There is also the changing role of monsters. Besides vampires turning into the modern personification of the 'bad boy' momma warned you about, "The Mummy" franchise took an action-adventure/comedy turn with Brendan Fraser, and werewolves on film lately have been supporting players in films such as the "Underworld" series. But Timpone doesn't think that means there won't be an audience for "The Wolfman."
"I don't think 'Underworld' has made werewolves less relevant," Timpone said. Ultimately, he says, it's the story that counts and if the filmmakers have come up with captivating scenarios and characters, the fans will show up.
"The Wolfman" is a remake of the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. classic. Benicio Del Toro plays English nobleman Lawrence Talbot, who after years of self-imposed exile, returns to his family's countryside estate in Blackmoor. There, he stages an uneasy reunion with his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Sir Anthony Hopkins), and slowly realizes the frightening legacy that curses his family.
Director Joe Johnston agrees with Timpone that the key to maintaining the relevance of a classic monster movie is to make sure the audience is invested in the character's plight.
"He [the Wolfman] is the good guy and the bad guy in one body. He's the hero and the villain. Sir John said it very clearly. 'You can't control the beast.' And that's very important," according to Johnston. "We want Lawrence to survive, we want to root for him and we want to hiss at the villain, but it's all the same guy. It's a very…interesting character."
Reviving a monster in the modern world meant adapting to the times and tastes. Early talk of making a PG-13 "Wolfman" film was quickly shot down, and many limbs eventually were severed, guts ripped out and copious amounts of blood spilled in a most definitely R-rated movie experience. But according to Johnston, the scare factor was always a priority.
"There was something classy about the Lon Chaney film. I knew it was possible to scare you without the gore," said the director. "And I also know that after [the audience] has seen somebody's guts ripped out or arms torn off, they get somewhat immune to it. and they don't care as much about it anymore. I wanted part of the scares to be visual and part of them to be psychological."
It's also why there isn't a full shot of the Wolfman for most of the film, only glimpses of him as he tears through gypsy villages and leaps across rooftops, picking his victims off one at a time. Putting those images together, Johnston explains, "is probably more scary [for the audience] than anything we can show."
Legendary Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker added that a big advantage the classic monster movies have over modern-day horror films is that the current wave of scary movies lack pathos. There is no empathy for the monsters, only fear and disgust.
"I'm not a real gore hound, but monster violence is different to me," Baker said. "A man who is cursed and turns into this monster and he kills people, I don't find that as offensive as one human being killing another human being in the most graphic way possible."
If "The Wolfman" proves a hit at the box office, it will most likely be the impetus Universal needs to fast-track more creature features based on its most famous and fearful leading men. If this film is a hit, then it will also be confirmation that people want their movie monsters to scare them out of their seats, not provide laughs.
Hugh Jackman's "Van Helsing" was the most recent attempt by the studio to revive its horror lineage. But Stephen Sommers' campy 2004 film, while earning some $300 million globally, was almost universally panned. The core audience in particular hated the film, according to Timpone, because "hardcore horror fans hate camp."
For all the innovation and advancements computer-generated effects have brought to Hollywood, Johnston thinks CGI sometimes is a monster movie's worst enemy.
"Part of making that happen is that you have to believe that it's not a CG character running around. Once you accept that its Benicio Del Toro running around and killing and slashing ...you wanna know that it's real. I think that what happens when you create a CG character, that can do anything, then the audience sort of subconsciously checks out and says 'well, that's not really real.'
"So I wanted [the Wolfman] to never break any laws of physics or never do something that a stuntman or actor couldn't do. If you believe this guy is as strong as he appears [in the film], then he can do it, he can make those leaps across rooftops that he does in the movie."
Baker, who was brought in to work on the look of the title character and who cites the original movie as "one of the reasons I do what I do for a living," had his own doubts about the viability of a nearly 70-year-old creature.
"Is a modern moviegoing audience going to accept this Wolfman? Because what they know of a Werewolf is usually a CG [created character] running up a ceiling," said Baker. "But I also thought this could be really new to them. They really haven't seen stuff like this because they've grown up with computer games and computer-generated things and this could be…a brand new thing to see."
Wolfman's biggest fan
Helping the Wolfman's cause was that its star, Del Toro – also a producer on the film – was a huge fan of the original film and not only wanted to mirror its serious tone, but also its character design.
"Benicio wanted to look…exactly like Lon Chaney Jr. did in the 1941 film [as done by makeup pioneer Jack Pierce.] I agreed to a point but thought we had to amp it up a bit."
So 'The Wolfman's' hands are now more humanlike, with big claws. He runs on two feet and occasionally gallops on all fours. The most challenging part, according to Baker, was figuring out the film's money shot, the transformation. Baker is no stranger to Lycanthropic makeovers. He won the first Academy Award for makeup for his iconic work in 1981's "An American Werewolf in London."
"In 'American Werewolf', we started out with a naked man and we ended up with a four-legged hound from hell. In this movie, we have Benicio Del Toro, who's practically a werewolf anyway, and then Benicio with a little more hair on him," Baker joked. "I thought, instead of just going from A to B…let's go off in a kind of crazy direction at first. "
Baker then recalled how "American Werewolf" director John Landis thought focusing on the pain of such a transformation was important. The agony on David Naughton's face as he changed is one of the enduring images of the 1981 movie. This time around, Baker's brutal inspiration results in Del Toro's character shattering his fingers as he transforms.
The film's well-documented challenges (Johnston replaced original director Mark Romanek just weeks before shooting began, it eventually went through several weeks of reshoots, and the release date was changed twice) left the production in a time crunch. As a result, Baker's vision for a prosthetics-and-CGI transformation scene couldn't be fully realized, and it wound up being done exclusively through computer-generated effects work. That concession is something the movie veteran understood, but still found disappointing.
"I just think you get...there's a magic that happens when you have an actor in makeup," Baker said. "Or when an actor is on the set and he knows where he's supposed to be, instead of being on a green screen. There's just something nice about having something really there."
Just a tall Ewok
Johnston found the intense time crunch he found himself under once he signed on to direct "The Wolfman" strangely liberating, because he found he didn't have time to second-guess himself. He also joked about his previous experience working with hairy creatures.
"A wolfman is really just a tall Ewok, and a little more vicious. The Ewoks, they're cute and cuddly, they don't knock people's heads off, probably because they can't reach them," he said, making joking reference to his work on the mid-80s "Ewoks" cartoon for George Lucas.
Turning serious again, Johnston said "nobody does that stuff better than Rick. He could certainly have done a wonderful transformation [using prosthetics along with CGI]. But it meant that once he made the pieces, that's what it had to be. I needed more flexibility than that. I didn't have the time to sit down and work out what the transformation needed to be, ahead of time."
Both men agree that the movie, with its high production values, top-notch cast and the proper deference to the story, will be a worthy addition to Universal's monster movie canon.
" I love that it's a period piece and its so classy looking and you have A-list actors in it," Baker said, while adding, "I hope it does bring back the whole monster franchise for Universal. And they give me more work."