Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Wolfman

There is a small segment of society that would deem the Universal monster films of the thirties and forties as classics. I am part of that group. I love these films for the same reason I prefer such special effects as stop-motion animation: the imaginal is meant to be just that - imaginal. If our monsters look too real, they become literal and lose the power we allow them to have in our imagination. They become slashers, and we know what it's like to linger on the blood. I prefer atmosphere to gore because what I can imagine in my thoughts is that much scarier than simply the disgust of violent death. The Universal monsters allowed death to be tragic. They were one step, sometimes more, removed from what was real. In that gap, between what we know is real and what we are able to imagine, is the full range of what is possible.

"The Wolfman" remake is a better film than I think it has been given credit for. More so than other Universal remakes, it honors the spirit of the original by taking its subject seriously. Yes, there is a fair amount of blood, but it is shown quickly, not lingered upon. Wonderfully balancing this is the atmosphere in every scene. Though I would not say I was ever scared, the feeling of dread was with me in every sequence. Dread in a film is more powerful than the shock every time.

As a fan of the original Universal film, there are many nice touches in this one. Benicio Del Toro comes across as the perfect actor to play the Lon Chaney Jr. role. Neither is exactly a pleasure to behold, and Del Toro does what Chaney Jr. could not - make Lawrence Talbot a likable guy. In the original, you feel for Talbot simply because he is forcibly turned into a wolf. Del Toro - playing the script perfectly - is the only male character with heart. I liked him, and it is truly unfair that he is the one to succumb to lycanthropy. My favorite nod to the original is the use of the telescope - which also delineates the characters of the two Larry Talbot's - Lon Chaney Jr. uses the telescope to spy on a girl; the remake uses it as intended - to view the moon, in a nice scene between Del Toro and his creepy father, Anthony Hopkins.

The original film is one of my favorites, and the remake is the kind of horror film rarely made anymore - gothic atmosphere, mysterious and imaginal. Not the kind of film a lot of people want to see any more. However, the psychological dimensions of the man who changes into a wolf are also rather interesting in this film.

This film truly reflects on the imaginal - who is able to imagine, what to do with life when what you imagine turns out to be possible. Perhaps the best scene is one in which Del Toro is imprisoned in an asylum. Strapped down in a chair, he is wheeled into a medical auditorium filled with the medical profession, leering and waiting for a show. His "doctor" is providing just that - forcing his "patient" to have to endure looking at a full moon, in order to embarrass him and prove that he will not turn into a wolf because of it.

The doctor is utterly incapable of imagining that something is possible, and this leads to the hubris of creating a spectacle in order to dismiss it. When the full moon does make its appearance, it is hard to feel bad for these spectators. When the "doctor" is taken by the Wolfman, the lesson may be that we should give a little credence to even something we cannot believe. Imagine it, and take precaution - don't be completely dismissive immediately.

The other interesting character is Hopkins, playing the Wolfman's father. He is also a lycanthrope. His full embrace of his alternate lifestyle led me to consider his character from the Jungian perspective. Jung suggests we cannot become whole unless we examine our shadow side and enable it to emerge in our lives at times. By allowing this, we are able to siphon off some of the power, disperse it while also engaging with it. In Hopkins' character, I found a man who fully embraced his shadow side. He created a powerful ego, one able to to stand up for his own individualism. He took that ego too far though - no one and nothing was important to him any more, except for himself. It's one thing to become a strong person. It's quite another to be so strong that others don't matter any more. This isn't Hopkins best role ever, but it's effective. He's a true creep here.

This is not a film for everyone. If you like your imaginal to be made utterly real, you can skip this. But if you like to suspend reality and slip into a world that is one step removed, dim the lights and enjoy.

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