Last week, we explored the curious case of Mike Nichols’ 1994 film Wolf, a fascinating collection of powerful names in front of and behind the camera that has been relegated to a forgotten oddity at best, a punchline at worst. Reflecting on the disservice that’s been done to that film over the decades, and how it stands far better in stature than its reputation would suggest, this writer began to remember the exhilarating thrills and fog-drenched atmosphere of another maligned werewolf picture, Joe Johnston’s 2010 film, aptly titled The Wolfman.
Originally set to be directed by Mark Romanek (the One Hour Photo filmmaker who would go on to direct Never Let Me Go this same year), he left mere weeks before production was set to begin due to creative differences and budget issues. Ah, those creative differences, a curse that caused Wolf writer Jim Harrison to never work in Hollywood again. Romanek’s departure led to a scramble from Universal Pictures to quickly find his replacement. Brett Ratner was named as the frontrunner (a mercifully avoided disaster), with Frank Darabont, James Mangold, and Johnston also in the running.
Darabont and Mangold would have been interesting options to be sure, but it was Johnston who eventually landed the job, coming off a six-year drought since his previous feature, Viggo Mortensen’s rocky Lord of the Rings follow-up, Hidalgo. It had been a tough stretch for Johnston, as before that he directed the disastrous Jurassic Park III, yet through the ‘90s he was a reliable hand with films such as The Rocketeer, Jumanji, and October Sky. Clearly, this was a workman director whom Universal felt safe in handing the wheel off to.
Johnston steered a capable ship, if one that failed to live up to the hopes of many. Perhaps those hopes were never too high to begin with? The film was notoriously racked by difficulties in production, seeing its release date shifted an inordinate number of times from November 14, 2008 to February of 2009, then April, then November of the same year, before finally settling on February 12, 2010. Composer Danny Elfman was briefly replaced by Paul Haslinger, before the studio decided they didn’t actually like Haslinger’s score and went back to Elfman’s a month before release. Johnston was hired four weeks before principal photography began with a promise that he could shoot the film in 80 days, but the production ran over schedule and massively over-budget. The list goes on.
Upon release, The Wolfman was eviscerated by critics and thoroughly rejected by audiences. A look at its Rotten Tomatoes page reveals an almost evenly matched 34% critic score and 33% audience score. Its Box Office Mojo page doesn’t fare much better, where you see that the film managed a measly $62 million domestic and $78 million international for a $140 million total worldwide against its $150 million budget – which was likely much larger than was reported considering all of the production difficulties.
What went so wrong? Many critics lamented the film’s troubling CGI, as Keith Uhlich from Time Out wrote, “When the beast finally bursts forth, the character becomes, for the most part, a digitally augmented blur – there’s no room for a performance underneath all the 0s and 1s.” Helen O’Hara from Empire Magazine felt the impact of the difficult production, noting that, “An uneven tone and the feeling of too many cooks mars the finished product, but there are moments of beauty and real terror.” Even Ron Meyer, who was President of Universal Pictures at the time, had no kind words for the film. In a 2011 piece for The Guardian, he called The Wolfman, “One of the worst movies we ever made… The script never got right … The director was wrong. Benicio [del Toro] stunk. It all stunk.”
Yet, for others there is plenty of good to be mined from underneath some of that CGI muck. The Wolfman pays wonderful tribute to its legacy, steeping itself in the gothic lore of the classic Universal monster pictures. It may not have been the film suitable for 2010 audiences, but it exists in opposition to the void of personality demonstrated by blockbusters of the modern era. The home video release of the film included an “Unrated Director’s Cut” 17 minutes longer which pushes that reverence for the character’s cinematic lineage even further, including bringing in the 1940’s era Universal logo.
Candice Frederick of Reel Talk Online singled out Benicio del Toro’s performance as a “standout” as he fully understood the assignment of inhabiting this classic figure. The Oscar-winning actor was in an interesting stage of his career, having had some prestige play stumbles with 2007’s Things We Lost in the Fire and 2008’s Che – two excellent films that didn’t land with the awards acclaim they were initially expected to. The actor went big here in a way he never had before, and while it missed the mark for some, for others he added a gravitas that benefited the role tremendously.
The film is stacked from top to bottom with a cast of the elite, from Anthony Hopkins as del Toro’s father to Hugo Weaving and Geraldine Chaplin in supporting roles. There’s even room in the director’s cut for Max von Sydow in a scene that was cut out of the theatrical version of the film. Seeing these legendary stars in this old-school monster feature is an absolute delight, as is the appearance of Emily Blunt in the first role of her career that allows her to get physical in the way that we would see her do later on in films like Looper and Edge of Tomorrow.
Of course, Johnston’s picture was released a few months before Iron Man 2, the film which notoriously was supposed to start off Blunt’s run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Black Widow. Instead, The Wolfman was part of an early nadir in her career from a critical perspective, appearing in the same year as the film she was forced to do instead of Iron Man 2, the brutal Gulliver’s Travels. She rebounded well after a regroup, but the reality is that she never should have had to, as she does wonderful work opposite del Toro here in a film that deserves a reappraisal and a far better reputation than what it has been given. Despite the difficult production, which you can certainly see the cracks of in the final product, it’s a moody, atmospheric throwback with a personality of its own that endures even with some ropey CGI.