Full Moon Features: Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, two years later

Craig J. Clark — Feb. 7th 2012

It’s tantalizing to think about The Wolfman that might have been. Mark Romanek’s music videos are so distinctive that it’s pretty much a guarantee that his treatment of the material would have been, too. Just take a gander at “Closer” or “The Perfect Drug” by Nine Inch Nails, or Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” or even Michael & Janet Jackson’s “Scream” and you’ll see what I mean. The man knows his way around striking — and frequently disturbing — imagery.

Once slated to be his follow-up to the well-regarded One Hour Photo (which starred the hirsute Robin Williams — how is it possible that he never made a werewolf movie? Or did his nude scenes in The Fisher King render that redundant?), Romanek’s Wolfman was scuttled when the director reached an impasse with Universal over the budget. Which is ironic considering the way it swelled from $100 to $150 million thanks to all the reshoots and retooling the film underwent after it wound up in the hands of Joe Johnston, whose experience with special effects-driven films made him, if not ideal, at least a suitable replacement. (I don’t even want to contemplate what a Brett Ratner-helmed Wolfman would have looked like.)

Even with a steady hand at the tiller, Universal did little to inspire confidence when, barely a month into principal photography, The Wolfman‘s release date was bumped from February to April 2009. Not that much of a leap, really, but that wasn’t the first time it had been pushed back. After all, the film had originally been scheduled for a November 2008 release and, in fact, would get punted around the studio’s slate several more times before ultimately landing on Valentine’s Day weekend, 2010. This put it in direct competition with the romantic comedy Valentine’s Day, which may have seemed like shrewd counter-programming on paper, but wound up hobbling its commercial prospects (which, to be perfectly frank, weren’t helped by the critical pummeling the film received once it finally limped into theaters).

One thing that definitely didn’t help matters was the decision to cut out a sizable chunk of the first hour in order to get to Lawrence Talbot’s first transformation that much sooner. Not only did this destroy the flow of the story (and completely drop Max von Sydow’s cameo as the man who gives Talbot his silver wolf’s head cane), it also inspired the studio to scrap Danny Elfman’s already-recorded orchestral score and substitute an electronic one by Paul Haslinger, which he composed in the style of his work on the Underworld series. When that proved to be a bad fit they went back to Elfman’s music, but the job of reshaping it to fit the studio cut had to be left to others since Elfman had other commitments.

When I think of how The Wolfman turned out, I can’t help but wonder how it would have fared with critics and audiences if Universal had released Johnston’s cut to theaters instead of the version they allowed to be test-marketed to death. I know when I finally got to see the director’s cut months later on DVD, I thought it was such a marked improvement across the board that even some of the things that rankled me when I saw it in theaters — like all the CGI and quick cuts in the action sequences — didn’t bother me so much the third time around. (And yes, this does means I saw it twice on the big screen. I was lucky it hung around until the end of the month so I could see it at the next full moon.)

I won’t enumerate all of the differences between the two versions, but I did like the extension of the opening sequence and that we got to see Benicio Del Toro on stage briefly. (In the theatrical cut, we had to take it on faith that he was a renowned Shakespearean actor.) And Emily Blunt coming to see him at the theater was a much stronger choice than simply having her write him a letter telling him about his missing brother. There’s also more about his gypsy mother and the villagers’ superstitious nature and so forth. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no question that these cuts were harmful to the film. Sure, an hour of screen time elapses before del Toro wolfs out, but in the director’s cut the first half of the film no longer feels rushed and the second half doesn’t seem so lumpy and misshapen. Maybe if it had been left alone, the film would have done well enough at the box office to merit a direct sequel following Hugo Weaving’s Inspector Aberline as he comes to terms with his own lycanthropy problem (a prospect clearly set up in the film’s closing moments). As it is, we’re left with the reboot Universal supposedly has in the works. If only they’d gone to the trouble of getting the first film right, that wouldn’t have been necessary.

  • It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t process in Hollywood.  Too many times film executives meddle a movie to death, impeding the artists from doing what they need to do.  At the same time, there are some filmmakers that never listen to execs (I see you, Shyamalan) and end up making crap because they can’t accept ‘no’ for an answer.

    I wish the Wolfman would have been what I wanted it to be: The Bram Stoker’s Dracula of Werewolf films.  But instead it was just… very meh.

  • werewolfwoman

    in an era of twilight waxed chested werewolves and Hostile, torture porn movies make big box office hits, the Wolfman had a hard time finding a happy audience. I think the new werewolf fan, who is into twilight hated the feral, monstrous wolfman and had issues with the graphic violence and gore. In contrast the fans of the very popular torture porn flicks, seemed to feel there wasn’t enough gore and violence. The wolfman seemed to have a cult following but had  a hard time connecting with today’s audiences.  Lets face it folks the modern Werewolf has been tamed and it seems like people didn’t know how to handle the return of the werewolf as a tragic monster rather than a brooding love sick romantic figure.

     I for one loved the movie, i am a fan of the original and was originally very cautiously optimistic about the remake.  I found the film refreshing in an era of  the tamed loved sick (neutered werewolf) a brutal monster flick returned the wolfman to a place of dark bestial horror. I think the wolfman is a cult film but failed the expectations of the studio, which hoped for a box office smash.  Monster movie have always been looked down upon by critics at large and if we look at the wolfman for a niche audience i think it could be appreciated.  A great example is American Werewolf In London, which had initially be panned by critics due to the introduction of humor into horror. The movie now is appreciated by many and considered a cult classic.  I hope that the wolfman will one day be considered the same and i think a loyal cult following is better than being part of a passing trend. I know the twilight fans say they love werewolves but will they still love the franchise in 10 years? I would take a small but loyal cult following any day.
    i was happy to see  the return of the classic Gothic horror story and a werewolf with some serious bite.
     When i saw it in theaters, I was so happy with it. I know the film struggled with rewrites, delays and budget cuts but i felt the final product was still well done.  The makeup was solid, the set design and cinematography was fantastic.
    what can i say i like my werewolves tragic, with practical makeup effects and as what they originally depicted as monsters

  •  A Bram Stoker’s Dracula where the count took his wolf form for more than one scene would have also been nice.

  • I don’t know whether The Wolfman will ever develop an American Werewolf-style cult, but I do hope the version that lives on is Joe Johnston’s cut, which is superior to the one released to theaters in every way.

  • Devilwulf

    Flogging a dead werewolf, much?

  •  Only when I think it’s deserving.

  • Devilwulf

    Well, I don’t think it’s deserving at all. What’s more I’m getting pretty fucking sick of the movie STILL getting shat on after two years. Yes it happened. Yes it wasn’t what you wanted it to be. Do us all a favor and get over it.

  • I’ve said my peace, Devilwulf, and what I happen to believe is that the extended director’s cut is the best version of The Wolfman we’re going to get. If you think the theatrical version is superior, then go on thinking that. Nobody’s stopping you.