Can 'Wolfman' Destroy Vampire Fever?

CNN News Wire | 2/16/2010, 9:17 p.m.
Until Taylor Lautner beefed up and began walking around shirtless in "New Moon," there wasn't a chance in the underworld ...

Until Taylor Lautner beefed up and began walking around shirtless in "New Moon," there wasn't a chance in the underworld that werewolves could steal pop culture's rabid affection for vampires.

But now that moviegoers' appetites have been whetted for this particularly hairy breed of supernatural beast, perhaps the new horror movie "The Wolfman," starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, can help the myth finally step out from the, er, non-shadow of vampires after all.

In the past 30 years, there have been a number of films dedicated to the frightening -- and sometimes hilarious -- things that can happen when under the werewolf curse, yet the genre has never soared into popularity.

We're officially past "New Moon" frenzy, and werewolves haven't exactly shown up in TV series, novels and other movies the same way vampirism has since "Twilight" and its cohorts left their mark.

"Vampires have always been more popular because there's a romantic element," Slantmagazine.com film critic Nick Schager said. "They're striking, dashing, and there are sexual components to the legend."

The werewolf, on the other hand, is not only plagued by a "cheesiness" factor that happens when the special effects are poor, Schager said, the myth itself is also decidedly less romantic.

Even Lautner's character, whose houndish transformation does retain some elements of the werewolf myth, turns into a wolf only when the undead come around, making him a somewhat safer choice for his love interest.

On top of that, the "New Moon" wolf men seem to become more attractive once their supernatural gene kicks in, and in typical werewolf genre films, "you don't get to be the good-looking, debonair hunk from 'True Blood,' " Schager said. "It's all about losing control and turning into a beast."

The genre has also suffered from less-than-scary films, Yahoo! movie critic Sean Phillips said.

"I think for a long time, werewolves were feared, but in the silly '80s, we had to bring the werewolf down," he said.

John Landis' 1981 film "An American Werewolf in London" is perhaps one of the most iconic in the genre, but it fits squarely into the "comedy-horror" category. There's also nothing horrific about a barely post-pubescent Michael J. Fox using his newfound canine aggression to ask for a keg in 1985's "Teen Wolf."

The ensuing years weren't much better, with such tales as 1994's "Wolf" using the legend as the basis of satire.

"The classic monsters have been softened and commercialized; they're almost comical now," Phillips said. "They're lighter, gentler versions of the beasts they used to be."

Since Del Toro's film is rated R, Phillips believes that "The Wolfman" will attract an audience that's into horror, even if they're not into werewolves.

Indeed, "Wolfman" producer and actor Del Toro hasn't been quiet about his intent on keeping the film in line with its terrifying inspiration, the original 1941 "The Wolf Man," starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.

" was intentional," the 43-year-old said. "We wanted to bring the story to the 21st century, at the same time, we wanted to stay truthful to the original."

"The Wolfman" maintains the mythology that has captivated fans of the genre for decades, delving into "what extent human beings are animals, to what extent we're civilized and to what extent you can repress animal instincts," co-star Hugo Weaving said.

Even the effects needed to be different. Instead of relying on CGI, as other werewolf films have in recent years, "The Wolfman" kept it classic by bringing in venerated makeup artist Rick Baker to use more practical special effects on Del Toro. (Baker is no stranger to creating wolfmen; he also did the makeup effects for the groundbreaking "American Werewolf in London," which earned him an Oscar.)

That doesn't mean the practical effects haven't been augmented with CGI -- this is 2010 -- but the combination of the two creates a character that's "more iconic wolf man versus what they've done in 'Underworld,'" said film critic Todd Gilchrist.

Most important, "Wolfman" stays true to the heart of the mythology. Being a werewolf isn't a lifestyle or a source of power; it's a frightening, inescapable curse that renders the afflicted unable to control their actions.

"In 1981, with 'The Howling' and 'American Werewolf in London,' the people who were the beasts didn't have any self-loathing about their werewolf affliction," Schager said. "If it's not a terrible thing to become a werewolf, and he's in control of himself and is not a rampaging beast, what becomes scary about it?"

Nothing at all, which is why Gilchrist believes that werewolves haven't gotten their pop culture due: They're not obviously frightening anymore.

"The way that these horror movies were done in the '30s and '40s was very effective, because there was an unknown visual landscape for horror. Audiences hadn't seen these creatures, which is why they were much more susceptible to being scared by them," Gilchrist said.

But by now, audiences have "seen so many different kinds of beasts that kill people, not to mention the technological sophistication needed. Can you really make a movie about a guy who's dressed up as a wolf in 2010?"

Add to that the lack of versatility in werewolf movie plot lines, and Gilchrist doesn't predict a burst of wolf movies or HBO television shows.

"The vampire movies in the past year are all different. 'Daywalkers' and then 'New Moon,' those couldn't be more diametrically opposed," Gilchrist said.

But werewolf movies tell more or less the same tale, he said.

"Some of them were maybe more empowering, some were more tragic, but they're all pretty much the same," Gilchrist said. "There's going to be perennial interest in werewolves as a movie property, but it's not going to launch a trend."

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