Although there have been a lot of awful movies released this year, the one I probably hated the most was The Wolfman. Whether you want to attribute it to Joe Johnston's inheritance of the material at the eleventh hour or just the incongruous combination of classic horror tropes and a CGI culture, the film was a disaster from start to finish. All of which, of course, begs the question why I would willingly subject myself to watching the film a second time in an even longer version.
But the truth is that no matter how much I dislike something, I never have it out for a film or filmmaker, and am always open to the possibility there are redeeming qualities in any film. And while Universal Studios Home Entertainment's new Blu-ray, featuring an "unrated Director's Cut" in addition to a deluge of behind-the-scenes bonus materials, hardly transforms the film into something new or significantly better, I was gratified to discover that the longer version at least suggests at the haunting thrills what this film could have become, rather than drowning in the infinite possibilities of what it absolutely was not.
The Director's Cut is front-loaded with the majority of the new footage, which in total runs about 15 minutes longer than the theatrical version. But even just the opening scene is greatly improved, as it excises several of the jump scares that eliminated any sense of genuine suspense; that said, the rest of the film mostly falls right back into that loud noise-flash of motion dynamic that certainly gets people jumping in their seats but only in the cheapest ways possible.
In the original film, Lawrence Talbot – which is still probably the least likely name anyone who looks like Benicio Del Toro would ever have – is introduced the same way, as an actor in London. But as opposed to responding to a letter sent by Gwen (Emily Blunt), his brother's fiancée, she actually visits him, and their encounter deepens the estrangement that old Larry feels towards the rest of the Talbot family (her pleads for help are met with complete indifference). Oddly, however, he decides to go to visit his family anyway, and when he shows up, he and Gwen talk about the letter she sent, which means one of two things: either the unseen letter she wrote was more persuasive than going to visit Lawrence in person, or the filmmakers couldn't get on the same page about how he gets roped into investigating his brother's disappearance and they just left in both versions.
Further, there's a weird scene in which Talbot encounters a mysterious man – played by Max Von Sydow, who was completely excised from the theatrical cut - on the train to his family's home, and the man gives him (or leaves him) an odd silver cane with a wolf's head as a handle. This obviously is meant to be an homage/ reference to the original The Wolf Man, in which Talbot purchases a cane from the woman he's trying to woo. But other than a brief instance in which Talbot uses it to fend off an attacker later in the film, it's virtually irrelevant to the rest of the movie except as a homage, and that's why it's understandable that the filmmakers cut it from the theatrical version.
At the same time, I think this is the kind of stuff the movie needed more of, at least in the sense that it creates a sense of uneasiness and a weird sort of atmosphere – neither of which the theatrical cut had. (It also benefits from having a score that in this case feels much more cohesive, jettisoning the obviousness of single-violin creeps and other stings that felt thrown into the theatrical cut's soundtrack.) I don't know that the movie would have been a lot better, or that it would have performed better, but it would have been more effective as a tribute to the original and something that felt like it had more of a connection to the legacy of the original The Wolf Man. This one descends slightly slower into inane gore and empty thrills, but again, it suggests a film that could have been.
The disc also features two alternate endings, including [SPOILER ALERT] one in which Gwen is bitten by the wolfman before she shoots, and one in which he just kills her and then turns to the camera at the screen goes black. I have no opinion of either of these as a better or worse ending than the one in the theatrical version, mostly because I just wanted the film to end by that point, but generally speaking I feel like it's a testament to filmmakers not having a comfortable sense of their story or the movie as a whole if they have to shoot a number of endings and figure out which one works best in the editing room. (Certainly in this case my assumption about their lack of confidence in the film seems right.)
Otherwise there are a number of featurettes and behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries about the special effects and the development and design of the film, but like was the case with me, it's probably safe to assume if you didn't like the movie you won't want to watch these, especially since there's no candor when it comes to the way Johnston jumped on the project and/ or what issues that may have caused. There is however a considerable volume of material about the CGI used in the film, and while I thought much of it was pretty awful, I have to give the film a pass on some of my objections because it seems as if they always intended to make the film using CGI rather than practical effects, which I'd previously thought was the other way around.
Is it a minor victory to say that a longer version of a film that was terrible to begin with isn't any worse – and maybe even a little better? Sure. But it remains to be seen just how many people will remotely care if a better version of this film exists. In which case, if you hated the theatrical cut, the Director's Cut won't likely change your mind about modern werewolf movies, but at the very least, fans will be gratified to see that at one time Johnston's The Wolfman tried to live up to the original 1941 film, even if in any iteration it fell seriously short.