Movie Review: The Wolfman

04/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On the list of crimes against cinema, the remake stands just above the sequel as an offense against the artform.

The sequel, of course, is an indicator of a dangerous loss of imagination, though there are those rare examples of sequels that do more than simply repeat the formula of the original film.

But the remake blends both a death of imagination with hubris -- not just that an old product can be resold in a new package but that no matter how classic the original, the re-maker can somehow improve upon it.

Not that there aren't remakes that work; people have been reworking Shakespeare and other classics for years. The best remakes reimagine the material in a way that brings new insight; I always point to The Magnificent Seven as an example of a remake that stands on its own.

Most remakes, however, are simply crassly commercial projects. Someone somewhere said, "Hey, this is available and no one's seen it in a while. Let's cash in." Exhibit A: The upcoming film of The A Team.

Which brings us to The Wolfman, which attempts to retell the story that originated with a 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. that was called The Wolf Man. The Chaney film isn't a classic in the sense that James Whale's Frankenstein or Todd Browning's Dracula are, as a formal piece of cinema. It was a corny horror programmer that happened to star Claude Rains and the wonderfully named Maria Ouspenskaya.

But it's a classic in the sense that it has legs -- that it's the werewolf story that spawned all cinematic werewolf stories. There's always room for a new one -- and there's no need to retell this old one.

Still, to be fair, Joe Johnston's remake isn't dreadful -- certainly not as awful as the commercials make it look. It's not a good movie, by any stretch -- but it could have been a lot worse.

What it's got going for it is Johnston's willingness to go for the throat with the action -- literally. When the title character runs wild, he doesn't just bite people or claw them -- he defenestrates them, dismembers them, decapitates them -- and all the other dis- and de- words that have to do with horrible things that can happen to the human body.

And this Wolfman isn't selective: Once he's turned loose by a full moon, he's a little like the Tasmanian Devil in the Looney Tunes cartoons -- a one-man tornado of violence cutting a swath through the closest available crowd of humans, leaving a wake marked by gallons of fake blood and rubber guts and limbs.