Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Wolfman

2010
Dir. Joe Johnston

Upon returning to his ancestral home to help search for his missing brother, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is viciously attacked by the same mysterious beast that is revealed to have torn his brother to shreds. Quickly recovering from the ordeal, Talbot soon realises that the beast was a werewolf and he is now marked by the same curse – doomed to transform into a slathering beast under the light of the full moon. Can his father (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s aesthetically pleasing widow (Emily Blunt) help him find a cure before he tears them limb from limb?

It’s an amazing feat that The Wolfman made it to cinemas at all given its troubled production history. The project was originally set to be helmed by Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and various Nine Inch Nails music videos), however he was dissatisfied with the level of studio interference and was soon replaced by director for hire Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III). Countless reshoots, re-cuts and test audience screenings later and The Wolfman has finally been allowed to see the light of day. The film was written by Andrew Kevin Walker – the man who penned the darker than dark Se7en and 8MM – and even though it has the potential to, it never really reaches the dark depths explored in those films. It is obvious that Universal has tried to make The Wolfman appeal to the lowest common denominator. While not a bad film, it certainly could have been a much better film. Sticking fairly closely to the original material its true potential shines through momentarily in a number of brilliantly realised scenes. Unfortunately these scenes are sprinkled sparsely throughout an otherwise fairly average - even a pretty mediocre film.

At the heart of the story is a vague exploration of the darker side of human nature. Hopkins’ Talbot Senior pontificates on this concept quite a lot throughout proceedings and eventually drives home the point, just in case we didn’t get it. To be a werewolf is to be stripped of civility and reconnected with dormant primal instincts. Talbot embodies the conflict between human intellect and base instinct.

The film manages to evoke a deliciously dark gothic atmosphere – particularly during the scenes set in the asylum and the Talbot mansion. Danny Elfman’s score, which frequently rekindles memories of Wojciech Kilar's score for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is also an effective aspect. Curt Siodmak’s poem – especially written for the original – even makes an appearance here and stirs up a potent sense of established folklore:
Even a man who is pure in heart And says his prayers by night May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms And the autumn moon is bright.’

The cast is top notch and while Hopkins and Blunt aren’t really given much to do, they still manage to flesh out their slight characters. The romantic angle between Del Toro and Blunt is too rushed and basically it appears out of nowhere and only seems included out of some sort of unspoken obligation to the conventions of this 'type' of film - ie the clich├ęd romance sub-plot. Here it is woefully under-explored and feels tacked on. Some nonsense to justify it is gurgled by a gypsy woman about the werewolf’s only hope for survival lying with a woman who loves him. As the token love interest Blunt is strong willed and determined without seeming anachronistic and the scene where she pleads for the monster to recognise her as he bears down on her is strangely intense – all the more so because of Blunt’s performance. Del Toro is his usual charismatic self and he endows Talbot with the same heavyset sadness and quiet doom that Lon Chaney Jnr evoked in the character in the original film – a gentle soul trapped in a body raging out of control. Elsewhere they are ably supported by a very suave Hugo Weaving as Scotland Yard Inspector Francis Aberline who isn’t so much a character than a plot device to set up a potential sequel.

The look of the monster itself is genuinely striking. Building on the look of the original wolfman and actually improving and enhancing it with contemporary makeup effects - he still retains the form of a man, but he is not quite a man. The sight of Del Toro skulking through the fog shrouded woods is the stuff of iconic and nightmarish fairytale imagery. A slight detraction from this is the sight of the werewolf legging it on all fours – like so much in the film, it is too obviously computer generated. Not a lot is made of the transformation sequences – they were actually quite underwhelming. The sound effects of bones cracking and snapping into new and bizarre positions was more effective than the visual aspect – Del Toro’s limbs become elongated and he sprouts hair and fangs while his computer generated face contorts in pain. The end. Whilst not terrible by any stretch of the imagination, these sequences still rely too heavily on CGI that will no doubt look dated in a few years.

Johnston’s direction is competent if a little rudimentary. Like Raimi with Drag Me To Hell, Johnson relies too heavily on orchestrated jump moments. Whilst not particularly scary The Wolfman is still specifically designed to keep audiences on their toes and they are jolted into submission at regular intervals. This becomes very tired very quickly. Only occasionally does Johnston flex his ability to create tension and suspense. This is realised very well in the scene when Talbot returns to his home after realising his father’s dark secret and searches the house for him. The culmination is a ridiculous, though admittedly crowd pleasing battle between father and son in front of a roaring fire – made all the more ridiculous by the gesticulations of Hopkins who even tears off his shirt in the most macho-dramatic manner. Its all a bit Ken Russelly circa Women in Love. But with werewolves.

A number of pulse-pounding moments come courtesy of the scene in which the wolfman stalks and violently slays most of the inhabitants of a gypsy campsite and the scene in which Talbot gets all hairy and toothy while trussed up in a lecture theatre full of psychiatrists as they jostle to escape. Homage is also paid to The Werewolf of London in a prolonged rooftop chase scene through the city. The film is incredibly violent – limbs are torn off, heads are knocked off, stomachs are gashed open and entrails ripped out and flung about with wild abandon. Of course it’s all too outlandish to be really disturbing, but it is capably realised nonetheless.

Ferocious and often quite intense, The Wolfman is an entertaining romp, but it only ever shows glimpses of the classic it could have been and will probably not hold up after multiple viewings.

My good buddy Aaron over at The Death Rattle held a poll recently to see what Universal Horror icon was most popular... Click on the linkage to check it out. And while you're there, why not have a little nosy around, its quite the cool place to hang out.

9 comments:

Aaron said...

I've heard only positive things about this one so far (well, from the people whose opinions matter to me, anyway). I'm probably gonna wait until it comes out on DVD, though. I want to see it eventually but I'm not in a huge rush and I honestly don't want this movie to do good at the box office, so I'm kinda boycotting it. If this is successful, it's likely that they're gonna really go forward with the Bride Of Frankenstein remake.

James said...

!!!! There's a Bride of Frankenstein remake in the works!!?? Is nothing sacred anymore!? I also heard that Sam Worthington has signed up to star as Count Dracula in another remake of that classic...

Aaron said...

Yeah news of the Bride remake has been making the rounds for a couple of years, but I don't even think anyone's attached to it at this point. I heard a rumor once that Scarlett Johansen was going to play Elsa Lanchester's role in the movie, but I don't know how much truth was behind it. It could have been a bunch of bullshit... but there is a Bride of Frankenstein remake page on IMDB somewhere.

Shaun Anderson said...

Great review James! - I recently went to see Sherlock Holmes, and of the five films that formed the trailers package three were remakes (Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman and Robin Hood), one was a sequel (Iron Man 2) and the other a Harry Potter rip off (Percy Jackson - Lightning Thief) - I think its pretty clear what this tells us about modern Hollywood production. Of the trailers Wolf Man looked the best, but after your review I think I'll wait for the DVD.

James said...

Three remakes, a sequel and a rip-off?! That is pretty poor form isn't it? How was Sherlock Holmes? It looked quite, er, explosiony! ;o)

Shaun Anderson said...

I thought it was a respectable effort, but the person I watched it with thought it was boring. I can see why, it was quite talky in places - but what Sherlock Holmes film isnt? I think Holmes films live and die by what they choose to do with the Watson character and Jude Law was very good - gone is the bumbling comic relief sidekick portrayed by Nigel Bruce in the Rathbone films - and in its place the man of action that Watson always was.

C.L. Hadden said...

Great review James, as usual.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
No, I mean I actually could NOT have said it better;)

And your point about Elfman's score was dead-on. It absolutely reminded me of Kilar's Dracula score, which I love.

christine said...

Well,I may never see this movie. But I'm damn glad I read this!
"...and his brother’s aesthetically pleasing widow (Emily Blunt)"
Made me snicker a bit!

I had also read that some of the transformation scenes were changed from practical effects to CGI. I have to go back and do some more reading on the subject. But super sad if that is even a little true.

Great read... again!

James said...

I think the majority of the special effects were CGI, yes. They are NOT going to look good in a few years. Not that they looked amazing even now. I watched An American Werewolf in London when I came back home from watching this last weekend. The effects in that still look really good. What does that tell us...? ;o)