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The Wolfman Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 11, 2010 at 12:00 AM

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    The Wolfman Review

    “And you will not become a werewolf anymore than I will sprout wings and fly out of that window!”

    Famous last words, eh?

    It is 1891 and something is devouring the haggard residents of the ominous enclave of Blackmoor. When the son of eccentric Lord Talbot is found murdered by the mysterious beast prowling the moors, his estranged brother, Lawrence, vows to track down the thing responsible. With the family reunion full of strange, half-remembered horrors of a harrowing childhood, and a doomed love affair burgeoning between himself and Gwen, his brother's once wife-to-be, Lawrence finds that if home is, indeed, where the heart is ... then that heart is apt to have been torn out, and left raw and bleeding upon the ground. After an encounter with a clan of travelling gypsies culminates in a gruesome massacre, Lawrence lies recovering from a terrible bite from the beast, itself. But with superstition rife and something grim and primal now coursing through his invigorated veins, destiny finds him in the merciless grip of a full moon frenzy of bloodshed as he becomes the legendary Wolfman.

    With Benicio Del Toro taking the gore-spattered baton from his vintage look-alike Lon Chaney Jnr. and playing the troubled Lawrence Talbot with typically brooding melancholia, and Sir Anthony Hopkins chewing up the scenery (almost literally) as the weird patriarch after the original's Claude Raines, the film is heavily stocked with weighty thespic talent. Throw in Emily Blunt as the damsel-in-distress who gets over her own mourning quicker than you can say “It's the wooll-uff" and Hugo Weaving as the dogged Scotland Yard Inspector Aberline, fresh off the Jack The Ripper case, and you've got a macabre melodrama of intense proportions. Or, at least, you'd think so, wouldn't you?

    After languishing for so long in well-publicised production and post-production hell, Universal's muscular and action-packed re-imagining of The Wolfman (no longer a two-word character, it seems) should have been either a complete disaster, or a complete masterpiece. Ultimately, of course, it is neither.

    What is isn't, however, is an all-out horror film. Oh, the trappings are all there - monsters, murders, the full moon staring balefully down upon a haunted country estate, a terrified rustic village and an eerie, spectral forest - but the flavour of the story lacks the vital ingredients of genuine fear and horror. Let's be honest, here. Out of all the classic cinematic creatures - Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy etc - the Wolfman is the one that has the most, ahem, bite. He is, by nature, savage, cunning and ferocious whilst his unearthly brethren are, respectively, suavely sinister, lumbering and pathetic and, collectively, they are all entirely predictable, lavish, big-budget makeovers notwithstanding. Where the original 1941 version, the film that set in stone the trademarks of the myth (silver bullets, gypsy mantras, love/death being the only cure for the curse and, it should be noted, the definitive cause and effect of the passing-on of the wolf-virus via a bite to a still-living victim), was tepid and restrained by virtue of the era in which it was made and the prevailing sensibilities of the times, a full-throttle werewolf picture made today has the absolute potential to be simply terrifying and fabulously nasty. Lon Chaney had to content himself with a bit of strangling and off-camera mauling, but John Landis' monsters literally ripped and shredded their victims and genuinely induced nightmares. When a nubile young victim's shell-shocked boyfriend cried that she was a virgin, the bodybuilding Big Bad Wolf, in the film of the same name, simply growled, mid-rape of said vixen, “Not anymore!!!” Now we come to Joe (Jurassic Park III) Johnston's evolution. Thankfully, he and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, don't go down the guns 'n' martial arts road of Underworld and keep to the bygone times milieu of hoary old Victorian cobbles, jittery yokels and bleak, wintry mansions, but even though they seek to recapture the evocative and mist-swirling atmosphere of the Curt Siodmak-written original, they miss what should have been the new target by a mile, playing the story safe and throwing in a dog's dinner of ideas that, instead of embroidering the tale with fabulous new developments, drag it down into the bog of unfinished and often nonsensical potential.

    Thereby, the film bears all the hallmarks of its patch-work past of chopped scenes, laborious rewrites, the walk-out of the first director, Mark Romanek, and the occasionally frantic re-structuring of a film that many hand-rubbing naysayers claimed would be an unmitigated failure. Elements just don't gel at times. Why, for instance, is Insp. Aberline clearly accusing Lawrence of evil deeds upon their first meeting, when it is abundantly clear that it was another beast altogether that committed them. The killing of his brother had occurred before he even arrived in Blackmoor and during the gypsy camp slayings, Lawrence was witnessed, by many, trying to protect the people from the monster. It just doesn't add up. Plus, why bother to have Lawrence as some renowned Shakespearean actor at all? What relevance does this have to the character, save for a throwaway line that his father uses later - “You're not the only one in this family who can act ...”? This character alteration is made all the more redundant by Del Toro's utterly bland, virtually monosyllabic performance as the troubled Talbot. Couple this with a rather wretched attempt to walk through the streets of London, incognito, after a night of throat ripping and scientist impaling when the star of the stage is sure to be recognised by all, and you've got a bit of back-story that is worse than merely superfluous. Other scenes fail to connect to one another, as well. The big gypsy massacre, for instance, simply comes out of nowhere and, to be brutally honest, this once-essential component of the story, that of the Romany folks and their part in all these supernatural shenanigans, is rendered utterly pointless by a script (or a version of the script) that only uses them as a bit of set-dressing. Drafting-in Geraldine Chaplin, so good in The Orphanage, to play the immortal gypsy queen, Maleva, initially seemed like dream-casting, but her part is so squandered that she barely even registers. Even worse, we get Art Malik, in a wig and beard ensemble that make him almost as wolfish as those scampering around the woods, as Lord Talbot's loyal Sikh manservant, Singh, getting tooled-up as some sort of divine warrior that we truly expect so see engaged in some sort of grand showdown with the beast. But, sadly, don't.

    And what about that already celebrated ballroom slaughter-fest? Erm ... well, it's not here, is it? Having read accounts of the sequence from the stunt-co-ordinator, the makeup people and the director, this scene certainly seems to exist - so are we to assume that it may end up in some Unrated Cut further down the line on disc, along with more of the depth that Lawrence and Gwen so desperately need? Well, let's hope so.

    Perhaps unavoidably, references to American Werewolf abound. We have dreams within dreams and horrid hallucinations. Gwen Conliffe sitting reading beside Lawrence's bed as he lies there recovering from his fateful bite is reminiscent of Nurse Price comforting David in the hospital. And there is even The Slaughtered Lamb's famous darts player, David Schofield, cropping up as the village bobby. In many ways, this plays out like a vintage rehearsal for Landis' modern classic - even down to the chaos caused to London's public transport!

    "Do you believe in curses?"

    "This house has had its fair share of sorrow. Your mother. Your brother. Yes, Lawrence ... I believe in curses."

    Visually, the film is positively gorgeous to look at. The location work is stunning and darkly picturesque. There is something of a Sleepy Hollow feel to the little hamlet caught up in the thrall of the wolf, although this one is much more realistic. The photography from Shelly Johnson is spellbinding - occasionally shadow-draped and almost leached of colour, but often blazing with lurid appeal and comic-book redolence. The CG elements are fine and well-integrated. You've certainly got to hand it to Johnston and his visual FX team for not only supplying some great nocturnal London vistas, but also for adhering to the man-in-makeup approach to their monsters once the de-facto animated bone-elongation, jaw-stretching and muscle enhancement has taken place. There is an undeniably living appeal to the werewolves that we see, and it is especially agreeable that we can certainly still discern the semblance of their human selves beneath the yak-hair and the glued-on muzzles. The transformations, then, are terrific. Returning to the very creature that inspired him in the first place, and was also the reason for that famous Academy Award back in 1981, special makeup effects supremo Rick Baker's initial ambitions for the project may have been forsaken, but his designs and makeup are gloriously detailed and emotive. What looks very impressive is the close-up of an eye morphing from human to lupine, but watch how the skin around it darkens and coarsens at the same time. Whilst we are not as genuinely freaked-out as we were when we gawped at a nude David Naughton agonisingly changing into a bear-sized hell-hound in Baker's still-stunning American Werewolf groundbreaker, there is a definite impression that humanity has left the building and that the beast has taken up residence in its place. But, and I can't believe that I'm saying this considering that I have long been a defender of the more primitive latex and prosthetic approach and of this very werewolf image, itself, there is no getting away from the fact that Lawrence Talbot, once the hair and fangs have sprouted, simply isn't frightening. At all. In full flight across the rooftops of Old London, he looks like he is hot on the heels of the Scooby Gang. In skirmishes with pedestrians, coppers and hunters he just looks like some bulky dude in a ripped shirt and a mask and sporting a mullet. And, in close-ups, he seems just too darn cute to be ferocious, the snout too small and the jaws less cavernous. I'd been living with the image of this incarnation since stills were first made public and, man, I loved the look. Yet, somehow, seen in action, the Wolfman is more heroic than horrifying. And that, folks, is just plain wrong. However, to compensate, we do get some great shots of him moving from two legs to four as he bounds through the woods, or the streets, and the image of him loping towards us, his snout and jaws literally filling the screen, is strikingly well done. Fast displays of claw and tooth slicing and dicing are actually pretty awesome, I have to say. Quick slashes expose unspooling intestines and vicious lacerations are raked across faces and throats. A couple of very neat beheadings also occur, both crowd-pleasers. Yet the violence still feels reined-back - swift and un-jolting. Still just easy gore for the masses, the kind your mum would let you see. And the squashing of a London copper, X-Men Toad-style, is just plain silly.

    "I will kill all of you!"

    On a wacky, but not unassociated side-note - check out Del Toro's weirdly transmogrifying face. You just watch how it changes from one scene to the next, sometimes from shot to shot, even without his actual wolf-side making its presence known. With his massively thick and dense mop of Latin curls pinned-down, he looks lumpy and brow-heavy one minute - the very image of Lon Chaney Jnr. But in the next he can present positively matinee idol looks along the lines of Brad Pitt. Huh? Is this some form of performing flesh-art, some celluloid alchemy ... or, erm, just a trick of the lighting? Whichever it may be, he was possibly born to portray a shape-shifter. If only he'd brought along those Academy Award-bagging actorly skills as well, though. And, as for the infinitely prettier Blunt ... well, to be blunt ... she is soulless and wooden as the Wolfman's bait-cum-salvation.

    It is ironic that the film's best and most memorable moments occur when there are no werewolves actually on the screen. Courtesy of Sir Tony Hopkins comes some delicious scenery-chewing. You can't fail to spot the fact that he “appears” to resent the script and, thus, his performance carries the air of an actor who has given up on his character's credibility - which is totally justified in this case - but, in retaliation, is just having fun with the role. A later scene in the cell of an asylum is hysterical thanks to his wicked, eye-twinkling revelations - one line, especially, had me and a large portion of the audience chuckling for a good while afterwards. Whether intentional or not, his comedy value is part pantomime, part parlour-room farce and even if his earlier scenes seem to recall his similarly rogueish and eccentric part in Legends Of The Fall, his later ones rekindle memories of both Hannibal Lecter and that warped-off-his-cake depiction of Abraham Van Helsing in Coppola's operatic adaptation of Dracula. The next aspect of brilliance comes in the shape of Hugo Weaving's marvellously be-whiskered Insp. Aberline. Whilst I admit that he is largely unsung in the final act and relegated to simply running about, his performance is a fantastic combination of Agent Smith, Lord Elrond and V all thrown together. Just sit back and revel in his awesome assessment of the situation to the stunned patrons of the village tavern and, in particular, the grieving landlady, Mrs. Kirk, as he informs them that he is better off spending his time there and not out hunting with the posse simply because if he is to catch the monster it makes more sense to keep close to its potential victims. “A pint of bitter, please.” Indeed. Think I'll have one, myself, mate! And check out the moment when Gwen, back at her London antique shop - in a little homage to the original film's rural equivalent - opens the door and allows an enquiring Aberline to enter and then shuts it again in the faces of his men, leaving them standing outside in the pouring rain. You totally expect there to be another knock on the door, Monty Python-style, as the drenched contingent ask to come in as well.

    Just as troubling as the shifting screenplay, the shoot and the reshoots, were the problems caused to the score. Initially earmarked for the great Danny Elfman, whose Gothic sensibilities, as heard in his two Burton Batman outings and, especially, Sleepy Hollow, were precisely the sort of voice that this story required, the re-editing that chopped and changed the movie ultimately meant that his work didn't fit it anymore. And, with scheduling difficulties preventing Elfman from returning to the project to tweak and retool it, the suits (idiots that they are) decided to draft in another composer to start afresh. And one with a totally different approach to the material, and a style that can best be described as being poles apart from what the film needed - Paul (Doomsday) Haslinger, from Tangerine Dream. But, of course, the story doesn't end there ... because Haslinger's score didn't work either. Thus, at virtually the last moment - well, Christmas 2009 - the decision was made to bring back Elfman's original score and to have the composer's regular collaborator and orchestrator Conrad Pope patch over the rough seams in the same style as Elfman. The result is a grand, overblown symphony of darkness. As brooding as the moody visuals, this is one extremely busy score. With barely a moment of the film left in silence, the music, as good as it is, runs away with itself and becomes, much like the energetic and almost endless third movement of his score for Sleepy Hollow, almost too much. And there are another couple of problems with it ... as this sounds far too similar to Wojciech Kilar's music for Bram Stoker's Dracula and its main theme is patently a reworking of James Newton Howard's yearning motif for Peter Jackson's King Kong. But, hey, like Johnston's film, you've got to accept it for what it is, though, personally, I think the best man for the job would have been Christopher Young. Listen to his score for Drag Me To Hell and tell me I'm wrong. A full review of The Wolfman score will follow separately, folks, as soon as it is released.

    "Don't threaten me, boy. You don't have the fibre for it. You have a ways to go, my young pup, before you can tell me what to do. But ... your chance is coming."

    I may sound like I didn't actually like this film - but that couldn't be further from the truth. It is thumpingly good entertainment. Whether by design or by accident, Johnston's film captures the rich flamboyance of the Hammer aesthetic as well as the misty ardour of Universal's early chillers. Either way, this is a very welcome and pleasingly traditional style that smothers the story in a slow-seeping atmosphere of cosy dread. You know you won't be damaged by this as you would by the likes of Martyrs or Antichrist and, if anything, it is this quaint ambience that is ultimately the most rewarding element of the film. For it is here that even those who, like me, are disappointed by the shallow characterisations, the pick 'n' mix script and the surprising lack of actual menace, must bow down and acknowledge, happily, that the very dreamlike aura of the classic films that inspired this production has been dutifully maintained. Maybe it is here where the real magic lies. Yes, we've upped the gore and expanded the killings considerably. Yes, we've given the Wolfman a King Kong-style wrecking-spree around the big city. And, yes, we've thrown in too many concessions to the twist-savvy modern audience. But, hey, this still feels happily creepy and tremendously evocative at the same time, doesn't it?

    Okay, so it is a more of a hodgepodge of all the werewolf films that we've seen before - double furry trouble culled from The Werewolf Of London and even Mike Nicholl's Wolf, the roof-leaping antics of Ollie Reed's Curse Of The Werewolf, the many riffs on the afore-mentioned American Werewolf, the stark silhouettes of racing monsters through the trees from Dog Soldiers etc - than anything new brought to the pack, a sort of fan-requested greatest hits compendium of snarling, howling and stalking that is decidedly user-friendly. But the film is immensely enjoyable and, although it took a little time for me to get my head around it, actually great fun. I mean, this film actually presents a couple of scenes that you always wanted to see in a werewolf movie - the bravura episode when Lawrence changes right in front of a packed room of arrogant academics, and the later sequence when the beast hurtles down a street right at a firing squad of knee-knocking rozzers!

    The Wolfman is, therefore, highly recommended for a good old fashioned monster romp. Just don't go in to what may only be a rushed and clumsily-edited theatrical cut expecting the Second Coming of Lycanthropy, because this version is also eminently forgettable. So keep your claws crossed for an extended Blu-ray.


    Verdict

    After so long being tinkered and tampered with, I believe we had every right to expect something better than this. As it stands, though, Joe Johnston's lively lycanthropic epic is ripe old entertainment. A Victorian monster-romp that won't shock, terrify or astound you but, crucially, won't bore you either. Wolf Man disciples will both admire the nods to the original and shudder at the digressions that have been made. But, hey, even if this is not the Wolfman film that I wanted, and not what we should have received, it remains highly entertaining, full of exciting set-piece mayhem and a great nostalgic slice of pure creature-feature hokum. The leading man and lady are unforgivably poor, and the twists that have been shoehorned-in are surprisingly lame and neon-signposted right from the get-go, but this is a visually impressive cinematic feast that certainly tries hard to coax out the beast ... and only partially succeeds.

    Big dumb fun with the big bad wolf, then. But the classics of the genre remain un-scratched by this new howler on the block.

    A strong and entertaining 6 out of 10 and a sure-fire contender for an Unrated Director's Cut on Blu-ray!


    The Rundown


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