The Wolfman Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM

  • Movies review

    The Wolfman Review

    In my cinema review of Joe Johnston's troubled remake of The Wolfman for Universal, I made enthusiastic reference to the possibility of a director's, or extended, cut sneaking out from the shadows ... and, I'm happy to say the BD release sees fit to give it an airing. This release contains both the theatrical cut and the longer unrated version, which re-installs roughly around a "Rick Baker's dozen" minutes of extra footage. What follows then, is an appropriately extended and re-arranged “reviewer's” cut of that initial write-up, tailored in the main for this new unseen version now stalking onto UK Blu-ray in this handsome Steelbook edition.

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

    Famous last words, eh? KUH-RASHHH!!!

    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 that is claimed to be 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 excellent 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 quite pathetic and, collectively, they are all entirely predictable, their 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/Jumanji) 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 country 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 hogwash.

    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. Aberline's conjecture about what may lurk behind that actor's face is nothing more than a very tenuous Dr. Jeckyl/Mr. Hyde allusion. 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 as being in the film. 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 Sir John 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. His best moment comes when Sir John warns a local lynch-mob that he is on the roof with a repeating rifle ... and Malik isn't even there!

    And what about that celebrated ballroom slaughter-fest that I had previously waxed lyrical about and suggested would make an appearance in an extended version? Erm ... well, it's still not here, is it? This once eagerly anticipated set-piece now languishes only in the Deleted Scenes section. In fact, the majority of the extra sixteen-odd minutes that we get in this unrated cut occurs in the first half of the film, stretching out the time it takes before Lawrence succumbs to the curse and attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to flesh out the characters and their relationships with one another. There is even a glaring continuity error that this extended cut makes with Lawrence's arrival at his ancestral home awkwardly ascribed to a letter from Gwen requesting his return, when we have just witnessed an entire new sequence of her beseeching him backstage, after a performance of Hamlet on a London stage, to come back with her and aid in the search for his missing brother. But we do now get to see the genesis of Lawrence's wolf-headed cane - re-tooled from merely an ornate walking stick in the original into a sheathed sword for this take - in a rather arbitrary encounter that the doomed Talbot has with a refined stranger on the train up to Blackmoor. This is obviously meant to be enigmatic, mysterious and portentous, especially as the stranger is none other than Max Von Sydow, now supplying the reason why his name appeared in the credits all along. I've mentioned the cameo appearances that Sydow has been making in films over the last few years in previous reviews and, with the exception of Scott's Robin Hood, in which the former Exorcist actually has a worthwhile and important role, he only seems to be getting wheeled on to a production to lend it some much-needed gravitas with his noble name and stately performances. And here is no exception ... yet, in a rare moment for this film, it is actually Del Toro who steals the scene. With some guarded remarks on his own slightly suspicious behalf, he provides a slightly off-kilter response to this stranger's advances.

    But, as this film does with so much of the cherished iconography of Chaney's Wolf Man, the fateful significance and relevance of the cane - not to mention its mythic importance to fans of the genre - is undone to the point where it simply isn't even necessary for it to exist within this telling of the story. Its inclusion here, then, is no more gripping or essential to the outcome of things, or even as a homage-rife nod to the stylistic dynamics of the plot, than the nano-second appearance of that bloody mechanical owl, Bubo, in the admittedly far worse Clash Of The Titans remake. As well as a majestic homage to the vintage Universal logo at the start, that the theatrical version doesn't have, the extended cut offers more dialogue, including an incendiary altercation down in the village tavern, some more weirdness in the asylum and a very unsettling encounter with Sir John on the stairs in the Hall. What it doesn't do, though, is add any more action other than a split-second of carnage down in the hole that the hunters have dug for the Wolfman to fall into. But it does make a film that remains unavoidably “broken” a touch more coherent and certainly more enjoyable.

    “There are those who doubt the power of Satan ... the power of Satan to turn men into beasts ...”

    Equally unavoidable, of course, are the copious references to An American Werewolf In London. 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 - though Johnson's film supplies a simply ravishing shot of dust dancing in a shaft of light that adds a fairytale lyricism to his take. 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 in Boreham Wood 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. Talbot Hall is an utter delight of concealed depravity, musty decadence and stale tragedy. Look at the subtly great image of statues half submerged beside the lake as well as the vines that creep over the walls of the Hall, reminiscent of fur when seen from a distance. 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, even with some slight CG encouragement for those bigger chomps. 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, and vice-versa, 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, if a touch reminiscent to similar shots of Jackson's Kong barrelling at the screen. One thing that is a little more apparent now that you can analyse the creature at your leisure is the sheer size of him. Already looking bulky and muscular, the furry Lawrence's stature seems much taller than before and this is possibly because it is now much evident that he is wearing leg-extensions. Watch as he runs across the roofs and you can almost see the sproing of those sports model carbon-fibre stilts. Mind you, they are a definite, ahem, “step-up” from the furry, dog-leg booties that Lon Chaney wore back in 1941. Fast displays of claw and tooth slicing and dicing are actually pretty awesome, I have to say. Quick slashes from exceptionally long talons expose unspooling intestines and vicious lacerations are raked across faces and throats. A couple of very neat beheadings also occur, both bonafide crowd-pleasers. Yet the violence still feels reined-back - swift and un-jolting. Still just easy gore for the masses, and the kind your mum would let you see. And the squashing of a London copper, X-Men Toad-style, is just plain silly. Snippets found in the various featurettes that adorn this release clearly show killings and gore that simply aren't present in either version of the film ... which can't help but be a tease for something that will surely never now be seen.

    "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. Basically our relationship to her is epitomised by the creepy look of cold indifference that Sir John gives her on the stairs - she is merely there.

    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 to this, 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 when I saw this at the flicks, and it still creases me up now. 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 roguish 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. There is also a nice touch when Aberline puts a bullet through a mirror that he suspects his quarry is hiding behind, shattering it. “Now that's a bit of bad luck you didn't need, sir,” intones his rather thankless sidekick. Shades of macabre brevity such as this point towards a film that could have been hugely more effective.

    Oh, and keep an eye out for Rick Baker's cameo as a doomed gypsy look-out, too.

    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 any more. 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. (Please refer to my full review of The Wolfman score for more details, folks.)

    "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 upon the killings quite 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 apparently twist-demanding 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 (which is something that even Sir John's backstory bows down to) and even Mike Nicholl's Wolf, the roof-leaping antics of Ollie Reed's Curse Of The Werewolf (even down to the ripped Gothic shirt fad), 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, a proper tooth 'n' claw lycanthropic smack-down, and the sequence when the beast hurtles down a street right at and then over a firing squad of knee-knocking rozzers!

    “Rules, Mrs. Kirk ... they're all that keep us from a dog eat dog world, you know.”

    But whereas the original was a hoary (and appreciably hokey) old fairytale, the remake attempts to do too much in terms of character, motivation and historical relevance. The focus on an Oedipal conflict takes the intentionally difficult and strained, but actually tremendously tender and respectful father/son relationship of Siodmak's version and twists it into a simply ludicrous power struggle that just doesn't make any sense at all. Gwen's romantic involvement with the earlier Lawrence was believable despite the fact that she was already engaged to someone else. In this version it is frankly impossible to accept that she would fall for the brother of her freshly slain fiancé so quickly, or even ever. Thus, the central character-based dynamic does not work ... no matter how much grand Victorian melodrama you try to cloak it with. This Wolfman wants to be a redolent Gothic psychodrama as much as it wants to be a monster-flick, but it fails miserably as the former with ineptly concocted plotting and developments that are woefully crass, unnecessarily complicated and totally unconvincing. With a choice of extended or theatrical versions, it is a no-brainer to opt for the longer cut. Although having a deeper dimension of characterisation and a split-second or two of extra action (an arm is harder to yank off in this version), the end result is still a jumbled-up fur-ball of a movie. A pig's ear, you could call it. I had been really looking forward to running with Del Toro's Wolfman again, praying that it would be, well, more satisfying than it had seemed the first time around. Whilst the additional dialogue and character beats flesh things out a bit more, there can be no escaping the fact that this remains a terribly broken movie, blighted by flaws even at its most fundamental level. Sadly, I don't think that you can blame it all on the production's roller-coaster ride to the screen either. The story, itself, is wrong from the get-go.

    Invariably, when people complain about the original Wolf Man, or any of the vintage Universal horrors for that matter, they allude to its perceived hokiness and bemoan its hackneyed and corny screenplay - all things that I either refute outright or completely adore. But the point of remaking it, then, is surely to do something different with it, narratively and tonally. The writers of this remake are ambitious enough to try, but their efforts make it seem that they couldn't see the wood for the trees. The tale of Lawrence Talbot is simple and even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night could see that it only needed the gore, the atmosphere and the dark tone that a modern movie could have potentially delivered to have made this a valid, important and respectful genre adaptation. Whoever decided to just dumb it down totally missed the point ... and this means, ironically enough, that we are left with nothing more than a hokey, hackneyed and corny film that is easily forgettable whichever cut you opt for.

    “You are heir to my empire, Lawrence. You were always heir to my empire!”

    The Wolfman is, therefore, highly recommended for a good old fashioned monster romp. Just don't bother with the rushed and clumsily-edited theatrical cut, and don't go expecting the Second Coming of Lycanthropy with the extended version, either. But, once you get into this crazy stew of ideas from a dozen (or more) screenplay iterations, you should find it a fair slice of atmospheric, if rather stupid entertainment that is far from boring.

    A howler, then, for a few too many of the wrong reasons. Additional scenes or not, this still cannot claw its way to higher than a 6 out of 10.

    The Rundown

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