Oh, boy, this looks good, folks.
The Wolfman is presented at 1.85:1 and comes to BD via AVC. This is, appropriately enough, a hybrid sort of an image, in that it needs to cater for the cold, bleak and almost desaturated scenes of autumnal night and severe silver moon-streaks, and the earthy tones of Talbot Hall and the village of Blackmoor, as well as the film's more obviously lurid and garish moments of blood-letting and comic-book action. And, thankfully, it does both extremes proud with a transfer that is warm and rich, when needed, and then crisp and strongly delineated with fine shadow and tight contrast when this aesthetic is called for. Grain is consistent and provides a very pleasant level of film-like texture. The photographic style is old-fashioned, barring some rather ill-advised time-lapse shots of the moon passing through the sky that look jarringly out of place, and this is a transfer that is appropriately softer, darker and less flamboyant than many newer films.
The Wolfman has a lot of candle-light, and the transfer copes admirably with the ethereal glow they give off. Johnston even had certain scenes lit only by candles and this translates well to a Blu-ray that maintains these meagre pockets of warmth amidst vast swathes of shadow and allows fine contrast between the two. Colour saturation is spot-on with deep primaries whenever they are called for, though, once again, even these sporadic splashes of vitality have to peep through swirls of mist or shadow. The gore-red titles are a gaudy treat and blood, you'll be pleased to know, is thick and shot through with a rich crimson, and the earthy palette of browns and greens for the woods is a great contrast for the brighter environs of the asylum lecture hall and the more varied streets of London. Skin-tones are pale and pallid for the most part, and this is deliberately so. Eyes very definitely shine - especially those of Anthony Hopkins that literally pierce their way through his mask and fur, and glint malevolently in the shadows down in the family crypt. The film comes alive during the incredibly vibrant and colourful fight sequence in Talbot Hall. The pivotal flames present a massively scorching selection of screen-igniting oranges, yellows and reds that, for one final moment, bring the dusty mansion to raw and seething relief.
Other writers have cited this transfer as having consistently excellent black levels - but I would have to disagree with this. Whilst a good deal of the darker elements are, indeed, excellently handled and flush with depth and solidity - Gwen's dress, the frock-coats of the academics, the black sheets that cover the ailing Lawrence and the matted locks of Del Toro, himself - there are many occasions when they appear filtered and diffused, often gaining a weird midnight blue penumbra that may well be intentional to this transfer but were definitely not on either of the cinematic prints that I saw during the movie's theatrical run ... and I was specifically looking at the image with an AV geek's eye in the knowledge that I would be scrutinising the BD at some point. But this is only half the story, because for much of the film, shadows are deeply etched and boast immensely strong and satisfying delineation. Silhouettes can look astounding and certain shots, such as Gwen hiding behind the tree as the black shape of the Wolfman bounds across a moon-bathed ridge are pretty much reference quality - her face and eyes standing out from the almost monochromatic frame.
But this isn't the sharpest image around. There is a deliberate intention to look somewhat traditional, even quaint, with the picture perhaps erring on the softer, more diffused side of things. Occasional elements even seem slightly out of focus, and backgrounds, other than those of the village or out across the moors, are rarely as highly defined as you might have expected. However, there is still plenty of fine detail to be savoured. Obviously hair and fur - great sideburns on Weaving as well as the profuse yak-hair on the monsters - is the subject of revealing close-up inspection, and the transfer doesn't disappoint in the bestial department. Fangs, saliva and wounds all glisten and gleam and offer us some finite information, too. Whilst the trees around the Talbot estate never really yield much, the characters moving through them can be highly vividly drawn. Look at a dishevelled, bloodied and, ahem, well-fed Lawrence as he awakens within a hollow in the trunk of a tree, and look at the shredded remains of his slain brother on the slab. And gape at Lawrence's transformation in front of the stuffed-shirts in all its subtle and swift variance of hues and textures.
I wouldn't put this down as an image possessing much in the way of three-dimensionality, yet there are moments when depth is actually quite acute. The sight of Lawrence riding into the town, for instance, or any of the many exterior daylight shots around the big old house, itself. But the visual aesthetic is mainly to keep things filtered and under-lit. Just look at the shot overlooking the waterfall during the climax. With the camera above the action and looking downwards upon it we can see the flowing water far away at the base of the cliff, and although nothing actually looks vibrant, there is a surprisingly deceptive sense of depth afforded an image that, in any other modern film, would probably be dizzyingly clear and vertigo-inducing. I should add that this was filmed against a green-screen and that the water is CG, but this does not alter the fact that this is a film, and a transfer, that intentionally masks some of its beauty to evoke the murkier sheen of the original set-bound chiller.
Whilst many scenes look fantastic, there are problematic ones too. The sequence when Lawrence, tracking the beast that will put the fateful bite on him, finds himself in the middle of a mist-enshrouded circle of standing stones just doesn't look right to me. There's no banding amid the grey murk, and it is nice to see a layer of shifting clouds above the gloomy canopy, but edges appear slightly haloed and there are elements of aliasing too, which is something that also makes an appearance elsewhere, as well, during frantic action in London. Nothing to be concerned about, you understand, and it is really only a couple of slight issues that knock The Wolfman from a top tier recommendation for presenting such difficult material so well.
This gets a strong 8 out of 10 from me, folks, probably an 8.5
Now, we're talking. Or howling - whichever you prefer.
The Wolfman gets a fittingly ferocious lossless track in this DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix. Clearly made with an ear for the aggressive, this is a great surround experience that fairly rips through you speakers and prowls all the way around the set-up.
Straight-away, from the very second the film opens, the score envelopes you, sweeping right across the room, front to back - and this musical immersion carries right throughout the entire feature . Warm, lush and dynamic, the score becomes a hugely demonstrative character in its own right that energises the action and smoothly flowing all around you. But this room-engulfing aural treat doesn't end with Elfman's score, this is a film in which the speakers are fully embraced and properly utilised. It is, indeed, a fun and highly active track, with stingers, effects and ambience given impeccable balance, activity and a degree of authenticity that is appropriately heightened and always keen to impress. It seems somewhat remiss to state that it is realistic or natural, what with werewolves running about all over the place, but this is as propulsive as any Batman or Spider-man lossless track and bubbling-over with wild and entertaining directionality.
Great bass levels allow for some deep-set, floorboard-rattling and rib-dislodging weight for the movement of carriages, the rending of doors, the thud of hurled bodies and the incredibly guttural growling of the couplet of werewolves as they go about their business. The scene-setting prologue makes terrific use of the full soundscape - a sudden nerve-jolting stinger as birds erupt from a roost, a frankly astounding growl/howl combo that literally roars right over you and the signature clap of both thunder and music to accompany the tombstone etched film title. Absolutely superb stuff. An academic/spiked-railing interface, the overturning of the omni-bus and the crunch of a body beneath it, the chugging of a locomotive yawning across the set-up, slates and chimney-pots erupting with gunfire left and right, the roaring of the gypsy's bear that rips out of the front right, the supersonic snatch 'n' grab of Rick Baker's encampment sentry that blitzes across the frontal array - folks, the bombast is just stunning from start to finish and considerably better than anything I heard delivered from the film at the cinema with split-channel effects much more clearly reproduced and .LFE massively more resounding.
Dialogue is wonderfully presented, which is a component that, given the accents and often softly spoken, or even mumbled tones of the two leads, should not be overlooked. Hopkins has a very peculiar and distinctive manner of speaking, his natural Welsh sometimes overt and lilting, and sometimes nothing more than a sweetly deceptive murmur. Del Toro has a gruff voice that, as heard here, lacks much in the way of internal character. He doesn't sound English - and, of course, he shouldn't given Lawrence's years in the States - but his rumbling, vowel-colliding brogue could play havoc with the relatively few lines that he has ... yet the track does him proud with clarity and personality coming through. Hubbub, tavern-wise or emanating from the London streets, is conveyed excellently. The rattle and roll of carriages or the sound of distant screaming is also well steered - you've got the jittery doctor getting chomped somewhere off in the woods that genuinely sounds far off in the woods, and the voices and clatter of movement over the bridge that Lawrence hides under are suitably raised and muffled. Lawrence getting dunked in the ice-tank elicits some haunting female vocals that are nicely isolated from the rears.
Effects are a key element of this track and be they composed of snarling, flesh-slicing, gunshots, rainfall, horses' hooves , breaking glass, licking flames or the earthen lid of a forest trap giving way, they always sound terrific. Steerage around the set-up, as I've made abundantly clear, is top-notch. The stereo spread across the frontal array is distinct and effortless, smooth and wide. Panning around the set-up is equally as natural and dexterous.
In short, this is fabulous and one of the most enjoyable tracks that I've heard this year.
The Wolfman hits blu-ray in two versions, the standard packaged release and a cool steelbook version. My steelbook copy (yes, I'm a completist ... even when it comes to an admittedly mediocre movie like this) has yet to arrive. But apart from some art cards packaged with the steelbook, the releases are the same.
There's quite a fair bite of the throat going on with this selection of extras, actually, but it tends to follow a well-worn path, the type of thing that a zillion monster and FX-laden offerings provide. But when it revolves my all-time favourite monster and features a lot participation from the great Rick Baker ... then I, at least, am going to be fairly happy.
Mind you, It is a shame that there are no commentaries here - although I'm inclined to believe that they would have been heavily jaundiced and slanted very aggressively away from the endless difficulties that the film suffered - but the package that Universal has put together is a fine one, indeed. We have the two cuts of the film, of course, but we also have a digital copy so you can watch the film whilst out on the prowl, as well as Mobile-Blu and BD-Live capability, which, for a limited time, allows you access to the original Lon Chaney film. You should already have that though, folks! And for those of you who can afford to enjoy it, the disc is also enabled with D-Box Motion Conrol. Don't know about you, but I'd love to try that out ... and this disc would be absolutely awesome, I'm sure.
The U-Control function only works in-conjunction with the Theatrical Cut of the movie and boasts two streams. Under the banner of Legacy, Legend and Lore, you have a wonderful combination of pop-up trivia and, very effectively, a comprehensive compare-and-contrast session between Johnson's take and the original Waggner version. This latter feature is narrated by Clive Barker's lead Cenobite, himself, Pinhead's Doug Bradley, and comprises a box-out that plays the appropriate scenes from the Chaney film as their updated counterparts dominate the rest of the screen. But this also likes to bring other werewolf movies via clips and discussion - such as American Werewolf and the Henry Hull-starring Werewolf Of London - to make comment on how the myth has been treated by the cinema over the years and how it has evolved. Although there is nothing new here that a devoted werewolf-buff (like me) wouldn't already know, it is just great to kick back and revel in the atmospheric glory of the genre, and it is cool to hear Pinhead speak of a fellow nightmare creature.
But the real deal with the U-Control feature is the option to experience something very similar to the Maximum Movie Mode, a la Zack Snyder's impressive interactivity for both Watchmen and 300. This version takes the form of several lengthy and comprehensive glimpses behind the fx at appropriate junctions in the film. Various technicians - from visual to makeup - and including, hurrah!, the great Rick Baker stand before us, freeze the film and then take us on exploratory journeys into how the things we see on-screen came to be. With clinical detail and extensive footage - rehearsal, pre-viz, appliances, stuntwork - and frame-by-frame studies of the major set-pieces, it suddenly dawns on you that whether or not you actually like how their sweat and labour was employed, your admiration for their toils is unadulterated. I thought this was top-stuff and hats off to the studio for allowing Baker and VFX Producer Karen Murphy to preside over much of the material. She seemed perfectly able to bring out the beast in me with no fx-teams at all! Excellent.
Let's look at the duo of Alternate Endings that are so proudly boasted of with the flash on the front of the packaging. Well, after some lengthy lead-up footage of Gwen being pursued through the woods, that is same in any version of the film, we get two differing finale moments. Now, I have to admit that I was surprised by these and it clearly shows how the writers and the producers struggled to provide something either of shock value or simply twist value. For me, and I may well be the only one who feels this way, I actually prefer the second ending to anything else, including the actual ending of the finished film. I'm not going to tell you what any of them are, of course, but let's just put it this way - this ending is crueller, meaner and nastier and, well, just a whole lot more fun. You can view these Alternates separately or one after the other with a Play All option. Definitely nice to see.
Next we get some Deleted and Extended Scenes ... and this is where the fabled Ballroom Sequence can finally be found. Besides some rather inept and, inarguably, unnecessary footage between Lawrence and Gwen, a slightly more revealing first transformation and a pretty pointless two-line backstory adding to the character of Singh, there is a beefed-up extended final fight, which just adds some more pulverising seconds to the big wolfman-et-wolfman dust-up, we get the one ingredient that I still believe should have been retained in the film. Culled from an earlier version of the Wolfman's London rampage, this lengthy sequence commences from the point when our Larry leaps onto a stone gargoyle and howls at the moon. This take then has him spying a masked ball taking place in what could be the Crystal Palace, and subsequently gatecrashing it. Striding through the party-goers - and looking incredibly tall compared to them - he is mesmerised by the blind soprano singer on the stage. Not seeing anyone here as actually being “prey”, it is only when someone is foolish enough to put a hand on his arm and make reference to his “costume” that things turn nasty. Frankly, folks, I loved this scene even if the studio, as well as the friends I have shown it to, did not. Perhaps it is the buffoonery of the jack-in-the-box style demolition of a Punch and Judy stall that ruins the sequence. But I even liked that bit, as well!
In Return Of The Wolfman (12.20 mins) we get what is really just promotional blurb that is bolstered with lots of on-set footage and the kind of drive and energy that can only come as a result of a studio hell-bent on glossing over the problems it had in real life. All the major players have a chance to spout about the deeper character issues and the dark psychological swamp that the screenplay thinks it is treading through, but they're fooling no-one. Having said this, as these things go, I found this more than palatable.
The Beast Maker is wonderful. This is a 12-minute look at what Rick Baker and his team did to keep alive the original man-in-makeup concept for the monsters. Soft-spoken and fascinating, Baker shows his own initial designs, plus we get to lots of test and behind the scenes footage of Del Toro, Hopkins and even himself in the hair and latex. The actors give some rather obviously fawning insight into their experiences of being transformed but, time and again, it is the fabulous creature makeup that steals the show. Even just larking about during rehearsals or simply sitting in the makeup chair - once that mask and fur and fangs are in place, you're looking at a real monster and it is kind of ironic that the beast looks scarier under such bright lights and in convivial surroundings than he does in the film. We even see traces of Wolfie actually eating specially made body-parts! This is what werewolves do, so why don't we ever get to see some actual devouring taking place. As with so many fun elements, this reveals that Johnston and co did plan on showing us a lot more at one stage. This is great stuff and the type of material that genre-fans could watch all day long.
Then we get Transformation Secrets (15.15 mins), which is another terrific FX-laden featurette that takes a look at the other vital component in bringing the beast to life onscreen. This time there the piece focusses on the visual and CG elements that were employed. Tech-heads talk and we see more test and pre-viz material for the transformations. We get to hear how ideas changed and the look for the Wolfman evolved, as well getting insight into the CG realised London cityscape and how the werewolf-barbecue sequence was created.
The Wolfman Unleashed (8.45 mins), goes into some detail about how the big action set pieces were filmed and we meet the stuntman who donned the makeup and costume and assumed Del Toro's hirsute character for some more strenuous killing. We see him leaping around roofs and then taking a massive, wire assisted plunge off a building. Very tantalisingly, we also see him running, full pelt, after a mounted policeman in a moment that is possibly removed from somewhere around the “ballroom sequence”. On one of those truck-pulled travelators that was used in Tim Burton's ill-fated Planet Of The Apes (which also saw Rick Baker's stunning design work), this produces an image of the werewolf as an Olympic standard sprinter and, yeah, I would have loved to have had this full sequence actually in the movie.
But what of the film's fascinating production history? Surely this was worth an honest overview, to show how a film can be made or broken by studio-wrangling (or mangling) and how creative choices end up being tossed to the wind by people with too much power and not enough love for the material, or just a lack of confidence in it. But no - such frank opinion and insight is stifled and suffocated, those in the know choked from uttering anything that may besmirch such a popular and finally trumpeted release.
Bug-bears aside though, this is a solid package that entertains and will keep Wolfman-fans contented.
At the end of the day, The Wolfman is pretty much a tragic missed opportunity, almost a botched job, and yet I find it terribly hard to dislike it. When I saw it at the flicks, after following its troubled production very intently for what seemed like years (edit - it was years) I became painfully aware that my favourite character in the genre was being mistreated and taken for granted, and his own legend literally chopped-up and mishandled by a cack-handed, pillar-to-post script, but I remained very optimistic that a fuller, meatier version would see the light of day at some point. Well, this version has come out from the shadows into the full moonlight, but the additional material, though welcome, does nothing to alter the lame, confusing and downright illogical narrative that Johnston has hung upon the film. The very sequence that I had waxed so lyrical about still does not make this cut and all the extra character-based stuff that pads out out the first hour goes for nought when the film merely squanders it all with people that you really couldn't care less about.
And, no, it isn't any any gorier, either.
However, Universal's BD transfer is luxurious and visually opulent, perversely making me crave the arrival of once genre-rival Hammer's output on the format all the more. This at least provides a redolent and rich template for such gorgeous costume-horrors from yesteryear to follow. Just image Ollie Reed's Curse Of The Werewolf in scrubbed-up high-definition!
But, 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.
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