February 11, 2010

Wolfman, The

starstar

A movie review by James Berardinelli



Wolfman, The

HORROR:

United States, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-02-12

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

R (Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chaplin, Art Malik

Director:

Joe Johnston

Screenplay:

Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, based on the 1941 screenplay by Curt Siodmak

Cinematography:

Shelly Johnson

Music:

Danny Elfman

U.S. Distributor:

Universal Pictures

Subtitles:

none


All of the great Universal horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s have now been remade: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. Over the years, there have been numerous cinematic encounters with lycanthropy, but The Wolf Man is to werewolves what Dracula is to vampires. He is unique. Since Lon Chaney Jr. cast aside the mantle of Lawrence Talbot following his run-in with Abbott and Costello in 1948, no one has picked it up... until now. In accepting the part, Benicio Del Toro isn't playing a werewolf; he is playing the werewolf. For most long-time horror fans, Chaney's portrayal of the tortured Talbot and his vicious alter-ego is as iconic as can be found in the annals of the "monster movie." Del Toro's lack of success, therefore, may be unwelcome but it is not entirely unexpected. It's hard to work in the long shadow cast by the likes of Karloff, Lugosi, or Chaney, but unavoidable when re-making one of their movies.

The root problem with The Wolfman is that it's a hybrid. It tries to fuse the gothic storytelling of the original with the violence and gore associated with modern horror. Its wedding of traditional makeup with CGI is uneasy. Director Joe Johnston wants this movie to be the bridge between the restrained, atmosphere-soaked Universal horror classic and the grotesque likes of An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. It doesn't work. Parts of The Wolfman - even those that were effective in the original - have been recreated in a fashion that seems more Monty Python than unsettling. More disappointing is the makeup provided by veteran Rick Baker (the go-to man for this sort of work), which looks inexcusably campy. The fangs look like they were purchased at a Halloween costume store and, during the big werewolf-on-werewolf clash, I was reminded of Bigfoot from The Six Million Dollar Man. One has to wonder whether Baker's decision to remain true to the general appearance of the original Wolf Man is the right one. Nostalgia isn't always the best barometer by which to make creative decisions.

The action, which elects to retain a period piece flavor rather than time-shift the story, takes place in the 1890s on the moors of rural England. There stands the estate of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), whose son Ben has disappeared. The other Talbot heir, Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), now a touring stage actor, answers a plea from his brother's fiancÚ, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), to come home and search for the missing man. By the time Lawrence reaches Talbot Hall, a mangled body has been found and a funeral has been arranged. Lawrence, determined to find the beast responsible for his brother's death, begins a hunt that leads him to a gypsy camp. While there, he is attacked by a half-man/half-wolf. The gypsy woman Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin) sutures the wound, but pronounces Lawrence to be cursed: "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." Indeed, at the time of the next full moon, Lawrence is transformed and goes on a bloody rampage.

In his portrayal of Talbot, Del Toro pays homage to Chaney, almost to the point of imitation. Unfortunately, this results in a neutered and muted character. Like Chaney's Talbot, Del Toro's interpretation is that of a man tortured and filled with self-loathing. However, the emotional connection is not there. As a human being, Talbot generates no empathy; the character fails to excite our emotions. The filmmakers have surrounded Del Toro with a respectable supporting staff, but it amounts to a waste of talent. Anthony Hopkins, in his second classic horror remake (he was Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula), pops up now and again looking malevolent, but Sir John is more a necessity of the plot than a legitimate character. Emily Blunt's thankless role as the "love interest" limits her screen time and her opportunity to look fetching in 19th century garb. With the exception of one scene, she functions as underused eye candy. As a Scotland Yard inspector assigned to investigate the killings, Hugo Weaving defines superfluous.

The Wolfman had been searching for a director for some time before Johnston was brought on board. His experience with Jumanji and Jurassic Park III convinced the producers he could handle a film with a high number of special effects sequences and a sizeable budget. At best, the results are mixed. 20 years ago, the effects work in The Wolfman might have been hailed as revolutionary; today, it looks dated. The violence is bloody and graphic but it doesn't make the movie better, merely R-rated. Attempts to re-create the original's haunting atmosphere are middling - something is lost in the transition from black & white to color.

Even more so than Coppola's Dracula, Branagh's Frankenstein, and Sommers' The Mummy, The Wolfman seems unnecessary. Although not coming close to the level of a misfire that represented Van Helsing, this production nevertheless illustrates that it takes more to remake a beloved classic than re-working the story and taking a by-the-numbers approach. There are enough little details to indicate that the filmmakers were familiar with the original. Such familiarity did not result in a better product and the well-publicized re-shoots didn't save the movie from the graveyard of mediocrity into which its unintentional campiness and underwhelming special effects have consigned it.

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