Sunday, February 14, 2010

In Theaters: The Wolfman

Wolfman poster and IMPAwards link
I’m the sort of person who’s favorably inclined towards a movie like THE WOLFMAN. Therefore my recommendation has to be a little qualified; I like it because it does a lot of things I like, but my priorities may differ from yours. I like that it’s an old-school monster movie, complete with old-school makeup effects enhanced by CGI rather than replaced by them. I like that it’s apparently not just a remake of the 1941 classic, but set in the same world as the old Universal horror films. I like its attitude and the cut of its jib, and so I may be willing to overlook some flaws to a degree. But I think there’s something here even for non-devotees of classic monsters, as it’s basically a well-constructed thriller with some good shocks and a nice creepy atmosphere throughout. From some accounts the production was a bit of a nightmare, but the results are more consistent than you’d think.

Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), renowned stage actor, returns to his ancestral home in Blackmoor, England to investigate the disappearance and, as he discovers upon arrival, murder of his brother. His father (Anthony Hopkins) has been rattling about the house all this time, and his brother’s fiancee (Emily Blunt) is now staying there as well. Searching for the killer, Talbot ends up at a gypsy encampment around the time that it’s attacked by a large wolflike monster, and is bitten. The townsfolk are convinced he’s inherited a curse, and sure enough, as soon as the next full moon rolls around, Larry finds himself growing fangs and hair and tearing people limb from limb. And there’s still the first werewolf hanging around.

As I said, this was a troubled production; apparently director Joe Johnston struggled a bit with the studio, resulting in composer Danny Elfman being fired then rehired, Rick Baker’s monster makeup being “enhanced” or not with CGI, and various other problems. Apparently some 16 minutes cut from the picture will resurface on the DVD (though some have put the amount of cut material at three times that length), and it must all be characterization, because the theatrical cut renders Talbot a bit of a blank slate. He barely ever speaks, and though the plot by nature has him sort of helpless (though not as much as in the original), you’d think a renowned actor would end up with more of a personality. Del Toro has the right look for the role, easy, and has some good scenes with Blunt, but I feel it’s almost unfair to evaluate his performance with so much of it missing.

On the other hand, there are werewolves, and they are great, and just as great songs in a musical can paper over plot holes, so too does great monster work in a monster movie. Despite some obvious CG being added here and there (and of course it’s used to a large extent in the transformation scenes), Baker’s makeup is retained for most of the time we see the wolfmen on screen, and it’s very impressive. It’s more along the lines of the hairy-but-flat faced werewolves of old than the more modern trend of making them wolves on two legs, and personally I like that approach better, but the execution is also convincing and appropriately fearsome. The wolfman attacks are fittingly gruesome; the camera doesn’t linger on the gore (perhaps to avoid a harsher rating), but we see enough to know that this is the kind of monster that mauls its victims. Some of the CGI work does seem patched on (particularly in a climactic scene), but at others it actually does enhance rather than detract from the experience.

The film is actually more of a period piece than the original, which theoretically took place in 1941 (albeit in a hypothetical Europe completely unaffected by war.) Despite moving the clock back 50 years, the film does retain some of the feel of the old Universal classics. The locals are always superstitious, there are always gypsies, there’s always fog and weird parts of the landscape that don’t seem to have appeared naturally, and of course it’s not long before a Scotland Yard inspector (Hugo Weaving, droll as ever) shows up to complicate things for our antihero even further. The pace of the film sometimes becomes patchy, no doubt partly owing to the cuts the studio made, but the environment is so engrossing that I didn’t mind the slower bits.

This film is getting fairly bad reviews, and to be sure, I don’t think it’ll go down as one of the classics of lycanthrope cinema. But for all the faults, the film delivers what it promises- brutal werewolf action (including a fight between werewolves, which you don’t see often enough) in a ghoulish fantasy realm on the border between England and Transylvania. If nothing else it’s a wonderful change of pace from current horror trends, and good counter programming to that Valentine-themed epic that’s just opened. Everyone knows werewolves are romantics at heart, anyway.

Based on a screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker & David Self
Directed by Joe Johnston

Grade: B

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