Wolfman, The (2010)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/12/10 00:19:17
Considering all of the well-publicized problems that have dogged “The Wolfman,” the long-awaited remake/reimagining of the classic 1941 monster movie, since its inception--the high-profile departure of its original director, extensive rewrites and reshoots, controversy over whether the much-anticipated transformation sequences would be carried out using traditional make-up effects or if they would be given over entirely to CGI technology, several release-date shifts and last-minute rumors that the studio heads were contemplating cutting way back on the gore in order to score a more commercially viable PG-13 rating--those who have been following its tortured journey to the multiplex may go into expecting an epic failure along the lines of “Cursed,” the last high-profile Hollywood attempt to bring lycanthropy to the masses in a big way. As it turns out, the film is nowhere near the all-out disaster that seemed to be its destiny but in a weird way, it might have almost been better all around if it had been because then it could have been easily written off as just another flop and quickly forgotten. Instead, it is one of those incredibly frustrating works that has so many things going for it--a strong cast, a nice sense of atmosphere and a fair amount of gore for a major studio genre film--that it becomes almost painful to watch as it falls far short of what it might have achieved if it possessed a better screenplay as well.Set in 1891, the film opens with stage actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returning home to his family estate in Blackmoor after learning that his younger brother, whom he hasn’t seen since childhood after being sent to America by his father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), following a traumatic tragedy, has mysteriously disappeared. By the time he arrives, however, his brother’s body has been found in a savagely mutilated form that suggests that he was attacked by either a wild animal or a raving lunatic, the third such attack in recent months. Lawrence is all set to return to London when his brother’s fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt), implores him to stay and look into what happened. After learning from his father that his brother had dealings with a group of gypsies camped just outside of town, Lawrence goes out to investigate and arrives just in time to see a local posse attempting to run them out of town in the belief that they are responsible for the recent deaths. Before they can do much, however, the camp is attacked by a savage beast that takes a big bite out of Lawrence before disappearing into the fog. Lawrence survives and recovers in a surprisingly rapid fashion but what he doesn’t realize is that he was attacked by a werewolf and that he is now doomed to revert into a savage beast with the advent of the full moon .
Up to this point in the proceedings, “The Wolfman” is actually a reasonably effective take on the werewolf subgenre, easily the best to come along since the cult favorite “Ginger Snaps.” While director Joe Johnston doesn’t reinvent or subvert the mythos as John Landis and Joe Dante respectively did with their classics “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling,” he does create an strong Gothic atmosphere with slow-burn pacing and a strikingly moody visual style and the cast, which also includes Hugo Weaving as a Scotland Yard inspector investigating the killings, does a good job of taking potentially silly material and treating it with respect, though Hopkins can’t resist offering up a few cheerfully over-the-top line readings here and there. However, it is here that the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self makes the fatal mistake of trying to apply modern pop psychology to a story that really doesn’t need it. Without going into too much detail, though those of you worried about spoilers should probably skip the rest of this paragraph, a tale that should really be about the tragedy of a man whose inability to control the bestial nature that lives within all of us dooms him forever has been sidelined by the addition of the hero’s considerable daddy issues and the need to truck in a second beast that he can rassle in the third act in order to seem a little more heroic. These elements were no doubt added in an attempt to make “The Wolfman” seem like more than just another monster movie but they jar so uneasily with the more traditional approach that they pretty much destroy the mood that the film has created up until then and it never quite manages to recover.
And once the mood is broken, the film’s flaws gradually become more and more noticeable until they wind up dominating the proceedings. There is the fact that del Toro so overdoes the gloomy and haunted nature of his character right from the start that there is no real sense of the loss of his humanity once he is transformed into a werewolf--even though he wasn’t an especially good actor by any means, Lon Chaney Jr. managed to capture that sense of loss perfectly in the original film and it is one of the reasons why it is still such an effective work decades after its release. There is the fact that good actors like Emily Blunt and Hugo Weaving are given absolutely nothing to do aside from, respectively, looking lovely and glaring menacingly. There is the fact that the story moves along with so many fits and starts that it feels as if entire scenes were yanked out at the last minute. There is the fact that the major effects sequences--Lawrence’s transformation into a werewolf and an extensive scene in which he rampages throughout the streets of London--are so heavily CGI’d that they lose a lot of their potential power as a result; the transformations are nowhere near as startling or effective as the ones seen in “An American Werewolf in London” or even the original “The Wolf Man” and the rampage is so overblown, overshot and over-edited that it becomes cartoonish instead of frightening. Finally, there is the inescapable fact that when it reaches its would-be operatic climax, the scene comes off like a damp squib because the film has pretty much failed to provide a single reason to care about the characters or what happens to them.“The Wolfman” is not completely without merit--it has been made by skilful and talented people who are clearly taking the material seriously (perhaps too seriously for its own good at some points) and as werewolf-related movies go, it certainly beats such recent and quickly forgotten efforts as “Blood & Chocolate” and “Skinwalkers,” not to mention the various entries in the “Underworld” and “Twilight” sagas. Alas, all of these efforts are undermined because of a screenplay that starts off okay but which soon becomes too choppy, contrived and just plain dull for its own good. If some of the copious amounts of blood splashed on the screen could have flowed back into the screenplay, “The Wolfman” might have really worked. Instead, this is a film where the hair is perfect but not much else.
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