A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2010
2010, R, 105 mins.
2010, R, 105 mins.
Lawrence Talbot: Benicio Del Toro / Gwen: Emily Blunt / Sir
John Talbot: Anthony Hopkins / Maleva: Geraldine Chaplin / Inspector:
Hugo Weaving / Hoenneger: Antony Sher
Joe Johnston’s remake of the
1941 Universal Horror classic THE WOLFMAN does one thing absolutely
correct: it knows that period monster movies feel spookier and have
richer atmospheres. Aside from one successful attempt to modernize this very
famous movie creature by placing it in a contemporary setting (like in
AMERICAN WEREWOLF ON LONDON, for example), I can’t think of another more
fitting way than to place this beast in the foggy, misty, shadowy,
and ominous backwoods areas of a late 19th Century England. The settings and locations do such a bravura job of
accentuating the mood of pathos and dread to the horror of the story, not
to mention that the people that populate this period almost seem more
befuddled and defenseless and against the creature that attacks them.
There is relatively no
surprise that this newer, spiffier, and more expensive redo of the Lon
Chaney Jr. original looks sensational: Before cutting his teeth in directorial
assignments (like HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, JUMANJI, THE ROCKETEER,
JURASSIC PARK III and HIDALGO) Johnston served on the art department for
the first three classic STAR WARS films under George Lucas, so he
certainly is no stranger to creating films with a unique and prevailing
vision. He has also allied
himself with an impressive production team to create his eerie and
distinctive WOLFMAN for modern consumption, like the menacing and stark
cinematography by Shelly Johnson, the hauntingly gorgeous production
design of Rick Hendrichs, the spin-tingling and effective music score by Danny
Elfman, and, of course, the mother of all monster makeup artists, Rick
Baker (who is no stranger to conjuring up perversely twisted and macabre
makeup and transformation sequences).
If anything, THE WOLFMAN is a stunning triumph of film artifice.
This is the most sumptuous looking Gothic Horror film since Francis
Ford Coppola’s DRACULA and Kenneth Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN.
Again, placing this film squarely in a period setting is the right choice: As the film opens in a rural English countryside of the late 1890’s we come to the estate of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) whose son has recently disappeared. His other son is Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), a touring stage actor that spends much of his time performing the works of Shakespeare, but he is quickly taken away from his thespian duties by his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (the always fetching Emily Blunt, one of the few actresses to appear both sexy and dignified in stuffy period garb) who pleads with him to assist the family in their efforts to find his brother. When Lawrence does make his way home a completely distorted and half eaten corpse is discovered that appears to be his brother. Yet, judging by his vicious and bloody wounds, it seems unlikely that any normal forest predator could have inflicted the damage.
Just what was the cause…hmmmm?
Becoming obsessed with
discovering the real culprit of the brutal murder of his sibling, Lawrence finds
himself on a hunt that leads him to a strange gypsy camp.
While there the camp's denizens – and him in particular – are methodically
attacked by a hideous half-man/half-wolf
creature. Lawrence, rather
miraculously, survives his hellish ordeal with the creature, but not
without some ghastly fang wounds to his neck and shoulder.
Of course, he does not feel any better after the attack, especially
when the gypsy leader, Maleva (a kooky and deranged Geraldine Chaplin) spontaneously pronounces that Lawrence is indeed
He does not take her comments too close to heart, but with the
advent of the next full moon Lawrence does transform into a carnivorous,
salivating, humanity-feasting wolfman that goes on a bloody, berserker-filled rampage.
Hot of his trail are the likes
of deeply determined Scotland Yard investigator (played by Hugo Weaving,
complete without all of those delicious Hugo Weaving-like pauses and cryptic inflections) that does, with some help, manage to apprehend Lawrence
and throw him into one of those appallingly oppressive Victorian mental
intuitions. The head psychiatrist there quickly deduces that
Lawrence is suffering from severe delusions.
In one of the film’s most ironically hilarious and horrifying
sequences, the physician places a tied up Lawrence in a room filled
with students and colleagues and is placed in front of a large window with
a looming full moon just on the horizon.
The doctor eases everyone’s concerns by stating that he will
prove that the nature of lycanthrope is just a silly myth.
Well, the full moon does come, with predictably gory ramifications.
One aspect that many will find
pleasing about THE WOLFMAN is that it does not neuter itself down to the
measly and weak confines of a PG-13 rating.
Johnston has crafted a blood-curdling, gut splashing, and
barbarically intense R-rated horror fright fest.
Also important is that he also manages to find an all-too-difficult
happy middle ground between being overtly campy and solemn. THE WOLFMAN is, at
its core, a Saturday matinee thrill and chill schlock fest that does not
take itself to seriously...but just serious enough. And,
yes, the transformation sequences, which thanklessly blend the finer
aspects of Baker’s cutting edge makeup design and the augmentation of
CGI trickery, are gruesomely intoxicating (often, it’s difficult to tell
where the physical effects start and where the computer effects end, which is to
the film's credit), notwithstanding
that when the creature unleashes an orgy of werewolf kick
ass, it's spectacularly and entertainingly violent (this film is not for the feint of heart).
Yet, THE WOLFMAN does generate some winks at the audience and tongue
in cheek chuckles as well, especially with Del Toro’s Lawrence
prophetically warns everyone in that institution ward of what will
happen to them when the full moon comes: Very few actors could pull off the
line “I…will…kill…you...all!” and make it both cheeky and scary
as well as he can.
Del Toro (a self-professed WOLFMAN nut) is quite decent in his dual role, projecting the right level of poignancy with brute force and caged animalism. Emily Blunt may serve the purpose of being his obligatory love interest in the film, but she remains satisfyingly sultry throughout. One performance that I really admired was from Anthony Hopkins as the blustery, wild-eyed, and enigmatic Sir John Talbot, whom is holding secrets of his own from just about everyone (granted, you can see the arc of his character with relative ease). What’s kind of compelling here is that Hopkins plays up to the hammier levels of his character by not overtly hamming it up or over playing scenes to inane levels. When Talbot tells his son, “Terrible things, Lawrence. You have done terrible things,” you can sense a twisted level of malicious glee in Hopkins. He’s having wicked fun with this semi-maniacal role…but he’s so dry, refined, and subtle; he subtly over-acts.
It there are nagging problems
with THE WOLFMAN than it would definitely be in the area of character and
story. The script is from two potent and strong screenwriters
(Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who penned SE7EN and ROAD TO
PERDITION respectively), but the resulting script does not provide much in
the way of dramatic or emotional buy in for the audience.
Lawrence, even while played with a melancholic passivity at times by Del Toro,
never emerges as a fully realized and evocative main character.
The only empathy he generates is due mostly out of the fact that
he’s a monster that everyone wants dead, but even that empathy is
fleeting (he slaughters people that deserve it, to be true, but also
countless ones that don’t deserve it).
Also, the love story between him and Gwen is only sketchily
developed and feels more perfunctory than passionate.
Lastly, there is not much of an underlining narrative here to keep
everything afloat for its 105 minutes: Johnston has recently admitted that
the Blu-Ray release will have 18 minutes reinserted back in to help
embellish the story that was truncated by his theatrical cut.
Ummm…okay…but why not have those scenes in the final theatrical
Perhaps what exasperates the film’s problems is its sorted production history, which seemed as doomed as the main character himself. The film was originally slated for release for November of 2009 and then was rescheduled several times to allow for what has been rumored as re-shoots as well as re-tooling of the transformation sequences. There has also been ample speculation that editors Mark Goldblatt and Walter Murch were hired to re-envision the film without the input of Johnston himself (a rumor that the director has negated). Nonetheless, this near $100 million dollar monster mash is a marvel of cinematic design and wisely places its setting and tone in the right places. Yet, as terrific as the film looks and as appealing as the actors are in it, it’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend this WOLFMAN, which stumbles around rather aimlessly telling a fairly disjointed story that lacks genuine interest. THE WOLFMAN has a ravenous howl, to be sure, but it lacks bite in too many areas to warrant a trip to the multiplexes.