And we’re back to Monday. Honestly, I’m amazed that I could even concentrate on this film today, what with The Cabin In The Woods still running around being all smart and witty in my head. There is so much more I want to say about that flick, but I’ll leave it for a while longer I think. But in the meantime, here’s some more horror; this one more of the traditional mould.
This film needs Griffin Dunne
Lawrence Talbot, the prodigal son of Sir John Talbot of Blackmoor, is summoned back to the familial hearth after his brother is killed in violent and mysterious circumstances. While investigating, Lawrence himself is attacked by a beast and wounded. Under the next full moon, Lawrence becomes (dun dun duuuuuuuuuuun) The Wolfman. Can Lawrence be saved from his curse? Who is the other beast? Could Emily Blunt be any prettier? All these questions, and more, will be answered.*
Benicio del Toro is a fan of the classic-era Universal monster movies. Strictly speaking, everyone is a fan of the classic-era Universal monster movies (and if you’re not, we need to have words) but where the rest of us have to make do with DVDs or Blu-Rays, Benny the Bull can go out and play with a film crew. This entire movie was essentially his idea; his passion project; his ode to the Golden Age. Is it a worthy tribute? Well, it’s alright. I have heard many unflattering comments about the theatrical cut, but I haven’t seen that version. This review is of the extended DVD release.
There are a few things that work well in this film, and there a few things that don’t. First off, the wolf makeup is outstanding, as you can see in the poster above. Rick Baker won a deserved Oscar for his makeup effects here. It’s a natural progression from the Jack Pierce makeup that Lon Chaney, Jr. was stuck with back in 1941, and I’d say it’s the best werewolf make-up in a very long time. The key to its success is that the character is not a typical werewolf; he doesn’t change from a man to a wolf but becomes something in between. A wolf-man (hence the title), still recognisably human in origin. In fact, he’s still recognisably Benicio. But let’s face it, the guy is quite wolfy to start with. The actual transformations themselves were all done with CGI as opposed to practical effects. For me, it works. I’m not going to complain too loudly about director Joe Johnston choosing CGI over practical. Of course, I would dearly love to see how Rick Baker would have topped his earlier results on what is still the best transformation sequence ever – and you don’t need me to tell you what that is – but this is still effective stuff.
The rest of the effects are mostly excellent except for the bear. All the digital matte paintings of old London are fantastic and really add to the Gothic backdrop that evokes the classic Universal monster movie feel better than any other recent attempt. After his earlier The Rocketeer and last year’s Captain America, creating fantasy in a period setting is what Joe Johnston does best. Visually at least, you would never guess that Johnston was only brought on board the great ship Wolfman a scant two weeks before the start of photography. Mark Romanek was the original choice and shepherded the film through development and pre-production, only to depart through that old chestnut, “creative differences”. With no disrespect to Johnston, I think Romanek’s version could be considered one of the great could-have-beens. He is, after all, responsible for some of the most visually striking and innovative music videos ever, as well as being writer and director of the overlooked and unfortunately mostly forgotten One Hour Photo (which you should really try to get a hold of, since you probably haven’t seen it).
On the performance front, Anthony Hopkins is once again head scenery-chewer as Sir John Talbot, although his accent is a bit interchangeable at times. Even so, he and Hugo Weaving (of course) are the best things in front of the camera. Emily Blunt turns in a fine performance as Gwen Conliffe, fiancée of the late Ben Talbot and the one who convinces Lawrence to return to Blackmoor. She does what she can but her character is woefully underwritten, particularly when it comes to the developing love story between Gwen and Lawrence. Even in this extended cut it seems terribly rushed. And so to del Toro. For a man who spent lord knows how much time and effort to get this film made, he doesn’t seem to be trying very hard to make it actually work. When not wolfed-out, his Lawrence just seems mostly bored. There are a couple of flashes of intensity in the asylum sequence and just before his initial attack at the gypsy camp. It would have been odd for him to be that animated through the whole film, but he could have found a happy medium. And for a supposed world-renowned actor, he might have been sleepwalking through the snippet of Hamlet that serves as his introduction. Maybe he was a casualty of constant script changes or just chopped out in the editing, but I really would have liked to see more of Singh, Sir John’s Sikh manservant played by Art Malik. He only appeared in maybe two scenes before a particularly undignified (and off-screen) departure but it was clear that he was more closely involved with the events of the story than he may have first appeared.
The camerawork by Johnston’s regular collaborator, Shelly Johnson, is a highlight. He recreates that classic Universal look marvellously, particularly in the Blackmoor sections of the flick. This, combined with Rick Heinrichs’ production design, means that the film at least looks as gorgeous as it can, even if it is let down elsewhere. Danny Elfman’s score is suitably reminiscent of both the original movie series and the film’s Victorian setting, but after all his Tim Burton collaborations this kind of Gothic fancy is right in his wheelhouse. Don’t worry though; he does rein in the whimsy.
Ambitious and ultimately unsuccessful, though not without some merit, The Wolfman could have been so much more. I can’t help but be a bit disappointed.
*Yarrgh! No; not telling; and no.