Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Wolfman

In a guest article written last Halloween, my friend Paul Rowe compared the golden age of the Universal horror movies with the current trend for remakes and wondered:

“Why, at a time when even the most low-budget shoot has production values that the movie-brats of the seventies could have only dreamed of, does every director shoot horror movies as fucking action comedies!?!?”

He continued:

“I had my hopes briefly raised when I learned that the upcoming remake of ‘The Wolf Man’ was to be set in Victorian England (predating the contemporary set 1941 version) and would remain faithful to much of George Waggner’s original. Benicio Del Toro as Larry Talbot? I licked my lips. I’ve since learned the director is Joe Johnston. Joe-‘Jurassic Park 3’-‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’-Johnston. ‘The Wolf Man’ as family-friendly actioner anyone? Er … no; no thanks. Even with Andrew Kevin Walker, who came over all gothic for ‘Se7en’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’, having contributed the screenplay, things don’t bode well.”

Which pretty much summed up my thoughts on the prospect. ‘The Wolfman’ had been announced in 2006 with Benicio del Toro executive producing and starring as Larry (now Lawrence) Talbot. As Paul noted, the script was by Andrew Kevin Walker and promised to augment the original with new characters and different character dynamics. Mark Romanek, who had earned good notices with his second feature film ‘One Hour Photo’ (and drawn an unforgettably sinister performance out of Robin Williams) was confirmed as director in February 2007. Less than a year later, it was announced he had left the project, with the old chestnut of “creative differences” cited.

The future of ‘The Wolfman’ remained indeterminate. Brett Ratner was considered as a replacement. Brett Ratner, a bargain basement Michael Bay who doesn’t even have the common courtesy to be Michael Bay. I am still offering prayers of gratitude to a God I don’t believe in that this excremental turn of events never came to pass. Other possible included Frank Darabont, James Mangold and Martin Campbell. As it turned out, Joe Johnston got the job.

This more than anything counts for my trepidation over ‘The Wolfman’, and explains the brickbats it has received critically. The thought of a re-imagining of George Waggner’s atmospheric and quietly subversive classic with the director of ‘The Mist’ at the helm – or, to an only slightly lesser degree, the director of ‘Walk the Line’ or the director of ‘Casino Royale’ – presented a “what if?” so potent that surely un film de Joe Johnston could never live up to it.

Then I read Francisco’s review on The Film Connoisseur (which I am still convinced was the first review of the film to surface on the blogosphere): it was unreservedly enthusiastically. Francisco even divined the rationale over the choice of Johnston as director:

“To me Johnston is the go to guy for making a Hollywood film that plays by the rules, plays it safe. No artsy fartsy risky business here. He is the kind of director who will direct a film, tell the story, and follow the rules set by the studio. He is not what I would call a trouble maker of a director. This guy plays ball with the studio execs and makes the movie they want to see. And for ‘The Wolfman’, which is a film Universal Studios obviously cares much about, Joe Johnston was a good choice.”

So me and Paul went along, with low expectations but a piqued curiosity. When I say low expectations, I mean that Paul had no expectations and all I was taking to the table was the prospect of Emily Blunt looking quite fetching in period garb.

When it was over and we emerged blinking into the light of Showcase Cinema’s car park (then spent an embarrassed quarter of an hour walking up and down after we realized we’d lost the car), there was nothing for it to vocalize a vaguely admission: we’d enjoyed it. We’d enjoyed it a hell of a lot.

In fact, I’ll go as far as saying that ‘The Wolfman’ is possibly the best Universal horror movie remake since Coppola’s garish and overblown but still hugely entertaining take on Dracula (and come, when you’ve got a young Monica Belucci as one of the brides of Dracula giving off a vibe that there might be more than just a blood sucking on the cards, what’s not to like?).

Okay, I’m in damning-with-faint-praise territory here, since the rest of the Universal remakes – Branagh’s bloodless, ball-less and boltless take ‘Frankenstein’ and the tripartite of cinematic evil done by Stephen Sommers in the form of the ‘Mummy’ movies and the stultifyingly bad ‘Van Helsing’ – represent a low tide mark in quality control that will forever remain unchallenged so long as Tommy Wiseau never decides remake ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ in a kid’s paddling pool with the leftover special effects from ‘Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid’.

‘The Wolfman’ rises above the other Universal remakes because, unlike Branagh’s ‘Frankenstein’, it offers a fun, rip-roaring, entertaining hour and three quarters at the flicks; but at the same time (unlike Sommers’ crimes against celluloid) it never tips over into histrionic stupidity freighted with increasingly desperate spasms of CGI.

What ‘The Wolfman’ does have to offer is a script that cleaves closely enough to the original to preserve good memories, yet opens out to embrace enough of its own little quirks (the inclusion of Inspector Abberline – here played by Hugo Weaving – of Jack the Ripper fame is an offbeat yet strangely intriguing conceit) to prevent it from being just a slavish copy but with more souped up effects.

The casting is a tad hit and miss. Del Toro turns in a peculiarly muted performance. Anthony Hopkins chews the scenery like a good ’un, evidently having more fun on a movie set here than he has in a good few years. Anthony Sher doesn’t just chew the scenery in his small but zealously attacked role as a physician – he swallows it down and then has the horizon for dessert! Art Malik brings a touch of gravitas to a nothing role. Weaving plays Abberline like some antecedent of Inspector Regan in ‘The Sweeney’; you wonder why he never managed to get the Ripper down the cells and beat a confession out of him. Emily Blunt is underused as Gwen Conliffe (here the fiancé of Lawrence’s murdered sibling, not just a flibbertigibbet Talbot picks up at the local antiques shop) during the first two thirds of the film. She provides its emotional charge in the final frames, though.

Johnston conjures up some atmospheric visuals, giving fans of the original (or of the classic Universal monster movies in general) everything they could want in turns of swirling ground-mists, dark tranches of woodland, gypsy camps and fearful villagers, but with the eviscerations ramped up to satisfy the requirements of the modern gorehound. He also throws in an unequivocally not-in-the-original asylum sequence that explodes into a fragmented, hallucinatory sequence of images that suggest the ghost of Donald Cammell had been summoned in an after-hours editing room séance. It’s a scene that’s grand guignol, Gothic and grotesque purely for the sake of it – and it’s the best scene in the movie!

The real star of the show, however, is Rick Baker’s visual effects, and ‘The Wolfman’ homages his work on ‘An American Werewolf in London’ with the casting of one of the darts players from that film as well as taking Talbot (in his lycanthropic incarnation) on a little detour rampage through London, vaulting rooftops, crashing through chimneys and thudding into omnibuses. It’s not subtle, it lacks the dark melancholy subtext of the original, and it probably won’t be half as much fun to watch second time around – I think that much of my enthusiasm comes from expecting ‘The Wolfman’ to be freakin’ awful and deriving a genuine delight in being proved wrong – but damned if it wasn’t the best fun I’d had in the cinema in six months (and yes, that includes ‘Avatar’) … or at least until I saw ‘Ponyo’ a couple of days later. But that’s another review.


Bryce Wilson said...

"represent a low tide mark in quality control that will forever remain unchallenged so long as Tommy Wiseau never decides remake ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ in a kid’s paddling pool"

See this? This is why I love Agitation Of The Mind.

You definitely capture the feeling I had with The Wolfman. "This is in no way a good movie. But I kind of love it!"

The movie was almost perversely fun. Once I stopped wanting it to be great, and instead expected it to be fun I liked it a lot more.

To me what the movie does wrong is best exemplified by Hopkin's badass Sikh man servant. He gets all this build up and a speech about being a soldier against evil. Oh man, he's GOT to have a badass scene! I mean look at all the time they've put in on him!

And then bam he's (SPOILER) dead before the climax.

Well that and the CGI Bear (Most unnecessary CGI ever?) and the werewolf Kung Fu.

Neil Fulwood said...

Exactly my feelings about Art Malik; you want to see him tooled up and full of holy wrath dispatching the creatures of the night left, right and centre, but the movie denies you.

And the CGI bear ... priceless! I can only assume one of the producers caught a screening of 'Grizzly Man' and said "Hey, guys, you know what would be awesome ... ?"

J.D. said...

I was drawn to your comparisons to Coppola's DRACULA, a film which is flawed but I love dearly for its over-the-top, delirious style over substance. I have to say that I am curious to check out this new take on WOLFMAN and your review has certainly piqued my curiosity.

Bryce Wilson said...

That was the sadest CGI Bear I've ever seen. Both for the shabbiness of the CG (I think that might have been intentional so the wolf effects would look better) and the literal fact that the bear looked like it was about to fucking cry during the whole encounter. It's A BEAR IT DOESN'T KNOW YOUR TALKING ABOUT IT!!! YOU CAN'T HURT ITS FEELINGS!!!!

Oh man Bram Stoker's... I oughta send Coppola my therapy bills for the trust issues I have thanks to that movie.

Neil Fulwood said...

I've never seen it, but I understand that 'Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus' (feel free to castigate me if I've got the title wrong) is rapidly becoming the cult favourite du jour. Maybe we've hit upon the next loosely connected title in the (animal kingdom) franchise: 'CGI Grizzly vs Werewolf'.

Aaron said...

Excellent review, my man. Everyone in the blogging community has been giving it the stamp of approval so far!

The Film Connoisseur said...

Glad you liked it Neil! Im sad to see the film wasnt as big of a box office success as Id hoped, but hey, werewolf movies (with rare exceptions) never have been that big at the box office. For whatever reason.

Agree with you, del Toro down played things, specially when I have seen him reach levels of intensity that surpass his performance on this one.

I am glad the movie wasnt afraid to show some blood and guts! At least it wasnt a pussy horror film! It had some nards! :)

Neil Fulwood said...

Amen to that, Francisco.

Most werewolf movies don't quite cut it - Jack Nicholson's 'Wolf', for example, or Wes Craven's appalling 'Cursed'.

I have fond memories of 'The Howling', but it's starting to show its age quite badly. 'An American Werewolf in London' is still fantastic, and 'Ginger Snaps' presents an interesting and different take on the material.

In fact, prior to 'The Wolfman' (which is old school, respectful enough to the original and savvy enough to do a few things that are different) I'd say 'Ginger Snaps' was the last good werewolf movie.

Bryce Wilson said...

Neil you and I might have to have some fightin words over The Howling...

Neil Fulwood said...

In the interests of not wanting to, in the words of Guns 'n' Roses, "get in the ring", let me qualify my comments on 'The Howling'.

I have a lot of affection for the film. I love the way it ostensibly starts out as a film about a sex killer and a traumatised TV reporter, how it develops into a psycho-drama and how absolutely nothing in the first third or so of the movie telegraphs "werewolf". Title notwithstanding, it wrongfoots the viewer quite admirably.

Performances range from fine to excellent. The transformation sequence is well done.

It's in the therapy sequences, in some of the dialogue, in the look of the film and in the cringingly hokey wolf-sex scene (where the action is curiously represented by a bit of animated footage) that 'The Howling' shows its age in a way that the contemporaneous 'American Werewolf in London' doesn't.

Bryce Wilson said...

All very true. But Dante's anarchic spirit more then makes up for its technical lacking. And I have to take Rob Bottin's work over Baker's.

"Can't tame what's wild Doc it taint natural."