Friday, February 12, 2010

Movie Review: "The Wolfman"

First of a few reviews today...I'll have my thoughts on "Percy Jackson and the Olympians--The Lightning Thief" up later.

This was originally published in the Feb. 14, 2010 edition of The Source.

What is it about the werewolf that is so hard to get right?

Few movie monsters are so enduring, yet few are responsible for truly good films. For every “American Werewolf in London”—which still stands as cinema’s final word on lycanthropy—there’s a “Van Helsing,” “New Moon” or “Teen Wolf” waiting in the wings.
Universal Studios’ remake of their classic “The Wolfman,” in theaters this weekend, comes close to making this feral beast truly scary. It has capable A-list actors, atmospheric cinematography and outstanding special effects by Rick Baker, the man responsible for “American Werewolf’s” still-unmatched transformation sequences.

Which is why I found myself a bit surprised to feel so apathetic about the affair once the credits rolled.

Director Joe Johnston (“Jurassic Park III”) sticks fairly close to the original story. Actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns to his family’s estate in rural 19th Century England after his brother has been reported missing. Talbot arrives too late—his possibly-insane father (Anthony Hopkins) tells him his brother’s body has been found in the woods, torn apart by some manner of beast. The brother’s wife Gwen (Emily Blunt) has stayed behind to care for the family as the rumors in town begin to circle that a werewolf may be to blame.

Talbot ventures out to a gypsy camp one evening to investigate a medallion found on his brother’s body. While he’s out there, he’s attacked and bitten by the same beast that killed his brother. Although his wounds heal surprisingly fast, Talbot finds that when the full moon strikes thing s have a tendency to get a bit hairy and it’s not uncommon for him to wake up the next morning in the woods, his clothes torn and bloodied.

The original “Wolfman,” released in 1941, was a creature made explicitly for cinema. Although the creature lacked the literary pedigree of “Dracula” or “Frankenstein,” it’s become one of the most endurable movie monsters, and with good reason—there’s something primal and terrifying about becoming an unstoppable killing machine against your will. The successful werewolf films have a tragedy about them—there’s dread as the full moon approaches, pain as the transformation begins and sorrow when that silver bullet finally destroys the monster, but kills the hero.

Johnston’s film makes an attempt at that. He definitely has atmosphere to spare—bathing the film in moonlit moors, foggy forests and candlelit corridors. The film’s two transformation sequences have the requisite bone-crunching and hair sprouting while Talbot panics and begs to be killed. And a love story between Gwen and Talbot grows particularly touching and seems to be heading for the tragic finale.

But something happens and the film fails to make an impact. Johnston is like a performer who knows the lyrics but can’t carry a tune; having worked early in his career on “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he knows how to frame an icon on the screen but fails to grasp what makes the character iconic. The werewolf effects are impressive and it’s a truly intimidating beast; but del Toro is so buried under makeup that we never feel that the wolf is Talbot, thus negating the horror of watching our hero kill and any emotional impact that would follow.

It’s odd to write that the werewolf attacks are the film’s least effective sequences—Johnston builds effective dread as Talbot suffers nightmares and endures torture while committed in an insane asylum. The build-up to the werewolf scenes are atmospheric, creepy and taut. But Johnston seems to be afraid to truly scare his audience when it comes time for the payoff, instead rushing through the rampages and relying too heavily on shock tactics and gore and throwing in unnecessary humor that defuses all tension. A scene where Talbot transforms in front of a panel of doctors should have been milked for suspense, dread and pure terror—instead, Johnston robs the scene of suspense by incorporating a lame gag concerning Talbot’s chief tormentor. The abundance of gore in this movie is also astonishing; I have nothing against a bloody horror movie, but I expect a filmmaker to understand that gore is best used as punctuation in a horror scene, not the main scare tactic. The severed limbs and computerized blood made me feel less like I was watching a remake of a classic monster movie than that I was watching a “Friday the 13th” ripoff.

That’s not to say the movie’s a waste of time. Although the werewolf sequences lack any primal terror, they are filmed with energy and style—a rooftop chase is particularly effective. Danny Elfman’s score underlines the film’s gothic tones and, again, the cinematography is beautiful to look at, as are the werewolf effects. The actors do their best here—del Toro captures the weight of a man under a curse and has a sweet chemistry with Blunt. Hopkins seems to be having more fun than he has in ages, chewing the scenery (sometimes literally) for all it’s worth. “The Wolfman” is an entertaining theme park ride of a film, but it fails to scare up genuine horror.

But still, it’s better than “Teen Wolf Too.”

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.