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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Wolfman (review)

Untrue Grue

The metallic tang of blood is all over the elegant facade of this mysteriously disappointing, dispassionately underpowered story of a British aristocrat who dances with the devil, in the form of a werewolf curse, in the pale moonlight. Dismembered limbs and heads and scattered entrails fly with gleeful, squishy abandon, though thankfully without the pornographic leering that afflicts too much of what passes for horror today: if this remake is way gorier than the classic 1941 Universal horror flick upon which it is based, it’s still coyer than what we expect from our gore today.
Still: while the classy spooky sheen gives one such great hope as The Wolfman opens, it soon becomes clear that the film has nothing but that classy spooky sheen to offer. There are no people to care about here; there is no horror in the form of the internal, infernal psychological kind — everything onscreen is just fodder for a plot that chews through flesh and bone while ignoring all the really juicy, stuff-of-genre-greatness stuff lingering in the other direction.

That’s the most intriguing taste The Wolfman offers, and apparently without even realizing it. You’d think screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self wouldn’t be content to create merely a Victorian slasher movie, which is what The Wolfman ultimately reveals itself to be: the former invented the multifaceted nightmare of Sleepy Hollow, which had so much to say about the divide between and the connections among reason and superstition, and about the neuroses that drive us to examine what frightens us most; the latter found complex terrors in Road to Perdition, which upended expectations about a professional-killer protagonist. But this Wolfman is nothing more than what it appears on the surface: an excuse for bloodletting, if a stylish one. Adapting Curt Siodmak’s script for the 1941 original, Walker and Self have sketched out potential layers of story and character that they then utterly neglect, leaving the prospects for a really meaty tale of horror dangling before us.

Why cast, for instance, prodigal son Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro: Che, Sin City) as a Shakespearean actor returning home to England from America, where he was exiled as a child (hence accounting for Del Toro’s lack of an English accent), and then not allow the juiciness of the Bard’s themes to influence the story? The possibilities are so tantalizing! Lawrence has a contentious relationship with his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins: Beowulf, Slipstream), one already drenched in blood and horror and the kind of familial violence Shakespeare loved… and then that father-son relationship grows even more strained when Lawrence is infected with the cyclical werewolf disease. Del Toro — a passionate, feral sort of actor to begin with — seems sadly leashed here, his natural animalism oddly muted. I felt as if he were longing for an opportunity to play with the notions of a man conflicted about enjoying expressing his creature side while simultaneously horrified by it. That seems like a theme ideally suited to a character who is also an actor, when so many actors say they relish being able to express through a character what they’d never do in real life. How could Walker and Self have possibly missed that? And why does director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, Jurassic Park III), a former FX artist, appear content to let hair and fangs be the story? Isn’t this supposed to be about the heart of a man at war with his own nature? Why else is the werewolf trope so powerful? How is it that that concept is entirely absent here?

This puzzles me, too: Why bring in a Scotland Yard investigator (Hugo Weaving: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Happy Feet) to solve the mystery of the murderous beast on the foggy moors and call him Frederick Abberline — the real-life chief investigator of the Jack the Ripper case — if that one instance of name-checking is all that defines him? When I realized who Weaver’s character was meant to be, I felt a momentary thrill of geeky excitement: Could Universal be trying to create a whole new franchise in Abberline, a sort of Victorian X-Files? Would we see future movies in which Abberline hunts down the Loch Ness Monster or Dracula? Alas, not only is this not in the offing, Abberline barely figures at all here. The screenwriters might as well have introduced a character named Clark Kent, had someone else recognize him as that reporter from the Daily Planet, and then forgotten all about him. What a waste!

The Wolfman looks great, and there are moments in which Del Toro and Weaving are riveting (though Emily Blunt [The Great Buck Howard, Sunshine Cleaning] is wasted as the requisite damsel in distress). But they don’t have anywhere near enough to play with. Any movie called The Wolfman should be a lot brawnier than this, and a lot more tormented. There’s no English fog so thick that can conceal the emotional emptiness here.

MPAA: rated R for bloody horror violence and gore

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
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  • Mathias

    I think Walker’s original script probably would’ve been much better.
    He’s proven that he’s a writer who knows how to enrich stories through clever use of various themes.

    I’ll try to track it down to see if my suspicions are right.

    Too bad Johnston came aboard and brought in David Self to completely revamp the screenplay into the finished product that’s released today. And then, he cuts 17 mins out of the film before its hits theaters! I have no idea why this film’s producers thought the director of Jurassic Park 3 could do The Wolf Man justice. *Sighs*

    I’m still gonna go see it though.
    If only to witness for myself how empty it really is. ;)

  • Brian

    I saw this at a preview screening on Wednesday. I initially came out impressed with the atmosphere, art direction, and the genuinely horrific violence and danger of the monster attacks. Upon further reflection, I started realizing how little there was in the way of character infusing the story.

    Maybe some missing pieces may lie in those 17 cut minutes, but I’m still not sure that’s an excuse. The original Wolf Man ran for an hour and ten minutes, and its characters are certainly memorable. Here, it’s mostly props and references to off-screen events that stand in for character development. It’s not for lack of great ideas or good acting – Anthony Hopkins is surprisingly subtle here – just, as MaryAnn identifies, an inability to do much with the ideas or the actors.

    I still think it’s worth seeing, has some genuinely thrilling scenes, and is better than any of Universal’s other recent outings with their prized monsters in the last decade. It just could (should?) have been much better.

    (BTW, a very special raspberry to Danny Elfman’s uninspired scoring. When it’s not aping Wojciech Kilar’s score from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s all standard-issue ostinatos and wordless chorus. He really phoned this one in.)

  • Ultimately, it felt as though the filmmakers had taken a cheesy 70’s Hammer script- a relic of a simpler time when certain tropes were not quite as hackneyed than they are today- and filmed it in 2009, with a decent budget and played absolutely straight-faced. It’s the only explanation for the way the film plays every single Victorian horror cliche without irony and without any attempt to present them in any new way.

    Decaying Gothic mansion? Check. Fair enough. Fog-shrouded moors? Check. That’s allright, too. But in the same movie as mystic gypsies, torch-wielding superstitious villagers and cruel Victorian asylum ‘scientists’?

    Damn, I’m making this sound like the greatest movie ever. Any film containing such a cornucopia of treats should be a winner. But believe me- whatever you have in your head right now is almost certainly a thousand times more entertaining than the Wolfman actually is. There’s something about how these elements are presented- I feel they would only work if the audience had absolutely never seen a horror movie (or a Saturday morning cartoon, which is where most of these elements now belong) before.

    Ditto for the dialogue- maybe I’m just close-minded, but I feel as though the day has passed when you can put such downright corny words into a script and still play it straight.

  • Jacob L. Jackson

    Couldn’t agree more, stay home, rent the original or read the book. This Legend of Wolfboy is pretty good if you’re into wolves books and all that. An interesting idea at least. Reading a novel free online, beats a $20 movie. http://LegendOfWolfboy.com/

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