Following the production of The Wolfman over the past couple of years here in the Vault has been quite the rollercoaster ride! Yet, through it all, I maintained my interest in the project, even if my enthusiasm waxed and waned with the news of each new melodramatic behind-the-scenes twist and turn. The anticipation inspired me to do a whole history of werewolf movies, not to mention to review the classic original.
And so, once the thing finally hit theaters last weekend, you know I had to proceed to my local cineplex (my horror Jedi Master dad in tow) and check it out for myself. And in the end, I can honestly say I'm glad I didn't let all the drama drive me away. Because I rather enjoyed the picture, and had quite a bit of fun with it.
Maybe it was the lowered expectations, I'm not sure. But in general, I couldn't help but feel that the slant of the consensus of reviews for this movie toward the mediocre is a but unearned. Yes, it is a flawed film, and no, it will never replace the superior Universal original. Yet I may be too easygoing, but I think people have been a bit too hard on it.
Surely, it is a mixed bag. First and foremost amongst the weaknesses is Benicio Del Toro himself, surprisingly enough. Lon Chaney Jr. would never be confused with Sir John Geilgud, but nevertheless, his performance was rich with pathos and earnestness. Del Toro, usually excellent, seems to sleepwalk through his role. He never makes you really pity him, and seems like he has to continually remind himself to be upset.
Then there's the whole CGI dilemma. The transformation scenes are not as impressive as they should be--and in fact, I would say Rick Baker's practical work 30 years ago in American Werewolf in London is far more effective. For that matter, and some may disagree, but despite the rather quaint (by today's standards) transformation effects of the 1941 original, I found that the transformation scenes in the original carried more weight and were filled with more dread than the computerized mess we get here. The scenes are poorly shot, and don't really convey the horror of what's going on sufficiently.
Indeed, I don't know if this was because I knew a bit about the intrigue that went on getting this movie to the screen, but it felt a bit overly tampered with, as if the editing was somehow a bit uneven and off at times.
But despite these flaws, I found it to be pretty enjoyable. It possesses what a lot of horror in the early 21st century is missing: Fun.
Let me make this clear: I do not consider the original film to be an untouchable sacred cow. Although it's terrific, it's certainly inferior to most of the Universal films of the 1930s. This is partly why I took no issue with it being remade. And I found it very interesting what screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker & David Self and director Joe Johnston tried to do here to distinguish it from its formidable forerunner.
What I quite enjoyed was that they tried to do something different, but in a way few remakes ever do. On the one hand, it doesn't slavishly ape the original; but it also doesn't piss all over the original's legacy. It manages to pay homage, yet take the story and characters in some fascinating directions. I'm going to get a bit spoilery in discussing these, so you squeamish types should head for the proverbial hills...
As much as it bothered me when I first learned about it, having Sir John Talbot as the "original" werewolf--indeed transforming him into the heavy of the story--was pretty ingenious. I was a bit uncomfortable with Anthony Hopkins stepping into Claude Rains' shoes, not because he isn't a fine actor, but because in my opinion, he has a tendency toward scenery-chewing (see that other Universal re-imagining, Bram Stoker's Dracula) that is the total opposite of Rains' classy restraint. Rains also a brought a fatherly austerity that is lost amidst Hopkins' seedy characterization.
Nevertheless, as the movie went along, I came to embrace this. For it is the change in the Sir John character that eventually got me the most interested in the story. It changes the entire dynamic of the picture, specifically altering the father-son relationship completely. It also allows for a completely bad-ass werewolf vs. werewolf royal rumble at the climax that is a reminder of how much fun monster movies can be.
And make no mistake, this is a monster movie, first and foremost--and I say that as a compliment. Aside from the awkward CGI metamorphosis stuff, the actual practical makeup itself, done by the aforementioned maestro Baker--is spot-on, a fantastic updating/tribute to the iconic Jack Pierce design. I'm glad they decided to keep the character as a humanoid "wolf man" rather than make it a post-AWIL lupine werewolf. I'm all for bringing back clothes-wearing werewolves!
There are other very cool nods to the original here for those who are looking for them. The infamous wolf's head walking stick; the wolfsbane rhyme; Geraldine Chaplin filling Marya Ospenskaya's shoes as the gypsy fortune teller; that deliciously atmospheric chase scene in the woods, almost identically lit; a brief scene in Gwen's boutique; even a lingering closeup on Hopkins' face in mid-transformation that looks for all the world like a CGI version of Lon Chaney's time-lapse metamorphoses.
Aside from some shoddy editing, the film itself is shot quite nicely, with a cold and bleak look and feel provided by cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs. The latter in particular was also responsible for Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, which might be a big part of why the look of this film was reminiscent at times of that underrated Burton delight.
Now let's talk violence. I may be getting squeamish in my old age, but this flick had a surprising amount of graphic gore, particularly for a slick, big-budget, mainstream horror production. Hell, this movie had stuff in it I would've liked to have seen from the last two George Romero movies, but didn't. There are slashings galore, dismembered and quivering limbs, impalements, eviscerations, and more. As I mentioned the other night in the Vaultcast, we see the Wolf Man actually pull out a guy's liver with his teeth. It's some pretty bold stuff for a Hollywood horror movie in 2010, that's for sure.
Joe Johnston was a replacement director, dumped into the project in mid-production after the ousting of Mark Romanek. Thanks to the internet, this all became public knowledge, and I think it unfairly biased many toward Johnston. A once-promising young genre director who made a splash early on with the likes of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and one of the most underrated summer movies of all time, The Rocketeer, he later sort of lost his way, stepping into Steven Speilberg's intimidated shoes for Jurassic Park III and mounting the 2004 bomb Hidalgo. Yet for my money, he does the best he could here with a project he inherited--and to tell you the truth, I'm not convinced that music video helmsman Romanek could've done all that better.
The Wolfman is an imperfect remake of a classic monster movie, that nevertheless provides some good popcorn-munching fun for those not looking for anything too earth-shattering. Less stylish and confident than Coppola's Dracula, loads more fun than Branagh's pretentious Frankenstein--and infinitely better than Sommer's Mummy.
The only thing that could've made it even more fun would've been if the climax had taken place here: