Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman (2010)

As a film, The Wolfman has a fair amount of problems but its title character isn't one of them. As re-imagined by the expert hand of FX genius Rick Baker, the new model Wolf Man puts the 'lycans' of the Underworld series to shame. As a kid, the Wolf Man was always my favorite of the Universal monsters and to see this new version - that shows so much love for make-up legend Jack Pierce's classic Wolf Man design - running loose on the big screen gave me pure joy.

It's been ages (since 1948's Abbott & Costello Meets Frankenstein?) since anyone thought the Lon Chaney Jr. Wolf Man was scary in the least - cool, always, but scary not so much. The Benicio Del Toro Wolfman, on the other hand, is an intimidating sight - scarier than any werewolf has been in years. That's a real accomplishment for Baker and director Joe Johnston as the 'classic' werewolf look that they're sticking close to has long become the stuff of kid's entertainment - as seen on the Monster Squad TV show of the '70s and the Teen Wolf movies of the '80s. If nothing else, this remake performs the valuable service of reminding audiences that the old-school Wolf Man can still be a monster to be reckoned with. This isn't the demonic were-dog of An American Werewolf in London or the Disney-inspired Big Bad Wolves of The Howling (a look co-opted by 2002's Dog Soldiers), this is the classic, back-to-basics Wolf Man - and it works. It's a shame that the movie around the new Wolf Man isn't better but horror fans are accustomed to wading through a mediocre (or worse) movie in order to savor a great monster.

The love story that's supposed to be the heart of this movie is on the thin side (whether that's due to lack of chemistry between Del Toro and actress Emily Blunt or it's because the films feels truncated of any footage that doesn't advance the action and horror elements is hard to tell) but the werewolf is, to borrow a word favored by Anthony Hopkins' Sir John Talbot, "glorious." The only scene with the Wolf Man that didn't work for me - from an FX standpoint - was the Wolf Man's race across the rooftops while being pursued by the police. It just looked too silly, with too much CG enabling the Wolf Man to run on all fours (this effect came off fine in other scenes where it was only glimpsed quickly but in this prolonged sequence it didn't work). But aside from that, the werewolf material is where the movie triumphs. Even the CG used in the transformation scenes is mostly impressive. Sure, practical FX would've been nice to see but the CG used here to change Lawrence Talbot from man to wolf is a far cry from the sub par CG seen in An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

Given how troubled a production this was, it's a marvel that The Wolfman is any good at all. That it isn't as good (much less great) as it clearly had the potential to be is sorely disappointing. What the movie would've been like in the hands of its original director Mark Romanek will never be known but I think given the situation he stepped into, Joe Johnston did a heroic job of salvaging the project. He wasn't able to make this into a classic, unfortunately, but even filmmakers who are pure of heart can fall short of the mark. Hopefully the longer cut promised for the DVD release will alleviate some of the movie's pacing problems (the first act, especially, is way too hurried) and give its underdeveloped characters some meat.

I'm sure there'll be complaints that this movie caters too much to the ADD-afflicted crowd and while I agree that is a problem when it comes to the obvious sacrifice of character moments, I think the movie's cheap 'jump' scares and R-rated gore FX are just fine. I read so many critics (in the fan press and otherwise) who always disapprovingly harrumph about filmmakers who resort to cheap scares in horror movies but cheap scares are part of the fun of horror movies. There's cheap 'gotcha' scares in Psycho, The Exorcist and Jaws for crying out loud, so let's not automatically scold filmmakers for trying to make the audience jump out of their seat.

As for the gore, some might feel that a true Wolf Man movie shouldn't cater to the blood and guts crowd but as a fan myself, I've always wanted to see the Wolf Man put his claws and teeth to better use and man, this totally delivers on that front. This is a really violent movie, complete with decapitations and even gut-munching.

On the one hand, I would've liked for this to have been a movie I could share with my young son (we've watched the original Wolf Man together) but on the other hand this'll be perfect for when he's older. Hell, maybe we'll watch it now - it's all just pretend anyhow, right?

Looking back on The Wolfman, my first thought is that I really want to see it again. For all the aspects of the movie that didn't work, I can't stop thinking about the parts that I liked. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is stunning - a reminder of how much the horror genre left behind when the gothic style went out of fashion - and at risk of heresy I'd also argue that Rick Baker tops his own work in An American Werewolf in London here.

The transformations here can't compare with AWIL (though it gives that film such a run for its money, others may disagree) but the final look of the Wolf Man here is so classic that I can't help but prefer it to the hell-hound of AWIL - a design that always looked a little goofy. Of all the classic monster revamps since Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), this is easily the best. It's flawed, yes, but at its best it's like an Aurora model kit come to life - and I find that hard not to like.

13 comments:

Planet of Terror said...

As always, great review. I can't wait to see this. Sounds and looks like a lot of fun.

I can't think of a better movie to see on this snow drenched Texas day.

Bob Ignizio said...

Without a doubt Baker made one hell of a monster, and the CGI transformations looked great (although what was up with that CGI deer and bear?). I enjoyed most of the scenes of carnage, too. Kind of like if Paul Naschy had been given a budget. But as you say, there are problems with other aspects of the film, and for me those problems just kept piling up until I couldn't enjoy myself. This definitely has the feel of a movie that went through a lot of post production tinkering.

Jeff Allard said...

PoT, thanks - hope you enjoy the movie. I had fun with it but I'd advise keeping your expectations on the low end.

Bob, I agree that all the meddling has taken a toll on the movie. It's a shame as there's a lot that Johnston and co. get right. I still enjoyed myself for the most part but I'm hoping the extended cut on DVD will be an improvement.

FilmFather said...

I agree with PoT: great review. But once they moved the release date of this movie to the dumping grounds of February, something told me I should stay away.

Jeff Allard said...

Yeah, I wish I could say that the film doesn't show any evidence of being a difficult production but it does. I think it's worth a look but maybe waiting for DVD is better for anyone who's on the fence about it.

J.D. said...

Good review! I will admit that I'm intrigued to see this one. I like Del Toro, Blunt and Johnston (esp. his work on THE ROCKETEER). It looks atmospheric as hell!

Jeff Allard said...

It has atmosphere to spare, that's for sure!

Carl (ILHM) said...

Ugh.. Why do you guys do this to me?? This isnt the first (no the last, Im sure) positive review I have read today, and as morally objected as I am to the digusting overuse of CG in the film, Im going to have to see it. Soon. Thanks for another excellent review man!

Jeff Allard said...

Thanks Carl - if you really have a hate-on against CG I don't know if this will be to your liking but if you can see it on the cheap, give it a try.

knobgobbler said...

I really want to see this... disappointed to hear that it's not up to its potential.
Seeing as how basic/classic of a concept werewolves are it sure seems that the great werewolf movies are few and far between... it's almost like they're cursed...

Still, I'll go see it for Del Toro and his monster.

senski said...

I think it had true greatness within its grasp, but the Talbot character is just so thin. I kept waiting for an "oceans of time" moment, something that could have made that climax genuinely heart-rending. But it looks and sounds smashing. I even love the way they found a new spin on the werewolf howl - there was something hidden in the mix that really gave it an otherworldly quality. Hey - there have been troubled productions that turned out a hell of a lot worse than this.

Cheap Beer said...

I've been quite a geek, reading all about this flick for a long time everywhere I can. I've read lots of negative reviews and I saw it, thought it was a kick ass monster movie. How can a Universal Monster fan not enjoy this? I still can't help but feel there's a longer cut on the horizon. I hope it does well so it shows up on disc....

Jeff Allard said...

I'm also excited to see what material is added to the DVD - from what I've read, it sounds like the extended edition will restore a lot of cut footage. I enjoyed the movie as is but I feel like a better version is out there waiting.