Friday, February 12, 2010
The Monthly Beast
Film Review - THE WOLFMAN (2010)
Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self
Based on a screenplay by Curt Siodmak
Directed by Joe Johnston
On the way to the cinema for The Wolfman, I was trying very hard to pretend that it was 1996 or 1997, and that I was seeing the next installment in Universal's efforts to update their classic Horror icons of the past, hammocked sometime between 1994's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and 1999's The Mummy (and all springing from the success of Bram Stoker's Dracula in 1992). But when Kenneth Branagh's film laid a spectacular egg at the box office, Universal re-calibrated, turned The Mummy into an Indy Jonesian adventure romp, and never got around to the tragic poignancy of Lawrence Talbot, who, despite his nightly prayers, still became ever so much shaggier when the wolfbane bloomed and the autumn moon shone bright.
Fourteen years after it should have been delivered to a viewing public, we finally have Universal's updating - and I use that term advisedly, for the movie avoids any studio temptation to wrench it into the present day, and takes the audience-be-damned risk of letting the story remain in the final decade of the 19th Century. We open with Maria Ouspenskaya's famous cautionary quatrain on lycanthropy to establish an immediate link with the 1941 original, The Wolf Man. Kindly note the absence of that space between "wolf" and "man" in the title of this rebooting; it's a sign that this werewolf movie has things to do, and time is of the essence. No sooner do we hear the poem, and we're plunged headlong into the film, witnessing Ben Talbot's death at the claws of something fast and feral. Cue title card (which bleeds), swell the music, flash the lightning, and we're off.
A digression: I am increasingly troubled by the absence of opening titles in films that would only benefit from their inclusion, especially ones dealing with supernatural horror. What was insidiously begun by the Lethal Weapon franchise has become Standard Operating Procedure for too many movies today, all in the pursuit of grabbing an audience from the get-go and never releasing them. But a period piece - and a Horror one at that - needs a bit of transition to usher the viewer into an unfamiliar world, one where the rules that govern reality don't necessarily apply. Musical theater has its overture - film has opening titles. Done correctly, they can drench the screen with mood and foreboding menace, and allow the score - a fine one here by Danny Elfman - to begin its spellcasting. Their absence in The Wolfman is profoundly felt, and telling.
The Wolfman has had a troubled path to the big screen, and I'm not going to recount that history here (here's an excellent summation). But it does raise an antenna, as many movies plagued by production difficulties and subjected to studio tampering are edited within an inch of their celluloid lives, mounting a surgical strike upon the audience by getting in and getting out quickly, and hoping that the seams holding the picture together don't show. There may not be seams - the picture has a lush, expensive look and is technically crafted with great care - but there are casualties, and one of them is the development of its titular character.
Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is a successful Shakespearean actor touring America when news arrives concerning his missing brother, whose fiancee (Emily Blunt) entreats him to return home to England and his ancestral estate at Blackmoor. His estranged father (Anthony Hopkins) welcomes home the prodigal son with news that his brother's body has since been discovered, horribly mangled by some ferocious beast. We learn via flashbacks that this is indeed a seriously dysfunctional family; Mother died at her own hand, Father has dominance issues, and Lawrence subsequently spent time in an asylum for the mentally disturbed (which illustrates the old adage that people go into acting because it's cheaper than therapy). While at a gypsy camp and investigating his brother's death, Talbot falls victim to a werewolf bite, and by the next full moon, he is undergoing the accursed transformation - for which there is no known cure, save death at the hands of one who loves the afflicted.
And herein lies The Wolfman's gravest flaw. Talbot is a distressingly underwritten character, made all the more apparent when compared with the rich, purple dialogue accorded both Hopkins and Hugo Weaving as Abberline, a constable on the trail of the beast. Whereas they get to attack their roles with relish, Del Toro has attacked his with an eraser. The actor has a wonderful haunted countenance, the kind of face that classic films of the 40s would have loved, but he's given virtually nothing to say. He's a Shakespearean actor of renown*, but this is only seen in the briefest of shots during a montage, and if he is, he's the most laconic actor to ever trod the boards. Is this because of the weakness of his (non-existent) British accent? Not to be mean, but I've always found Del Toro's pre-Oscar roles to border on the unintelligible. He's Method to a dangerous extreme; mumbly and incoherent. Since he's one of the executive producers on the film, I'm guessing that this was a deliberate choice. And by the time the obligatory love enters the picture, it does so because the script demands it, not because of any chemistry between Del Toro and Blunt (who also has very little to do, save stand around and look beautiful). Is it any wonder that massive re-cutting has taken place on the film? Any wonder that the ending was completely changed? Preview audiences must have been reporting little or no emotional investment in the relationship, and the filmmakers spent the better part of a year trying to come up with a version that worked.
Those who have expressed concern about the quality and integration of the CGI effects need not worry; they look just fine to me, and are utilized not just to produce a lithe and ferocious man-beast, but also to return such landmarks as the London Bridge to their 19th Century glory. As for the transformation sequences, they don't last very long, and at the risk of repeating myself, the sequence in a film like An American Werewolf in London feels painfully real not just through the magic of a Rick Baker, but also because we've grown fond of David Naughton's character by that point in the film. Del Toro's Talbot is just an empty shell waiting to sprout hair and fangs.
To his credit, director Johnston produces a movie quite unlike any other in his filmography, with a fever dream quality that makes The Wolfman feel at one with Coppola's Dracula and Branagh's Frankenstein. We are hurtling into the horror when the script calls for it, and the attack sequences - especially one in a doctor's symposium - are nicely staged. It's unfortunate that those rhythms are established too early in the film (you'll be hard-pressed to find any exchange between characters that lasts longer than eight or ten lines of dialogue).
Like all the great movie monsters, Lawrence Talbot should elicit great sympathy as a good man who was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's this central element that the filmmakers of The Wolfman missed, and missed very early in the production. They lavished generous attention upon the Wolf, but forgot the Man.
* This allows Hopkins to get in a few choice snaps at Del Toro's expense and his abilities as an actor. I think Hopkins was referring to Del Toro's character. Or maybe not.