Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Wolfman: Bad Hair Day

The Wolfman (2010) • View trailer for The Wolfman
Three stars (out of five). Rating: R, for violence and gobs o' gore
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.18.10
Buy DVD: The Wolfman • Buy Blu-Ray: The Wolfman (2-Disc Unrated Director's Cut + Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Director Joe Johnston deserves credit, in his muscular remake of The Wolfman, for resurrecting the tone and atmosphere of the classic 1930s and '40s Universal Studios monster movies: the late-19th century setting; the foreboding, fog-enshrouded English moors and crumbling mansions; the superstitious townsfolk determined to blame traveling gypsies for the ferocious beast suddenly in their midst.

The film also is well cast, with Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt and Anthony Hopkins looking and sounding as if they belong in this time and place. (Too many Hollywood flavors-of-the-moment fail to shake their 21st century "presence" when placed in a period drama.)
Despite knowing of the curse that turns Lawrence Talbot into a raging monster
each full moon, Gwen (Emily Blunt) believes that she can calm him ... a
decision she starts to regret, once the beast starts chasing her across a foggy,
muddy moor. Where's a silver bullet when you need it?

And I smiled appreciatively when Johnston and his two writers  Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, working from Curt Siodmak's original 1941 screenplay  opened their film with the classic Wolfman mantra:

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers by night

May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms

And the autumn moon is bright.

You just don't find moody curses like that these days.

Alas, production values and savvy casting do not a film make, and after a solid beginning Johnston's take on The Wolfman turns silly and devolves into a gore-laden bloodbath. Some directors simply haven't learned the lesson: If they wish their films to be taken seriously, they can't pelt the audience with the eviscerated limbs, dangling intestines and decapitations that are standard fare in the Friday the 13th franchise or Rob Zombie's blood-spattered remakes of the Halloween series.

It's always the story, stupid ... and this one turns into a stupid story.

More crucially, though, the 1941 film's all-important dramatic heft is absent. Lawrence Talbot is one of cinema's great tragic figures: a good man fully aware that he becomes an uncontrollable monster one night each month, but who lacks the strength the end his own life and stop the carnage. Lon Chaney Jr., back in the day, made Talbot deeply conflicted and heart-breaking: a tortured soul with whom we identified quite strongly.

We never, ever stopped feeling sorry for him.

Del Toro, in great contrast, too frequently seems a sallow, hollow-eyed victim of consumption and madness: more deserving of contempt than concern. He repeatedly behaves foolishly  in fairness, the script thrusts that upon him  and remains so withdrawn that we never get a sense of the man before he's overwhelmed by the monster within.

That simply isn't the proper reading of Lawrence Talbot.

Things kick off when Lawrence, a well-respected London stage actor, is summoned back to his family estate in Blackmoor, following his brother's grisly murder. The reunion with his long-estranged father, Sir John (Hopkins), is prickly at best; Lawrence gets a warmer welcome from his father's faithful manservant, Singh (Art Malik), and his deceased brother's fiancee, Gwen (Blunt).

One wonders, just in passing, why a proper 19th century young woman would be living sans chaperone in an estate populated solely by men, but we have to let that detail go ... just as we can't worry about who prepares their meals, since Sir John seems to have no cooks, maids or butlers.


Lawrence pays a visit to a gypsy camp, hoping to learn something from a wise crone named Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin). Instead, he's present to witness a horrific attack by something that both walks on two feet and lopes about on four, strikes with brain-numbing speed and is impervious to bullets. After pursuing this creature onto the moor, by himself and in thickening fog  yeah, there's a smart move!  Lawrence is savaged by the beast.

He survives, thanks to Maleva's quick intervention. Why she'd bother, given the consequences that she understands all too well, remains yet another mystery.

The townsfolk, learning of the attack  and Lawrence's improbably rapid recovery  fear the worst; Sir John, perhaps hoping to atone for past neglect, staunchly defends his son. Scotland Yard's Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), knowing of Lawrence's incarceration in a lunatic asylum, years earlier, casts a gimlet eye on our moody protagonist and begins a thorough investigation.

Time passes, the next full moon arrives, and Lawrence learns that his worst nightmare has, indeed, come to pass.

At this point, Johnston abandons the literary-style trappings of his first act and goes for the pell-mell, screw-the-details momentum he brought to 2001's Jurassic Park III and (in a lighter vein) 1995's Jumanji. It's not a wise transition.

Lawrence's return to the same lunatic asylum is an inexplicable plot development, apparently inserted solely so the newly minted wolfman can run amok in London's crowded streets during the next full moon. This detour makes absolutely no sense in the context of Aberline's investigation, and the segue to the climactic third act is even sillier: Somehow, it takes Lawrence an entire month to get from London back to Blackmoor, just in time for the next full moon.

That's just daft. England isn't that large, and country estates weren't that far from London in the first place. Even on foot, the journey would take no more than a week, if that.

And speaking of details...

Much is made, as Lawrence recovers from his initial attack, of the heightened senses  even in his human state  that allow him (for example) to hear the thundering hooves of approaching horses long before anybody else. Such enhanced awareness seems entirely logical, and yet these talents never are mentioned  or employed  again: an intriguing element simply dropped by sloppy scripters.

Hopkins chews up the scenery in great style, relishing a role that allows him to balance on the razor's edge between hermit-like eccentricity and cunning madness. He brings considerable verisimilitude to these events, granting somber weight to Sir John's every word and deed. This venerable fellow always seems to know more than he's telling, and the film benefits from Hopkins' mysterious qualities.

Blunt makes a great heroine: intelligent, spirited and conflicted by her loyalty to a deceased fiance, and her growing attraction to his brother. She, too, brings credibility to several scenes that should have been scripted better.

Weaving is terrific, and it's a shame we don't spend more time with Aberline: a dedicated Scotland Yard investigator who'd be right at home in Guy Ritchie's recent reboot of Sherlock Holmes.

As a point of curiosity, it's worth noting that Frederick Abberline is a character lifted from real life: a chief inspector for the London Metropolitan Police who was deeply involved in the Jack the Ripper murders, and has been played by both Johnny Depp and Michael Caine in films devoted to this serial killer. The slight spelling difference notwithstanding, this scripting decision couldn't have been accidental.

The production values in The Wolfman are excellent, and Danny Elfman's moody score richly complements the film's dour atmosphere. In all respects, Johnston's film looks and sounds great.

I only wish he had taken his second and third acts as seriously as the first.

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