The Wolf Man

Even a critic who is pure in heart,
And watches films at night,
May let some spoilers slip,
While penning spurious shite!

It’s been a very long road that has brought Larry Talbot back to the screen. Unlike his fellow Universal monsters Dracula and Frankenstein who have both enjoyed frequent revivals over the decades, cinema’s iconic tormented lycanthrope was not based on a literary work with its rights in the public domain. So although many of the werewolf movies that followed over the years have borrowed the character template created back in 1941, Larry himself hasn’t seen the light of the moon since 1948. Even when Universal decided to bring back their old horrors in the latter day monster rally Van Helsing (2004), the werewolvery on display wasn’t courtesy of Mr Talbot.

But in 2006, Universal announced that at long last it was slating a remake of The Wolf Man and as events unfolded it looked like the property was as cursed as Larry himself. There was a pack of directors circling around the director’s chair after the original choice, Mark Romanek left citing creative differences. Eventually Joe Johnston landed the gig, the script was rewritten and shooting finally began. However even then it was far from plain sailing – the production was delayed several times as reshoots were done, effects tweaked, the score was mucked about with several times, and veteran editor Walter Murch brought onboard put the film through its final transformation.

Now I was initially quite excited about his project, especially when they announced that the make up work was to be handled by the great Rick Baker and Benicio del Toro was in the frame to play Larry Talbot. However after the seemingly never ending merry go round of changes and alterations, I was beginning to wonder whether this flick would ever make it into the theatres at all. And when the film opened, Joe Johnston announcing that the disc release would feature a director’s cut featuring an extra seventeen minutes didn’t exactly inspire confidence. So when it finally arrived at the local fleapit, before going in I had not so much lowered my expectations as beat them to death with a silver headed cane.

Now Joe Johnston has received a fair bit of flak, a good deal even before the film’s release, for being a journeyman director. However since seeing the movie, I have to say he’s done a remarkable job in riding out all the waves and what actually appears on screen is far better than we had any right to expect, especially considering the production history. And while The Wolf Man is not going to garner any awards or go down as a classic of cinema, it is does work well within its own parameters.

And let’s be clear on what these parameters are - The Wolf Man is a monster movie pure and simple. It might be a horror film but it’s not really trying to terrify you or incubate a phobia of lycanthropes. Of course, many hardened horror heads were hoping for a proper hardcore horror; whether that would be a darker more psychological piece, or a brutalist retelling of the tale with viscera everywhere, or just a film with real terror rather than ghost train shocks. But The Wolf Man is aiming for none of these things - rather it’s out to serve up a gothic themed popcorn muncher, with everything a general audience expects of such of a creature feature – plenty of action, some gore, and a few jump scares. In short, the emphasis is on fun rather than fear.

And though some fans will be muttering about the watering down of the genre for the multiplex audience, as a creature feature The Wolf Man does succeed. Now it’s not a perfect film, and I’ll be the first to concede that it could have better, but it does entertain consistently through its running time.

So what does The Wolf Man get right? First up, it stays broadly true to the original - it retains the period setting and carrries over many of the elements present in Curt Siodmak's screenplay for the 1941 film. Stand out differences are the inclusion of the full moon's role in lycanthropy and jettisoning the original's folklore surrounding the pentagram. Also the role of the gypsies in the story is lessened - possibly this is an issue with the edit released in theatres but more likely I suspect the Maleva character smacked too much of horror cliches and possibly the Romany band of the original would appear at somewhat ethnically insensitive if not for modern audiences then certainly for Universal's lawyers.

However the changes still well within the story, as despite being cut from the whole cloth of the original, this version of the Wolf Man tale put a neat twist on the tale. And it manages to admirably to be a fairly faithful remake of the first film but bringing a new version of the story to the screen.

The look of the movie is simply fantastic. It recreates Victorian England rather nicely and in this respect it does trump the original. The decision to film in England pays off in style; for example, it would have been very easy to go the CGI route and mock up the Talbot estate but actually filming at a real stately home gives the film an authentic weight that digital trickery often lacks. Plus by extensively filming in a variety of UK locations, Johnston gets to make good use of the surrounding landscape which adds considerably to the atmosphere of Englishness. Now that might seem a small nebulous point but I do think that if they had opted to film somewhere else – and let’s be frank, England isn’t the cheapest country in the world to make a movie in – you would lose something.

While still on the look of the film, I also did sense that the designers and set dressers were aiming a little more historical accuracy than the usual Hollywood period London drowned in pea soupers and gaslights. For example, the depiction of the gypsy encampment was noticeably more down at heel and ragged rather than the standard travelling fair cliché that we usually see whenever a script calls for Romany or carnival locations.

I do have one set/location related quibble though, which is the Talbot house itself was slightly over dressed for my taste. Within the framework of the story, the hall should be somewhat overgrown, reflecting the fact that Sir John Talbot has misplaced a few of his marbles over the years, but it was also at little too close to the old screen cliché that the monster’s home must look like hell on toast. You could have scaled back the ivy choked exterior and toned down the accumulating detritus indoors and retained the same effect. Less would have been more, and the Talbots’ home would have meshed better with the rest of the onscreen world.

Anyhow, amid all this rather lush scenery, we have a fairly decent cast, and no one seems to have enrolled in the Dick Van Dyke Gor Blimey Guv’nor school of acting prior to the cameras rolling thankfully. Sir Anthony Hopkins puts in a good turn and generally chews the scenery far less than I was expecting. Emily Blunt makes for a fine Victorian lady though I did feel she was a little under used – but more on that later. And Hugo Weaving is as excellent as Inspector Fred Abberline as you’d expect him to be; yet again he shows his range in creating a fresh character with an entirely different voice and mannerisms to his previous roles and pretty much steals most of the scenes he’s in. He even looks uncannily like the real Abberline.

Of course the big issue is Benicio del Toro as Larry Talbot. Now when I first heard the casting news, although I respect del Toro immensely as an actor, I did wonder whether he could pull off playing an English gentleman – after all, accents are a tricky beast and in the past many a fine actor has struggled, and in some case fallen badly, in mastering a voice pattern from outside there their native lands. Would the new Wolf Man end up too closely emulating the original 1941 version with a blatantly non-Brit playing the son of an English lord?

Of course, I needn’t have worried – del Toro hits all the correct cadences without obviously attempting to force an English accent. And though the story does include a little detail to explain why he looks a touch less British than his father, there is a certain family resemblance to Hopkins. On paper, it shouldn’t work but when you see them on screen together you can believe they are related – of course the strength of the performances create this illusion in the main but they do have strangely similar facial features in some respects. Indeed, they are a far better match as father and son than Chaney and Rains ever were.

However on the subject of similarities, del Toro appears to be actually channelling Lon Chaney Jr. Now Benicio is a huge fan of the original Wolf Man movies and you can tell he’s studied his predecessor in depth for the role. Though his Lawrence Talbot is more brooding than Chaney, he emanates the same troubled aura of melancholy, with the torment visible in the eyes and hang dog expression. And as his wolfish alter ego, he brings a far greater physicality to the role and deeper sense of rage to the monster.

This brings us nicely to the depiction of the Wolf Man. Now obviously the effects work by Rick Baker is as every bit as good as you’d expect it to be, and he's has done an excellent job in modernising Jack Pierce’s original designs for the 21st century. But equally obviously, the transformation sequences just don’t have the wow factor of his previous work on American Werewolf in London. The trouble is we’ve all seen these kind of physical transmogrifications done to death by every man and his dog in the intervening years. However the sequences do look fantastic, with none of the glaringly obvious CGI that often blights such scenes.

Sadly though, not all the digital effects in this movie are as skilfully blended as the transformations. In the main, where the CGI doesn’t work as well is in some occasional moments of the London scenes, particularly the rooftop chase. Now in fairness, here The Wolf Man never plunges into the screamingly obvious levels of digital scene creation that marred similar rooftop sequences in The Incredible Hulk but the smoking skyline doesn’t always feel quite real enough.

However there is a truly awful bit of CGI in this flick, and it's very much the low point of the entire movie – that damned bear. Now the problem here isn’t that the ursine in question is particularly badly animated or rendered, the trouble is it doesn’t look like a real bear when we see it up close! For the screen time it has, it surely would have been cheaper to matte in footage of a real bear than create this digital porridge hunter.

Now I appreciate that real bears are quite difficult to work with (getting stuch in honey trees and trying to flog you Hofmeister) and a continuing problem for CGI effects is animating fur realistically, but this creature tossed me out of the movie so hard I felt like bloody Goldilocks. And from now on, I propose that any such cringingly bad piece of CGI should be dubbed ‘a bear’…

And if you are wondering why the bear is in there at all, I think it’s one of the many nods to the original movie. The 1941 Wolf Man was supposed to include a scene at the gypsy camp where a bitten but pre-change Larry wrestles a tame bear as part of a fair ground contest. However the real bear the studio brought in was not keen on being in show biz and after two days shooting the scene was scrapped. Maybe they were considering riffing on this lost scene and planning a fight scene with Paddington’s feral cousin and the werewolf but decided against it when they saw the CG work… In which case, we all dodged a silver bullet there.

But just as one swallow doesn’t make a summer, neither does one dodgy bruin a bad movie make. And the fluctuations in the overall quality of the special effects aren’t the movie’s real problem. The major flaw as far I’m concerned is the plotting. Now don’t get me wrong The Wolf Man bounds along at a brisk speed and is properly punctuated so you are never far away from some action or a story development. However the film seems to sacrifice a little too much drama for the sake of pace, and it is here that all the production’s tortuous development history makes itself felt.

It doesn’t really spend enough time developing the relationships in the story, hence my earlier remarks about Emily Blunt – we only get enough on screen to superficially sell the romance between Lawrence and Gwen. And similarly, in the spiky relationship with his father, I felt that there was more dramatic mileage there than was actually delivered. And in trimming down this material, presumably in the name of tempo, it effectively weakens the opening sections and more crucially the last act. The climatic battle between Lawrence and Sir John feels a little overshadowed by the London rampage as all we are left with is the action; as their relationship has been dramatically under weighted in the rest of the film, this confrontation lacks the emotional wallop it should have had. And more seriously, as the Lawrence/Gewn relationship is undercooked, we don’t get enough to establish any real pathos for the finale where Gwen must kill Lawrence to save him.

As it stands the story functions ok, but with some more flesh on its bones it would work a whole lot better. The crux of The Wolf Man story is Talbot’s struggle for humanity, and if we were to see more scenes that emphasised his emotional conflicts then the film’s narrative would work on a deeper level than the slightly hokey one it currently does.

Interestingly, in the extended cut has assembled for the disc release, Johnston has confirmed that the extra quarter of an hour mainly comprises of character driven sequences rather than extra action and gore (click here for details). All of which confirms the suspicion I had when watching the movie that there were a few scenes missing here and there, and especially in the first half. It will be interesting to see how differently the longer plays and I think we’ll see a version that sports superior performances and deeper drama, a movie that builds more evenly to its finish.

One final quibble though, and one that I doubt the longer cut will fix, is the very end of the movie where we are left wondering if Abberline is to be the next werewolf. Now although I’d be more than happy go and see Weaving as the Wolf Man, and indeed it would be great to see him in a lead role, I do have a couple of problems with that.

Firstly, we’ve just got Larry Talbot back and a great actor, Benicio del Toro in the role. So if you want a sequel, raise him up from the grave. It’s not hard, just steal the opening from Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, and let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to see what Rick Baker could do with moonlight reviving Lawrence Talbot? Come on, a desiccated corpse to werewolf transformation would be pure gold!

Secondly if they are planning to go down that route, why set the film in 1891? If you’re having Fred Abberline turn lycanthrope in a sequel, a more interesting premise would be to set this first movie BEFORE the Jack the Ripper murders.

But as I stated at the start of this review, The Wolf Man has come out pretty decent considering the production’s troubles. What we have here is an entertaining movie rather than a great film; in trading off drama for pace, it romps where it should lope. Or to put it another way, we have a comic book version of the story rather than the dark fairy tale it perhaps should have been.

However, although The Wolf Man has missed a cinematic bulls eye, it has at least hit the right target. I mean, look what happened when Universal have resurrected their famous monsters in the recent past - The Mummy series has upped stakes entirely from the horror genre and wandered onto Indiana Jones’ turf and as for Van Helsing … deary deary me, I never realised that pissing on graves counted as a homage these days.

The Wolf Man on the other hand, does respectfully tip its hat to the original in many ways – indeed for the Universal buff out there there’s a lot of nice little references to the original to spot. And neither is it as annoyingly and wilfully dumb as either of those other resurrections. Yes, it is a bit hokey but it is a fun watch. And lest we forget, many of the monster movies of years gone by, all those creature features that we all love so much, share the exactly the same kind of flaws. For all the unevenness in the story telling, it does the Wolf Man right and will no doubt win him a whole new generation of fans. Welcome back Larry!

JIM MOON, 25th February 2010