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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Full Moon. 1-1/2 Stars

I’m a rabid monster fan, so I approach all Wolfmen looking em’ straight in the jaundiced eye and without offering a hand to sniff first. I charge in, popcorn spilling, hoping that every Wolfman will be a bona fide killer! That said, here’s a prequel to my review:

Universal Pictures has returned to making monster movies! Go see the WOLFMAN. Show your support. Applaud Curt Siodmac’s posthumous screen credit! Ask for more! MORE!

Now about the movie itself…

This week, Universal Pictures returns to their too oft-neglected vault of classic horror characters to breed a new WOLFMAN. In the genre-seasoned hands of director Joe Johnston (ROCKETEER, JUMANJI, JURRASIC PARK 3) the result is a mixed litter.

The story goes that actor Lawrence Talbot (BENICIO DEL TORO) returns from America to his chilly ancestral home in Victorian-era Britan to an equally chilly welcome from his stoic Father Sir John Talbot (ANTHONY HOPKINS). Sir John informs Lawrence that his brother Ben has been torn to shreds on the moors. Such a horrible dismemberment that the entire town speculates that, while it looks like the work of a wild animal, it is so brutal that they can’t rule out a mad man. While Sir John doesn’t seem moved by the tragedy, Ben’s fiancé Gwen Conliffe (a swooningly beautiful EMILY BLUNT) is devastated, desperately needing answers. Lawrence investigates at a gypsy camp just as villagers are mounting a raid to kill the Gypsy’s pet black bear, which they scapegoat for Ben’s death. But an inhuman creature attacks the camp killing everyone in sight in a bloody slaughter that will leave hungry gore hounds loosening their belts like they just finished Thanksgiving dinner! Lawrence follows the ghastly creature into the fog where he’s attacked, but rescued before the beast can finish him. Lawrence is alive, but badly bitten. The well-worn curse of the Wolfman has been set in motion.

As a period piece, the atmosphere is appropriately dank and overripe. Here you’ll find the kind of swampy moors and castles that creepy things jump out of. There are many good things to say about this movie. It holds an obvious affection for the original classic that pervades every frame. There’s also a contemporary body-count and splatter-factor that is extreme but doesn’t detract. The performances are all solid and engaging. The overall production design is ambitious and consistent. None of these qualities will be lost on any audience. I enjoyed this WOLFMAN. Unfortunately, some technical missteps and story flaws prevented me from loving this picture.

The movie opens at a clip. Positively gripping! Danny Elfman’s (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BATMAN) score is a complimentary backdrop to the mood and period of the film. Unlike anything we’re used to hearing from him, yet signature enough that when his credit rolls at the end of the film, the audience let’s out a collective, “Ah-ha”! After the first five minutes of the movie I thought, great! They’re churning out a dizzying amount of story exposition (which even a mundane audience is already familiar with) so that they can move on to the (blood-rare) meat. I was a little disappointed to find that the filmmakers were actually just clearing the table to heap on a second helping of laborious back story to service the plot points they’d manufactured for their version. Perhaps necessary, but the effect was that of watching MTV ROAD RULES then switching channels in mid antic to the ANTIQUES ROAD SHOW. The pace stuttered badly.

The lighting in this film seemed so subdued that scenic detail was not only perpetually bathed in moonlight blue, but also nearly scrubbed clean of texture. The darkness in this film often serves, not as shadow, but as a barrier to visibility. Far be it from me to gripe about the dark. But in this case that darkness doesn’t have the effect of creating mystery, but rather made me feel like I was missing things I was supposed to be seeing. This is never more frustrating than in the scenes that prominently feature Rick Baker’s (AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, MEN IN BLACK) beautiful makeup. And that makeup is everything a classic horror fan could hope for. Human-centric in its design, Baker’s makeup is a masterful blend of iconic Jack Pierce (FRANKENSTEIN, THE MUMMY, THE WOLFMAN) elements with modern innovation. It’s a real shame that the makeup is lit so that it sometimes reads flat and brown like a chocolate Easter bunny. In production stills it’s clear that Baker created a piece that not only honored his love of our horror legacy but also played into the hands of the brilliant Benecio Del Toro (THE USUAL SUSPECTS, SIN CITY) designing the makeup to accommodate the actor’s superhuman range of emotion and expression. And Del Toro becomes Lawrence Talbot just as deftly as Talbot morphs into the lycanthrope. The CGI effects used to subsidize the transformations are state-of-the-art dazzlers but unfortunately are disjointed from the practical makeup. This results in the practical and digital effects undermining each other. Sometimes they look like entirely different animals. Baker has said in other interviews that he wasn’t consulted to the degree he would have liked in order to inform the digital effects and coordinate them with his own work. Sheesh! Baker offers his input on monster design and what? You have better things to do than listen to him? Three words: De Laurentiis’ KONG. (When will they learn)?

I had the pleasure of chatting with Benicio Del Toro and Forry Ackerman at a ComicCon a couple years ago, right after principal photography had wrapped on the WOLFMAN. While I expected the Oscar winner to be every bit the fascinating artist that he is, I was surprised to learn that he was a classic horror fan and Famous Monsters reader too. Apparently, as kids, he and his brother (now a doctor) shared a passion for monsters. Benecio spoke of how he loved everything about the 1941 Wolfman. He expressed his earnest desire to honor the tragedy of the original Curt Siodmac (HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) story. Forry and Benecio mostly spoke of Lon Chaney Jr. (GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, OF MICE AND MEN) for whom Benecio was not shy in expressing his hero worship. Chaney Jr. is definitely along for the ride in this movie. You can see his tragic countenance all over Del Toro.

In this new incarnation of The WOLFMAN, Del Toro is the consummate sympathetic creature. He is wounded by his past and arrives home carrying more than just the baggage in his hands. And it gets darker from there! Anthony Hopkins (MAGIC, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) turns in a performance that is a departure for him and an interesting take for the audience. Hopkins plays the misogynistic Sir John Talbot to the point of being loathsome from the moment we set eyes on him. All the charm of his villainous Hannibal Lechter is gone from this cryptic and admittedly “dead” soul. A divine Emily Blunt (THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA) isn’t given much to do but manages to elevate every scene she’s in with pure emotion and grace. Geraldine Chaplain (DR. ZHIVAGO, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) makes a memorable appearance as the Gypsy Maleva. It was a treat to watch her chew over this choice cameo. Notable also, is Rick Baker’s short-lived but sweet “victim” (you’ve probably seen him violently snatched off-screen a dozen times at the end of the movie’s trailer). While Hugo Weaving (MATRIX, V FOR VENDETTA, THE HOBBIT) is always an adventure to see on screen, what his character Inspector “Abberline” is doing in this story is a mystery to me. It’s as if he wandered into the frame from an unrelated film shooting down the lot. That the filmmakers hung the potential sequel on this character is a head-scratcher. Fleas anyone?

To me, story problems are the bane of this WOLFMAN’S existence. At its heart, the classic Curt Siodmac’s script is a lamb of a story about love and sacrifice in bloody wolf’s clothing. In the beloved 1941 George Waggner (BATMAN TV SERIES, GREEN HORNET) helmed classic, Lon Chaney Jr’s Larry Talbot is love-smitten before being bitten and spends the rest of the movie in escalating torment and remorse. Horrified by the murderous deeds he commits as the Wolfman and seeking the courage to end his own life to protect the lives of his loved ones. In today’s version, convoluted twists of familial curse and a legacy of lycanthropy, distracted me from Talbot’s character arc. Rushing Talbot into a mysterious scenario from frame one, means we meet him already with his brood on. This sort of deprives us of the opportunity to witness his emotional transformation of character – to me, every bit as important as the physical transformation that’s coming. But most importantly, it appears that servicing all of the exposition and subplot takes valuable focus away from establishing the romance between Lawrence and Gwen. First we have to get past the fact that Gwen is the fiancé of Lawrence’s freshly slaughtered brother. Next, we have to wade through Victorian-era repression and gratuitous subplot before we get to see the couple in the same room together. This may be a mistake in priorities, putting adventure before relationship. But by the end of the movie, I (and a few of my screening companions) weren’t convinced of love between Gwen and Lawrence. Supposedly, Lawrence can only be released from the dreadful curse by one who loves him. In this case, failure to service the great romantic heart of a story can be as fatal as any fang or claw. Sadly, even audience members unconcerned with dynamics or missing story elements could leave the theater feeling emotionally empty.

Taken as a whole, I am all for this WOLFMAN. It is watchable and entertaining with enough of a nod to the classic version to satisfy most genre afficianados. The violence is exhilarating and the wolfman himself is very scarey! The well-meaning intention of the filmmakers is not lost on me. I am appreciative that they made this movie for “us.” I hope it spawns more. Imagine what Guillermo Del Toro’s FRANKENSTEIN or CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON might be like. Wouldn’t you kill to see Quentin Tarantino take on THE MUMMY? I would go nuts if director P.T. Anderson were to revisit my favorite classic; THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Oh, and I would absolutely LOVE to see maestro Rick Baker direct ANY monster feature he chose to! I wish I could be an unconditional cheerleader for the new WOLFMAN, but I believe we fans have a responsibility to articulate what we love AND what we loathe about monster movies in the hopes that more solid, classic-based horror faire will recapture the imaginations of new audience members and old studios.

My criticisms of THE WOLFMAN are constructive. As I said before, Universal Pictures made a monster movie! Fans should rejoice and support this film. But we also carry the torch for the movie monsters that we love. There’s no reason our classics can’t be transposed to modern screens without losing track of integral components that never age. In the case of the WOLFMAN, some of those components are: fear of losing ourselves, fear of hurting our loved ones and the ultimate sacrifice of dispatching the one you love most in order to save their immortal soul. To suggest that this WOLFMAN is missing these elements would be unfair. But it’s my opinion that in trying to aim this movie at a modern audience, the filmmakers forgot that, regardless of the era, the most successful monster movies aren’t really about monsters. They’re about people. And people, whether sewn together from dead body parts, summoned from the grave or cursed to transform into a beast when the moon is full, all possess a heart. At least a yearning to recapture their heart through sometimes twisted but always true love.

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