I won’t lie: The Wolfman‘s got problems. And his problems aren’t just the standard ‘It’s a full moon and I am killing people’ problems; in fact those are the problems we’re looking forward to. No, the problems with The Wolfman lie with the editing, which has stripped him right to the bone. It screws up his pacing, making everything feel rushed and giving nothing time to breathe. And it might even have screwed around with his logic; did some of the trimmed scenes include moments that explained some screwed up logic?
But despite all of that, The Wolfman works. Really works. And the fact that it works is even more amazing when you realize that the film battled immense odds and seemingly insurmountable problems to get to your local movie theater this weekend.
Of course that’s all beside the point. Most people walking into theaters this weekend won’t know that director Joe Johnston came on to the film just two weeks before it began shooting, or that there were massive battles between original director Mark Romanek and the producers and studio during pre-production. What they’re going to see if the finished film, free of all other baggage, so that’s what has to get reviewed.
Setting The Wolfman in Victorian England was a masterstroke idea. The 1941 original was ‘modern’ for its time, but by putting the story of man battling his inner beast during a time when society was trying to vanquish its inner ruffian allows the thematic elements of the movie to resonate in an deeper, more organic way. There was a lot going on in Victorian times, an era when science was truly starting to try and lift itself out of the muck of superstition and when the conquest of our basest nature was seen as the ultimate end goal for any civilized person. To throw a seemingly magical beast that embodies the most raging, violent and lustful elements of ourselves into that mix – and to make his primary antagonist a modern-thinking Scotland Yard inspector who has stared the beast in the eye before – allows the Wolfman to be not just about what’s inside of Lawrence Talbot, but what is inside every man he meets.
There’s another plot masterstroke that follows on the heels of this, and it’s a masterstroke that could be considered a spoiler (although I think the film lets you in on the basics of this ‘secret’ about ten minutes in), so skip the rest of this paragraph if you wish to remain unsullied: to take the Wolfman, the primal side of a man at war with his own nature, and to set it against another werewolf, this one the primal side of a man who relishes the beast, is great. It allows another vision of the Wolfman, one that’s a complete polar opposite of the traditional character of Larry Talbot.
Benicio Del Toro is almost too obvious a choice to play Talbot. Dark and brooding, he looks like half a werewolf even when he’s fully shaved, and his downcast features obviously recall the hangdog looks of Lon Chaney Jr. His Lawrence had been shunted off to live in America when he was very young; returning to London as a successful actor doing Hamlet, Lawrence is called back to the decrepit Talbot Hall when his brother goes missing during a full moon. By the time Lawrence gets home his brother’s corpse has already been found, leaving his obviously crazy father (Sir Anthony Hopkins) unmoved and his fiancee (Emily Blunt) bereaved. Lawrence slips into detective mode and begins trying to find out who, or what, has murdered and viciously mauled his brother. The trail leads him to a local gypsy camp where things quickly get exciting – a furry form bursts in, destroying a number of people, before finally biting Lawrence and leaving him barely alive.
The whole movie is breathlessly racing to that scene, and you can feel it. Every moment that isn’t putting Lawrence one step closer to the gypsy camp has been ruthlessly excised, and in what remains you can see conflicted story points. The brother had been going to the gypsy camp as a moderator between the criminal wanderers and the local townspeople, but later flashbacks show the boys’ deceased mother to have a very gypsy look. Operating from a position of charity one could say that the film intends to leave this connection tenuous and mysterious, but later scenes led me to believe that Johnston and company shot two very different versions of key scenes, versions that may have changed the nature of the werewolf curse and the way it impacts the Talbot family. Some of these gypsy scenes contain the vestigial remains of that version.
While these elements bugged me I was able to forget about them because the initial werewolf attack was so great. As were the following scenes where Talbot, now a Wolfman himself, transforms and wreaks havoc. There are problems with the movie but none of them are present in the Wolfman scenes. Rick Baker’s design, reminiscent of Oliver Reed’s Curse of the Werewolf slightly more than Jack Pierce’s work in The Wolf Man, is terrific. Calling that stuff the real star of the movie only sounds like a complaint to people who don’t love monster movies; we’re all in seats to see the Wolfman, and the Wolfman we see is amazing. I like the full wolf transformation as much as the next guy, but it’s the half-wolf that speaks to me. When I was a kid the Wolf Man was go-to Halloween costume, but full wolf transformations (or big, suit-heavy transformations like those in The Howling) seemed way out of my league. Baker’s design returns the Wolfman to a look that’s relatable and recreatable; you can be this Wolfman at Halloween. And the half-human nature of the creature makes him a character in a way that no wolf dummy can be. Baker has allowed the outline of Del Toro’s face to remain, and most especially kept his eyes, so that actual acting can be done through the make-up.
This new Wolfman straddles the line between man and beast in ways that I like; when he’s running this Wolfman can drop to all fours and really book, but he also runs around on two legs. While Johnston opted to go mostly CGI with the transformations he doesn’t flaunt it; there’s no scene where the camera pulls back and gives us a good look at how Talbot is changing. Instead Johnston opts to cut in ways that recall the camera tricks used with traditional make-up FX; while that begs the question ‘Why not just use traditional make-up FX,’ this technique feels to our trained moviegoing minds like it’s filming something real. The desire to get showy is the downfall of CGI, and Johnston’s sparing work – combined with some make-up FX, inventive camerawork and lots of mid-transformation modeling by Baker – brings the transformation scenes to life. Johnston also makes each of them different, saving the real wow transformation for Talbot’s second time becoming the Wolfman.
Walking into The Wolfman I was worried that our main character would be repurposed into a hero, perhaps only killing people we know to be bad or corrupt. While that seems to be the case at first it immediately goes out the window as the Wolfman rampages through the cobblestone streets of London. Attacking a double decker bus (a wonderful homage to An American Werewolf in London), this Wolfman tears through innocents just as bloodily as he does through wrongdoers. This is a very R-rated movie; the gore, when it comes, is plentiful and wet. There are ropes of intestine torn from people, heads lopped off with one paw strike, bodies ripped asunder and destroyed. Some of the splashes are CGI, but many are also practical, sloppy blood effects.
Cinematographer Shelly Johnson needs special recognition. While the movie is undeniably modern in the way it approaches gore and FX, everything else is very old fashioned. Johnson evokes a gothic mood that I haven’t seen in a major film in years, if not decades, and it really recalls the best work done by the folks at Hammer. Johnson turns old estates into shadowy, cobwebbed nightmares and he plays up the menace and terror of the woods and the moors in ways that evoke a texture that has been out of style for years, but which feels truly updated and of the moment here.
The triumph of his work, along with that of editor Walter Murch, is during Talbot’s first hunt as the Wolfman. In this version of the story the townsfolk are way ahead of everybody else and know that Lawrence is a werewolf; they lay traps for him but end up becoming his prey. Johnston opts to only show the full Wolfman in quick, sudden busts, usually a flash of illumination from a muzzle blast as someone tries to get a shot in at him before he dismembers them. It’s not just a good scene, it’s a great scene, and this sequence alone buys the movie lots of good will to spend during its more problematic moments.
The Wolfman is filled with scenes like that; scenes that are terrific on their own but are connected by troubled tissue. Lawrence is thrown into an insane asylum after his first night on the prowl and the combination of semi-medieval ‘treatment’ he receives along with hallucinations he experiences renders the whole sequence nightmarish and surreal and amazing. Many of the scenes in The Wolfman are competent or workmanlike, but a few – like the asylum and some of the action scenes – show a real vision. As a dedicated B movie watcher I’m all too familiar with the idea of sitting through less than stellar material to get to the truly inspired stuff, and The Wolfman plays like a B movie in that way. It’s hard to deny that this is disappointing – again and again The Wolfman shows that there’s greatness hidden in here, somewhere. This movie is just a little to the left of being really excellent.
Part of what brings the film closer to that greatness are the performances. Del Toro understands Talbot and plays his dilemma with reserve and subtlety. He doesn’t jump into anguish but lets it all just come out in his face. On the opposite side of the field is Hopkins, delivering a grand, fun performance that stands in stark contrast to Del Toro. I loved the way these two bounced off of each other; in some ways they’re in different movies, but they’re different movies with a common thematic middle ground. And the film could have gone on to follow either of these men and have been just as enjoyable. Hugo Weaving doesn’t have all that much to do as Inspector Abberline (yes, the guy who investigated the Ripper murders), but he’s fun as a man who goes from not believing in werewolves to watching a guy transform into one right in front of his face. It’s a zero to sixty in two seconds kind of performance, and Weaving’s voice and mannerisms have the right gravitas to make it workl
What doesn’t quite work is the chemistry between Del Toro and Blunt. Simply put, there is none. It’s their relationship that is most devastated by the truncated opening act; when they get to the big emotional scenes at the end it’s hard to care too much. Blunt’s role is unforgiving in its lack of much of anything – she goes from losing her fiancee to falling in love with his brother over the course of a month, and it’s hard to really see her side of that story. It’s unclear why anyone thought that making Gwen Conliffe into Lawrence’s possible sister-in-law was a good idea; perhaps in some longer cut of the movie there’s a reason, but here it makes what’s already a heatless romance into something very hard to root for.
A few days after seeing The Wolfman it isn’t the problematic parts of the movie that stick with me, it’s the great parts. The exciting, well done werewolf scenes. The vivid atmosphere. Anthony Hopkins’ bordering-on-deranged performance. Benicio Del Toro’s Wolfman perched alongside a gargoyle, howling at the moon. I’m looking forward to the promised home video director’s cut, because I suspect that many of my problems with the film will be, if not solved, mitigated by the new footage. I wish the filmmakers had some more faith in audiences and allowed the billowy gothic world they created more room to breathe, and it’s hard not to be disappointed when seeing opportunities get missed, but in the end The Wolfman more than delivers what I needed from it. Scary and fun and thrilling, The Wolfman brings the Universal Monsters back to the screen in a way that’s fitting and modern and still respectful.
8 out of 10