10 February 2010

The Studio Silver Bullet

Having looked forward to Joe Johnston's remake of the classic Universal horror The Wolfman for a long while, and got in to see it while the iron's hot, I thought I'd drop in to give you my review. As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

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The Wolfman is about more or less what you would expect. This new version follows an actor, Lawrence Talbot, as he returns to his family mansion following the death of his brother Ben. Mysterious circumstances surround the death, fuelled by the hearsay of an unearthly beast in the woods. When Lawrence comes face to face with the beast, he's attacked and ends up being cursed with the same condition- he becomes a werewolf. Between full moons, he's beset by the pious villagers, investigated by the imperious Inspector Abberline, and manages his complicated relationships with both his father Sir John and his brother's widow Gwen. All the while he struggles with his monstrous condition as he tries to find out the truth behind his brother's death.

This production has been dogged (pun intended) by studio interference since its inception, and it shows in the final product. Originally scheduled for 2007 without a director or cast, it was pushed back to April 2009 when Joe Johnston came aboard. And then it was pushed back again, to November. And then again, so now it's finally hitting cinemas, after numerous rewrites, reshoots and other such hindrances. The result is sadly perfunctory and confused rather than fulfilling its potential. Universal have been in this territory before with 2004's Van Helsing, a clusterfuck of a film that singularly failed to replicate the fun spirit of their more successful remake of The Mummy. While there are considerably less monsters in this one, the story just seems to coast along with an awful lot going on but nothing actually happening.


While Van Helsing was a largely audience-friendly 12A, The Wolfman has been equipped with dismembered limbs and bloody fountains to appeal to a more hardened horror audience, and it's utterly misjudged. I suspect this is down to the studio interference, seeing as how Joe Johnston's previous works have included family classics like Rocketeer and Jumanji. Those are both fun and exciting romps, and the 15 certificate precludes this film's efforts to be a fun and exciting romp. But it's still trying for that, and so horror fans will be turned off as much as the family audience. This leads to a big discrepancy in tone, mixing anxious jump-scares with occasionally computer-generated blood. Yes, our old friend, computer-generated blood. This is the kind of cheap solution that belongs in Ninja Assassin or Blood: The Last Vampire- not in your big horror blockbuster. The excellent prosthetic work attests to the fact that they wouldn't have bothered with digitally adding gore if they had intended to- they could have had practical effects during filming instead.

As a result of the aforementioned mismatch of tone, there are occasional flashes of brilliance that sink without trace amongst the more predictable and humdrum horror schlock. There's a breathtaking sequence around midway through where Lawrence wolfs up and runs riot through Victorian London, hurdling chimney-pots and derailing trams as the hapless police try to end his rampage. It's brilliantly shot and very well judged, making the wolf compelling and watchable in the exact same way that New Moon didn't, This was the point where I really thought the film was going to pick up in quality. Instead, it settled back down into the same vanilla narrative conventions, proving that films made by committee rather than by the artist never really work. For instance, nobody at the studio thought it was dumb to sacrifice the supporting characters' common sense in return for numerous scenes of them chasing Lawrence while wolfed-up instead of running away from him and waiting til he changes back into a human.

The cast are hit and miss for the most part too, but I blame the script for that, with around a third of the whole thing's running time preoccupied by nightmares, hallucinations and flashbacks as opposed to actual plot. The excellent Benicio del Toro could probably have made for a much more interesting werewolf with half a realistic line, but instead it feels like he's flat and expository. When main characters are expository, there's a problem. Anthony Hopkins makes a decent appearance as Sir John, but it's blatantly obvious where his character is going, and there's a thankless love interest role for the usually brilliant Emily Blunt, whose portrayal is winsome but not particularly memorable. The real standout performance is Hugo Weaving's, making one of his first on-screen appearances since he finished with both Agent Smith and Elrond in 2005. Having spent the interim period voicing penguins, giant robots and masked revolutionaries, it's just terrific to see him as Abberline. I was actually rooting for him rather than Lawrence, about whom the script never really makes you care.

Werewolves currently just stand behind vampires and ghosts as the supernatural gribbly of choice for Hollywood, and The Wolfman isn't likely to bolster their popularity to the levels of Edward Cullen and his ilk. Its final release date just before Valentine's Day seems to position it as an alternative date movie for the weekend, and on that level it might succeed. It has the occasional thrills and scares and a truly brilliant action sequence in the middle, but not really enough story or substance to make it enjoyable overall. Universal should've kept their oar out and this might have been released over a year ago and disappointed me a lot less than it eventually did. While it sounds like I'm being down on the film, it's actually not bad- just not as good as it really ought to be with the premise and the talent involved. I'd be very willing to see a director's cut, provided it brought in some more coherence and gave us something of the romping horror adventure I expected.

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Odds are The Wolfman will be the best choice if you're looking for a film to see with your significant other this Valentine's Day, as the alternatives are the simply-named romcom Valentine's Day, the latest Harry Potter knock-off Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, and the considerably more family-friendly Ponyo. Still, if you do go and see The Wolfman, why not share your thoughts in a comment below?

The next post will likely cover The Princess and the Frog and A Prophet. I did say that last time, but hey, I was really looking forward to The Wolfman. Those other two will be up next, with some of this week's new releases, mentioned above, following on.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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