Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Wolfman (Unrated)

Hollywood and the American public have a short memory.  That's a good thing, since Hollywood loves to remake films.  Sometimes it works, like with Dawn of the Dead (2004), The Maltese Falcon (1941), or Batman (1989).  Sometimes it fails spectacularly, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) or Psycho (1998).  Most of the time, though, remakes fail to leave any mark on the public consciousness ("Jeff Daniels was in a King Kong remake?  The Dumb and Dumber guy?"), and usually deservedly so.  The Wolfman is a remake of the 1941 movie, The Wolf Man, which starred Lon Chaney Jr. in his signature role.  This time, the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot is played by Benicio del Toro.  Will his interpretation be the one that we remember, or will it fade into obscurity over time?

You know a character is going to be a fun-loving party dude when his first scene has him playing Hamlet on the stage, despite being at least ten years older than the character.  That is where we find Lawrence Talbot in 1891 London, just before he is informed of his brother's disappearance by Gwen (Emily Blunt), who is engaged to he missing brother.  His brother lived on their family estate with their father, so Lawrence boards a train for his home town of Blackmoor; on the train Lawrence encounters a stranger (Max von Sydow), who wants to give Lawrence a fine cane with a silver wolf's head for the handle.  Lawrence refuses the kind offer, only to jerk himself awake the next moment, alone in the compartment.  But look...!  The cane is where the man was sitting.  Or was he?  The mystery will remain forever unsolved, because this scene was apparently cut from the theatrical version and has no bearing on the core plot.  Thanks for showing up, Max. 

Lawrence arrives home and greets his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), who is a weird guy.  Think latter day Ted Nugent meets that creepy, quiet guy who stares at people in the library.  The reason the two men are estranged has something to do with the suicide of Lawrence's mother (Christina Contes), although it's not clear exactly why.  Anyway, the missing Talbot brother has turned up dead, so Lawrence goes to the morgue and takes a look.  Apparently, his brother was delicious, because there's not much left of him.  Lawrence then returns to London to use this tragedy as fuel for his dramatic tendencies, the end.

"Hey, that's not how it goes!"  No kidding.  We all know that Lawrence is going to get bitten by a werewolf.  Just like all werewolf movies, there are going to be scenes where he is physically changing, but has no idea what's happening to him, and just like all werewolf movies, his werewolf self will attack some people, probably fatally.  That's the problem with remaking classic movies.  Even if the audience is not familiar with original film, they have been exposed to its plot elements in other films that were influenced by the original.  And since this is a serious film, you know just as certainly that the werewolf won't be playing basketball or singing along to "Werewolves of London." 

The Wolfman does a good job of staying true to the original material, for better or for worse.  Technically, this is a pretty good looking film.  The cinematography captures the creepy vibe that Gothic horror requires.  The action sequences are entertaining, filled with high-quality gore.  I don't know what this unrated version included that the theatrical did not, but I'm guessing it might involve some of the near-disembowelings.  The special effects, while good, sometimes feel out of place, though.  When Lawrence transforms into a werewolf, the transformation process looks like a character from Beowolf was transposed over Benicio del Toro.  Once he's fully transformed and in makeup, he looks great.  Unfortunately, having noticeable CGI in a movie set in the 1890s feels anachronistic.  That's not the only instance of that problem; the city of London looks fake at points, and the werewolves, when they run, appear surprisingly weightless.  Details like that add up quickly over two hours.

The acting and directing also have strong moments and weak ones.  Benicio del Toro is good in his werewolf persona, but his human self is awkward and uninteresting.  Anthony Hopkins does a good job with his nonverbal actions, coming across as someone who enjoys the thrill of the hunt, but I felt that he just mailed in the rest of his performance.  I'm pretty sure his explanation of his character would be "How about a jerk that is thinking about other things when you speak to him?"  Emily Blunt was fine, but she and del Toro never had the chemistry you need for a convincing love story.  That leaves Hugo Weaving, who played a Scotland Yard detective investigating the murders, as the only important part that was acted well.  You could (and should) blame director Joe Johnston for the film's acting problems, but he didn't do a bad job.  None of the acting (except maybe Hopkins) was bad, it was just very reserved.  I liked the way he told the story, even if I didn't particularly like the script.

I think the biggest obstacle to this film was setting it in Victorian England.  I understand that Gothic horror stories take place in the Victorian era, but it is a time very far removed from the present.  When the first wave of classic horror movies were made (Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man), they were set about fifty years in the past, instead the120 years that now separate the present from Victorian times.  I think that time difference makes it more difficult to identify with the characters.  The best movies that use this time period are the ones that use the notoriously repressed Victorian emotions and show the passions that lay beneath the calm exterior.  So, basically, romances.  Modern horror movies set in this time period don't have the luxury of convincing love stories, and that is one of the main reasons that Bram Stoker's Dracula was underwhelming and why Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was so painful to watch.  The Wolfman is filled with characters that are humorless and devoid of passion, and that makes this visually attractive movie less than stellar.

This film is not devoid of quality.  I thought the action was well done (except for the final battle --- that was lame) and I liked how bloody it was.  This movie definitely had promise, but it was handicapped by the filmmakers' desire to stay true to the original.  It ended up being pretty predictable (which I can deal with in remakes) and the characters were left emotionally undeveloped (which is never a good choice).  When you add it all up, you are left with yet another forgettable Hollywood remake.

No comments:

Post a Comment