(Note: In keeping with our tradition of posting a brand new review every Monday, below is our review of the new movie THE WOLFMAN. It turns out, we had quite a lot to say about it. ~LLS)
CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: THE WOLFMAN (2010)
by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
THERE IS A RUSH OF SOUND AS WE FADE IN.
(Above the Victorian England skyline, shines an enormous full moon. A wolf’s howl explodes through the night. Suddenly, the silhouette of a WEREWOLF is seen running across the tops of the buildings. Behind the beast follow the silhouettes of two men, also running. All three carry beer bottles and all three are howling. The werewolf stops running, and MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES do the same.)
MA: This has been some night on the town! (Looks down from the high roof) Literally!
LS: I never knew werewolves were such big beer drinkers! We’ll have to introduce our friend here to Hellboy!
(The WEREWOLF howls, followed by MA and LS. They sound like they are singing in unison. The creature waves good-bye, leaps to the next building, and disappears into the night.)
MA: We’re remaining behind because we have a movie to review. Tonight, if you haven’t figured it out already, we’re reviewing THE WOLFMAN, a remake of the 1941 classic, THE WOLF MAN, starring Lon Chaney Jr., arguably the best werewolf movie ever made. So, you might say there are some high expectations for this one. It’s not like it’s a remake of WEREWOLF IN A GIRL’S DORMITORY (1961).
This one gets off on the right paw— er, foot— as it presents the memorable poem from the original immediately:
“Even a man who is pure in heart
And who says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.”
LS: That old chestnut again! Didn’t you already get your chance to recite that when we did our February Preview?
MA: When I heard those words, I almost stood up and cheered. It’s too bad that later on, nobody in the film actually says these words.
LS: Thank God! Once was enough – and certainly it’s nice they said it once – but while it’s something hardcore fans will dig, it’s also incredibly hokey. And we don’t need multiple recitations of it.
MA: THE WOLFMAN opens well with the murder of Ben Talbot by a werewolf, which brings his estranged brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) home to his family’s estate, Blackmoor, where their eccentric, distant father Sir John (Anthony Hopkins) awaits. Lawrence promises his deceased brother’s fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt) that he will remain in town to solve his brother’s murder. Ben Talbot had been mauled by a wild animal, and the villagers suspect the killer is the dancing bear belonging to the gypsies camped outside the village.
LS: Everyone always blames the poor gypsies!
MA: Lawrence goes to the gypsy camp where he meets the gypsy woman Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin). The villagers arrive to kill the gypsies’ dancing bear, but before they can act, the real killer, a werewolf, shows up and in an exciting scene, begins a bloody rampage that ends with Lawrence being bitten by the creature.
LS: My main problem with this scene is that Talbot does not kill the werewolf. This seemed more important in the original storyline, where, when one beast ends, the other begins. Something that is completely ignored in this version. Of course, once the original werewolf gets away unscathed, after biting Lawrence, you know it is inevitable that we’ll be seeing a clash of two werewolves by the end of the movie.
Speaking of this exciting scene in the gypsy camp, what did you think of the gore in THE WOLFMAN, Michael?
MA: I didn’t have a problem with the gore. Considering a werewolf is a vicious creature, I thought the violent attack scenes worked well.
LS: Yeah, I think this was the perfect use of gore to add a visceral element. These aren’t bloodless murders that happen cleanly off screen. These are vicious attacks that should repulse us in their savagery.
MA: At this point in the story, Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) arrives from Scotland Yard, fresh from hunting down Jack the Ripper.
LS: Unsuccessfully, as Lawrence points out. Abberline already failed to capture one notorious killer and so he’s extra anxious to solve this one.
MA: Abberline immediately suspects Lawrence, because of his past– he spent time in a mental hospital as a child– and because he works as an actor in the theater, since this makes him adept at playing multiple personalities.
LS: What, is this Medieval times where people believe actors are possessed by their parts? How silly!
MA: Lawrence spent time in a mental hospital because, as a boy, he witnessed the aftermath of his mother’s suicide, discovering her bloody body in the arms of his father. It has not been an easy life for Lawrence Talbot.
LS: Waaah, I had a tough childhood. Cry me a river, Larry Boy.
MA: Soon, Lawrence discovers that he is indeed now a werewolf, and in one of the movies best sequences, he transforms into the creature and goes on a murder spree through the foggy countryside.
Lawrence must deal with his new fate and still try to track down his brother’s killer. He must also stay one step ahead of Inspector Abberline and contend with his feelings for his brother’s fiancée, Gwen. He also has to deal with his father, Sir John, a man who is not exactly a loving dad.
LS: I guess that is a lot to deal with!
MA: There is a plot twist which frankly I saw coming, and this leads to a climactic confrontation between two werewolves which, when you come right down to it, isn’t all that exciting.
LS: Well, you’re absolutely wrong there. I dug the battle of the werewolves myself.
In fact, I thought these werewolves were very exciting, especially after the pathetic excuse for werewolves we saw in recent films like NEW MOON . These aren’t kids with tight abs who sometimes change into giant cartoon wolves.These are gosh-darn, blood gorging, flesh-ripping werewolves!
MA: I agree with you. The werewolves were cool. I just thought the fight between them was boring.
There is of course the question of whether the beast will hunt down and kill its love, in this case, Gwen, or whether Gwen, the girl who loves the beast, will possess the strength to slay it. If you’ve seen enough of these movies, you already know the answer.
LS: Hell, we knew how the Peter Jackson remake of KING KONG was going to end, too, “Twas beauty who killed the beast.” But you still liked it!
MA: I wouldn’t have complained had Kong survived.
THE WOLFMAN runs hot and cold, and for the most part it’s hot, which is a good thing.
The best part of THE WOLFMAN is its werewolf scenes, and this is mostly because the werewolf looks really good. Yes, the filmmakers got the look of the werewolf right! Hurray! It’s an effective mix of CGI effects and wonderful make-up by — who else? — Rick Baker!
LS: Baker is easily the best make-up guy in the business for this kind of thing. And this isn’t the first time he’s tackled werewolf transformation scenes. He set the bar back in 1981 with AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, which might still be the best transformation of its kind ever filmed.
But since we’re talking about effects here, let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t. I think the main reason the monster effects are so good here is that the filmmakers don’t put as much emphasis on the CGI. This movie has real make-up effects, and you can tell the difference. CGI often looks fake and cartoony. Make-up has a kind of visceral authenticity that CGI lacks. But there is some CGI in this film, especially in scenes where the werewolf is running. But in those scenes, I actually thought it was necessary, because it makes complete sense that when a werewolf runs, it would run ON ALL FOURS (something that was impossible to do in the original 1941 film). Unfortunately, unless you have a $100 million dollar budget, like James Cameron did on AVATAR, it’s tough to make prolonged use of CGI effects look realistic.
I know CGI has come a long way, but I still say it has a long way to go. And it does not replace great make-up effects.
MA: Not only did the werewolf here look frightening, but it also captured the look of the original. There’s a lot of Lon Chaney Jr. in the face of Benicio Del Toro’s werewolf. By far, the werewolf scenes are the best part of this movie.
LS: I thought that was amazing, too. Not only did the werewolf look good, and scary, he actually looked similar to the original make-up job the legendary Jack Pierce did for Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941. Pierce was also the genius who created Boris Karloff’s look for the 1931 FRANKENSTEIN, and was definitely the Rick Baker of his day, and then some.
MA: True, but you know what? When all is said and done with Rick Baker’s career, people will look back at his tremendous body of work and declare that he just might be the best of the best. Ever.
The acting in THE WOLFMAN is solid, but not outstanding. Del Toro is fine as Lawrence Talbot, although at times he reminded me more of Oliver Reed with his bloodied white shirt in THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) than Lon Chaney Jr.
But what’s missing from his performance is what made Chaney stand out as Larry Talbot, and that is, his tragic angst at being a werewolf. Chaney really hammered that point home: he did not want to be a werewolf, he did not want to be murdering people, but he had absolutely no control over his condition. This horrible angst that Talbot feels is pretty much absent in Del Toro’s performance.
LS: Nobody could play Larry Talbot like Chaney, He played the character with such sadness, such angst, that anyone else attempting a performance like his would come off as incredibly silly. To this day, I’m not sure how Chaney made the part work so well – how he made this sad sack so human and sympathetic – and it makes me think he was a much more gifted actor than anyone gave him credit for. But if Del Toro just tried to copy that performance, it would have been disastrous.
MA: I’m not suggesting he copy Chaney’s performance. I’m just saying he could have shown more despair about being a werewolf. He didn’t seem all that broken up by it.
LS: It’s not the same kind of angst, but I think what Del Toro does with the character is just fine. He’s good at looking intense and brooding and world-weary, and he does all that here, to fine effect. As you said, this character has gone through a lot before he even becomes a werewolf. The pain is all internalized – you can see it in his eyes.
MA: Anthony Hopkins delivers a strong performance as Sir John Talbot, essentially taking the character played by Claude Rains in the original and taking him to another level. There was the classic father-son rift in the original, and Sir John’s coldness to his son was played brilliantly by Rains. Here, Hopkins is just as powerful, but as written, his character is far less likeable.
In the original, Rains’s Sir John softens and changes his mind about leaving his son alone during the climactic werewolf hunt. He rushes back to the castle to be with his son, but it’s too late, as Larry has already become the Wolf Man, and it’s implied that this wouldn’t have happened had Sir John stayed. There’s no such softness in this version’s Sir John.
LS: I thought I’d find it annoying that they changed the father’s character so much here, but I actually liked it over all. Rains was more likable – a distant man who really wanted to have more of a connection with his son – and that was great. But Hopkins gives the character a completely different spin, and I really didn’t mind that.
MA: Emily Blunt is OK as Gwen Conliffe…
LS: Here I completely disagree. I think Blunt is a lot more than just OK. I think her looks fit the time period well – she looks like she stepped out an episode of MASTERPIECE THEATER – and she plays the character well. I also found her to be very striking, in a gothic literature sort of way, that really worked for me.
MA: Yeah, she had the look down, but she was a bit of a cold fish in the emotion department. Hugo Weaving is very good as new character Inspector Abberline. Of the actors, I think I enjoyed Weaving the most in this film.
LS: I’ve always liked Weaving a lot. I thought he was the only saving grace of the god-awful MATRIX series – in those movies the only scenes I really liked were the ones where he was onscreen – and I think he’s very good here as well.
MA: The biggest problem THE WOLFMAN has is that its story just isn’t that compelling. Screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker (who wrote SLEEPY HOLLOW ) and David Self (who wrote 13 DAYS ) wrote an OK tale based on Curt Siodmak’s original script, but it doesn’t quite go for the throat, if you will.
LS: I disagree with you again. I didn’t realize one of the screenwriters also wrote SLEEPY HOLLOW, but I was going to mention that I loved the ATMOSPHERE of this movie. The grays, the glowing moon, the fog, it all created an atmosphere that reminded me a lot of the old Universal films of the 1930s (Something that was captured quite well in Tim Burton’s SLEEPY HOLLOW as well – so I guess that’s no coincidence, after all).
And I don’t think the movie failed to go for the throat either. I thought it was very good for a remake, and I think you’re selling this movie short.
MA: While I liked the Inspector Abberline character, the plot fails to give him a lot to do.
LS: I don’t know. I think it gives him just enough to do. He’s not the main character, after all. And he’s great in every scene he’s in.
MA: But we don’t see him being much of a detective. He learns almost immediately that Lawrence is the werewolf, and so he becomes the hunter rather than the detective. Perhaps a character who was a big game hunter would have been a better fit here. The bottom line is what should have been a compelling plot point, the brilliant Scotland Yard hero vs. the werewolf, never materializes.
LS: It never materializes, because the logic of a Scotland Yard hero doesn’t stand a chance against the pure savagery of the werewolf, and he knows it. Abberline is powerless in the face of such pure unbridled ferocity.
MA: So why write him in? Why not just have some local police inspector chasing Talbot? We’ve got this hot shot from Scotland Yard, and he barely does anything more than run around asking for guns and back-up. It’s a waste of character.
LS: Not really. We sympathize with his helplessness. Abberline is a formidable man and would be a worthy opponent to most criminals, but Larry Talbot is something more, he’s a supernatural beast, and Abberline pales in the face of such horror.
MA: A character like that shouldn’t be helpless. The writers blew it.
Maleva the gypsy is another character who is wasted. As written, she doesn’t even need to be in this movie, and, unlike in the original, she doesn’t share much of a bond with Lawrence Talbot.
LS: On this point, I agree with you. Maleva here is a wasted character. We mentioned in our February Coming Attractions column that the original Maleva was played by Maria Ouspenskaya, a sturdy, wise-looking old woman who had real screen presence. In comparison, Geraldine Page’s version is fragile and slight. Page can’t hold a candle to Ouspenskaya in this role.
Also – and here’s a major plot point we touched upon earlier – there was a definite bond between Maleva and Talbot in the original. Why? Because her son, the gypsy Bela (played, in a cameo, by Bela Lugosi, strangely enough) was the werewolf that bit Talbot in the 1941 version. In that attack, Talbot killed Bela. But Maleva did not hate him. She knew her son was a monster and was glad he was finally at peace. She pitied Talbot because she knew what he would now become.
MA (laughing): Two of my least favorite parts of THE WOLF MAN. One, that Bela Lugosi played a gypsy named-Bela– can we exert some creative effort here? – and two, that Lugosi played Maleva’s son when he looked like he was her age or older! Come on! But, I still love the movie.
LS: How can you EVER complain about Lugosi? I was happy whenever he was in a movie, however briefly.
But back to the review. In the new version, Maleva knows Talbot’s fate, but has no personal stake in it. She tries to help, but her presence here is unnecessary. It’s a layer of emotional turmoil that is missing in the remake.
MA: I was also disappointed with the reference to the gypsies’ dancing bear. I thought we were finally going to see the scene cut from the original, where a human Larry wrestles the bear and nearly kills it. This was back when the original THE WOLF MAN was going to be a tale of psychological terror, where what happened to Larry happened only in his mind. That idea was scrapped, and the story changed to emphasize the physical transformation into the werewolf. Such compelling psychological overtones do not exist in this version.
LS: Well, I agree that such overtones are not as well done here. But to say psychological overtones do not exist at all is a bit of an exaggeration.
And one part of the film you completely overlooked – and which I thought was very well done – was Talbot’s time in an insane asylum after Abberline arrests him. This part is really great, and shows us the horrors of the abuse of mental patients at the time. These scenes in the asylum are almost as horrific as the werewolf scenes, except they are being perpetrated by human beings.
MA: I knew you’d enjoy this part. Sorry, but I thought the asylum sequence was one of the weaker parts of the film, and I couldn’t wait for the werewolf storyline to pick up again. It was a distraction I didn’t enjoy.
The ending also disappointed me. The fact that a dying Lawrence has the time and wherewithal to say “Thank you” was corny beyond belief. It was Henry Hull all over again( “Thanks for the bullet,” from THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON  which, although good, is not the classic THE WOLF MAN is).
LS: I think that the corniness of the ending that you’re referring to is a direct throwback to the 1930s films we love so much. I think that those old movies’ endings seem just as corny in retrospect, and yet they have a strange dignity just the same.
MA: The music by Danny Elfman has its moments, but it’s certainly not the rousing memorable score which the original enjoyed.
LS: His scores are starting to sound the same to me. At times, it was effective, at others it seemed overly melodramatic. I actually think it would be more interesting if a more diverse bunch of film composers got a shot, instead of the same people all the time.
MA: Director Joe Johnston, whose impressive resume reads like a thick hardcover volume, as he directed such films as JURASSIC PARK 3 (2001) and HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS (1989) and worked on the special effects units of all three of the original STAR WARS movies, handles the helm here with confidence and style. The movie looks almost beautiful. There are times the scenes in this film look like paintings. And the action/scare scenes work very, very well. I really enjoyed watching this movie. I just thought the story was beneath the level of the technical aspects of the film.
LS: I was actually very impressed with Johnston, especially since I’m not a big fan of the other films you mentioned. Considering that I heard this movie had lots of problems early on, including its original director leaving, I think Johnston did an admirable job here, not just salvaging this movie, but turning out a solid, well-made work that does not seem cobbled together.
And you’re right about the look of it. Cinematographer Shelly Johnson does a great job here, and captures the feel and atmosphere of the early Universal horror films quite well.
I also want to say how happy I was they decided to set this film in the 1890s. I think it was possible to bring the story of the THE WOLFMAN into modern day, and do it justice, but it just seemed so much better as a period piece, and better able to maintain the feel of the old movies by doing this.
MA: For me, THE WOLFMAN just didn’t leave its mark. That used to be my favorite part of the Hammer remakes. They took a story and did their own thing with it. They took Frankenstein and made the doctor, Baron Victor Frankenstein as played by Peter Cushing, the central character of their series, making him more villainous and as a result more compelling than the monster in their movies. They took DRACULA (1958) (or as we call it here in the U.S., HORROR OF DRACULA) and gave it the most incredibly exciting ending ever shot in a vampire film. They left their mark.
LS: Yes, they did.
MA: THE WOLFMAN, while very well done by all its participants, fails to leave its mark. It has no edge. Did I enjoy it? Do I recommend it? Yes to both. It’s a handsome, haunting production, one that I would be happy to see again, but as a remake of the best werewolf movie of all time, it lacks bite.
LS: I hate to say it, but you’re completely off base this time, and I’m surprised, because I thought if anyone could completely embrace this movie for what it is, it would be you.
Unlike most remakes we review, and unlike pathetic “reimaginings” like the horrible VAN HELSING (2004), this movie stands apart because of one thing – its respect for the source material. Despite some deviations in the plot, despite some updated effects and gore, THE WOLFMAN is a movie that clearly loves the original film it is trying to recreate. This is the closest I have seen to the spirit and feel of the Universal horror films of the 1930s in any modern-day horror film.
Does it have flaws? Well, I certainly had a few complaints of my own in this review, but the bottom line is, I thought this movie had strong reverence for its source material and tried very hard to create a loving tribute to it, at the same time creating a new and exciting film.
As a big werewolf fan, I’ve also been very disappointed with the lack of truly great werewolf movies in the last couple of decades. After some big highlights in the 1980s (the aforementioned AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING [also from 1981]), there have been very few stand-out werewolf films since. There were a couple I liked, like the terrific GINGER SNAPS (2000), and, to a lesser degree, 2002’s DOG SOLIDERS. But it’s just great to finally have another well-made werewolf film again that isn’t a waste of time.
And, over all, I thought this was one of the best remakes I’ve seen, and easily the best movie we’ve seen so far in 2010. I really think you’re short-changing this one.
MA: Don’t get me wrong, I liked THE WOLFMAN a lot, but I’ll put it this way. When I watch the ending to the 1941 version of THE WOLFMAN, a film I have seen many, many times, chills still run up and down my spine when Gwen, the Wolf Man, and Sir John Talbot run through the foggy woods and converge in the same spot for the film’s tragic conclusion. Watching this version of THE WOLF MAN, there weren’t any chills running up and down the spine.
But I would agree with you that it’s the best movie we’ve seen so far in 2010. Then again, it’s only February.
(WEREWOLF returns and hands them another beer).
MA: No thanks. I’ve reached my limit.
LS: Come on! Have another one! (Pats MA hard on the back, knocking him off the roof) Ooops! Hey down there, are you alright?
MA: I seem to have landed on something fluffy. I think it’s a sheep.
(WEREWOLF’s eyes widen and he licks his lips. He dives off roof. From below, a loud bleating is heard and the noises of a ravenous animal eating.).
LS: I hope he can tell the difference between sheep and human, or else I’ll be doing next weekend’s review solo. Hey, Michael, are you still with us down there?
MA (Suddenly leaping onto roof): I’m still with you up here. Let’s get out of here before he comes up for dessert!
(MA & LS flee, the silhouettes of their figures seen running towards the full moon.)
FADE OUT TO THE SOUND OF HOWLING.
© Copyright 2010 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares