Set in 19th century Wales with sumptuous production design and a rich visual atmosphere, Universal’s latest poke at a hallowed franchise goes back to a stately classicism reminiscent of its original monster franchise.
On the plus side, director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) avoids the ADD style of Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra), although Sommers’ first Mummy film back in 1999 was a successful marriage of Indiana Jones action & slapstick, with a grisly mummy mythology cribbed from the original 1932 film, the 1959 Hammer remake, and iconic genre hokum.
The new Wolfman script – reworked from Curt Siodmak's 1941 screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and rewritten by David Self (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days) – has prodigal son Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) summoned back to Wales when his brother Ben is found dead in the woods, shredded to the bone by some madman or a wild animal.
Local superstitions send him to a gypsy camp, where he meets a fortune teller/reflexive paramedic (Geraldine Page) but his personal consultation is interrupted when local villages arrive with guns and torches, believing a dancing bear was responsible for the killing. Before the entire encampment is purged into the wilds, the real killer – a werewolf– strikes, tearing apart men and women, sinking claws through the backs of heads, and inflicting other trauma until it’s chased into the woods where Lawrence is mauled in the neck and arm while trying to save a boy from the beast's apetite for the other white meat.
Word of Lawrence’s survival and quick recovery make it back to Scotland Yard, and he’s visited by an Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), who shifts to detective mode and waits for the beast to reappear, since his deduction makes it clear the local populace isn’t safe when it’s a full moon.
Father John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) is initially protective of his son when a mob thinks Lawrence will turn into a monster, and Ben’s secret love Gwen (Emily Blunt) hangs around when she sees Lawrence is heavily traumatized by Ben’s death. Lawrence eventually transforms into the werewolf, and is cornered the next morning on the family estate, and arrested.
It’s around here where the film swerves into unexpected silliness because Lawrence is thrown into a loony bin, ‘ice waterboarded’ by a Freudian quack, injected multiple times with some unknown substance, given electroshock therapy, and eventually told by his father that all what’s happening is good because it’s about grabbing the free feral spirit within you, and running with it.
When dad tells his weakling son that all this hospital torture is for his own good, the film tries to works its way through a clunky series of scenes – a lecture hall massacre, a London rooftop chase, Gwen reading lots of books very quickly for missed factoids, and Lawrence’s trek back to the Talbot estate - that eventually pit not one but two werewolves (guess who’s the real alpha) against each other in an overwrought conclusion, where one man manages to find peace, and another is cursed with the Talbot legacy of turning into a carnivorous fur-ball from Hell. Cue the wolf howl, and End Credits.
Not a Disaster, but...
Wolfman isn’t terrible, but like Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), it’s wounded by a clunky script with perfunctory dialogue and a wonky tone stemming from a collision of classical gothic visuals, and a lead actor horribly miscast in a role for which he’s ill-suited. Star/co-producer Del Toro may have wanted to play the wolfman for years, but he delivers a deadly monotone performance that makes Lawrence a hulking figure with zero charisma.
As a 25 year old effete thespian, Del Toro is also too old (the jet black hair dye doesn’t help), and while one can see him internalizing his character’s rage to justify the episodes of lycanthropic rage, neither screenwriters Walker nor Self gave the character any memorable dialogue to deepen Lawrence's internal struggles.
When Del Toro speaks, they’re clichéd lines designed to cue the other actors, as well as get the editor moving to the next scene, and the actor's big scene is neither hearing the savage family secret from his bonkers father, nor locking lips with a woman he will never love, but a ridiculous montage where Lawrence hallucinates all manner of images during the asylum’s torture sessions, and a fiery confrontation with his father as the family estate burns to the ground. There is poetry and a needed catharsis for both father and son in the flaming finale, but the reason John Talbot became such an asshole is never clear beyond that concept of 'free spirit'.
There’s also a bit of déjà vu in the film: Inspector Aberline recalls the re-imagining of Ichabod Crane as a nascent behavioral detective in Walker's revisionist Sleepy Hollow script, and Danny Elfman's score bears striking similarities to Wojciech Kilar’s Dracula score (which was probably used in the film's temp track). Co-writer Self reportedly reeled back on the graphic mayhem and tried to give key characters some depth, but one senses there were a number of compromises made as the film went through a lengthy period from script to completed film.
Originally announced around 2007 as a 2008 release with Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) directing Walker’s script, budget issues led to Romanek's exit, and Joe Johnston taking over with Self giving a fresh crack at the first shooting script. After some reported reshoots, around November of 2007 Danny Elfman’s Kilarian score was rejected (by who isn’t clear) and ex-Tangerine Dream member Paul Haslinger (Underworld, Crank) was selected to write a new score – a radical choice, since the film's ornate period decor screams Big Orchestral Music.
Haslinger may have realized the film’s immutable Feb. 12th 2010 release date made it tough to meet the scoring needs while the film seemed to be in a state of flux (new editors were brought in to recut sequences), so he left the project in January of 2010. Elfman’s incomplete score was quickly reinstated, with Sleepy Hollow collaborator Conrad Pope finishing up scoring chores. (In the film's End Credits, composer Thomas Lindgren and Reign of Fire's Edward Shearmur are also credited for writing additional music.)
The werewolf transitions from practical makeup to CGI effects are fine, and good efforts were made to stay close to the actors' real facial structure and eyes, as well as evoking the original 1941 werewolf design. The painful contortions as Lawrence's bones crunch and morph into the werewolf form also recall Rob Bottin's designs for John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981), a movie that continues to quietly age into the definitive werewolf film (after the ’41 original).
The sound design is superb, but the use of a smooth, clean wolf howl is a blunder, since it sounds canned and bears no relation to the gravel-voiced actors and the bass-saturated growls the sound editors slapped over the werewolves.
As a finished film, The Wolfman is fine, but neither the amber and copper-coloured cinematography nor the solid supporting cast hide the film’s chief weakness of an inert leading character. As the love interest, Blunt has little to do except look deeply concerned and pose morosely; in an early forest scene, she’s sprawled across the ‘scope frame like an elegant widow). Hopkins has fun snarling and grinning as sadistic John Talbot, but it makes the father’s vain stance on seeding hereditary lycanthropy downright bizarre. (Then again, his spin on the character of Van Helsing in Dracula was equally eccentric.)
Universal’s update is neither the disaster of Coppola’s Dracula nor psychotic bombast of Sommers’ Van Helsing, but The Wolfman should’ve been so much more. Three years of planning and executing, and it fails to be the modern classic its makers wanted, though one upswing with its video release is a longer unrated cut that adds a good 17 mins. of footage.
Longer IS better after all
The 102 min. theatrical cut begins with Lawrence arriving in the carriage, grasping a silver cane, and approaching the family estate while Gwen reads from her letter, pleading for Lawrence to leave his stage play and help the family find his brother.
In the 119 min. Unrated Director's Cut, we now have the following: after watching Lawrence perform Hamlet, Gwen visits him backstage, and pleads with him to return. He declines her request, but having second thoughts (which makes no sense, since he admitted to Gwen that he's contractually obligated to perform in America), he takes a train home, and en route meets an elder gentleman (Max Von Sydow, whose name was sloppily retained the theatrical End Credit crawl under "Assistant to Mr. Von Sydow"). They converse about the Moors, and while Lawrence naps, the gentleman leaves behind his cane, which Lawrence initially refused to accept as a gift. Lawrence then boards a carriage, and heads to the estate.
Also shorn from the theatrical cut's first act is a dinner scene where father John's morbid personailty causes Gwen to leave, and a few scene extensions that were obviously cut to quicken the film's pacing. The gore, already wet and bloody in the shorter cut, in some cases feels slightly longer, and it's likely a few frames were originally trimmed to minimize grotesque details for theatrical audiences.
The Blu-ray also includes a few deleted scenes, and three scene extensions, of whch the most intriguing is the London Chase that contains two additional slaughter-rampages: after Lawrence runs across the rooftops and howls that canned bellow, he sees a garden and proceeds to disrupt an opera solo by a blind singer, and then devours a puppeteer in front of moppets and poppets that should be already in bed.
There are also two alternate endings: Gwen is bitten by Lawrence, yet shoots him dead, and lies alive, aware she now has the family curse; and Lawrence killing Gwen, after which he snarls at the camera, and Fadeout. Both are partially made up of existing and alternate material with a few extra dialogue snippets, and are hardly as satisfying as the current finale where Lawrence is shot by Gwen before he can bite her, confesses his regrets before dying, and Inspector Aberline is the one bearing the curse, having been bitten at the estate.
Amusingly, the making-of featurette includes footage of the 'opera rampage' which makes it likely the sequence was in the film for a while, since early reports of the film's running time was 125 mins. The removal of the extra rampaging material was purely for pacing, whereas in the Unrated Director's Cut, it was dropped because it was, alongside the puppetshow rampage, overkill, and turned the werewolf into a cartoon fuzzball instead of a desperate Lawrence Talbot fleeing from the torture-laden asylum.
Johnston is somewhat vindicated by the restored footage, but The Wolfman is still marred by a wooden performance that renders the film's central character inert. The lack of a commentary track by the filmmakers also infers Universal's high profile film and Del Toro's pet project had far too many flaws that would've made a track viable; to acknowledge the longer version's superiority makes Universal the villain, hence the BR's reliance on featurettes, deleted materials and BD extras.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan