Wolfman, The (2010)
A while ago a friend of mine asked me why I thought werewolf movies havenít really enjoyed the recurrent spikes in popularity that other monsters, such as vampires or zombies, have enjoyed. I pshawed him at first, surely he was mistaken. However, as I tasked myself to list good and/or successful werewolf movies since the heyday of the Universal monsters, I began to see the truth in his claim. There has almost always been a dearth of werewolf films. The lycanthrope did have a brief resurgence in popularity (or filmmakerís enthusiasm, at least) in the early 80ís with The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Wolfen. One of those is an inarguable classic, one is an arguable one, and one is a solid genre film that just falls short of greatness but none of them inspired as many clones, copies or follow ups the way slasher films of the same period did.
I guess thatís why I was so looking forward to the announced Wolfman remake. I was doubly excited when the cast was announced and when I learned that Rick Baker was going to be involved in creating the make ups. Then the delays set in. Original director Mark Romanek walked due to ďcreative differencesĒ with the studio. The new director, journeyman Joe Johnston, encountered his own problems from studio ordered re-shoots to rumors that he walked out during the editing process. The release date got pushed back by six months, then a year, finally arriving in theatres three years later than originally planned. By that time, nobody really expected much from The Wolfman, and they were absolutely right not to. The film is a massive disappointment on just about every possible level.
Upon learning of the untimely death of his brother Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro), a successful American actor of Welsh and Spanish parentage, returns home to his family estate of Talbot Hall in the English town of Blackmoor. After the death of his mother and a subsequent stay in a London asylum, Lawrence left to pursue his fortune in the United States. Angered by his father, Sir John Talbotís (Anthony Hopkins) seeming indifference to the death of his brother, and moved by the heartbreak of his brotherís fiancťe, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), Lawrence takes it upon himself to investigate. His inquiries lead him to a gypsy camp. While there, the camp is beset by angry villagers convinced that the gypsyís trained dancing bear is responsible for the recent mutilations, although any potential violence is interrupted by the appearance of a werewolf that immediately begins to wreak carnage. Lawrence takes up arms to protect the camp and, although he manages to kill the beast, he is severely wounded by a vicious bite in the process.
Rescued by the townsfolk and patched up by the gypsies, Lawrence soon finds himself recuperating at Talbot Hall. While resting, Lawrence is plagued by monstrous nightmares and experiences unnaturally quick healing. When Scotland Yard detective Abberline (Hugo Weaving, channeling Agent Smith from The Matrix, right down to the cadence of speech) travels to Talbot Hall to take a statement he, too is taken aback, by Lawrenceís rapid healing. He also makes it abundantly clear that he is skeptical of Lawrenceís claims.
While heís healing, Lawrence begins to bond with Gwen. Soon fearful of the changes overcoming him, and in fear of her safety, Lawrence sends Gwen back to London. News of Lawrenceís healing spreads quickly and it isnít long before a lynch mob winds up on the grounds of Talbot Hall. Sir John drives them off but their fears are far from allayed. Hysteria continues to build in the village. During a late night visit to his motherís tomb, Sir John reveals to Lawrence a devastating, and utterly predictable, secret. Lawrence transforms for the first time. The villagers, feeling that their fears were justified, apprehend Lawrence in a field full of mutilated sheep. He is shipped off to London to spend time in the asylum where he was committed after the death of his mother. There he is forced to endure the inhuman tortures that passed for Victorian era psychiatry. During a demonstration of how deluded Lawrence is, he transforms, escapes and wreaks havoc in London. He hurries home afterwards to settle a score, followed by Gwen, who has learned what she needs to do to free Lawrence of the curse. But will she have the strength required to do it, and can she do it in time?
There are a lot of problems with The Wolfman, fundamental problems that it is never able to overcome, chief among that is a glaring bankruptcy of concept. Vampires and zombies have something that werewolves donít have: subtext. In the age of AIDS, itís not hard to see why an unabashedly sexual creature that feeds on blood would provoke anxiety in the audience. Moreover, itís not hard to see concerns about ethics and science or blind consumerism in a zombie film. But what kind of psychological baggage does the lycan come with? Itís not hard to see a Freudian aspect to the mythology, with the wolf representing unfettered id, but our understanding of psychology has matured quite a bit since Freudís time and weíre not quite so terrified of the unconscious mind.
Zombies have the benefit of being blank slates on which we can project our fears, whether itís fear of virus (NOTLD) or fear of technology (28 DaysÖ). The vampire is a complex character, so he can work on multiple levels. While his unabashed sexuality would have been confrontational in Victorian times, nowadays the AIDS/blood metaphor is his domain. Werewolves, however, are a bit of both and thusly not as compelling a character. The Werewolf is generally portrayed as weak and pathetic, and usually afraid of his latent power.
Ginger Snaps addresses this somewhat with its menstruation metaphor and Mike Nicholsí Wolf also tried to make Jack Nicholsonís werewolf a symbol for midlife crisis. The problem is that neither subtext makes the core story any scarier. This is probably a big reason why both films, while generally well regarded, never found large audiences and will never be raised to classic status like American Werewolf or The Howling have. If werewolves are used at all these days, they are used as a weaker or inherently inferior foil for vampiric main characters (see the Twilight and Underworld series). The problem is with the creature himself: heís no longer scary. Heís quaint.
What The Wolfman needed wasnít a remake but a wholesale re-imagining of the mythology that taps into contemporary fears. Just transplanting the creature into modern times isnít enough to do it and telling yet another werewolf tale set in Victorian England certainly isnít even to breath life into the moribund, flea bitten corpse. Iíve heard it suggested that the 2010 version of The Wolfman is a metaphor for the cycle of domestic abuse. I donít buy it, but even granting the filmmakers that much could there be a more hackneyed subtext? You may as well say that the message is that ďlove conquerors all.Ē Oh, wait. They did that, too. Itís not good enough to simply invoke those old clichťs, dust off your hands and call it a day. You really need to bring youíre A-game to the table, especially when the creature is as thematically bereft as werewolves are. For a point of comparison look at Cronenbergís Rabid, and how drastic a reinvention of the vampire genre that was, and youíll get an idea of how radically the werewolf genre needs to be rethought.
Okay so, on a conceptual level, The Wolfman is a failure before it even starts. Weíve established that. That doesnít mean that it canít work on some low level, meat and potatoes genre level, right? Thatís correct, in theory. The sad reality is that years of studio fuckery sap The Wolfman of even the faintest sparks of imagination. I canít recall ever seeing quite so much time, talent and technology so thoroughly wasted. The lead cast seems listless, as if years of re-shoots had drained them of their last creative spark. Benecio Del Toro can be a master of subtlety but he undershoots subtlety and goes comatose except, maybe, when heís jerking wildly while in a straight jacket (thatís the kind of energy that the rest of the picture so desperately needs). Anthony Hopkins will always be a genre luminary but it will be due to his work in films like The Elephant Man, Dracula and the Hannibal Lecter films, not his hammy performance here. Hugo Weaving completely phones in his performance as Aberline and Emily Blunt is far too talented and beautiful to be stuck in a nothing role that doesnít let her be beautiful or show off her talent.
Fans were outraged when Rick Baker was reportedly shut of contributing to the transformation sequences. They are all digital and blatant fanboyism aside: theyíre spectacular and easily the highlight of the film. Bakerís work on the other hand, doesnít come off quite so well. While the craftsmanship of his work is second to none, as always, his Wolfman makeup concept is just a bit too easy. In the supplements Baker talks about his reverence for the Jack Pierce make up of the original Wolfman film, and I can understand the desire to pay homage while updating the creatureís look, but I kind of expected a bit more than just making the hair longer and the teeth bigger. Itís not that itís bad it just shows a curious lack of imagination from the man who pretty much defined the craft as we know it today. Thereís also been much ado about the gore in this film. While it is plentiful, after films like Saw and Hostel pushed the envelope, it feels a bit quaint.
The London sequence seems to exist for no other reason than to have a rampage in London. If thatís what you want to so bad, then why not just set the picture in London? Why all the script contrivances to get Lawrence there and then credibility stretching to get him back to Blackmoor? It just complicates the plot with out adding anything of substance. If youíre set on having a London rampage, and youíre not worried about getting a PG-13 rating, then why not go balls-out and make it a true set piece rather than a gas light rip off of The Crow, only with The Wolfman jumping from rooftop to rooftop to avoid police instead of Brandon Leeís stunt double?
The final showdown at Talbot Hall strays the film into pure camp but by that point itís far too little, far too late. The hastily, and unconvincingly, set up romantic relationship between Lawrence and Gwen is dropped from the picture at midpoint so the final scenes of the picture have exactly zero impact. What weíre left with an elaborate film with the fingerprints of studio interference obscuring even the faintest hint of passion or artistry. The Wolfman is the very poster child of soulless studio product.
The Wolfman boasts handsome production design and visual style. Unfortunately, the transfer doesnít always represent them they way youíd expect from a new film. Iíve never seen a transfer thatís so variable in quality. For the most part itís fantastic as befitting a movie that was in theaters barely more than three months ago. The transfer is, however, marred by awful looking interior scenes that, no exaggeration here, would be shamed by the quality of some DVDs. Director Joe Johnston employs a de-saturated visual style, so itís expected that the colors arenít exactly going to pop off the screen. High contrast exterior and CG aided scenes are extremely sharp. However, the interior scenes, many of which are filmed by candlelight and obfuscated by an omnipresent haze, are muddy and visual detail is completely obliterated by noise and black crush. I donít want to give the impression that the video quality of The Wolfman is a total disaster, itís not, but it has some serious and glaring deficiencies that might be forgivable in an older film but not in a recent big budget studio release.
The Wolfman is on a BD-50, yet less than half of that is allotted for the video quality. I know itís a point of pride when studios offer their supplemental materials in HD but, if given the choice, Iíd prefer the picture quality of the featurettes is sacrificed rather than that of the feature.
At least the audio, while not spectacular, is more befitting a recent film. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is nice and atmospheric with nice range and good panning effects in the action scenes. LFE is nice and bassy. Dialogue is generally well presented though during the busier scenes it tends to get drowned out by the surround. Itís a good track. Not mind blowing but certainly respectable enough to stand up to the standards of other modern films.
Thereís a fair amount of supplemental material included though itís not as substantive as would seem upon first glance. To the shock of no one at all thereís not even a hint of The Wolfmanís troubled production. Those looking for perspective or a look behind the scenes of a runaway production should look elsewhere.
First we have the Directorís Cut version of the film. While it certainly is an improvement over the theatrical version it fails to address any of its serious deficiencies. Thereís an additional 16 minutes of added footage reinstated into the film proper. What it really needed was a head-to-toe re-cut. The additions clarify some of the relationships and slow the pace of the first act down (which is a good thing), but it doesnít fix the redundant nature of the second half nor add anything to give the film additional resonance.
Next are two alternate endings. Both are slight variations of the theatrical ending, and both are slightly better than the happy-ish ending that was shown in theatres.
A collection of 5 Deleted and Extended Scenes is also included, presented in high definition and running a total of 11:17. Unlike the usual chaff that was deleted for obvious reasons the majority of these are good scenes and their deletion is puzzling. My personal favourite involves the Wolfman inadvertently crashing a costume ball in London and then chomping some heads when heís asked to leave. Itís goofy, gory and over the top fun. If only the rest of the movie has such reckless abandon Ė it may not make it the werewolf masterpiece Iíd been hoping for, but it would have been a hell of a lot more fun to watch.
The first of the featurettes, a general behind the scenes featurette, The Return of the Wolfman (12:20) is the expected back patting studio puff piece. One spark of interest comes from the principal cast discussing the script and their roles in it: they seem to have a pretty good handle on their characters and some interesting ideas on deeper themes. Too bad none of their insights come across in the final film.
Next is a makeup effects piece called The Beast Maker (12:05). Itís well produced and Rick Baker is always an engaging personality to watch but it doesnít break any new ground and Iím sure even the most casual DVD viewer is pretty burnt out on these types of featurettes. How many times do we need to learn about life casting or that elaborate makeup takes hours to apply and remove? There is a point where Baker talks about his concept for the make up and goes a bit into the influences and themes of his designs. That would have been a far more interesting area to explore than this nuts-and-bolts feature.
Transformation Secrets (15:15) looks at the filmís CG sequences. This is a bit more interesting since the effects are so well done that often I couldnít tell what was CG and what wasnít. The speakers seem genuinely enthusiastic when they talk about the hair growth algorithms they programmed for the film, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Still, thereís a lack of perspective and the controversy with Baker is never mentioned.
The Wolf Man Unleashed (8:45) details the stunt work that went into the film. While I applaud giving the stunt performances, often a genre filmís unsung heroes, a chance to take a bow they deserve better than this entirely cursory look at their contributions.
All of these features can be accessed during the movie by using Universalís U-control interface. Itís an interesting idea but Iíve always found U-control unintuitive and clunky to use, especially when compared to Warnerís In-Movie Experience. Iíd much rather watch the film, and then the features anyway. Still, itís there for those who want it.
Iíve saved the best feature for last. For a limited time this Blu-ray gives you the option to stream the original The Wolfman in HD to your TV, PC or smart phone. The 1941 version is presented in AVC with DTS 2.0 audio. One caveat is that the quality of the stream is determined by your connection speed, so those without a high-speed Internet connection and/or a Blu-ray Profile 2.0 player wonít be able to take full advantage of this feature.
Iíve seen a lot of parsing going on trying to downplay The Wolfmanís awfulness. I will grant that given the films enormous production difficulties itís a small miracle that the film is watchable, even if just barely. Given the time, talent and tremendous resources expended on the project I think audiences are well within their right to expect a bit more than that. The more we settle for compromised studio swill, the more will be thrown our way.
Iíve made it a vow never to recommend a bad movie just because it had great special features but the ability to stream the original Wolfman in HD is almost a game changer. That an HD master exists, however, suggests an eventual Blu-ray release of the original film down the road. Even if you liked the Wolfman remake, give the purchase serious consideration; with lackluster video and supplements, and a steep SRP, youíre better off waiting for a possible re-release or to pick it up second hand.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
Couldn't disagree more about the movie or werewolves in general. Although this isn't a great movie, it is very entertaining and one of the best werewolf movies of the last 10 years. And I will always be more interested in a new werewolf movie than a new vampire or zombie movie, no matter how much subtext they throw around.
The movie was disappointing- although Id put it more in C to D+ range myself. I havent seen the directors cut.
When I saw it in the theatre I found it watchable and somewhat enjoyable- but as Ive said before a great setting and some pretty good special effects along with a great choice in casting for the wolfman are wasted on a poorly written script, surprisingly ho-hum acting from the cast and a movie that just doesnt flow well at all. It seemed like it should be exciting yet somehow ended up being kinda boring.
I think you're a bit harsh on this movie and I don't think quaint is the word you're looking for (unless the Twilight wolves is what you had in mind). Passe' seems to be more fitting to how you think the public feels about werewolves. However I think that the movie itself is ok. It's not a train wreck but it's not a home run either. I do agree the abuse angle is a bit hackneyed and I also agree that it's the rare case that it's worth buying because it looks so insanely nice and it's by far the best CGI werewolf I've ever seen. I'll probably get it just for that. Who knows when we'll see another werewolf movie of that quality again.
I gotta disagree with your review, Chunkblower. Sure, the film isn't the gothic, compositional masterpiece many we're hoping for, but it certainly doesn't shit on the Wolfman legacy either. There have been FAR worse werewolf films since An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. Del Toro nails his role and the sequences in which he wreaks havoc as the titular beast are tooth-hurtingly sweet pieces of horror geek candy.
I thought this movie was hella better than what was said about it on here!
I wanted to love The Wolfman as much as anyone did so I completely understand the urge to bend over backwards to meet it half way. Seriously, though, I can hear your spines snapping from here. Wolfman had every opportunity to be great and squandered all of its assets at every turn. Itís not just a bad movie but a supremely disappointing one, as well. That itís ďnot the worstĒ werewolf movie since the lycanthropic heyday of the early 80ís is scant praise and, given the dearth of werewolf films in that time frame, saying itís the best is hardly any better.
Given the budget, talent and intentions of this reboot, the fact that it became such a micro-managed studio shitpot is in retrospect not entirely surprising, but it's certainly disappointing. Honestly, I just have no patience for Hollywood's take on the genre anymore - there are so many hands the film has to go through to get approval you just know that any bit of subtext, subversion or just overall edge is going to be bled dry by the time it hits theaters.
If anything, comparing the two films illustrates just how bloated and ineffective Hollywood proper has become. Back then directors like Tod Browning, James Whale or George Waggner had something to prove in having a voice in a medium that still didn't have much of a conception for the "artist". We live in a world that recognizes the individual artist in film now and Joe Johnson is just cashing cheques. I think wholeheartedly Chunk is right on the mark here.
I saw this last night and was expecting it to be awful after reading this review but that wasn't the case. The film wasn't great but it manages to be entertaining, gory and rather well acted.
I would probably give it something like B-minus or a C.
I thought del Toro was miscast, he just seemed pretty flat. I like the look of the film and thought the story was decent with some sequences standing out more than others [although I saw the identity of the other werewolf coming a mile away] but I agree, it was ultimately disappointing.
I have to disagree about werewolves lacking subtext, they are one of the oldest archetypes out there. Stephen King's DANSE MACABRE had a lot to say about the subtext of werewolves, and it seemed like by the end that the Werewolf ends up having some of the deepest subtext and cultural resonance of all of the monsters.
Too bad more isn't made of it here, though.
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