Review Date: June 1, 2010
Released by: Universal
Release date: 6/1/2010
Region A, HDTV
Codec: AVC, 1080p
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
A while ago a friend of mine asked me why I thought werewolf movies haven’t 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 filmmaker’s enthusiasm, at least) in the early 80’s with The Howling
, An American Werewolf in London
. 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 that’s 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 “creative differences” 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 Talbot’s (Anthony Hopkins
) seeming indifference to the death of his brother, and moved by the heartbreak of his brother’s fiancée, 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 gypsy’s 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 Lawrence’s rapid healing. He also makes it abundantly clear that he is skeptical of Lawrence’s claims.
While he’s 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 Lawrence’s healing spreads quickly and it isn’t 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 mother’s 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 don’t have: subtext. In the age of AIDS, it’s not hard to see why an unabashedly sexual creature that feeds on blood would provoke anxiety in the audience. Moreover, it’s 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? It’s 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 Freud’s time and we’re not quite so terrified of the unconscious mind.
Zombies have the benefit of being blank slates on which we can project our fears, whether it’s fear of virus (NOTLD
) or fear of technology (28 Days…
). 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.
addresses this somewhat with its menstruation metaphor and Mike Nichols’ Wolf
also tried to make Jack Nicholson’s 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
series). The problem is with the creature himself: he’s no longer scary. He’s quaint.
What The Wolfman
needed wasn’t a remake but a wholesale re-imagining of the mythology that taps into contemporary fears. Just transplanting the creature into modern times isn’t enough to do it and telling yet another werewolf tale set in Victorian England certainly isn’t even to breath life into the moribund, flea bitten corpse. I’ve heard it suggested that the 2010 version of The Wolfman
is a metaphor for the cycle of domestic abuse. I don’t 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 “love conquerors all.” Oh, wait. They did that, too. It’s not good enough to simply invoke those old clichés, dust off your hands and call it a day. You really need to bring you’re A-game to the table, especially when the creature is as thematically bereft as werewolves are. For a point of comparison look at Cronenberg’s Rabid
, and how drastic a reinvention of the vampire genre that was, and you’ll 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. We’ve established that. That doesn’t mean that it can’t work on some low level, meat and potatoes genre level, right? That’s correct, in theory. The sad reality is that years of studio fuckery sap The Wolfman
of even the faintest sparks of imagination. I can’t 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 he’s jerking wildly while in a straight jacket (that’s 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
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 doesn’t 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: they’re spectacular and easily the highlight of the film. Baker’s work on the other hand, doesn’t 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 creature’s look, but I kind of expected a bit more than just making the hair longer and the teeth bigger. It’s not that it’s bad it just shows a curious lack of imagination from the man who pretty much defined the craft as we know it today. There’s also been much ado about the gore in this film. While it is plentiful, after films like Saw
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 that’s 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 you’re set on having a London rampage, and you’re 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 Lee’s stunt double?
The final showdown at Talbot Hall strays the film into pure camp but by that point it’s 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 we’re 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.
boasts handsome production design and visual style. Unfortunately, the transfer doesn’t always represent them they way you’d expect from a new film. I’ve never seen a transfer that’s so variable in quality. For the most part it’s 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 it’s expected that the colors aren’t 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 don’t want to give the impression that the video quality of The Wolfman
is a total disaster, it’s 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.
is on a BD-50, yet less than half of that is allotted for the video quality. I know it’s a point of pride when studios offer their supplemental materials in HD but, if given the choice, I’d 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. It’s a good track. Not mind blowing but certainly respectable enough to stand up to the standards of other modern films.
There’s a fair amount of supplemental material included though it’s not as substantive as would seem upon first glance. To the shock of no one at all there’s not even a hint of The Wolfman
’s troubled production. Those looking for perspective or a look behind the scenes of a runaway production should look elsewhere.
First we have the Director’s Cut version of the film. While it certainly is an improvement over the theatrical version it fails to address any of its serious deficiencies. There’s 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 doesn’t 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 he’s asked to leave. It’s goofy, gory and over the top fun. If only the rest of the movie has such reckless abandon – it may not make it the werewolf masterpiece I’d 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). It’s well produced and Rick Baker is always an engaging personality to watch but it doesn’t break any new ground and I’m 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 film’s CG sequences. This is a bit more interesting since the effects are so well done that often I couldn’t tell what was CG and what wasn’t. The speakers seem genuinely enthusiastic when they talk about the hair growth algorithms they programmed for the film, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Still, there’s 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 film’s 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 Universal’s U-control interface. It’s an interesting idea but I’ve always found U-control unintuitive and clunky to use, especially when compared to Warner’s In-Movie Experience. I’d much rather watch the film, and then the features anyway. Still, it’s there for those who want it.
I’ve 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 won’t be able to take full advantage of this feature.
I’ve seen a lot of parsing going on trying to downplay The Wolfman
’s awfulness. I will grant that given the films enormous production difficulties it’s 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.
I’ve 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, you’re 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.
Movie - D- (Theatrical) / D+ (Director's Cut)
Image Quality - B-*
Sound - B
Supplements - B-
- Running Time - 1 hour 43 minutes (Theatrical), 1 hour 59 minutes (Director's Cut)
- Rated R, 18A
- 2 Discs (1 Blu-ray, 1 DVD Digital copy)
- Chapter Stops
- English DTS-HD MAster Audio 5.1
- French DTS 5.1
- Spanish DTS 5.1
- English Descriptive Video Service
- English SDH subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- Theatrical and director's cuts
- 2 Alternate Endings
- Deleted Scenes
- “The Return of the Wolfman” behind the scenes featurette
- “The Beast Maker” makeup featurette with Rick Baker
- “Transformations Secrets” CGI featurette
- “The Wolfman Unleashed” stunts featurette
- Bonus movie: 1941 version of “The Wolfman” (HD)