Friday, 15 June 2012

The Wolfman

In 1941 Universal Pictures released their latest horror, The Wolf Man. The film led to the character becoming one of the most iconic movie monsters of the classical Hollywood period. 69 years later the same studio produced a remake, a splendidly gothic tale of familial tensions and an ancient curse. Oh, and there's bucket-loads of gore too.

The Wolfman
Joe Johnston // 2010 // 15 // 103 mins

1891. A man walks through the Blackmoor woods carrying a lantern. He calls out to an unseen intruder. The creature flashes upon the screen as it begins to slash the terrified man's face and stomach. The man is Ben Talbot, and after hearing the news of his death, his brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) leaves his run on the stage as Hamlet and returns to the home of his estranged father (AnthonyHopkins) to seek answers. He visits a local Gypsy camp where Ben was known to visit, and is subsequently attacked by the beast as well, surviving, but receiving a nibble to the neck in the scrap. Sure enough the bite heals unsettlingly fast and, true to the beliefs of both the Gypsies and the town people, Lawrence transforms into a beast himself upon the next full moon.

The story itself is surprisingly entertaining, filled with intriguing twists as the Talbot families' history is slowly revealed, amongst a slew of sequences in which the beastie viciously offs the locals with ease. The problem is that the two elements don’t seem to mix as well as they should. At times the film feels like a gothic family drama, at others it is torture-porn with monster make-up. Unfortunately the story of the family is far more engaging than the creatures' violent rampages, a complication when the Wolfman itself is the central focus of the film. Hopkins is particularly fascinating as Lawrence's eccentric father, his behaviour erratic and constantly piquing interest while perfectly complimenting the resigned performance of Del Toro's subdued protagonist.

Visual effects conjure up further complications. The Wolfman itself is the result of an admiral blend of both prosthetic and digital effects, and displays the great level of competence applied to both on this production. However the overall look of the beast is nothing short of odd, from the neck down it is clawed perfection, but the face, oh the face. Not quite wolf, not quite feral cat, Talbot's alter ego is at times intensely fearsome but at others jarringly unconvincing. In its physicality, though, is the beasts' true downfall. When its movements are not overly computer generated, looking ridiculously impossible, they reflect a constipated man trying to tiptoe to the loo in spite of head to toe makeup. The CGI transformation sequence in the asylum however is nothing short of incredible, showing truly how much careful thought has gone into the construction of the beast. It's just unfortunate that the prosthetic end result does not carry similar impact.

Each of the settings is beautiful and perfectly evokes the tone needed. From the damask walls of Talbot manor and the surrounding woods to the gorgeous London skyline through which the monster escapes capture, every location is sublime and lends so much to the atmosphere of the production. Solid performance and gorgeous costuming bring the characters alive. Special mentions should go to Emily Blunt, who does her utmost with the fairly standard widow-in-law come love interest of Lawrence, and Hugo Weaving who delivers brilliantly as the cynical Inspector Abberline. While the film is extremely entertaining the contrast between the wonderfully constructed family drama and the lack-lustre attacks create a frustrating stop-start experience. It is clear that at this point director Joe Johnston and his team have not developed a technical competence required for the many action sequences present, as each massacre we witness suffers from shaky editing and uneasy camerawork. Stunning cinematography cannot save a film that has not been put together well.

The Wolfman is a truly brilliant gothic drama that somewhere along its troubled production became transformed into a blood soaked slasher. Excessive dismemberments and needless blood splatters distract from what is actually a great story. The end result is that almost every scene which features the titular beast heavily detracts from the overall experience. The Wolfman is a great film that has been so shoddily wrapped up and put together that it has become unrecognisable from the brilliant feature it so nearly could have been. 

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