Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Frank Review of "The Wolfman" (2010)

The Short Version? Classic Wolfman, not werewolf. So, Victorian England, upright standing, and no titties.
What Is It? Gothic Horror.
Who Is In It? Franky Four Fingers, Hannibal Lecter, Agent Smith and Emily Chalton
Should I See It? Maybe.

Most horror movie fanatics, especially if they were indoctrinated into the darkness at a young age, have respect and some nostalgic fondness for the Universal Monsters. Weekends in my childhood were often spent watching the dawn of American horror in the form of Boris Karloff's Frankenstein & Mummy, Béla Lugosi's Dracula, and Lon Chaney Jr.'s Wolfman. Truth to tell, aside from the ones directed by James Whale, I found I preferred Abbott & Costello's send-ups of the Universal Monsters to the dull, serious, official offerings. Still, there was something inherently cool about the granddaddies of nightmare that I never felt was reflected in their then-modern slasher counterparts.

Because I grew up on the poor side of town, I had a lot of the dirt cheap off-brand action figures made by Remco, including every single one of their glow in the dark Universal City Studio's Monster figures. Despite some incredible packaging and okay looking figures, you could find them for less than a dollar in bargain bins. It was an early indication that, while I learned to appreciate horror history, most kids my age had no time for those hoary old beasts.

All this is to say, even I as a horror fan wrestle with the relevance of the Universal Monsters. Bram Stoker's Dracula as meant to change that in 1992, but despite generally positive reviews, I thought it a ludicrous spectacle. Old man Coppola dropped a shitty young cast into an ill-fitting period setting, and tried to jazz the proceedings up with overt sexuality and tricks he swiped from Raimi, but mishandled. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein tried to pick up the fetid gauntlet a couple of years later, but because it took the material seriously and actually deferred to the literary original, it laid a goose egg with modern viewers. It took another sixteen years for another attempt at getting a Universal Monster right (let's not mention Van Helsing, shall we,) and we've gone from Kenneth Branagh and the director of The Godfather to the guy what did Jumanji. This might explain why I've spent three paragraphs talking around The Wolfman rather than about it.

Director Joe Johnston, probably tired of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids defining his career, also reached back to Sam Raimi and others for his over-stylized but heartless take on the Wolfman. It's a great looking movie, from the production design to the costumes and locations. The special effects are pretty good, if a bit heavy on familiar CGI. There's some awesome bits of gore that should make you cheer or wince as inclined. The acting is solid throughout, and the script offers some twists and a bit of mystery. It just seems like the whole endeavor is played a bit too fast, like a 33 1/3 album run at 45rpms. You can't fault it for being indulgent with time, but you can for the lack of emotional investment and mood. Virtually none of the scares work, both because the ruthless editing robs the film of tension, and because the flick is so busy, you never become immersed enough in the proceedings to be startled from a settled place. I suspect that an awful movie ended up on the cutting room floor, which would be a canny move, but what remains is more like an extended trailer than a film.

I'm disinclined to discuss the plot at any length, as there's little to the story beyond reaching plot points, and even a brief summary would ruin the only thing an intellectual would likely have to hang on to. Benicio Del Toro works as Lawrence Talbot, a stage actor investigating the death of his brother at the request of his fetching widow, played by Emily Blunt. Anthony Hopkins is a fair bit better here than his turn as Van Helsing, but it doesn't take long to realize what he was paid to bring to the movie. Hugo Weaving shows up a ways in an a police detective looking into the deaths as one would expect his modern counterparts to. In fact, one of this production's strengths is in the assumption that since this is a well-trod story, it can skip the rote bits and keep the story moving forward. As soon as Talbot is bitten, virtually everyone in the film knows what's coming, and those too arrogant to miss the obvious pay in a satisfying manner. I'm grateful I was never bored, but the indifference I felt wasn't anything to aspire to. There's also some silly bits (the new howl; facial close-ups during running sequences; a late game brawl that recalls the trampoline-"enhanced" Wolf) that don't quite take the film into camp, which means it doesn't even work as a guilty pleasure. In the end, The Wolfman is neither a victory nor an embarrassment, but just sort of sits right there in the middle.

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