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Non-Review Review: The Wolfman

The Wolfman was clearly intended to kickstart a relaunch of Universal’s Monster Movie franchises, updating them for a whole new generation of movie-goers. It was intended to call back to a whole generation of horror films, starring Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff and so on. However, director Joe Johnston’s attempt to update the monster movie for a new generation is a muddled affair, simple and straight-forward, but clouded with unnecessary blood, gore and CGI.

No escape claws...

The plot follows prodigal son Laurence Talbot who returns home upon the death of his brother – savaged by a wild beast that seems to be prowling the moors. The local villages are quick to blame a travelling troupe of gypsies for the spree of violent killings, but Talbot comes to suspect that there might be a cause closer to home on the decaying gothic estate.

The storyline is remarkable straightforward, but then most monster movies are. If vampires represent repressed sexual urges which we keep bottled away and the Frankenstein myth is an iteration of the story of Icarus, warning us about the dangers of unchecked scientific advances, the werewolf is about the beast that we keep caged inside – afraid to let out. It’s sex and violence and lust and rage, everything that we cloak in the daylight. It’s about, as the movie, succinctly sums up, worrying where the man stops and the beast begins.

However, the movie isn’t too concerned with exploring this issue in any real depth. Sure, we get the voice assuring werewolf victim Laurence Talbot to let the beast go unchecked, indulging every instinct, but there’s never really any indication that Laurence has any repressed urges which he should restrain. Sure, he lusts after his brother’s widow, but it’s hardly the darkest instinct any man could have (especially when the movie heavily implies the feeling is returned). Sure, the movie is set in the era of unchecked repression – Victorian England – but even there Talbot seems a very vanilla protagonist. And not even the vanilla with those snazzy little pods in it – this is non-brand vanilla.

He wears fur...

In fairness to director Joe Johnston, the movie drips with atmosphere. The film is shot with a dark shadow at the periphery of the screen, calling to mind classic black-and-white cinematography. He captures the gothic mood of the rotting country estate almost perfectly – the family home seems like a tomb. The soundtrack is eerie and haunting, but never overwhelms what’s happening on screen.

Unfortunately, the rest of the production isn’t quite so effective. The Wolfman himself actually looks quite decent when rendered with make-up and conventional effects – it’s not perfect, but it calls to mind the classic design of the beast from the original monster movie, and that makes up for the occasional corniness. On the other hand, the movie uses a ridiculous amount of CGI. This would be grand if the movie ended up looking like Avatar or Tron: Legacy, but it doesn’t. It looks awkward and corny, standing out from the surroundings like a sore thumb.

The argument is that conventional effects couldn’t have offered the same effect effectively. I’d argue that the use of animatronics puppets for animals might have been just as unconvincing as the CGI effects, but it would have suited the mood much better. If the purpose of the film is nostalgia, then one might be inclined to forgive the occasional cheesiness if it fits the mood, but copious amounts of CGI just don’t fit the mood and distract from everything else happening on screen.

Viewer be were...

The action scenes (for example, an attack on a gypsy caravan) thrown together somewhat haphazardly. There’s no sense of suspense, just lots of violence. I’m not sure that I needed blood and guts thrown around like ketchup (particularly if it’s going to be done with fairly weak special effects), particularly if it seems they are being offered to me instead of high-quality film-making.

Emily Blunt and Benecio Del Toro are wasted here, given two-dimensional characters to work with. Both show themselves to be better than material (especially Blunt, who is a rising talent), but they can’t work with what isn’t there. Anthony Hopkins seems to be having a bit of fun. Sure, he’s chewing the scenery, but this is the kind of movie that calls for it. Hugo Weaving is solid as ever in the role of Detective Frank Abberline, although I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed with the movie’s portrayal of the character – the implication that the failure to catch the Ripper was Abberline’s fault or the events of the movie’s climax both seem a bit unfair to the detective.

The Wolfman isn’t a terrible film. It is, however, a disappointing one. The movie is moody and gothic and rich in atmosphere. Unfortunately, it’s also ridiculous and poorly conceived, with a weak script and no idea of how to work with its particular monster.

2 Responses

  1. This was the closest I’ve come to walking out of a film in ages – it was so camp and hammy. Like you say, failing to mix old-school creature features with ridiculously bloody CGI. Total bargain bin!

    • Yep, pick one or the other. The CGI was terrible, but at least the practical effects could have had a corny appeal.

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