16 April 2010

The Wolfman

The Wolfman

For as long as I can remember, I have been a fan of the classic Universal horror movies. Some of my earliest movie heroes were Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., stars of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Wolf Man (1941), respectively.

The Wolf Man, which revived the studio as a leading producer of horror films, holds up better today than the others. The 10-year gap did wonders for reducing the stage influence on the acting and the unimaginative, static cinematography.

Werewolves have been prevalent in many movies over the years, but for some reason, Hollywood left the original alone until now.

Given its troubled path to the big screen, The Wolfman (2010) is far better than it has any right to be.

Original director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) left the project amid a budget dispute with the studio just a couple weeks before the scheduled start of production. Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) came onboard to get the movie done on time and on budget. After it was finished, the studio wanted more special effects and an entirely new cut of the film, ironically pushing the budget past the $100-million limit that reportedly had been imposed upon Romanek.

Oh, and Anthony Hopkins almost quit after production began due to a dispute over his beard(?!).

This new movie roughly follows the plot of the original. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) returns from America to his ancestral home in rural England, where his father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins), still lives and his brother, Ben (Simon Merrells), has been killed in mysterious fashion. Some say it was a wild animal, others a lunatic. But his isn't the only corpse that has turned up recently, and the deaths coincide with the arrival of a band of gypsies.

When Lawrence visits the gypsies to investigate, a brutal, bloody attack leaves him bitten and cursed by the beast. So then, yada, yada, yada, the full moon rises, Lawrence desperately needs a razor (or maybe a Snausage), a lot of people end up dead, Ben's fiancée (Emily Blunt) falls for Lawrence, knowledgeable villagers blame him for the series of murders, a detective (Hugo Weaving) tries to make sense of it all and Sir John has a much bigger role than in the original movie.

Despite the studio's insistence upon more special effects, the werewolves are, for the most part, actors or, more likely, stuntmen in makeup and prosthetics created by Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London). CGI only comes noticeably into play for the transformations. These are the most convincing werewolves I've ever seen on the screen.

The Wolfman earns its R rating with plenty of gore, but the violence is not excessively gratuitous. The screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self takes its time, establishing and developing characters and back story.

Del Toro was a good choice for the role. Though he does not have an overt physical resemblance to Chaney, he conveys a similar anguish behind his eyes. Lawrence is a haunted, tortured, tragic character the most human of the classic monsters and del Toro is able to draw that out.

Del Toro carries the movie, appearing in almost every scene, so it doesn't matter much that the actors and characters surrounding him are mostly one-note. Blunt only has to look sad and concerned, for example, while Hopkins' cartoonish turn is obvious from the start.

Visually, the film recalls the original through Shelly Johnson's cinematography of fog-drenched streets and forests, and musically, it has echoes of another remake of a classic horror movie, Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), through Danny Elfman's haunting score.

Overall, The Wolfman doesn't touch Francis Ford Coppola's stylish Dracula, but it stands far above Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) and The Mummy (1999).

Grade: B

(Rated R for bloody horror violence and gore. 103 minutes.)

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