Monday, February 15, 2010

A Few Thoughts on THE WOLFMAN (2010)

UPDATED 2/16/2010! Now with even MORE nitpicking! (See end of review)

Everyone around here knows (or should know by now) how important George Waggner's THE WOLF MAN (1941) is to your ever-lovin' Vicar, as both a piece of horror cinema history and a formative influence in my own personal journey that has led me to where I am today, which is to say right in front of your eyes spouting forth on the glories of all that is MAD at the movies. You also should know that I don't spend an awful lot of time writing about new-release movies on this blog, partly because I prefer to walk the ornate, psychedelically painted halls of 70s exploitation and neon-lit corridors of 80s sci-fi horror. However, because THE WOLF MAN is such an important movie to me, I felt it appropriate that I take a few minutes to talk about the Universal remake and my reaction to it.

The requisite disclaimer/spoiler warning: if you are planning to see Joe Johnston's THE WOLFMAN (2010) in the near future, I encourage you to skip this piece of writing and go in fresh; knowing as I do that cinematic enjoyment is an intensely personal rubric, and that one man's trash is another's treasure, I would hate to color someone's reaction when that person might otherwise have a great time with the movie. Which is not to say that I hated it--but I did have problems with it, which I plan to detail briefly below (along with the things I thought it did well). So caveat lector--don't say I didn't warn you.

The net by now is lousy with plot summaries and comparisons, so instead of subjecting you to all that, I think I'll just go through my likes and dislikes in list format. If you need a refresher on the original movie, I encourage you to check out my lengthy Halloween Monster Memories piece on THE WOLF MAN, seen here in October of 2008.

Things I liked about THE WOLFMAN (2010):

  • I thought the movie looked fantastic. The gloomy gothic of Talbot Manor and the surrounding perpetually fog-shrouded woods, the period costuming, the silver/grey color scheme that largely (and appropriately) called to mind both the black & white original and the silvery light of the moon--all gorgeous.
  • Rick Baker's makeup design for the Wolfman was, I thought, dead-on. Respectful to the original while updating it and making it more vicious and frightening--no complaints. I've read several places that they wanted Del Toro to be able to *act* under all that makeup, and I think they succeeded. And despite the sometimes iffy CG transitions, I did like the half-biped/half-quadriped locomotion of the creature.
  • I don't know if they were entirely intentional, but I think I spotted at least two nods to the werewolf lore of permanent Vicar hero Paul Naschy, which were greatly appreciated at least by me. First, they give lip service to the Naschylore that the werewolf can only be set free by someone who loves him, though thereafter they really don't go much further with it. And in a show-stopping massacre scene, there is a definite instance of Human Jerky a la Jacinto, which again had me smiling and nodding my head.
  • There were also a couple of definitely intentional nods to what I've always considered a tonal remake of The Wolf Man, i.e. American Werewolf in London, which Rick Baker also worked on of course. The first is the appearance early on of David Schofield, the Dart Player from the Slaughtered Lamb in AWIL, playing a similar pub-goer role. The second is the Wolfman's rampage in London, which despite period setting hits a lot of analogous notes as the Picadilly Circus sequence from the earlier flick. (Nota bene: Rick Baker himself makes a brief cameo as the first killed onscreen by a werewolf.)
  • That London rampage? Excellent. Again, there was some iffy CG tansitioning going on, but the werewolf going crazy on the steam-powered double-decker, taking off over the rooftops of London, and generally wreaking havoc? Fantastic, exciting stuff, imo.
  • Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe was probably hired because she looks so beautiful when she cries, as she's called upon to turn on the water-works in just about every scene. This is not a bad thing--she's gorgeous, believably bereaved and confused, and turns in my favorite performance of the flick.
  • I liked that the werewolf was so solid and weighty here--not light and airy like the vampires we see in modern flicks who barely seem to touch to floor. This creature rages, slams into things, knocks trees over, and makes a lot of noise. I appreciate that.
Things I didn't like quite so much:
  • One of the central themes for me of the whole werewolf mythos is the tragedy of a good man who is driven to do evil and cannot stop himself. Werewolf movies suffer, imo, when they forget this or give it short shrift. We get to see quite a lot of Lon Chaney Jr. being a good if misguided man in the original (too much, some might say), which makes his drive to kill all the more tragic. Benecio Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot *is* meant to be a good man, but his development as such is all done in shorthand. In fact, this is a problem with ALL the character develpment in the movie--rather than learning about the characters by how they interact, we get shorthand versions of their motivations, either through summarizing dialogue or flashbacks. Some viewers will like this better than the build-up of the original, but for me it just seemed lazy.
  • Speaking of lazy--those flashbacks and dream sequences. Far too many, far too often. I would have preferred sacrificing the scenes of Larry and Ben as kids for some more character development, perhaps using the same narrative but told by the characters rather than flashback. This would have helped Larry and Gwen's later relationship become more moving as well, I think. And that long dream sequence in the asylum? I know there's a similar scene at the carnival in the original, but the new one is bigger, longer, flashier, and dumber. I could have done with less of that.
  • Speaking of the asylum--wtf? This is probably my biggest problem with the flick--again, in the original, Larry murders the grave digger and becomes aware of his situation before anyone else. When he tries to convince his father and the town that he's a monster, no one belives him, thinking instead he's disturbed. Here, however, the townspeople light up their torches and march on the house demanding Larry's cursed hide BEFORE HE EVEN TRANSFORMS FOR THE FIRST TIME. There is NOBODY in the town who DOESN'T believe Larry is the Beast, and yet when they capture him after a huge massacre in which he does away with at least half a dozen townspeople and everyone sees him wolfed out, what do they do? SEND HIM TO THE ASYLUM for treatment. In the context of the original story in which Larry might well be a lunatic, that would work; but here it's just nonsensical.
  • The dialogue, frankly, was horrible. Del Toro, Hopkins, Blunt and Weaving do their best with what they have, but when your lines are MORE melodramatic and stilted than lines from your 60-year-old source material? You've got a major problem there.
  • We needed more gypsies. I mean, A LOT more gypsies.
And finally (MAJOR SPOILER HERE--TURN BACK NOW!)--the double-werewolf dynamic. I'm of two minds about this one--on the one hand, I LOVED the final battle in the burning Talbot manse, as it reminded me again of the monster mashes Naschy and I both love so well, and was exciting and interesting and bloody. On the other hand, it replaces the tension between Sir John and Larry in the 1941 flick--Dad thinks his son just needs to man-up and stop believing folklore--with "Dad is a remorselessly evil killing machine and wants his son to take the fall for him." I didn't mind the idea itself--I thought it could have been used a lot more effectively than it was, though. Also, I didn't like Hopkins' dead-eyed performance, while I understood the reasons for it.

I could go on for a while about the things I liked and didn't like (the nods to the original with the Wolf's Head Cane and dad's telescope, for instance), but I think that's enough for now. In all, I didn't think it was terrible, but I didn't think it was all that great either, and I believe the 3/5 star, "C" ratings you're seeing all over the net are probably about right.

Of course I fully cop to the fact that my love for the original may well color my enjoyment of the new one, and I might enjoy it more if I could just separate myself from Chaney and Rains and view the flick on its own merits. But I'm not so sure--there's a lot of flash at the expense of substance, which seems to be the curse of our blockbuster age.

Anyway, YMMV as always. I'll be interested to hear what other parishioners think.

The Vicar

EDITED TO ADD: As I've thought more about the film since my weekend viewing, another problem has occurred to me I wanted to add to this review. (And apologies to the blogs I've already posted this on in comment form--it takes me a while to get my thoughts in order sometimes.) One thing the new film misses that made the old film so compelling to me is Larry Talbot's crushing sense of guilt for having the blood of innocents on his hands. In the 1941 version this starts when Larry attends Bela the Gypsy's funeral and is clearly emotionally distraught at the idea he may have inadvertently killed a man and not a wolf--even though he's pretty sure he killed a wolf! Later, after the gravedigger's death, he's completely destroyed by the knowledge that every time the moon rises he'll go out and kill again--and worse, that no one around him will believe him or help him stop it.

In the new film, with the villagers mobbing up for his hide before he even wolfs out the first time, his later bloodshed seems less like wanton slaughter and more like self-defense. I never got the feeling that Del Toro's Talbot was that worried about having killed so many innocent people--rather, his torment seemed based on the fact that he was being hunted down by them. It's an important difference, I think, and works to the new film's detriment imo.

At the end of the day, though, the film is just okay--I guess I'm mostly disappointed b/c I was hoping it would be "great."


Samuel Wilson said...

Vicar, if memory serves the death-by-lover angle you credit to Naschy was established in House of Frankenstein, not that it worked that great for either Talbot or Daninsky, mind you.

I haven't seen the remake yet (though I figured out the big spoiler from hints in the early reviews) and I'm not sure if I will, but I'm curious about the change of Talbot's vocation from engineer to actor and whether it can be seen as a subtle nod to Lon Chaney Jr's career path.

Needless to say, I consider your opinion on this subject more authoritative than any other review I've read so far, and practically as good as a gypsy's. Thanks for a detailed and sensitive critique.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Samuel--I must shamefacedly admit that, while I've seen both Universal "House" mashes several times, I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about them as parts of the Wolf Man lore. I would have to go back and rewatch HoF to see what they say about "the one who loves him must set him free," though I don't for a moment doubt your word that it's there. I guess Jacinto was paying more attention to that flick than I was. ;)

The Human Jerky is definitely there, though, and I liked it.

As to the actorly vocation of Del Toro's character, maybe it was a nod to Chaney, but if so it wasn't developed. In fact, there's almost nothing done with the fact of Talbot's stage career, except to explain why he's in England after years in America. Weaving says something about being a fan late, but again, it's a throwaway. One of many things the movie could have profitably expanded upon, but chose instead to rush to the next action sequence. :P

Now I need a t-shirt: "The Vicar's Opinion's as good as a Gypsy's!" I'm blushing over here. ;)

The Headless Werewolf said...

I fell hook, line, and sinker for this movie. The movie's charms might be all glitz and surface, but heck, it's the goddamn wolfman we're talking about! This is one case where I'm just going to be shallow and say it gets an "A" because it looks fantastic and the monster is scary as fuck.

I caught the Naschy allusions, too, and they're just among the many things about this movie that made me smile.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Headless Werewolf--I don't begrudge you your love for the movie at all! It does get some things very very right; I fully cop to being perhaps too emotionally invested in the original to let things stand on their own terms. In that I'm likely guilty of the same mentality as many of the Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN haters--a movie that I thought was exciting and scary and just fine by me. :P

That said, I stand by my reservations, which as I say are personal ones. But more power to you in your love for it!

dr.morbius said...

I got a pretty strong Paul Naschy feeling from parts of this, too. I think I liked it better than you, but I have some of the same misgivings. I was in a pretty good mood when I saw it, which always affects how respond to a movie. Mostly, I was surprised that it wasn't a disaster. The two things that really had me smiling were the telescope and Gwen Conliff's curio shop. Keeping those details said volumes about the filmmakers' intentions. They meant well. I also had visions of the Wolfman tumbling over the falls at the end while locked in a death grip with Frankenstein's monster. It inspired nice reveries. I'll be interested to see if the version Universal is holding out for DVD, alleged to be 20 minutes longer, addresses some of the movie's flaws.

The Duke of DVD said...

Well, I told myself not to read this, because I haven't watched the movie yet, but I just couldn't help it. (I did avoid the final point-of-no-return spoiler paragraph, though)

I'm pleasantly surprised you liked it, Herr Vicar, and it makes me want to go watch it that much more. It is unfortunate how they made it feel almost like self defense, his rampages, but this was probably intentional so that it didn't upset audiences too much.

Same goes for the flashback character building. By and large, the movie-going public needs everything spoon-fed to them or they walk out in disgust, too upset by their own stupidity for not being able to figure things out on their own.

Anonymous said...

I, like the Duke, wasn't going to read this review as I haven't seen the movie yet, but your witty writing always beckons me like a siren across the sea, and I couldn't resist dashing myself upon the rocks of spoilers (though I had figured out about the Hopkins thing from the previews -- they really aren't good at subtly advertising these days...).

I still want to go see the movie, and your review spurred me on to go out and purchase, no less, the original Wolfman DVD and watch it last night -- I'm ashamed to confess that I'd never seen it before, and I have to say that it was wonderful. It also made me appreciate American Werewolf, with the pentagram connections, suspicious villagers, tormented innocent man, and the American-British thing.

Thanks for the great review and thoughts, Vicar!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@dr.morbius--I would be interested to see whether a longer cut would address some of these concerns I had, but at the same time I'd kinda rather spend the time going back and watching some Chaney or Naschy. But maybe that's just me. ;)

@The Duke--yes, producers these days don't seem to trust the public at all to be able to take a movie that requires more than passive uncritical acceptance of whatever images are thrown at them. Of course when you make your living appealing to the broadest, lowest common denominator, perhaps it's the only feasible business model. :P

@Nicole--you flatter me! I had suspected the Hopkins "twist" from the previews as well, and it became painfully clear from the earliest parts of the movie what was going on--anyone who was surprised by it has never seen a movie before, imo.

And if my humble words about this film inspired you to go out and discover and enjoy the 1941 original--well, I count that a "WIN" by any standard of measure!

B-Sol said...

Vicar, I have to say, I did have a lot of fun with this movie, but I pretty much agree dead on with all your pluses and minuses regarding it.

All in all, I enjoyed it quite a bit and think it's getting unfairly trashed, but it does have some glaring flaws. Chief among them, I think, is what you mentioned in your addendum about the guilt factor. Del Toro seemed to sleepwalk through the part, and never was that torn up about anything, although it seemed like he was *supposed* to be, plot-wise.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@B-Sol--thanks for the comment! I want to make clear again that I didn't *dislike* the movie; I think it was exciting and gothic and pleasingly gory, and definitely a step up from much of the horror fare coming to modern cineplexes these days. I guess I just wanted it to be *great*, and instead it was just *okay.*

Once again, I freely admit my bias. ;)

Anonymous said...

"First, they give lip service to the Naschylore that the werewolf can only be set free by someone who loves him"

Hmm, no. Naschy lifted this bit directly (and repeatedly) from 1944's 'House of Frankenstein'

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