Friday, 12 February 2010

Film Review: The Wolf Man

'The Wolf Man', Hollywood's latest attempt to reanimate the classic Univeral monster sensations of the 1940s (let's not mention 'Van Helsing' ever again, eh?) has been so long in the making that it was itself in danger of being remade before it had even been released. Original director Mark (One Hour Photo) Romanek left the project due to "creative differences" and everyman director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park 3) was drafted in to salvage the troubled creature feature. But with thje film's release date being constantly shifted and rumours of reshoots and problems with the final edit, it was unlikely that, when the final product arrived, it was ever really likely to amount to much. Sure enough, the film's here now and...well, sadly, it doesn't really amount to much.

There's actually a fair bit to admire in Johnson's version of 'The Wolf Man' - but unfortunately there's quite a bit to be irritated, puzzled and even a bit angry about. The potential's certainly here for something rather good. The film looks sensational, dripping with a real Gothic atmosphere and stunningly realising its Victorian urban and rural settings. The creature FX are stomach-worryingly good - make-up guru Rick Baker's a dab hand at the werewolf stuff, having set the gold standard for screen lycanthropy in 'American Werewolf in London' waaaay back and there's no denying the raw quality of the thesps on display - Anthony Hopkins reigning in the ham for a change, Hugo Weaving as the determined Inspector Abberline and Benicio Del Toro as a slightly-too-old-for-this-part Lawrence Talbot. But something in the mix isn't quite right, something about the film just doesn't come alive. It's as if it's just going through the motions, throwing in set piece after set piece and rattling through a tick box of werewolf cliches without any real desire to do anything with any of these elements other than to just throw them onto the screen, hang a flimsy story around them and say to the audience "Look how clever we've been..." But 'The Wolf Man' isn't big and it's certainly not clever. It's got no heart and it's got no soul. As a film it just is.

Noted Shakesperean actor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home in the English countryside to comfort his sister-in-law (Emily Blunt) whose husband has gone AWOL. Larry has an uncomfortable reunion with his crusty dad (Anthony Hopkins) and before long soemthing monstrous and wolf-like is haring about the countryside ripping people to bits and generally being rather anti-social. During the course of the decimation of a gypsy camp poor Larry is savagely gored by a man who's more wolf than man. Thus he's infected by something nasty and when the next full moon comes round (remarkably quickly, as all full moons do in this movie with no sense of much going on in the weeks in between) Larry graphically turns into a wolf man and sets about on his own bloodthirsty rampage. Come the morning he's arrested and dragged off to London where, despite the fact he's been seen ripping people to shreds, he's accused of suffering delusions and subjected to cruel medical experiments in an attempt to cure him of his mental affliction. Unfortunately, as the full moon rises again, Larry goes ape (or rather wolf), escapes into the streets of Victorian London, dismembers a few locals and rushes back up to his family home and, in a twist so heavily sign-posted there might as well have been a big red sign screaming "This will be the twist" flashed onto the screen ten minutes in, meets Another Werewolf. There's some red-hot wolf-on-wolf action back in the family home and Larry final meets his silver-bullet fate but not before a potential sequel with a different wolf man is set up and we all go home.

'The Wolf Man' is gorgeous to look at. The muted, overcast colour palette suits the mood of the piece very well and technically the film bounces along and, once the watch-glancing first thirty minutes or so are out of the way, there's never a dull moment. Well, to be more accurate, there are too many dull moments. Because despite all the graphic violence (surprising for a 15 cert and clearly shoe-horned in just to spice up a rather drab movie) - all the decapitations and disembowellings and dismemberments - and all the roaring and running and screeching, there's a listlessness about the film. It's a film which is always trying to come to life but just can't. Part of the problem is Del Toro himself - or rather the character he plays. There's just nothing to Talbot, no bones to the man, no real sense of who he is. We're never given the chance to get inside his head, we're never privy to how he feels about his predicament, his terror at becoming a monster, his fears. Because of this we don't get to know or sympathise or empathise with him and as he does such terrible things to people when he's the wolf, we're really rooting for the Police and hoping some plucky Peeler can pick him off before he does any more damage to all those lovely lavish Victorian sets.

The film's to be commended for trying to be true to the spirit of a movie made in 1941 but all the concessions to modern movie-making have worked against it. Despite the welcome reappearance of horror movie staples like the "we don't like strangers around here" pub yokel types and the villagers rushing through the woods with flaming torches bent on Destroying Something, the film's too awash with a modern gloss to really convince as either an homage to a film made seventy years ago (yikes!) or as a contemporary monster movie. Rumour has it that Hollywood's keen on resurrecting the rest of its horror menagerie from the 1940s and 1950s - Dracula (again!), the Frankenstein Monster, the Creature From the Black Lagoon. If 'The Wolf Man' does the business at the Box Office - and it might do well on curiosity value alone - we can just hope that lessons have been learned and that the mistakes of 'The Wolf Man' aren't allowed to bedevil the return to the screen of those monsters and creatures which infested and informed so many of our flowering imaginations and which occupy a very special place in the history of 20th century cinema.

'The Wolf Man' really isn't a bad film but it's not a particularly good one. It occupies that curious, frustrating middle ground of a movie which, with a bit more effort and a bit more forethought, could have done something different and more imaginative with its source material rather than just trying to slavishly recreate a film which has already been made. So it's an interesting, sporadically-enjoyable failure - but it's a failure nonetheless. Boo.

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