After two release date changes, the departure and replacement of director Mark Romanek with Joe Johnston, a last-minute editorial overhaul by editor maestro Walter Murch, and the replacement of composer Danny Elfman’s score with another score before going BACK to Elfman’s score, The Wolfman has finally been unleashed upon audiences. Despite the pre-release bad buzz and the critical lashing it has received, I was surprised by how much I actually enjoyed this film.

Now don’t get me wrong. The Wolfman is far from perfect nor would I say its a very good movie. It certainly has its share of problems, but neither is it a steaming pile of shit and I think the critics are being a bit unfair towards it. The Wolfman is Universal Pictures’ updating of its classic horror property that first came out in 1941 and starred Lon Chaney Jr. (if you haven’t seen this, GO SEE IT). It takes place toward the turn of the century in Victorian England. An American stage actor (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home in England after receiving a letter from his sister-in-law (Emily Blunt) informing him that his brother has gone missing. Upon his return, he discovers his brother is actually dead, the cause of which is shrouded in rumors of a feral man beast terrorizing the countryside. Back at home Del Toro reunites with his estranged father (Anthony Hopkins), who has never seemed to have gotten over the mysterious death of his wife. In the meantime, a detective from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives in the village near where Del Toro’s brother died to investigate a rash of other killings all rumored to have been caused by the feral man beast. As you probably can surmise, Del Toro gets bitten by the man beast (werewolf) and turns into a werewolf himself.

The Wolfman story has never been one of my favorites among the classic monsters. The character has never attained the same level of coolness as Dracula, The Mummy, and The Phantom of the Opera have achieved. The Wolfman has always just been a furry, wild animal on two feet who slashes people up. With that, I wasn’t particularly excited about Universal’s decision to resurrect the monster. However, after watching The Wolfman, I have to say that this is probably the best version of the classic story I have seen and its far better than Universal’s recent attempts to revamp its other monsters such as the horrendous The Mummy franchise and Van Helsing.

Lets first begin with what works in this movie. Although this may make the film seem like its horrible, the best element of The Wolfman is it’s look. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for those who know of Joe Johnson’s background, which began in visual effects at ILM. The film’s look reminded me of Sleepy Hollow, with its gloomy, dark gothic Victorian setting. The trees are always bare, the leaves are dead, there is an always present fog, and the moon is usually out. The colors of the film are desaturated and obscured by a lot of shadows. This is perhaps DP Shelly Johnson’s defining career film and he really hits it out of the park here (NOTE: Johnson is set to shoot The First Avenger: Captain America, which is also being directed by Joe Johnson). As I watched The Wolfman, I couldn’t help compare its look with another recent film thats set during the same time period, Sherlock Holmes. Unlike Holmes, however, The Wolfman does a more convincing job of putting its audience in the time period whereas Holmes just felt like a CG-created environment populated by modern day actors playing Victorians.

Another thing that works very well in The Wolfman is 1.) the AWESOME performance by Hugo Weaving as the Scotland Yard detective and 2.) Anthony Hopkins over-the-top performance as Del Toro’s father. Weaving especially excels here and once he appears onscreen 30 minutes into the film, he really ratcheted up my interest in the movie. One scene in particular made me wish I could rewind the film and watch it again. It takes place in a village tavern where Weaving has just entered to have a beer and read his newspaper. The bartender comes over to chide him for not being out there hunting the werewolf. Weaving’s reply and performance is absolutely classic and its up there with his best work in The Matrix and LOTR. As for Hopkins, he has in recent years seemed to rest on his laurels and not give the kinds of performances that regularly garnered him award wins and nominations. I wouldn’t put his performance here up there with The Silence of the Lambs, Howard’s End, or The Remains of the Day, but he does nevertheless have fun with his role here. His dialogue is melodramatic and over-the-top and I think Hopkins appropriately approached his role in the same manner.

Ok, now that we’ve gotten the good stuff out of the way, what hurts this film? A good place to begin is Benicio Del Toro’s performance. I have always been a big fan of Del Toro ever since I was introduced to him in The Usual Suspects. He continually challenges himself with the roles he picks and he almost always succeeds in delivering his characters. However, this is the first time where I feel that Del Toro bit off more than he could chew (no pun intended). Its difficult to pinpoint where the exact problem is, but I just couldn’t buy Del Toro’s performance. Some critics have said he isn’t leading man material, but I don’t think that is necessarily the problem. I feel that he may have either misinterpreted his character or he may simply not have had the motivation or enthusiasm to do this role. I think he could have given a lot more to his character and he either did not or he could not. Strangely enough, despite Del Toro’s bad performance, I still felt a connection between Del Toro and Emily Blunt’s character. This may either be attributable to Blunt’s stronger performance or screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s writing of the characters’ relationship.

Another thing I did not care much for and this may come as a surprise for anyone reading this, was the werewolf makeup and costume effects. Rick Baker is Hollywood’s preeminent makeup effects master (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, Thriller, Gorillas in the Mist, Wolf, Ed Wood, Planet of the Apes, Hellboy, and on and on). The man certainly knows his shit and no one can do it better than he does these days. In fact, Baker’s decision to enter makeup effects was primarily motivated by watching the original 1941 Wolf Man. Given all this, you would think the creature effects here would be marvelous. However, I have to say I was underwhelmed by it. The werewolves didn’t look like werewolves so much as they looked like overweight hairy men resembling Bigfoot (NOTE: Baker also did Harry and the Hendersons…coincidence?). The werewolves at times even looked like men in suits, which they essentially were. Werewolves to me look more wolflike than man. Their faces are more angular and resemble wolves. Here, they appeared more like men with hairy faces. Simply put, I was surprised by how disappointing the makeup effects looked.

The Wolfman is an overall solid B-movie picture that pulls off more than I expected. Its not a perfect film and that was reflected in the huge production problems the film suffered over the past couple of years. The elements that work here work very well and the ones that don’t are not horrible enough to take away from the movie. It is an enjoyable experience and I think the shit its taking from critics is unwarranted.

Advertisements