Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Wolfman (2010)

A Winning Throwback

- Director Joe Johnston is not a great director but he has a specific talent for inserting and executing homages to classic film eras into his own films very well. The Rocketeer (1991) is the best example - Johnston taking special note of the setting of the story and creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the classic films of the 1930s and 1940s - but Johnston also puts this talent to use in 2010's The Wolfman. This film is not flawless but its redeeming qualities for the most part shine out its poorer qualities.

What Johnston does particularly well with The Wolfman is throwback to the horror films of the 30s and 40s. Johnston and cinematographer Shelly Johnson create a wonderful visual throwback in the film's thick and creepy shadowing, the sparse but effective lighting, and the set pieces that seem stolen from the horror films of the far away past, creating a fantastic contemporary re-mixing of a golden era in film. Even composer Danny Elfman does a good job in his throwback score that takes us allll the way back to.... uh.... 1999 and Philip Glass' score to Dracula (1931).

But where The Wolfman reminds us of the old 30s and 40s classics, it also gives us something new with the story (as all remakes should – if you are not going to feature anything new in your remake then why remake the original at all?). Firstly, the story has been tweaked to deliver something new within a throwback. We see a more tortured main character Lawrence Talbot, his mind troubled far before wearing the curse of the beast, and an interesting role for Lawrence's father in the story. Secondly, the acting, outside of simply being quite good, gives completely new dimension to their classic characters. Benicio Del Toro (who also helped produce the film), Emily Blunt, and Anthony Hopkins (with his best performance in quite some time) are all excellent in their roles while Hugo Weaving requires special recognition, making the film worth a viewing all by himself in his wonderful performance as Scotland Yard Inspector Francis Aberline (a real-life inspector in the Jack The Ripper murders).

As good as some elements of the film are, there are other areas in which the film disappoints. While some elements in the story are well structured, the romantic angel of the film is very poorly developed - simply assuming the audience will buy the romance without needing to be persuaded. Also, some of the special effects are a letdown - while the particular effects that make up the on-screen transformation of the werewolf are very good, one wonders if the filmmakers ran out of money to finish up the other special effects. Any scene which the wolfman requires CGI to run (especially running when on all fours) has a certain hokey quality to it that really takes the viewer out of the film - the wolfmen showdown is particularly hokey.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when a scene is not grotesque for grotesque's sake or its suspense predictable, it is cheap. Is the film creepy? For the most part yes - and credit Joe Johnston for that. Is the film scary? Do you jump out of your seat while watching? Certainly, yes - but not by any quality means. All the "scares" in the film are not products of genuine creepiness or cinema-generated terror; they are of the "BOO!" brand of "scare." You know the kind: everything is all fine and dandy until - *BAM* - something will make a big noise or something will pop out of nowhere or someone will get killed or blah blah blah. That's not being scared! That's a reaction of the body; just as a clap near the face causes one to blink, no matter how harmless everything is. It does not matter what pops out on screen all-of-a-sudden; I will still jump straight out of my Urban Pipelines if a film featured the cutest of teddy bears bouncing out of a bush to a loud orchestra noise. Using this kind of scare-tactic feels like audience manipulation and a last resort to those who cannot re-create naturally scary scenes like 1931's Dracula or 1980's The Shining. This is a very crippling blow to the film; if suspense does not really work in a horror film, the overall film will not work in its entirety either. Luckily 2010's The Wolfman has good enough style and acting to make it not only watchable but entertaining.

It seems as if that a new version of one of the most classic horror films hits the market every few years or so: in recent years we have seen the Francis Ford Coppola Dracula remake in 1992, the 1994 Robert De Niro-starred Frankenstein film, a new franchise take on The Mummy that started in 1999, and now a new version of the classic The Wolf Man in 2010 from Benicio Del Toro and Joe Johnston. Unfortunately, while having many good points and some fresh elements, The Wolfman ultimately fails to be much more than a winning throwback.

CBC Rating: 7/10

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