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Friday, February 12, 2010

The Wolfman Report

Well, The Wolfman has been seen—at 1:05 this afternoon at the Arclight in Sherman Oaks. The comical digital sign in the picture to the left greeted me at the entrance to the auditorium, setting the stage for who-knows-what.

For those of you who don't know, the Arclight Cinemas are upscale movie houses in Los Angeles with full-service cafés, gift shops and state-of-the-art projection and sound. Before each film begins, an employee walks in front of the screen, welcomes the audience and delivers a spiel designed to help us maximize our viewing experience. The poor young woman today got to Benicio Del Toro's name and completely caved. We knew what she was trying to say, because she kept going: "B...B...B...."

Now to the film itself. Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a noted stage actor in America, who is called away from a London run of "Hamlet" by his brother's fiance, Gwen (Emily Blunt), because his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared, and she wants him to join in the search. He arrives too late, though—Ben's body has been found torn to pieces by an unknown but powerful creature.

Talbot is received at his rundown family estate estate by Gwen and Sir John, his distant, eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins), who seems oddly unmoved by his son's death. Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving), a Scotland Yard detective, arrives to investigate, and the stage is set. We all know what happens next: Talbot is attacked by the creature and becomes a werewolf himself. Other things happen, too, but I'm not going to print any spoilers here.

The cast is excellent, but I expected it would be. Everyone brings real commitment to their performances. Del Toro, looking like a cross between the original Wolfman, Lon Chaney Jr., and Oliver Reed, the werewolf in Hammer's Curse, plays the tormented Talbot with the requisite angst; Blunt brings British stiff-upper-lippedness to her performance (actually I think she has a stiff upper lip).

No one can do "dry" like Weaving, and his inspector character is a welcome addition to the story. Geraldine Chaplin could have gone more over the top, actually, as Maleva, the gypsy, and Hopkins shows everyone else how it's done with his performance as Sir John. This character is an empty, emotionless shell but he remains compelling because Hopkins keeps giving us hints about the dark secrets that dwell within him.

The production design, art direction and special effects are great, too. Computer creations are seamlessly blended with real locations to vividly recreate London in the 1880s, a Hammer-esque country village and especially Talbot's creepy family estate. Cobwebbed and neglected, it's easy to imagine Miss Havisham occupying the rooms upstairs. Baker's Wolfman is a magnificent beast. He looks just enough like the original Chaney creature to satisfy fans, but about a thousand times more ferocious. The transformation scenes are intense and painful-looking, and—best of all—he charges along on all fours when he's on the hunt.

The killings are suitably splattery, and there are even some visual nods to the Universal classics. When he's standing atop a gargoyle in London howling at the moon, it brings to mind nothing so clearly as the studio's classic Phantom of the Opera, perched atop the statue of an angel, red cape blowing in the wind. When Talbot undergoes primitive electroshock procedures to cure him of his "delusions," the instruments the doctors use look like they came straight from the set of Bride of Frankenstein. And of course scenes with torch-wielding villagers storming through foggy woods are a Universal requirement. Oddly, there's also a battle sequence that recalls Alan Bates' and Oliver Reed's nude wrestling match in Ken Russell's Women in Love!

Danny Elfman's score certainly adds atmosphere to the proceedings, but I think he wrote too much of it. I don't recall a single second of silence in the entire film. As I'd feared, the script is what's the problem here. It's pretty perfunctory, and it's slow going for the first half-hour or so, but when the first transformation kicks in, it picks up pace. Some of the scenes between Del Toro and Blunt are borderline mawkish, through no fault of their own; it's just that the writers seemed unable to get a handle on how these two characters would talk to each other. Hopkins' Sir John gets some nice development, though, and Weaving's inspector, whom I'd feared would be an afterthought, also contributes interest. Everyone knows the basic story; it could have used more kick.

So is it a worthy update of a classic character? I don't think there's any way to add to or update that legacy. It's completely of its time and of its place, and any earnest attempt to recreate it would be laughable to today's audiences. Having said that, it's not bad. Everything about it looks great; it just really needed a better script. And if only they'd made it in 3D...

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

I also attended that screening and felt that the Arclight hostess did a fantastic job. While it's true she had trouble with pronouncing the star's name, I thought she was fantastic at transforming into a werewolf and running up the aisles, biting selected audience members!

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