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Can lightning strike twice in the same place?  Can someone revisit a moment that made them famous and improve on it? Ask Rick Baker, the special effects genius who first came to the public’s attention with his eye–popping transformation of David Naughton from cute, unassuming young pup to big, scary, hairy pup in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London.  Baker revisits lupine territory in director Joe Johnston’s update of the 1941 Universal Pictures' horror classic, The Wolf Man.  Baker’s work, along with some amazing production design and unexpectedly gory special effects action saves the film from the wolfsbane combination of wildly uneven acting and a rickety, middling script.

It’s a sad occasion that returns Lawrence Talbot to the village of Blackmoor. The mutilated remains of his brother are discovered on the Talbot manor grounds and it is unclear whether the perpetrator of this hideous crime is man or beast.  Lawrence’s long, enforced absence from his childhood home hasn’t prepared him for the run-down, cobweb-covered, filthy pit of despair the winding estate has become.  At the center of it all, amidst grand hunting trophies of ivory tusks and animal heads is Lawrence’s enigmatic father, Sir John Talbot, who seems neither pleased nor perturbed by the arrival of his last living heir.  Also waiting for Lawrence is his brother’s mournful fiancée, Gwen, whose thoughtfulness saw to it that Lawrence was notified to come home after brother Ben went missing.  The two form a bond over their shared grief and Gwen’s desire to find out who is responsible for Ben’s death.  The search for the truth leads Lawrence through the gypsy encampment on the edge of the Talbot estate and even more mystery as to what has the entire village in fear.  Lawrence’s meeting with the creature that has terrified the townsfolk and killed his bro will cost him a mint in shaving cream and manicures every time the moon is full.

Despite having all the visceral ingredients of a great update of the Universal horror hallmark, The Wolfman has many problems; foremost is its ridiculous range of acting styles.  First on the rifle-range is Benicio Del Toro, playing the prodigal Talbot son.  I supposed Del Toro was going for a portrayal of Lawrence as a sort of milquetoast, unfortunately there is so little life injected into the character that he merely looks like he really needs a nap.  When faced with fear or shocking betrayal, even a pin stuck in him wouldn’t spark the inert Del Toro into any sort of presence or command.  Utterly distracting, as well is his thick-tongued, consonant-heavy American accent.  For being one of the film’s producers, one might have expected a little more effort on Del Toro’s part.

On the same side of the questionable acting coin as Del Toro is Sir Anthony Hopkins.  It’s ironic that he is here playing the senior Talbot because the last time I saw Hopkins be so defiantly terrible was in another revamp of a classic horror film; Francis Ford Coppola’s deranged 1992 version of Dracula.  As he was allowed then, Hopkins makes mincemeat out of the script, doing some bizarre stream of consciousness (and subconsciousness) rendering that only he can understand.  Yes, we get that the elder Talbot is a weird, creepy fellow, but must Hopkins spell out it in the broadest letters in every single scene?  There’s no room for this character merely being eccentric, he’s a straight-up freak, leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination.  The campy brilliance is in Hopkins’ ability to simultaneously over and underact, hamming up the role while showing no respect or interest in it.  I can’t recall the last time Hopkins had a director who actually guided and when necessary reined in his performance and didn’t let him get away with the type of self-indulgent scene-chewing piled on in woeful and laughable abundance here. 

The excellent Hugo Weaving is also on board as the good inspector from Scotland Yard meant to get to the bottom of these mysterious murders and disappearances.  Rarely has a star with Weaving’s exceptional talents been as underutilized as he is here.  There are so many dropped subplots around his character that Weaving must’ve given an internal shrug and decided to have fun with his role.  One expects a ‘Missterrrr Talllllbot’ to issue forth from under his walrus-like mustache at any given moment.  Otherwise, all Weaving has to do is run around after the beast every now and again, and, like the audience, wonder about the many conspicuous unanswered questions that pervade The Wolfman; like, ‘Why is this even happening to these people? Why do they turn into werewolves?’  Don’t look for any answers here, folks; just go along with the ride.

Luckily, besides the presence (- however wasted) of Weaving, there is some good in The Werewolf and much of that would be laid at the feet of Emily Blunt.  She gives Gwen the appropriate balance of temerity and demureness expected of a chaste young lady of the period while instilling her with an iron core.  Blunt is luminous in corset, laces and bustles and she does most of the heavy lifting in her scenes with Del Toro, who, rather unbelievably, can’t seem to raise his pulse high enough to generate any chemistry with her.

Besides having the benefit of Blunt’s ethereal charms, the success of The Wolfman is in its looks and action.  The film’s production designer creates a perfect rendering of the ramshackle Talbot mansion gone completely to seed under the neglect of Talbot, père.  The moody, grey exteriors and looming thickets of trees capture the mystery and mesmerising gloom of English countryside.  Anything is possible there and beauty and danger lay over every mist-covered moor - a perfect backdrop for a nightmare.  The Wolfman’s transformation when seen in the blunt yellowish light of a London insane asylum gets under the skin with the sounds of bones and joints cracking and the flux between Talbot’s human and lupine sides fighting for superiority.  The full-blown werewolf is a thing of real beauty and Rick Baker gives us an honest and heartfelt homage to the 1941 monster.  No radical surprises and “reimagining” there and it’s perfect.  The heightened and extreme amount of violence also seems like a natural progression from the older film, where black and white suspense was enough for those audiences.  Here limbs, fingers, heads and intestines are up for grabs at any given point.  Director Johnston relies on a lot of “pop” scares; loud sudden noises and in your face shocks meant to make us jump out of our seats.  Some of these frights get tired after repeated use, but in all make for a guaranteed way to get the girl (- or boy) you’re watching this with to grab onto your arm or other available extremities. 

Is The Wolfman a total success?  Nope, and it’s not going to make anyone forget the Lon Chaney, Jr. original, either.  But it is respectful enough to create a new interest in that classic film and deliver a fun and totally inconsequential time at the movies. 

 

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Feb. 11th, 2010

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Universal Pictures)

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