Friday, February 12, 2010

Film Reviews: 'The Wolfman'

'Wolfman' a strange beast

New York Post
February 12, 2010

Benicio Del Toro as a hairy psycho who roams the land on a deranged murder spree while driven by a monstrous disease? I thought this movie was called “Che.”

No, it’s “The Wolfman,” though Del Toro again crosses the sea to rescue an island nation’s peasants (who wind up wishing he’d never gotten on a boat).

B. Del T. is actor Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean thespian working the New York stages called home to England by a letter from his brother's girlfriend (Emily Blunt) informing him that his brother's gone missing. Once Lawrence arrives, though, his frosty dad (Anthony Hopkins) informs him that he needn't have bothered -- the cherished sibling's been torn apart by a savage man-beast. Lawrence resolves to stay until the killer is found, but wandering the forest at night in the presence of a bloodthirsty murder machine turns out not to be as smart as you'd think.

As a story, "The Wolfman" is a strange beast. Think of another popcorn movie in which you'd have a relatively happy ending if only the hero killed himself in Act 2. Yet the movie is pungent with atmosphere, laying down a thick fog of creepy Victorian murk, with tight action scenes and without the cheesy one-liners and would-be hipness of "Sherlock Holmes," which takes place at the same time, 1891. Still, the story can never quite sink its claws into you.

Our shaggy protagonist -- this Chia Pet "Incredible Hulk" -- is neither hero nor villain. Make him full-on evil, like Dracula or the Mummy, and you've got a cool monster movie. Make him a richly tortured soul searching for a cure or at least some self-control, like the Hulk or Frankenstein's creature, and you've got tragic potential. This movie can't even give wolfie a genuine love story. Blunt asks him, "What's it like in New York?" and it's like every other awkward first date.

The supposed villains -- such as a Scotland Yard detective (Hugo Weaving -- him again?) are merely trying to save innocent lives, a fact even Dogbreath implicitly acknowledges.

Yet the best scenes are nastily effective. Perhaps the best is one set in a morally polluted "Elephant Man"-styled London where Lawrence, a prisoner at a mental hospital, comes in for some harsh reprogramming by a Dr. Strangelove-like shrink. But even in this case, high-grade visuals conceal a story flaw: Why would the doc think werewolfiness is all in Lawrence's mind when an entire village has witnessed the wolfman getting down to business?

Like buffalo meat, "The Wolfman" is a little too lean for its own good. Who is Lawrence, really? What is the measure of his anguish? A movie longer than 90 minutes might have had time to explain. We don't even get a backstory about the silver bullets. All the villagers are simply aware that this is the only way to kill a werewolf, as if they all looked it up on Wikipedia.

The story would be more exciting if it were a matter of the wolfman outsmarting himself, arranging to be chained up at every full moon and trying to stay ahead of the police long enough to find a cure -- but, as the Gypsies who lurk in the forest spewing ancient wisdom tell us, lycanthropy is a one-way street.

Oh, there's one little mystery to be solved, but it's so simple that even Marmaduke could have sniffed it out -- plus there's no reason for Lawrence not to have known the truth all along. So Lawrence is left with one not-all-that-challenging task to follow through on.

But if you're not in a thinky mood, director Joe Johnston stages the climax more than adequately, with much snarling beastiness. When in fire, set fire to the set? Works for me. As a spooky midnight movie, "The Wolfman" is worth curling up with.

The Wolfman

‘Wolfman’ is a howling good time

By Ty Burr, Boston Globe Staff
February 12, 2010

AwROOOOoooo! What are dignified, award-worthy thespians like Benicio del Toro, Emily Blunt, and Sir Anthony Hopkins doing in a piece of old-school hokum like “The Wolfman’’? Having the time of their lives while trying to keep a straight face. The movie is by no means good but it’s surprisingly enjoyable: a misty, moody Saturday-matinee monster-chiller-horror special that hits the same sweet spot for moviegoers of a certain age (cough) as those snap-together Frankenstein model kits from the late 1960s. You can practically smell the Duco cement.

Of course, the Wolfman was always the poor relation of the Universal Studio horror crew. The Frankenstein monster and Dracula got there first and had defining stars in Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi; 1935’s “Werewolf of London’’ had the dull-as-dirt Henry Hull. (Nifty transformation scene, though, and points for inspiring Warren Zevon.) It was only with 1941’s “The Wolfman’’ that movie lycanthropy got a face: poor, hulking Lon Chaney Jr., who always suggested a football player who’d been forced to take over the family watchmaking business. That first “Wolfman’’ isn’t a very good movie, either, so it’s not like the new one is sullying hallowed ground.

On the contrary, director Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids’’) and writers Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, working from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script, treat the hairy old cliches with reverence. Set in 1891 in the fictional hamlet of Blackmoor, England, the new “Wolfman’’ lets the fog machines rip from frame one, and every time an offscreen wolf howls you may find yourself giggling uncontrollably.

In an inspired casting touch, Benicio del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, a traveling actor returning to his ancestral manse to bury his brother (Simon Merrells) and confront the family demons. Since del Toro already looks like the missing link - he has a hairline lower than Butch Patrick on “The Munsters’’ - this gives the makeup team only half the work to do.

Hopkins staggers merrily around as the unfathomably decadent Sir John Talbot, cradling a gun as if he were re-enacting his post-stroke scenes from “Legends of the Fall.’’ With tremulous conviction, Blunt plays Gwen Conliffe, the brother’s fiancĂ©e who’s drawn to the tormented Lawrence after he’s bitten one eldritch evening and starts staring fixedly at her neck. Since the original film’s Maria Ouspenskaya is long dead - not that that would have stopped her from chewing the scenery - Geraldine Chaplin has been drafted to play the aged Gypsy woman Maleva, issuing dire warnings and asking Gwen, “Vill you condemn him or vill you set him free?’’

One caveat: Because this is the 21st century and the multiplex circus demands blood, the new “Wolfman’’ is trendily gory. The violence erupts in brief, visceral spasms rather than prolonged wallowing, and I was cheered to see the Wolfman tear loose a victim’s liver in one scene, like a dog going straight for the Liv-a-Snaps. Mostly, though, Johnston busies himself with atmosphere and mood; this is a more faithful updating of Universal horror tropes than the recent “Mummy’’ desecrations, and it has its very real, if goofy, pleasures.

The transformation scenes come courtesy of makeup effects legend Rick Baker, who doesn’t dwell on the details as he did in 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London.’’ They’re shown off best in the movie’s strongest scene, in which Talbot is trussed to a chair in a medical amphitheater, surrounded by Victorian doctors curious to see what happens when the full moon rises. (The payoff is delicious - for Lawrence.) As with all monster movies, though, the more you see the sillier it gets, and the climax of “The Wolfman,’’ with two Oscar-winning actors in fur masks going at it tooth and talon, plays like a tussle at the pound.

Del Toro, sadly, is a bit of a dud in the title role, reciting his ornate period dialogue in an embarrassed monotone. Or maybe he’s just channeling Lon Chaney Jr. Hard to say. “The Wolfman’’ knows the old horror classics had pure pulp running through their veins, and it honors those cheap thrills with gusto. This isn’t a great movie - it’s just a good dog.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to

The Wolfman

February 10, 2010

"The Wolfman" avoids what must have been the temptation to update its famous story. It plants itself securely in period, with a great-looking production set in 1891. Gothic horror stories seem more digestible when set in once-great British country houses and peopled with gloomy introverts, especially when the countryside involves foggy moors and a craggy waterfall. This is, after all, a story set before the advent of modern psychology, back when a man's fate could be sealed by ancestral depravity.

The film's opening and closing shots are of the full moon, which is correct. An early exterior shows Chatsworth in Derbyshire, perhaps the grandest of all English country houses. Inside it is derelict and unkempt, inhabited by the sinister old Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) and his faithful manservant Singh. Gas was well known as a means of illumination in 1891, and indeed electric lights were not uncommon, but Sir John makes do with flickering candles carried from room to room, the better to cast wicked shadows.

Sir John's son Ben and his fiancee Gwen (Emily Blunt) were living there until recently, when Ben was savagely killed. Gwen writes to Ben's long-estranged brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), an American actor who is appearing in London in "Hamlet" and indeed is holding poor Yorick's skull when we first see him. Lawrence arrives in a foggy, chilly dusk of course, and his voice echoes in the vast lonely mansion before his father emerges from the shadows.

I love stuff like this. The gloomier and more ominous the better. (There is a silent classic named "The Fall of the House of Usher" that actually has dead leaves scuttling across a mansion's floor.) Lawrence views his brother's body, which seems to have made a good meal. Meanwhile, down at the obligatory local pub, the conversations of the locals center on a strange beast marauding in the district. In the 19th century, a pub served as the evening news.

More plot you do not require. What you might like to know is that "The Wolfman" has been made with care by Joe Johnston, and is well-photographed by Shelly Johnson and designed by Rick Hendrichs. The music by Danny Elfman creeps around the edges. Del Toro makes Lawrence sad, worried, fearful, doomed. It's not just the loss of his brother. It's the earlier loss of his beloved mother. The family manse is haunted by his memories. His father, Sir John, however, is played by the bearded Anthony Hopkins as a man holding up perhaps better than you might expect. And he's well turned-out, especially for a man who lives almost in the dark.

The film has one flaw, and faithful readers will not be surprised to find it involves the CGI special effects. No doubt there are whole scenes done so well in CGI that I didn't even spot them, but when the werewolf bounds through the forest, he does so with too much speed. He would be more convincing if he moved like a creature of considerable weight. In the first "Spider-Man" film, you recall, Spidey swung around almost weightlessly. Adding weight and slowing him down in the second film were some of the things that made that sequel great. The werewolf moves so lightly here he almost cries out: Look! I'm animated!

I am not sure of the natural history of wolf men. Is the condition passed through the blood? Apparently. How exactly does one morph from a man into a wolf? By special effects, obviously. The werewolf has much less pseudo-scientific documentation than the vampire. I understand why he sheds his clothes when he expands into a muscular predator. What I don't understand is how he always succeeds in redressing himself in the same clothes. Does he retrace his path back through the dark woods by moonlight, picking up after himself?

In any event, "The Wolfman" makes a satisfactory date movie for Valentine's Day, which is more than can be said for "Valentine's Day." Truer love hath no woman than the woman who loves a wolf man. And vice versa, ideally.

Cast & Credits

Lawrence Talbot- Benicio Del Toro
Gwen- Emily Blunt
Sir John Talbot- Anthony Hopkins
Maleva- Geraldine Chaplin
Inspector- Hugo Weaving
Hoenneger- Antony Sher

Universal presents a film directed by Joe Johnston. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. Running time: 103 minutes. Rated R (for bloody horror violence and gore).

The Wolfman: A Howling Good Flick

It's a monster movie done the old-fashioned way — with no apologies and plenty of scary moments.

by John Boot
February 11, 2010

He’s a man. He turns into a wolf. He likes to rip people down to juicy, throbbing red cutlets. What more do you require in a movie?

The latest “Wolfman” movie, starring Benicio Del Toro as the four-footed terror of the forest, comes to us amid howls of bad buzz. Mid-February has become the official dumping ground for movies, originally envisioned as summer blockbusters, that didn’t quite pan out — movies like Ghost Rider, The Pink Panther, and He’s Just Not That Into You.

The Wolfman was supposed to come bounding and roaring into theaters back in 2008 but was sent back to the movie veterinarian to nurse its reported wounds.

What wounds? The movie being released in theaters is fast, vicious, scary fun. It doesn’t waste our time with a lot of psychological exploration of Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro), the son of a British nobleman who moved to America to work as an actor and get away from his father (Anthony Hopkins). Called home to England when his brother’s girl Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt, who has lately made a specialty of playing Victorian ladies, including Victoria herself in The Young Victoria) informs him that his brother has gone missing in the woods, Lawrence learns that his brother has in fact been mauled to death by a toothy beast of no known species.

The local gypsies, who have seen this sort of thing before, insist it wasn’t their pet bear that did it, while the muttering villagers swear that there’s a curse in the air — one that can only be cured by the brisk introduction of silver bullets.

Resolving to see for himself, Lawrence steps out into the bleary night — and is himself attacked by the wolfman. His father realizes that Lawrence is going to turn into a wolf by the light of the next full moon.

Universal, which pretty much wrote the book on monster movies, has selected no single template for its ongoing series of revivals. The Mummy and its sequels were comic adventures filled with not-always-sharp one-liners and played along the lines of Indiana Jones, but King Kong was a mournful epic and even a love story. The Wolfman stakes out a middle ground that is closest to the original spirit of these movies, which were meant to shock and disturb.

The Wolfman isn’t cuddly. He’s a demon spirit who leaps out at you in the night, never asking you to consider him a victim. With that in mind, the director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) keeps to a minimum the amount of screen time between wolf attacks. This movie spends almost as much time tramping through the cursed woods as The Blair Witch Project.

The big added element that was much less prominent in The Wolf Man of 1941 by Lon Chaney, Jr. (which was not the first “Wolfman” picture but is still the best) is the daddy issues Lawrence Talbot has been carrying with him since he was a boy. As the dad, Anthony Hopkins doesn’t much look like Del Toro but has the creepy authority of a man who demands to be obeyed. Yet Hopkins doesn’t overplay his hand, maintaining an aura of solemn mystery about just what haunts this fellow in his crumbling wreck of a country pile.

I could have done without the now-obligatory-in-every-blockbuster scene of political allegory — Lawrence gets committed to a mental hospital in London where he undergoes a kind of waterboarding, as though we’re supposed to think that al-Qaeda’s animals should be treated a little more humanely — but the transformation sequences are fully convincing, and shot through with agony as Lawrence’s bones grow and creak. Okay, so there is something a little silly about a familiar actor’s eyes being visible in a face that becomes thickly covered with shag carpeting, but the way the wolfman flings himself in every direction with no objective except ripping into everything in sight is pretty cool.

The Wolfman has some subplots, such as one about a zealous Christian minister who preaches that the creature has been sent from hell, and a love story develops between Lawrence and Gwen. But the movie doesn’t seriously make the case that the religious types are wackjobs for being threatened by the marauding animal, or that a love affair between a he-beast and the local lovely has much of a chance to work out.

It’s a monster movie done the old-fashioned way — with no apologies.

John Boot is the pen name of a conservative writer operating under deep cover in the liberal media.

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