Advance word concerning Universal’s remake of THE WOLFMAN has centred on the numerous production problems involving script rewrites, bickering between stars and crew, and changes to the production team. Originally scheduled for a November 2009 release, following re-editing of scenes that director Joe Johnston felt slowed the pacing, re-shoots involving changes to the werewolf look, and the addition of a werewolf confrontation scene, the troubled production finally received its premiere in Rome on January 27th, 2010.
The film begins rather well with a brief title sequence that shows Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells), alone and wandering the woods before meeting his demise when he encounters a savage monster. The film swiftly switches its attentions to brother Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro) arriving at the ancestral estate located on the outskirts of Blackmoor, a small Victorian hamlet located in the English countryside. We are introduced to his estranged father, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), man-servant Singh (Art Malik), Ben’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), and Gwen’s maid (Gemma Whelan).
Lawrence has returned to search for his brother but upon his arrival is informed that Ben’s corpse had now been recovered. Inspection reveals the savagery of the attack must be down to some monstrous beast. Following a promise to Gwen, Lawrence sets out to find his brother’s killer and in so doing uncovers the grim secrets of the estate, and falls prey to the curse that haunts Blackmoor.
The first impressions one gets is that the script has been edited heavily, whilst the cast do their best, not enough character development takes place in order to provide protagonists with reasons to act as they do. The attack sequences, whilst effective appear rushed; nowhere is this more evident than the initial gypsy camp massacre (watch out for a cameo from make-up design maestro Rick Baker as the first gypsy to meet his end). Audience scares are diluted by the rapid editing of gore-laden throat slashing and dismemberment that whilst nicely handled, (particularly good is a werewolf claw through the throat effect), greatly diminish any subsequent horrors including Lawrence’s highly anticipated transformation scene.
The werewolf itself is impressive, appearing as a cross between Roy Ashton’s lycanthrope from THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF (1961) and the original designs of Jack Pierce from THE WOLF MAN (1941). The first transformation scene, presided over by visual effects supervisor Steve Begg, utilises Rick Baker’s original design sculpts and skin and combines them with CGI to create was is, arguably, the most terrifying screen werewolf to date. Initial depiction of the monster was to have him wander the moors and streets on two legs, but Baker was later called in to develop a creature that would also bound and attack on all fours, presumably to allow the monster to cover territory faster and help smooth over any problems relating to time continuity, something this film suffers with in other places.
The script moves away from the original film by having two werewolves grace the screen at once. In typical Hollywood fashion we have the “good” tormented Del Toro in one corner and his “bad” nemesis in the other and whilst the second werewolf looks great, the final confrontation between the two monsters reduces the film down to the Joe Johnston (THE ROCKETEER, JUMANJII, JURASSIC PARK III) action hero level. As a result, any authenticity generated by the film’s wonderful Victorian sets, eerie cinematography that captures foggy woods and old London town at night is greatly reduced.
Equally disarming are several script weaknesses that have characters act in highly questionable ways. Are we really expected to believe that grieving Gwen, initially presented as the embodiment of Victorian values, and vengeful Lawrence fall in love so soon after Ben Talbot is laid to rest? To reveal other shoddy writing would be to unveil too much of the plot, suffice to say the writing is clumsy to say the least.
Emily Blunt seems a little too calm given all the horrors that occur, and Anthony Hopkins displays his obvious dismay with the scenario with his customary slice of ham.
It’s not all bad though. Del Toro is always a joy to watch and his performance as the tortured lycanthrope plays true. Equally good is Hugo Weaving as Inspector Abberline and Art Malik whose role ought to have been greater. The costume designs are beautiful, and the wonderful Victorian Art-Deco and Gothic furnishings and architecture that makes up the gloomy ancestral home is shrouded in menace.
The best sequences involve those that don’t feature the wolfmen; there’s a nice tavern sequence reminiscent of (and probably included as a tribute to) Hammer films and several nightmare sequences involving the curse of the Talbots.
A pre-release screening in the USA depicting a masked ball attack, occurring towards the end of Lawrence’s London sojourn, has sadly been cut due to pacing incompatibility with other action sequences, though clumsy reference to this is made during a quick glance at a London newspaper in which the artist renders the scene on the front page. Other footage appears cut involving Lawrence’s initial visit to Blackmoor and this might yet turn up on an announced extended cut of the film that restores something like 17 minutes of the original cut (whether the Ballroom attack scene will included as an extra is unknown).
Overall, THE WOLFMAN is a mixed movie. It’s troubled past is inherent throughout but I’d still say go see it for the innovative werewolf designs and its luscious Victorian sets.
Carl T. Ford
Directed by Joe Johnston
USA & UK / 2010
102 minutes / Colour