In the grand scheme of modern Universal/literary monster film adaptations, Coppola's "Dracula" and Kenneth Branagh's "Frankenstein" remain, in my mind, the pinnacle of the genre. Both Coppola and Branagh employed lavish production design and just about every cinematic trick under the sun to create the lush, gothic spectacle that is a classical monster movie. On the other end of the modern monster movie spectrum, you have the corn-fried, CGI-confection of Brendan Fraser's "The Mummy" franchise. Something we'd all like to forget about, no doubt. Now, caught somewhere between the two, we have journeyman director Joe Johnston's "The Wolfman."
"The Wolfman": now with 100% more fleas
To say that this film has been plagued with problems would be an understatement. To put things in perspective: Benicio Del Toro was at the 2008 San Diego Comic Con to promote the movie's impending Fall '08 release. "The Wolfman"'s troubles have been well-publicized - original director Mark Romanek ("One Hour Photo") dropped out mere weeks before filming began after spearheading the preproduction process; there were creative differences as to whether the film should use practical or computer-generated wolf effects; and multiple reshoots took place across the span of at least 2 years. Universal went so far as to bring in legendary editor Walter Murch ("Apocalypse Now," "Cold Mountain") to try and piece the damn thing together.
Benicio Del Toro assures the 2008 San Diego Comic Con
that his movie is, indeed, totally awesome
Sadly, the movie plays out as though it's been nipped and tucked to death in the editing suite. The continuity of the editing is a mess - you can tell right away from how abruptly and out of nowhere the title of the movie flashes on screen after the fumbled opening scene. There are many times when an actor recites a line ("You killed - my mother!" being a particular offender) and you're taken out of the film because you have to ask yourself, out of the twenty takes of that scene they probably did, why the hell would that pick THAT take?
From the director's chair, Joe Johnston makes no effort to immerse the viewer in the scene. There are times when fog-enshrouded, gloomy vistas pass by onscreen but they do so with the remove of an amusement park ride or a painting hanging on a wall. Johnston has made some good movies ("The Rocketeer") and some awful ones ("Jurassic Park III") but he's no auteur: the man sets up his camera, has actors walk through the shot, and then calls it a day. In other words, don't expect any bravado cinematic techniques a la Coppola's "Dracula."
"The Wolfman" is a lot like puberty: fraught with painful transformations
Benicio Del Toro looks great in wolf make-up but he spends most of the movie seeming incredibly tired and whispering his lines. Perhaps he was miscast, but it's strange to see someone who typically gives their all to a role (whether it's "Sin City," "Usual Suspects," or "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas") sleepwalk through a genre flick like this. Anthony Hopkins completely phones in his performance, which is maybe exactly what you'd expect, but it's a shame since he was so damn good in Coppola's "Dracula" (sorry to keep returning to that movie but it really is one of the best horror movies of the 90's).
Emily Blunt, a young actress clearly hoping that this part will land her more work, gives her all but her performance is so sincere it's almost as though she doesn't realize she's in a werewolf movie. In fact, Hugo Weaving is the only one who comes out the proceedings unscathed because he's the only one who seems to be having fun!
Insert "Bark at the Moon" joke here
The real crime with this version of "The Wolfman" is the concession to squirrel-y teenagers with an endless amount of forced "jump scares" and an abundance of gore to appeal to 13 year-old kids on a sugar high who just want to see the Wolfman swipe someone's head off like a basketball. As weak as "The Wolfman" is, I was still hanging in there for most of its runtime. Probably because I'm a horror fan at heart, because I love monster movies and Benicio Del Toro, and I just desperately *wanted* this movie to be good no matter what was happening onscreen.
But "The Wolfman" betrayed my trust by its end, with the climax of the picture being a "Matrix"-inspired werewolf kung fu fight that completely insults the audience. Picture werewolves spiraling sideways through the air, clinging to walls, and charging at each other on all fours like the apes in Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" and you'll have some idea of the "Underworld"-ian mockery of good taste that is the last 15 or so minutes of this movie. This does not bode well for Joe Johnston's upcoming "Captain America" flick, which has already been plagued with doubts from the internet fanboy community.
"I know kung-fu."
Fortunately, Universal was smart enough to reject the techno-rock score that was originally delivered to them for "The Wolfman" and opt instead for Danny Elfman's music to accompany the film. The soundtrack is one of his best in years - with nary a choir of little goth children to be found. Instead it's a heavily string-driven score, directly inspired by Wojciech Kilar's music for "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Elfman's music evokes images of an opulent yet melancholy monster movie, one that unfortunately does not play out on the screen as you're watching "The Wolfman."
Oh well, I'm sure I'll be seeing you guys in another year or two for a remake of "The Creature From the Black Lagoon"...in 3-D!
Better luck next time, guys!