Sunday, February 21, 2010

“The Wolfman”: Does the past have a future?


Seems it was just me that really liked The Wolfman.
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Okay, I grant you, it's not the best film ever made.
But I can think of plenty of films that it is much better than.
Here's four for a start:
Sherlock Holmes (2009), The Mummy (1999), The Mummy Returns (2001), Van Helsing (2004) and Dracula (1992). (You'll notice I didn't call that last one Bram Stoker's Dracula. Why? For the same reason that you don't refer to The Wicker Man as Anthony Shaffer's The Wicker Man.)
Oh, and a fifth: Cursed (2005).
I quite enjoyed Cursed, more than most folks did at any rate, but the Williamson-Craven brand of postmodernism looks deader than ever in the light of this piece of unabashed premodernism (in the conscious rather than historical sense, as in Pre-Raphaelite).
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The film has been overtly set up as a tribute to the great tradition of Universal horror, a tradition of which custodianship, until now, had been in the less than steady hands of an odd chap called Stephen Sommers. Now, Sommers seems like a nice enough fellow, and he is sincere in his love of the Universal horror legacy, but his films seem to strive to avoid giving the latter fact away. (You may recall a film called Van Helsing: the cinematic equivalent of hearing terrible news about a loved one for two hours.) Why he didn't get the Wolfman gig I don't know, but I mean no offence in saying that that was its biggest break. Perhaps he turned it down for some reason? That seems more likely to me than the idea he wasn't even considered. After all, as he proudly notes in his introduction to the coffee table book Universal Studios Monsters: "Van Helsing and the Mummy trilogy have collectively earned more than a billion and a half dollars."
Yes, you heard him right. Apparently there was a third Mummy film.
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I do know that the film had a somewhat troubled and chequered directorial pre-production, and that for a long time there was a lot of debate about the angle at which it should come at the material. The rumour persists in Hollywood, against all evidence as well as mere reason, that the best thing to do with a meat and potatoes project like this is to hand it to some quirky, hotshot director so as to imbue it with his own left of centre personal vision. Why this belief won't die, even after Ang Lee's Hulk is one better left for future historians to chew on.
In the end, almost in desperation, it was placed in the safe hands of the bloke who directed Jurassic Park 3, which is what they should have done all along of course (assuming that Jeannot Szwarc wasn't free).
As expected, Joe Johnston (for such is his name) plays its refreshingly straight the whole way: the closest the film comes to revisionism being the weird concision of the titular character's name from Wolf Man to Wolfman, presumably pronounced like doberman, and making him sound less like a ferocious beast of folklore and more like the junior member of a firm of Jewish accountants.
That the film is so unpretentious a revival is made doubly remarkable by the fact that the screenplay is by Andrew Kevin Walker, more commonly to be found wallowing in the lurid shallows of 8mm and Seven (pronounced Sesevenen). But while these films were the work of children pretending to be adults, this concoction is the work of adults trying to recapture their childhood, a much nobler and more fruitful endeavour, as well as one of infinitely greater benefit to the public at large. (Perhaps the bulk of the work was done by co-writer David Self, who wrote the hated but harmless enough remake of The Haunting.)
Unlike the recent Sherlock Holmes, the name of the game is not iconoclasm but reverence: pre-release publicity bent over backwards to locate the film directly in a revived tradition of Universal horror, rather than hail it as a riff or reinvention, the latter surely the more tactically safe option.
In fact, by switching the period from the 1940s to 1891 it could be argued that the film plays fairer by the authentic ethos than even the original filmmakers were free to do. The design is extraordinarily effective, stylised to the hilt but always staying the right side of Coppola's Dracula-esque absurdity. Instead of Gary Oldman trying to be as unlike any previous Dracula as possible, we have Benicio del Toro clearly taking Lon Chaney Jr as his model: perhaps the first actor in history to have ever done such a thing. And in going so far beyond the call of duty as to retain the character name Gwen Conliffe, the film earned a five minutes start ahead of my critical rapier from the word go.
.The Wolf Man is not the only inspiration: the werewolf back story plays more like Werewolf of London's, and American Werewolf In London provides the inspiration for the transformation effects and an excellent Victorian version of that film's Piccadilly pile-up. (And dart-player David Schofield - "I have not missed that board before!" - turns up as the village policeman.)
Jack the Ripper is worked into the mix, with Inspector Abberline himself being sent to the fictional Blackmoor (shot beautifully in locations that look incredibly like, but apparently are not, Dartmoor) to investigate what appears to be an all-too familiar spate of mutilation murders. And there's even a tip of the hat to Hammer, with a nice scene shot by the lake at Black Park. Geraldine Chaplin plays Maria Ouspenskaya; Emily Blunt is very nice; Anthony Hopkins is Anthony Hopkins.
The whole thing looks gorgeous and maintains a superb atmosphere, especially in the quieter and less action-filled sequences. Though the latter are by no means ineffective they are exhaustingly frenetic in the modern manner, and a little overcooked by some incongruous gore and - in the cinema at least - childishly polarised sound mixing. But that really is about all I can find wrong with it.
I think Curt Siodmak might just have enjoyed it (though he'd probably pretend he didn't) and that makes it good enough with me.
The question is whether this is going to kick start anything. Has it done well at the box-office? I don't know, but there are lots of snippy comments on the Imdb, presumably by frustrated fans of Sherlock Holmes and Ang Lee's Hulk, on the lookout for more cinematic magic of that order. It settles this much for sure: I will bother to go and see the remake of Creature From the Black Lagoon. (Though not, God willing, in the same post-apocalyptic ‘leisure complex’ where I've just seen this one.)

19 comments:

Cory said...

I was read annoyed with all the negative reviews I read from bloggers for The Wolfman, but more and more I am seeing positive reviews trickling out such as yours. I for one loved it. Did I have issues with it in spots? yes of course. But in no way did I let it ruin the movie for me. Check out my tiny review for it on my blog if you are interested. ^_^

Mykal said...

Matthew:

". . the closest the film comes to revisionism being the weird concision of the titular character's name from Wolf Man to Wolfman, presumably pronounced like doberman, and making him sound less like a ferocious beast of folklore and more like the junior member of a firm of Jewish accountants."

Ah, that was the jolt of Coniam I needed! I’m good now for a bit.

I have to see this movie as Wolf Man (not Wolfman) is my favorite Universal monster - without being my favorite Universal monster movie by a good piece. In other words, I want to be the Wolf man. Frankenstein? Too slow. Dracula? Too European (sorry). Mummy? too moldy and, again, too exotic and European - well, okay, Egyptian - same thing.. The creature? Waterbound. No thanks. No, it's Wolf Man for me. But I'm rambling.

I wish you would post more, but who am I to talk? -- Mykal

Ormsby said...

I loved it, and I went in with low expectations (I'm in a 'I don't like Remakes' phase). I'm going to see it again and take some fiends and family to see it too.

Walter L. Hollmann said...

I WANTED to love it, but it was a major disappointment. It played more like Hammer than Universal, which would have been fine, but Benicio del Toro looked constantly ill. And even Johnston said he meant to make a "fun creature feature" while the studio wanted him to play it straight. And I think that shows in how the dramatic scenes and action sequences just don't gel as one. The asylum sequence is fantastic, though, because it matches those tones perfectly.

Meanwhile: "the cinematic equivalent of hearing terrible news about a loved one for two hours" literally made me laugh out loud.

Neil Fulwood said...

After much trepidation (the film's history of production problems; Joe Johnston as director), it was a delight to discover that 'The Wolfman' is a good, unpretentious slice of entertainment. The asylum sequence was a standout, it was great to see Hopkins obviously having a ball, and - whisper it softly so I don't get in trouble with my wife - Emily Blunt is a stone fox.

Matthew Coniam said...

Cory, Ormsby, Neil -
Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did and I'm not alone! Totally unpretentious, down to earth monster show, made with care and attention to detail.
Neil: I won't tell your wife if you don't tell my fiancee - I agree wholeheartedly.

Walter - I've heard from a few people that they thought it had more of a Hammer flavour than a Universal one, but I really didn't, though I agree that there is a slight problem with tone and that the action sequences are too frenetic. Overall, though, I though its heart was refreshingly in the right place.
I thought Benicio looked ill because he was playing it the Lon Chaney Jr way, ie: three-quarters full of Jack Daniel's. Hopkins appeared to be on something in the final scene too.

Mykal - It took me a while to realise that you weren't giving your opinion of those movies but of how you would expect to rate your experience of actually being those monsters... in which case I can only agree: if one has to become one of Universal's legion of the damned, Wolf Man is obviously the best gig to land. I suspect the ladies would prefer him too, once they get used to him. He doesn't sleep in coffins or tombs; he's not made of corpses; he doesn't live under water... and a lot of the time he's just a regular guy. He's just very, very virile every so often.

Mykal said...

Matthew: I was far too flip. I love the movies, as you know, and in fact the Wolf Man is my least favorite of the movies (although I still like it a lot). With regard to the movies, it goes like this with regard to the classic Golden Age monsters: 1) Frankenstein (and Bride of Frankenstein, which is my absolute favorite Universal monster movie of all time. 2) Dracula (a close second) 3: The Mummy 4 Invisible Man 5: Creature From the Black Lagoon 6: Wolf Man.

Wolf Man is the monster I would most like to be. Who wouldn't want to be a wolf, running through the forrest, ravaging an found wildlife at your pleasure while baying at the moon?

Matthew Coniam said...

Plus he was the only major golden age monster to get his paws on Evelyn Ankers.
BTW: I saw Werewolf of London for - cringes with shame - the first time not so long ago, and I was amazed at how good it was. I'd always heard it was the Wolf Man's (very) poor cousin, but I thought it was a really great movie.
What do you make of it?

Mykal said...

Matthew: I (ahem) haven't exactly had the chance (clears throat) . . well, that is to say, the opportunity hasn't . . I haven't seen it. -- Mykal

Shaun Anderson said...

Saw this yesterday and thoroughly enjoyed it. Brilliant visuals, unintentionally hilarious in places (the whole asylum sequence was wonderful in its absurdity). I thought Hugo Weaving was excellent as the Scotland Yard Inspector, but Del Toro just didnt look right as a Victorian gentleman. He looked a lot better when he was sprouting fur and fangs.

Matthew Coniam said...

Mykal - You definitely should. If it had Karloff in it everyone would love it, of that I'm sure. I hadn't seen it until recently, but it's double-billed with Wolf Man on the British DVD release so I got it as part of a package. I found it better than Lon's movie overall, certainly much more mysterious.

Shaun - Glad you liked it. I agree BDT didn't look like a Victorian gent, but then LCJ didn't look like Claude Rains's son and the Universal Bavarian village backlot didn't look much like Wales... I'll take style over realism any day.
I'm enjoying your blog, by the way; thanks for stopping by mine.

Mark said...

Really late to the party but I've actually only just watched this! The hour and 50 version. I rather liked it.

There was more than a hat doff to both Universal and Hammer I felt, with Del Toro channelling both Chaney Jnr and Ollie Reed at times.

I also liked the ambiguity of the lead as hero, because morally you're supposed to side with Aberline, but in reality he's getting in the way of the hero and heroine like a third wheel which was a key factor in all those old horrors. Shame they had to go with that ending for him though.

And what was Hopkins accent? At times his normal Welsh than the occasional bark of Irish?!

Noah Taylor's brief cameo was fun.

Speaking of cameos; Who was the old man who gave Del Toro the cane, was it Max Von Sydow?

Love your line about the godawful Van Helsing!

But I do actually like Bram Stoker's Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. Don't hate me?

Matthew Coniam said...

I think I need to see it again as I can't remember much of it now. But I stand by liking it, as I'm very hard to please and this really did disarm me.

Dracula and Sherlock Holmes just seemed too silly to me, and also a bit destructive of the originals (a lot, in the case of SH). There are many good things about BS's D, but the basic revising of the idea seemed counterproductive to me, and the lead performances ludicrous. (Hopkins fully as bad as Oldman, which it took me a few viewings to realise.)

But the thing I liked most about this was that it didn't have any big ideas like that; just a good, old fashioned werewolf movie, with some lovely visuals and Saturday matinee scares.
And Black Park.
And Emily Blunt.

It's due a rewatch, and I'll look out for the geezer with the cane.

Mark said...

I'm always in two minds re Guy Ritchie's Holmes. On one hand, a wisecracking comedic Holmes is ludicrous, however a lot of the traits are canon; his expertise as a fighter etc. I tend to view it if anything as a sequel in spirit to Young Sherlock Holmes.

Matthew Coniam said...

I just don't like that frenetic action movie style in this context either, and I can't stand Robert Downey Jr in anything. (I suppose he was good in Chaplin, but I still wish it was someone else.)

I've never actually seen YSH - assuming you mean the American film, not the ITV Sunday teatime serial, which I remember enjoying with my nan in the early eighties. (She called it Junior Watson - and not as a joke, either.)
Do you remember that one?

Mark said...

Oh yes, I know of that, Guy Henry who is now the head honcho in Holby City was Sherlock

George White said...

YSH is quite good. It has Freddie Jones, Nigel Stock as Holmes' mentor, Nadim Sawalha as an Egyptian cultist, Anthony Corlan/Higgins as the bad guy (spoilers for who he is, but his name's Rathe, and he clearly changed his name to make it sound More-Rathe)and best of all, our Minipops Nigel Bruce (Brian Cox's son Alan) terrorised by hallcuinations of flying cream horns...

George White said...

The geezer with the cane is indeed Von Sydow (not Lee Van Cleef, who my mum constanttly mixes up with Von Sydow).
Jeannot Szwarc now works in TV. Joe Johnston was a long-time SFX guuy, did StarWars, also directed Jumaji, the Rocketeer, Honey I Shrunk The Kids....

George White said...

The geezer with the cane is indeed Von Sydow (not Lee Van Cleef, who my mum constanttly mixes up with Von Sydow).
Jeannot Szwarc now works in TV. Joe Johnston was a long-time SFX guuy, did StarWars, also directed Jumaji, the Rocketeer, Honey I Shrunk The Kids....