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.)