Dir: Joe Johnston
Review by: Dustin Hall
Editor’s note: The following review is based upon an early test screening of the film. What you may see as the final product is likely to vary from this screening and we will certainly bring you our “official” review. For the record, no NDA was asked to be signed at this event, nor an embargo put upon reviews for this screening.
“Don’t look to the past, Lawrence. It’s nothing but a forest of horrors.”
I just got back from the first public screening of next year’s to-be-released The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins. I’ll try to be as in-depth and spoiler free as I can manage. The Wolfman wastes no time, and neither shall I. Let’s dive right in.
The Wolfman opens with a chase sequence. It’s dark. The full moon hangs menacingly in the air, and a lone English aristocrat stalks through the woods hunting an unknown quarry. A few jump scares and fake-outs later, and we’re treated, almost immediately, to a brutal evisceration by the Wolfman. The aristocrat’s guts are spilled into the leaves, his face slashed with a grizzled claw, and he runs back onto the edge of his estate, only to turn and see the face of the beast lunging down upon him.
It was in this way that The Wolfman surprised me. The pace is astoundingly quick. The movie seems to assume that you’ve already seen Lon Cheney’s turn as the title character from 1941. There is virtually no back-story given, no history of werewolves. The gypsy camp, such a large part of the original film (and a huge exposition device), is now relegated to the edges of th e story. There’s a brief tavern sequence that brings up the silver weakness, but that’s about it. By this point, it should be known that moon = wolf = massacre.
With five minutes out of the way, and the creature already on the prowl, enter Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence. It seems the first victim was his brother and he’s come back, at the request of his brother’s lover, to see his estranged father and solve his brother’s murder. Anthony Hopkins replaces Claude Raines as the senior Talbot, and Emily Blunt pops up as the troubled damsel, Gwen. After visiting his brother’s corpse in a truly eerie mortuary/slaughterhouse, Lawrence takes a moment to chat with his long-lost family, and it’s obvious right away that something is not right with his father, and also that there’s a strange chemistry between Gwen and all of the men in the Talbot family.
With the town in a stir over more bodies popping up on the moors (though, off-screen and mentioned only in passing), Lawrence hops over to the neighboring Gypsy camp that his brother used to trade with to see if they might know anything about his death. There, the camp is attacked by the Wolfman, a lightni ng-quick, clever, brutal creature that tears people limb from limb. Soon, the camp looks less like a Gypsy caravan, and more like the beach of Normandy, with hacked limbs, corpses, and intestines spread all across the grass. People scream and run for their lives, and only a few can keep a level head. Lawrence, raised by a mighty game hunter, seems to be one of those: he dashes off to Stonehenge (the place, not the Spinal Tap song) to save a fleeing child from the beast. It’s here that the wolf bites Lawrence, sealing his fate.
One final member of the menagerie is then introduced: Hugo Weaving as Detective Aberline, fresh off of the Jack the Ripper case in London. He believes the attacks to not be the work of a creature, but of a lunatic – namely, Lawrence. It seems Lawrence is not as collected as he claims to be, having spent some time in an asylum in his youth. Now a character actor in a stage troupe, perhaps Lawrence is just playing sane and rational, when he is, in fact, ripping people to shreds? Regardless, its Aberline’s purpose to take Lawrence from the wild and into the urban jungle of London where he can be committed and properly “cured” of his condition. With everyone in place, and the next full moon looming on the horizon, the real chaos begins.
While the movie isn’t 100% finished yet, and could be changed from the version I’ve seen (indeed, the score was certainly a temporary piece) most of it is likely the finished product. Even this rough cut was satisfying.
For starters, you really couldn’t ask for a better cast. Anthony Hopkins is a legend, and the role of retired and fairly menacing hunter suits him well – he’s poetic and aristocratic, and vaguely crazy in every scene. Benecio Del Toro continues his tradition of bizarre intonations, his strange accent explained away by an education gotten in New York. He delivers one of this most subdued performances, though he revels in his time spent playing Lawrence in the asylum. Emily Blunt is bland but passable as the conveniently located love interest. The real knock out is Hugo Weaving, whose bold and no-nonsense detective stole the screen in every scene he appeared; also, he really knows how to work those mutton & chops. A great ensemble is the cornerstone of any good film.
The pace, I mentioned, is brisk. At around an hour and twenty minutes, there’s a lot happening in a very short expanse of time. The studio reps asking questions at the screening made it apparent that they were worried about the film dragging in the middle, and it’s obvious there’s some extra footage lying around, waiting for the DVD release. There are mentions of other bodies being found, even a few named characters, that are presumably killed off-screen, or at least killed as part of a group and then never named until some other subsequent character mentions their absence. Certainly, there must be some footage missing about the legend of the werewolf, as Lawrence comes into town and suddenly he and everyone else seems to know what they’re fighting and how to kill it. The town must have seen the ‘41 Wolfman as well, perhaps playing at Ye Olde Cart-In Cinema.
There are also some potential subplots that seem to have been truncated. The psychological aspect of Aberline’s inquisition is totally lost. By the time that the notion of Lawrence being the killer is raised, and the wolf being just in his mind is introduced, we’ve already seen the wolf twice, and there is never a moment of doubt that Lawrence is transforming as well, even though later sequences do question his sanity. Dropped after a line or two of dialogue is Aberline’s history with Jack the Ripper. Also barely introduced is the idea that a man infected with Lycanthropy might be able to control his beast with great assertion of willpower, but bullets and claws are flying across the screen too quickly to examine the nuanced faces of the man-wolves.
Despite lessening the depth of the characters, the brisk pace seems to help the film. While in the 40’s it might have been exhilarating to see Lon Cheney Jr’s slow transformation to a hairy man-beast, and his slow plodding across the smoky plains of England, almost 70 years later, we need to just get to the heart of the matter. Cutting out the exposition about the werewolf allows more time for the relationship between Lawrence and his father, more antagonistic than that of the original film, to grow. It’s possible those extra subplots might have made the second act unbearably slow. It also allows the filmmakers more time to have fun with the wolf attacks when they occur.
And the wolf attacks are everything you’ve b een hoping for. Even if the rest of the film isn’t to your fancy, no horror fan can complain about these moments of raw fury and brutality. Guts go flying, arms are pulled from their sockets, the Wolfman himself moves like a blur, unleashing carnage everywhere he goes. The moments of gore are spread out enough through the work as to not feel gratuitous, but the film certainly doesn’t hold back when it comes to demonstrating how much damage this monster can do to its victims.
The Wolfman himself looks great, and I was very happy to see Rick Baker get a chance to use practical effects on the creation, rather than a CG monster stinking up the screen. Compared to the modern, sleek-looking film techniques of Wolfman, seeing a two-legged dog guy on the screen is a little odd. The design is definitely a throwback to the original film, and despite the better make-up effects now, still looks a little dated. This is advantageous in other regards, as the interesting design of the werewolves of Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps, or even Monster Squad, required a lot of rubber prosthetics, and virtually no movement capability for the creature. This is a fully animated wolfman, running and roaring all across the screen. And happily, his four-legged running style looks a lot better than Liev Schreiber in the Wolverine movie.
Despite Rick Baker’s involvement with the film, and his insistence on practical effects, there’s a surprising amount of computer imagery in the film. Most of it, as with the transformation sequences, blends well and looks good. The transformations are generally subtle until the last one that, in full lighting with virtually no cutaway, worked surprisingly well. You can tell a lot of time and care went into it. However, a couple moments where the Gypsy pets – a bear in particular – were CG’d into the film look awful, and even got laughs from the audience while they were on the screen. One can only hope Universal fixes this before the final release. Why can’t we just get trained animals anymore?
So, there are some nitpicks, but generally I came out of the screening with no complaints. Good cast, good effects, no holding back on the Wolfman carnage, and an amazing set design with a great, Gothic feel, really managed to pull me in. There are some very creative suspense shots, and a couple subtle and creepy scenes. One particular late shot of bloody fingers tinkling across ivory piano keys, leaving crimson prints upon every note, will stand out to me forever.
There are a lot of movies that The Wolfman invokes. Of course, it hearkens back to its predecessor, the ‘41 Wolfman, down to the classic Universal logo at the beginning, and the sudden stop at the end. It also has the feel, in many ways, of Coppola’s Dracula remake from ‘92. Of course, this one lacks the sexuality and (thankfully) Keanu Reeves, but the authentic design and visceral nature of the movie brought back memories of that other horror trip, even if this one is much more restrained. (It will work well as a replacement for Wolf in the Universal horror remake trilogy.) Perhaps more than any other film (and bear with me on this), Wolfman reminded me of 2008’s Hulk.
Unlike the Lon Cheney Wolfman, the wolf that bites Benicio doesn’t get killed in the process. So, after a few moons of killing and coming to grips with his new dual nature, Lawrence has to hunt down the wolf that beget him, and there’s a big creature duel that marks the climax of the film. The Wolfman explores many similar themes to Hulk, the nature of man, the beast inside us, the ability to control our rage in the face of true love, reveling in our own destructive force, etc. The two werewolves battling at the end is reminiscent of Hulk vs Abomination, and luckily is quick enough to end before it gets silly. And of course, the identity of that other wolf is… well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s pretty damn obvious. In fact, I bet you can guess from the trailer.
If there’s any weakness to Wolfman, it’s that the film is too predictable. There are no real surprises to be had. The “mystery” of the enemy wolf is easily solved. The taboo love arc is projected a mile away. Even lines like “You could no more become a werewolf than I could sprout wings and fly out the window,” are obvious foreshadowing to those characters being thrown out the window by said werewolf. It’s all very by-the-numbers.
But that doesn’t make the ride any less fun. We know the Wolfman and his story because it has been told many times over during the last seven decades. But, it’s all in how the story is told, and there’s a good telling here. If nothing else, it’s a fun visit with an old friend, a familiar game played with new toys, and enjoyable all around.
I was happy to see that, seventy years later, Wolfman still has nards.