Sam reviews… The Wolfman (2010)

Feb.12, 2010, filed under movies, Reviews

The Wolfman movie posterHaving something of a thing for vampires is common enough. Stoker and the many monsters he has spawned, from the rabbit-toothed Nosferatu to the sparkly Edward Cullen, has a fanbase of people from academics to Whitby goths.

Me, I’ve never been a vampire person. They don’t interest me all that much. Dracula always struck me as the Victorian way of writing a story about rape and it was possessed of a boolean morality I found off-putting. Modern vampires are even worse: they’re pretty much super-powered people who don’t die and would be equally at home in the Marvel Universe, inexplicable attractivenes and everything. The only vampire who interests me at the moment is Being Human with a ghost and a werewolf in Bristol.

Werewolves. Now they’re another matter entirely. Werewolves are the vampire’s poor cousin, and that’s not entirely the fault of White Wolf and Vampire: the Masquerade, although I have a history of ranting about how the RPGs are responsible for so much misinformation out there.

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to werewolves, presumably because they don’t result in young women swooning over the thought of being swept off their feet. Vampires are sophisticated, elegant, mesmeric — much like one supposes Mesmer himself was — or at least capable of behaving that way by virtue of the experience conferred upon them by their immortality. Vampires hit the mature, experienced man button that many women find attractive.

Werewolves, on the other hand, tend to be disturbed, slightly unhinged individuals who, once a month, turn hairy and smell of wet dog. In mainstream movies only The Howling ever really looked at the erotic side of lycanthropy, spawning a plethora of sequels that were absolutely appalling and might as well have ended up as Emmanuelle In Fur. Only Wolf has done the romantic side of lycanthropy, with both Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer turning in surprisingly good performances. I don’t count Ladyhawke in this field because it’s not really a werewolf movie, although it is one of my favourite films of all time.

There have been notable exceptions to the “werewolf movies are rubbish” generalisation, although there are a few that are cited as being examples when they aren’t really. Brotherhood of the Wolf is an interesting film, based loosely on actual events that happened deep in the superstitious 18th century French countryside; however, for reasons I won’t disclose for fear of spoilers, it doesn’t really belong in a list of werewolf movies. Wolfen, although described as a werewolf movie and being a good film, is not about werewolves. You can take or leave the Underworld and Van Helsing contributions: they may, arguably, have been successful in what they were doing but I would argue that their depiction of werewolves suffers from the traits that make them, while potentially enjoyable action movies, bad werewolf movies.

American Werewolf In London is, of course, probably the best werewolf movie ever made, and I suspect you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagrees, despite the appalling sequel. In the Company of Wolves is an excellent, mythic take on the legend, melding proper, gory fairytale with some genuine folklore. Dog Soldiers brings some humour to the genre (and can thus be forgiven the standard werewolf model) but aside from those, you’re really struggling. There just isn’t much out there. Ginger Snaps, while critically acclaimed, didn’t do it for me as a werewolf movie because the metaphor was just too blatant and, in my opinion, stopped it being about werewolves at all.

One film that has always stuck in my mind is the only Hammer venture to tackle a werewolf as a titular character: The Curse of the Werewolf. It struck me for several reasons, not least of which is that it is one of the very few films — if not the only one — to depict someone who is a werewolf not from being bitten by another werewolf, but because he is the product of a rape. The usual method of becoming a werewolf implies that it was avoidable: if the victim hadn’t been there then it wouldn’t have happened and thus, in a way, it’s partially his own fault. “Don’t go out on the moors!” In The Curse, the protagonist could not have avoided it. The events that occurred to cause this happened in the act of his conception. This gives a different slant to the story, and perhaps thus permitted a different way of approaching the werewolf protagonist. In that film the disease, if that’s what it is, even goes into remission for a significant portion of the character’s life, when he has spent some time learning to control himself in a monastery, and is only resurrected by the stirring of animal passion as he becomes a man. Love is both his undoing and his saviour, albeit that the resolution is, as is apparently usual in lycanthropy cases, terminal.

I confess that I was a little confused when I sat down to watch The Wolfman, for I thought that it was a remake of The Curse, and was excited to see, at last, a good lycanthropy film made with modern effects. It’s not, of course: it’s a remake of the 1941 film with Claude Rains. The plot, briefly, is that estranged son Lawrence Talbot returns home after the death of his brother (by werewolf), gets bitten, falls in love with girl… You can guess the rest. Still, it started quite well, despite Anthony Hopkins portraying Talbot Sr as a Welsh Hannibal Lecter on sedatives. The period setting was nicely done, with shades of Hounds of the Baskervilles and plenty of moody lighting. The first encounter with the beast rendered him as possessed of shocking speed and power, running through his victims with all the brutal care of a steam train covered in samurai swords. Briefly, I thought this film might have given us a good werewolf.

Let me just qualify my position here. I have issues with the bipedal, man-with-big-teeth-and-hair style of werewolf. That’s not a wolf. Just because early movies lacked the capacity to do either animatronics or good creature effects, and had to make do with spirit gum and paint, it doesn’t mean we should be left stuck with werewolves that are basically men with fur and extravagant dentistry. Landis got it right, from every bone-cracking, pain-etched twitch and contortion of the transformation sequence to the massive, four-legged brute that ended up stalking the streets. I even preferred the approach of Wolf, which almost avoided the transformation altogether and had the character turn into an actual wolf. I detest the creatures that are more lemur than canine, and it is beyond me why we are still forced to suffer under the pretence that werewolves are men with fur. The clue is in the name.

The transformation sequence in The Wolfman borrows heavily from Landis, and so I was on the verge of being happy. Then it stopped, far short of where I thought those elongated feet were taking me, and there he was. More hair, bigger teeth, the yellow eyes, the big claws and the ruffled shirt.

Er. What? Ruffled shirt? Oh, right. This is the 21st century, where you can rip someone to shreds and eviscerate him in full, bloody detail but daren’t show a nipple for fear of censure. He has to be a well-dressed werewolf.

It went downhill after that. Benicio Del Toro, for whom I have a severe soft spot as a result of his performance in Fear and Loathing, couldn’t quite deliver the pain and torment of a man who has been cursed to slaughter by a ravening beast inside him. Even the scenes in the asylum, complete with the 19th century answer to waterboarding, failed to produce the sense of a man in agony. The occasional face-on shot of him charging at full speed on all fours provoked a giggle rather than a sense of awe. And, finally, the inevitable long big punch up. What is it with Hollywood and their constant desire to have werewolves fight like chimps? They are canids. Canids do not fight by chest-bumping. Apes do that. A transformed werewolf is no longer an ape. He is a canine. Can we please try to remember that? Wolves do not launch themselves through the air and bump chests. Why would werewolves?

OK. Werewolf-fanatic gripes aside, the performances were lacking in sparkle (nothing to do with the aforementioned Cullen). None of the actors, with the possible exceptions of Emily Blunt and Art Malik, seemed all that invested in what he was doing. Hugo Weaving’s performance was oddly off-key, almost as if he were in another movie with a different script reading lines that coincidentally made sense in this one. It was, overall, somewhat dull, and that’s a terrible thing to have to say about any film. I’d rather hate a film than find it tedious.

On the plus side, the film was nicely paced and mercifully restrained in terms of length (although the IMDB entry puts it at 125 minutes, it started at 21:35 and we were out at 23:15, leading me to wonder what they cut for the UK release). I enjoyed the depiction of an aristocratic family in ruins and the device of hallucinogenic flashbacks to reveal the surprise would have been a nice touch if I hadn’t spotted the twist some time before.

If you like werewolf movies, it’s worth watching, but don’t be upset if you miss it at the cinema. It won’t lose much for being seen on DVD, apart possibly from the hilarity of having the main character come barrelling towards you like an angry baboon who has just crashed through a haberdasher’s, larger than life and three times as ridiculous.

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