Thursday, February 11, 2010

Howl at the Moon: THE WOLFMAN - Reviewed!


- I may be going against the grain on this one, but I can only say how I felt about THE WOLFMAN, and how I felt was that it rocked. The movie has flaws, yes. It's messy and the script seems to have any number of holes. The love story is undeveloped and rushed, and the mythology behind the monster is not fully explored in a way that most modern movies tend to do. And yet, I barely cared about most of these things while watching the movie. Why? Because there was an old-fashioned movie magic in this one that made me smile. And yes, I know all the stories about political battles on-set and last minute changes with the creative team - how director Joe Johnston came in last minute, and how he insisted that CGI be used in places where Rick Baker and his legendary team had planned on using traditional, practical effects. But in the end, after all that, the movie still works. It's dark and gothic and creepy and atmospheric. In many ways, it's a throwback and homage to the old Universal horror films. It feels old-school. It turns up the action and intensity at times, but other times is slow and moody and thick with creeping gothic horror. And it's badass as hell. Benicio Del Toro looks the part - he is an iconic Wolfman, to me. Hugo Weaving is awesome, infusing his lines with the kind of over-the-top, British-accented gravitas that you can't help but love. Anthony Hopkins is uber-cool - the sinister old man who could still beat you to death with a candlestick and then might spit on your grave. I'm sorry, I couldn't help but love The Wolfman.

To me, this is a movie that channels the mysterious and horrific iconography of classic Universal horror. It invites you to use your imagination, to fill in the blanks. The broad strokes are enough to get you invested. That's why I didn't mind the underdeveloped romance with Emily Blunt as much as I probably should have. All we really needed to know is that, somehow, she and the Wolfman were in love - beauty and the beast.

What do I want in a Wolfman movie? I want creepy gothic horror. The movie has that in spades - and I love that it's set in Victorian England and not modern times. The thick fog, the grey skies, the somber colors, the flicker of candlelight, the accents. Those are the things that instantly set the mood for a classic tale of terror. The movie gets that. Most movies don't. What else? This new Wolfman has its tragic hero roaming through the woods at night and howling at the moon. It has strange old Gypsy women and feral wolfboys in faraway and exotic lands. It has scenes in which ancient tomes are scoured, the strange condition known as lyncanthropy is reasearched, and grotesque etchings of fabled beasts and monsters light up our imaginations.

These iconic sorts of scenes are coupled with fast-paced and kinetic action. When the Wolfman attacks, things get ugly. But man, is it fun to watch. I give Joe Johnston credit - he does the mood-setting scenes well, but he also cranks up the action and violence to frenetic levels. And yeah, there is a totally over-the-top wolfman-on-wolfman battle that is just plain crazy-cool.

And I totally loved everything in the dark, dank, Victorian insane asylum where Del Toro's Lawrence Talbot is taken to midway through the film. The combination of creepiness, gore, and yes, humor in this section of the film is a real highlight.

People say that Del Toro's didn't actually do much in the movie. Again, to me Lawrence Talbot is underwritten, but it was fun to be allowed to fill in the blanks for a change. Not every movie has to be a full-blown origin story that examines every facet of a character's psyche, you know. To me, the greatness of Del Toro in this one was more just about the world-weary look in his eye, the half-crazed expression when he's locked up in the asylum, the look of horror when he awakens from his wolfen form covered in blood and dressed in tattered clothes. To me that's what the Universal Horror movies were about back in the day - simple stories, iconic monsters, and just enough emotional depth to lend an air of tragedy to the gothic horror.

Meanwhile. Hugo Weaving is a lot of fun as well, as the London inspector intent on tracking down and killing the mythical beast. Would it have been nice to have a little more depth to the character? Yeah, it would have helped to up the drama if we had a little more emotional investment. But, Weaving kicks ass anyways. His line readings are over-the-top in the best of ways. He's just one of those great, underrated actors that is always a pleasure to watch as he chews up the scenery. Similarly awesome is Anthony Hopkins. I think it's true that towards the beginning of the movie he seems a little subdued. But do I think he was phoning it in? Definitely not. To me, it felt like he was slowly easing into the craziness that ensues in the movie's last couple of acts. All along, he has that evil gleam in his eye, and you just know that it's only a matter of time before business picks up. And it does, bigtime. I love the fact that Anthony Hopkins literally kicks so much ass in this movie. And thanks to some CGI magic, Hopkins really gets to pull off some crazy stuff that makes for one hell of a monster-mash finale.

And about that CGI ... I thought the transformation scenes were exceptionally well-done. And the action scenes as well. The places where the CGI stuck out were in some of the more random moments, like one bit in which a bear looks way more cartoonish than it ought to. But I loved that the overall look of the Wolfman was much more practical and old-school than I expected. In many scenes, the monster looked like a guy in really well-done makeup, and I loved that. CGI is cool, but there's something magical about seeing an actor transform in a tangible, real way into a monster. And I appreciated that, even in the CGI transformation scenes, things were shot in such a way so as to evoke old-school f/x - aka, subtler and less over-the-top than your typical CGI sort of scene.

If you overanalyze The Wolfman, there are surely a number of things that one can criticize and find fault with. Especially when you directly compare it either to the original Wolfman film, or to more typical, modern horror flicks. But to me, this new take on an old classic was a fun blend of old and new. Modern action and f/x, mixed with the slow-burn gothic atmosphere of the original Universal Horror movies. Three great actors in the lead roles. The iconic moments you want in a movie like this, with a few new twists thrown in for good measure. I had a blast watching this one. I hope it does well - because, man, it'd be cool if this movie helped to usher in a new golden era for classic Universal Horror.

My Grade: A-

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