Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When the Wolfbane Blooms

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The rap on this year's remake of the Universal classic The Wolf Man (or The Wolfman, as the new version would have it), which was directed by Joe Johnston and written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, seems to be that it's not enough of one thing or another. It's not crazy enough, nor is it enough fun. I've also heard conflicting reports that suggest that Johnston's film runs from the Oedipal implications of the story, and conversely embraces them too earnestly. One begins to think that this whole "criticism" deal is a bit subjective once the actual filmmaking reaches a certain level of professionalism. But in any case, and because of that, I can't argue against much or any of the preceding complaints, except for the idea that a movie like The Wolfman is stepping wrong by taking itself too seriously. In a purely literal sense, I can't deny that this new film does, indeed, take itself too seriously, but I would rephrase that, and say that The Wolfman is not ashamed of itself.
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You won't be getting much plot summary from me here, because, really, how much do you need? Benicio del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a man born of an English father (Anthony Hopkins) and a gypsy mother (now deceased), who fled England to New York -- at a young enough age to have since lost the accent -- to become an actor. He's summoned back by Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), his brother's fiancee. His brother, we know (or rather suspect, which suspicion is rapidly confirmed) is the guy who, in the film's prologue, was killed by a werewolf. Nobody knows this yet, and Ben Talbot is at first believed to be missing. So Lawrence goes home, where he's left a lot of unhappy memories and uncertainties regarding why his mother slit her own throat with a straight razor.
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So Talbot's back in England with his dad, there's a werewolf on the loose, and if you've seen George Waggner and Curt Siodmak's original film, you can pretty much fill in the rest. Up to a point, anyway. This remake deviates from that earlier film in a bunch of small ways, and in one big way: this time around, the werewolf that bites Talbot, thereby dooming him to a bestial existence, isn't killed that same night. It's the way of things nowadays to take a basic idea that worked in the past and then double it, but in Johnston's film this actually works pretty well. The Wolfman flirts with the idea of making the identity of this other werewolf a mystery, but gives up on it shortly after Talbot's first transformation, probably because the filmmakers realized they weren't fooling anyone. The moment of the reveal -- or rather, the moment when the last tiny shred of the audience's doubt, which was hanging on only because the movie hadn't come out and said anything yet, is finally removed -- is handled very nicely, in a moment that is genuinely chilling, and that hints not only at how badly the Talbot bloodline is screwed, but also of an evil that has roamed the moors for a very long time.
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Speaking of bloodlines and cursed families and things of that nature, like many classic horror stories, The Wolfman lays its themes right out there. Human nature is referred to as "shiftable", Talbot retreats from his own ill-fated family to hide himself in a profession that calls for him to take on other personalities (we see him playing Hamlet, no less). This subtext-laid-bare approach is an effective one, even time-honored, but doesn't get much respect these days. In the classic horror films of the '30s and '40s, such as the best of the Universal cycle and the Val Lewton films, and even up to the best of the Hammer films, there was often a lot of strangeness and subtlety to chew on afterwards, but just as often the gist of things, the meaning behind the conflict, was plain as day. This kind of storytelling is as engaging as the folktales that led the world to know what the hell "lycanthropy" was in the first place. The mindset that now leads people to sneer at this narrative device is the same one that caused everyone to begin thinking that "melodrama" was a synonym for "bad".
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All of which is not to say that The Wolfman is perfect. There's a lot of dodgy CGI, which is made all the more frustrating by the fact that there didn't need to be any CGI at all. And I should say here that I saw the director's cut, which, in a break from tradition, is actually significantly longer than the theatrical cut, with a full sixteen minutes added. In this form, the film does feel a bit thick (I wonder, though, if Max von Sydow's mysterious and welcome cameo was one of the added scenes?). And either way, the werewolf battle that is the film's unavoidable climax feels a bit tedious, as well as a sop to modern audiences (I was also amused by the fact that the filmmakers seemed to realize that when the two werewolves were flailing around, audiences might have a hard time telling who was who, so they devised a way to make the fight a "shirts vs. skins" situation).
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But the film still works. I remember reading Benicio del Toro say that when he first got into acting, his two dream roles were Che Guevara and the Wolf Man (like there's a difference!*). As Lawrence Talbot, it is true that del Toro occasionally feels like a man out of time -- he's a bit modern for 19th century England -- but boy does he sell Talbot's haunted nature, his doomed-since-birth aura. At one point, after he's completely accepted the truth of his mad situation, he pleads, to a group of men, "Kill me!" Only in a story like this, told by people who, however occasionally misguided in the telling, have the nerve to take it seriously, can those two words read as the equivalent of "Save me!"
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The Collection Project Film of the Day:
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Well, what else? The original The Wolf Man (d. George Waggner) would not be held up by anyone as the crown jewel of Universal's original series of horror films, and prior to checking it out again tonight my comments here would probably be a bit more dismissive than they're actually about to be. My basic complaint had been that as Larry Talbot, Lon Chaney, Jr. is a bit of a stiff, lumbering goof. Somehow, in my previous viewings of the film, I missed two things: 1) that Chaney is not stiff, and 2) while he is a lumbering goof, that is in no way a bad thing.
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Before I talk about Chaney as Talbot, Waggner and screenwriter Curt Siodmak's film does seem to be at war with itself for quite a while, and it may be true that they never settled on an approach to the material. It's very odd to watch the many scenes in the film where the themes are being clearly stated, to hear all this dialogue about the dual nature of man and the particulars of insanity, while we already know that Talbot really is a werewolf. This is when that kind of plain-spoken attitude I was just praising can seem clumsy. In the remake, any talk of man's two-sided nature jibes perfectly with del Toro's basic, tragic demeanor, but Chaney projects a kind of soft-headed, happy simplicity, belying no trace of a tortured inner life. So when his father, John Talbot (Claude Rains), dismisses the idea of seeing mankind in terms of black and white, and that it is the appreciation of shades of gray that feeds the werewolf myth, we can't help but wonder how exactly this ties into the Larry Talbot we know whose life is burning up before our eyes.
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And this is precisely what's so wonderful about Chaney. His Talbot is just this guy. He's been disconnected from his family for eighteen years, and while his return home is rooted in sadness (his brother was killed in a hunting accident), he's happy to be forming a relationship with his dad. He likes this old town, and this big house, he'll now be living in. He thinks the girl in the antique store is pretty, and he wants to take her out on a date, to that old gypsy camp, to get their fortune told. He's a nice guy. And when that date ruins his life, he is scared shitless. He doesn't know what's happening, he doesn't want to hurt anybody -- at times, Chaney's portrayal of Talbot's terror and panic brings him close to tears. It's hard to imagine del Toro's Talbot freaking out like this. Del Toro's fear has a Gothic strength to it, a sense of resignation that indicates in his quieter moments, he has no truly happy memories to make him mourn the life that's rapidly slipping out of reach. As played by Chaney, however, Talbot is a guy who is going to specifically think about, and miss, eating a ham sandwich, drinking a beer, and listening to the Dodgers on the radio. Those are his happy times, and that's what he doesn't want to lose.
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In The Wolfman, you look at Talbot and think, "You're doomed." In The Wolf Man, you look at Talbot and think "You poor dumb bastard."
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*Alternate joke, shopworn but more to the point: "The difference between the two being that one is a blood-thirsty, animalistic maniac, and the other is the Wolf Man."

15 comments:

Neil Sarver said...

Great post. I think your final summary of the difference between the two movies - both of which I admire - is very interesting. I think I have a natural tendency to react to "You're doomed", so I think that theme, which is incredibly strong throughout The Wolfman, resonated very strongly for me.

As I've said, I'm looking forward to seeing the longer version - and, yes, the Von Sydow cameo was cut for the theatrical version - and making some comparison, under normal circumstances. But I do see that thematically the things the movie brings up are things that I do respond to, so I suspect I'll continue to think highly of it. I'm certainly glad to hear that you were able to get something from it.

bill r. said...

Oh, I respond to that stuff, too. If I didn't respond to it, I wouldn't read/watch half the books/movies that I do. Chaney's performance, and the writing of the character in the original film, are actually quite unusual, in my experience. It's like they took the doomed, Gothic hero and sucked all the Gothic out of him, and plunked him down, to watch him run around like a headless chicken.

Glenn Kenny said...

Bill, I was pleasantly surprised that I liked this version as well as I did and your appraisal of it convinces me that I wasn't crazy to. (Well, Ty Burr's review, also.) Nicely done. Will be interested to see what the Video Watchdog folks make of it.

Neil Sarver said...

Just read the Ty Burr review, and I must say, aside from my general agreement over the movie, I disagreed with nearly every word of it.

"That first Wolf Man isn’t a very good movie, either, so it’s not like the new one is sullying hallowed ground."

Yeah, well, bite me!

But I am also comforted that I'm not alone in appreciating this movie.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Glenn. The negative reaction towards this film is sort of baffling. Wasn't everyone really looking forward to it before it came out, and didn't everyone get excited after seeing the trailer? What did they want the film to be if not this? I don't get it. It's a solid piece of work.

Neil - I'm really starting to think the original is underrated. No kind of masterpiece, but not a camp throwaway by any means, either.

Neil Sarver said...

I'd hardly be revealing a big secret to suggest that the werewolf story is the most resonant horror motif for me personally... I may go into my guesses at the reasons for that if I write a review of the longer cut... and The Wolf Man is a big key to that. I'd never argue that it's flawless... although none of my favorite movies are... but it is a terribly effective one.

And Chaney's performance is flawless!

Bryce Wilson said...

I was equally parts dismayed and delighted by the remake. It takes a special movie to have a moment as eerie as Hopkin's eyes slowly kindling in the dark behind the bars as he transforms. And one as stupid as the sad CGI dancing bear.

IT IS A BEAR. IT DOES NOT KNOW YOU ARE TALKING SHIT ABOUT HIM. AND IF HE DID HIS FEELINGS WOULD NOT BE HURT!!!

And for the record yeah Von Sydow's cameo must have been an add on. Either that or I was just completely oblivious to it in theater.

bill r. said...

Bryce - But what if you're wrong? Then you've got a sad bear o your set. Try finishing your film with that kind of guilt hanging over you.

It's a shame they cut the Von Sydow bit -- it's a good scene.

Greg said...

I'm kind of excited to check this out but I know ahead of time I will be miffed by the needless CGI. It's a makeup movie! I mean, that's what all wolfman movies are, makeup, not CGI.

Anyway, I'm with Neil completely in regards to Ty Burr's ridiculous statement about the very well done, economical and tightly directed original not being a very good movie. It makes me question whether Burr's even seen it or is just going by what some young staffer reported to him after being assigned to watch it.

bill r. said...

Greg - The CGI used for the werewolf transformations is pretty good, and then once the transformation is complete, it's all make up (good make up, too). But there is come CGI violence, and some of the fast werewolf movements are computer, as well, and it's not that great. And then, of course, as Bryce points out, there's a completely inexplicable CGI bear that doesn't even do anything. So it's a flaw in the film, but, ultimately, not a big deal.

I still haven't read Ty Burr's review, but I'll get to it. It sounds like he hasn't seen the original in a while, and as I said in my post, I was much less fond of it before watching it again last night. Burr's take is, I think, a majority opinion, but I think a lot of people need to watch it again.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Haven't seen either, though your review makes me want to see both. I merely post here to say: Your Che joke was pretty funny.

Neil Sarver said...

I agree on the CGI. It was my only significant complaint. I agree that it's pretty successful at assisting the makeup effects on transformation. It's really weak on the action sequences, although I'm almost torn. I like what they were trying to do with it in creating more animalistic movement in the acts of violence. I just wish it worked.

David Lee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Lee said...

I recently watched all the Wolf Man movies last year. (Okay, not House of Dracula or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, just the ones on the Wolf Man and Frankenstein Legacy Collections.) Chaney made a lousy Frankenstein monster but he was a great Wolf Man/Larry Talbot. I think that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man adds an extra layer of "You're so Fucked" when Larry realizes that he's not only a murderous killer, he's an immortal one.

Siodmak's script does seem at odds with the rest of the movie. I gather from the supplemental material that he'd intended there to be more doubt as to whether Talbot was really a werewolf or if he just thought he was one.

bill r. said...

Thank you, Fuzzy...but which version?

Neil - It's a frustrating flaw, but, yeah, a forgivable one.

David - Even though the script seems to be at odds, there's still something to the moment when Rains realizes that all his psychological theorizing was just hot air. There may have been more impact had that aspect of the film were integrated better, but it's still an interesting moment. Not that Rains says anything, not out loud anyway, but his face tells a story.

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