Blu-Review: The Wolfman (2010)

Directed By Joe Johnston
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Emily Blunt, Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving


With a production plagued by creative differences, an 11th hour switch of directors from Mark Romanek to Joe Johnston, rewrites, score changes and extensive re-editing, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the 2010 remake of 1941′s Universal monster classic would be a hideous cinematic abortion when it finally reached cinemas. It’s quite the confusing surprise, though, that despite some rather insurmountable flaws, The Wolfman is actually incredibly enjoyable.

Summoned home to the family estate with by his brother’s fiancée Gwen (Blunt) after his sibling’s disappearance, Victorian nobleman and renowned actor Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns from London to help track down his wayward kin. Greeted after a 20 year absence by his cantankerous and eccentric father (Hopkins), he learns that his missing brother has turned up gruesomely murdered, whilst something inhuman has been viciously slaughtering the locals in apparent animal attacks. Intent on finding his brother’s killer, his search leads him to a gypsy camp, arriving just before the mysterious creature re-emerges, biting Lawrence amidst a frenzy of bloodshed. Surviving and soon miraculously healed, it’s not long before the moon rises and Lawrence is craving flesh while his face starts sprouting Robin Williams’ arm hair…

A choppy pace and uneven tone is the silver bullet which pierces the heart of Johnston’s film and vanquishes any chance of true greatness. Hopkins’ performance is by turns baffling, hilarious and surprisingly dull. His choice of character shifts and changes with more frequency than the titular lycanthrope changes from man to beast, shedding accents like winter fur; sometimes Hopkins plays the elder Talbot as a brooding, sullen man in a constant state of mourning, at others he’s a gleefully bizarre lunatic, while during some scenes he just seems bored of the film and attempts to instigate staring contests with the scenery. In one scene he looms over a staircase with a face so visibly caked in make-up it looks like he just wandered through a Mary Kay factory explosion, though a reason for his appearance is never offered. Occasionally he has the regal eloquence of an English lord, sometimes he sports a thick Welsh accent but then later switches to a shaky Irish brogue. Weaving, however, is simply embarrassing. All hammy, cartoon villain eyebrow-wiggling and over-the-top growling delivery, he’s a moustache twirl away from being Snidely Whiplash. Their performances personify the film’s core problem: It isn’t sure what it wants to be, and flits between serious, brooding, oedipal gothic horror and shlocky, campy romp unevenly. While Johnston bathes the film in Victorian fog-drenched atmosphere and (in the Director’s Cut, at least) allows the story to adopt a sense of old-fashioned slow-burn gloom, it’s at odds with his over-reliance on the 21st Century standard of excessive fake-out jump scares, fast cuts and frenetic camerawork.

The presence of the legendary Rick Baker for the creature design is also a benefit outweighed by the heavy and awkward use of CGI. With Johnston arriving late in the process, he opted not to allow Baker to provide a practical transformation sequence à la An American Werewolf in London, and instead the man-into-werewolf scenes are delivered via computer-generated trickery. Occasionally it looks fantastic, with the initial transformation suitably detailed, gruesome and punctuated with the queasy cracking of bone and sinew. While not on a par with Baker’s American Werewolf work, it’s a huge step up from the average abysmal CGI that litters big budget messy monster flicks like Van Helsing. It’s confusing, however, when CGI is used needlessly to augment the prosthetic work, since during some scenes it appears that someone just gave the werewolf’s face a hasty brush over with the smudge tool in Photoshop.
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The baked-in flaws are especially unfortunate due to how much The Wolfman gets right. The first hour is fantastic; soaking in wonderfully gloomy dread, the production design and the film’s sumptuous visuals – evoking more than a little of Sleepy Hollow‘s Hammer-via-Burton aesthetic – from the mist-swept forests to the town itself are deliciously atmospheric and eerily beautiful in every frame. The first werewolf attack on a gypsy camp is expertly staged, both as an exhilarating action sequence and a horror set piece, and manages to be tremendously entertaining and filled with all manner of inventive bloodshed. Del Toro nails the tortured, dour tone of his character perfectly without ever being a chore to watch, while Lawrence’s surreal and ethereal daydreams are effectively creepy. Blunt exudes effortless grace and is overwhelmingly gorgeous, and though her character is almost entirely limited to gazing mournfully and concernedly as Del Toro wanders out of the room, she nails the emotional aspects of her character with ease, bringing a modicum of presence to slight and thankless role. Baker’s creature make-up is an awesome update of Jack Pierce’s original design, while the film is littered with gleeful references to past lycanthope movies (seeing David Schofield in a Victorian pub as the superstitious locals converse about wolves on the moors shouldn’t fail to raise a smile on the faces of American Werewolf fans).

It’s not long though before the film shifts gears to a more comic book tone, with a scene in an insane asylum presided over by a Freudian caricature with an Igor-esque assistant, and soon is barrelling towards a werewolf-on-werewolf brawl that seems more at home in Van Helsing or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than the straight gothic horror film delivered in the film’s first half. It’s undeniably fun, and never short of blood-drenched grue and destruction, but the two halves and tones never mesh cohesively. As a result, The Wolfman never manages to be more than an inherently flawed yet enjoyable horror entry with glimpses of greatness. But considering its troubled production, it’s a wonder it turned out watchable, let alone pretty damn good.
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On the Blu-ray:

The film, for all its flaws, is unquestionably visually gorgeous, and the 1.85:1 1080p transfer on the Blu-ray looks astonishing. Detail never falters despite the abundance of scenes bathed in shadow and darkness, while everything from the stunning views of rolling hills, fog-covered moors or the strands of The Wolfman’s matted fur are all captured in flawless detail. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is equally perfect, with an incredible use of the surround channels, from the circling attack of the wolf and the panicking chaos of the gypsy camp to the creaking ambience of the Talbot mansion all delivered with amazing immersiveness, while dialogue never suffers, coming through with crystal clarity.

Extras-wise, firstly, the Blu-ray comes with both the theatrical and extended editions (the latter is the version reviewed here). The difference is quite a huge one, with 17 minutes added to the opening. Apparently, the studio were hesitant about waiting a whole hour for the first wolf transformation and opted to hack a chunk of footage from the beginning of the film. Subsequently, the theatrical cut is an utter mess of pacing issues and is best left avoided. The extended version provides a more organic introduction for Lawrence, adds a wealth of character development and provides a more complete opening wolf attack for the scene with Lawrence’s brother. Arguably though, the Max Von Sydow cameo added back into the longer cut was better off left out; it’s a nice nod to the silver cane of the original, but the scene serves no purpose but to heavy-handedly bestow an almost mythical weapon upon Lawrence, which then weirdly goes unused in the film.

There’s a handful of deleted scenes and alternate endings which are incredibly interesting to watch; the alternate endings are essentially the same, though the fates of a couple of main characters are reversed. The most notable deleted scene features a longer London rampage, with wolf-Lawrence casually wandering into a costume party unnoticed, before laying waste to guests, while later offing a children’s performer while he acts out a policeman beating up a wolf with hand puppets. They’re great to see, but it’s not a great surprise why they were cut – they’re predicated on a couple of silly gags, and are more in keeping with the flawed, goofier aspects of the film than the good.

Th U-Control features are decent enough, providing pop-up information regarding aspects of wolf lore and The Wolfman’s film history, with another feature providing discussion from crew members on some of the film. Unfortunately it’s limited to the lesser theatrical version, and much of the information is carried over into the separate behind-the-scenes features.

The other features included are ‘Return of the Wolf Man’ (a quick feature on the updating of the original movie with the cast and crew giving the standard spiel), The Beast Maker (a segment on the great Rick Baker as he talks about his contribution to the film and his enthusiasm for the original Wolfman films), Transformation Secrets (a look at the differences between wolf transformations in the original film and the new CG iteration) and The Wolfman Unleashed (a short behind-the-scenes glimpse at the filming of some of the action sequences). None of them are especially extensive or riveting, though they’re nice enough additions.

It’s a shame that given the production’s troubled history, a commentary from director Joe Johnston wasn’t included to shed more light on the myriad of changes both in pre and post-production. As is though, the Blu-ray is a modestly great set, with an immaculate visual transfer, a wonderful audio track, a superior version of the film and some fantastic curiosities in the deleted scenes.

Rating:


The Wolfman is available to buy on Blu-ray and DVD now.

(Note: The images above were captured and saved at a reduced quality, and though they give an idea of how the film looks, they aren’t intended to reflect the true quality of the Blu-ray image itself.)