Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Wolfman: All Bark and No Bite

Given the commercial success the vampire classes have been having lately (with everything from Showtime's "True Blood" to teenage Twilight), it's only natural the the lycanthropes would wish to get in on the action. Thus the effort to remake the 1941 classic Wolf Man by Jurassic Park III director Joe Johnston seems a logical, if disappointing, development.

Despite the largely well-done casting (Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving especially have fun chewing the scenery as the Elder Sir. John Talbot and the erstwhile inspector Abberline, respectively), this remake of the story is largely lackluster, relying mostly on an overly loud soundtrack of crashing booms and high-pitched violins to create any purely artificial thrills. Benicio del Toro also makes a too stolid Wolfman - playing it humorously straight and making the 1 hour and 42 minute flick seem interminably long.

Part of the disappointment is the way in which the story has been changed from the original to make this Wolfman more a obviously predicable tale about family dynasty dynamics than a psychological exploration of male rage and aggression: as if thrills can be derived from only the most obvious plot developments, when quite the opposite is true (as Martin Scorcese's Shutter Island so ably shows). del Toro, as prodigal son Lawrence Talbot, returns to Talbot castle after his brother has been mutilated by a lunging lycanthrope. Naturally, Sr. Talbot isn't saying much, but wolfishly protects his brood, until Lawrence inherits the wound himself, and slowly turns. Watching Hopkins and del Toro go at it at the end in their big furry costumes seemed more like some kind of weird Sesame Street Wrestling match than a climax to a serious thriller, and by this time I was more than happy to see either of them bite the dust.

Johnston stages this as a straight-on remake trying to masquerade as a modern horror flick, with painstaking details on Victorian settings but little budget left over for creative Foley (the loud horror-movie crash he uses every time Talbot gets startled by a dog or a...wolf? always the same, and quickly become tiresome). But with little inspiration in the story or the direction, the long stretches of bloody mutilations - besides being needlessly over the top - actually become a bit, well, boring.

There were so many other ways he could have played this film. He could have really delved into the creative psychology of the man/ Scorcese does in Shutter Island, delivering an intelligent as well as involving thriller. Or just given it a bit of camp, a la Van Helsing, at least injecting some popcorn munching fun.

Perhaps most disappointingly, he could have also tried to explore what makes wolf men sexy. We've got sexy vampires steaming up screens both large and small lately, but these pale vampish creatures have nothing on Wolfman potential. A beefed up Michael Sheen in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans suggested what a bit of wolf-sex-appeal could add to the Sylvan folklore. Here we have an entire film devoted to the subject.

I happen believe that if wolf men were really given their full predatory sexual due, they'd make "True Blood" seem like a Sunday school program. Unfortunately, what Johnston offers us are big overstuffed Ewoks with little brains and even less romantic bravura. I just hope he hasn't killed the Wolfman cinematic ethos forever.



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