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06 March, 2010

Unimonster's Screening Room: THE WOLFMAN (2010)

Title: THE WOLFMAN

Date of Theatrical Release: 12 February 2010

MPAA Rating: R


[Ed. Note: There’s a new feature here at the Crypt, The Screening Room, wherein I’ll periodically review first-run films currently in theaters. It will work no different than my DVD Reviews—I understand that your entertainment dollars are as hard to come by as mine, and if I tell you to spend a goodly chunk of those dollars to see a movie, you’d better believe I was blown away by it. Also, there will be a rating system to help you decide just how much a movie impressed me, based on the number of skulls, 1-5, I award it. So read on and enjoy!]

Since 1999, Universal Studios has been on a quest to reinvent it’s most beloved properties, the Classic Monsters of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Beginning with Stephen Sommers fantastic redux of THE MUMMY, continuing through his misinterpretation of the Monsters in VAN HELSING, and helped along the way by a flood of DVD releases from Universal’s vaults, the studio has reenergized Classic Horror fans both young and old. Their latest offering to those whose notions of Monsters predate the TWILIGHT Saga is Joe Johnston’s THE WOLFMAN, in theaters now.

Titularly a remake of 1941’s THE WOLF-MAN, the resemblance to its predecessor begins and ends with the character names. The setting is shifted slightly, from the Welsh town of Llanwelly to a more nondescript town in the English countryside, and from a roughly contemporary (to 1941) period to 1891. The characters of Lawrence Talbot and Sir John, his father, are more richly drawn than in the original, with Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins exploring complexities in the father-son relationship only hinted at by Lon Chaney, Jr. and Claude Rains. As written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, there are layers to this bond that the viewer will find surprising.

Lawrence Talbot, (Del Toro) an actor and the expatriate son of Sir John Talbot, (a superb job by Hopkins) receives an urgent summons to return home following the disappearance of his brother Ben. The message, from Ben’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe, (an underwhelming performance by Emily Blunt) reaches Lawrence on the London stage, where the Americanized actor is playing the lead role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. He returns to Talbot Hall to be greeted at the door by his estranged father, shotgun in hand. Ben’s body has been found, horribly mutilated. What’s more, two others have died under similar circumstances in recent weeks, and the locals are convinced that a group of gypsies, encamped just outside the town’s environs, is to blame.

Lawrence, having promised Gwen he would find out what had happened to his brother, visits the Gypsy camp hoping to find answers. During his visit, however, the camp is attacked by something—something large, something powerful, something unseen. Lawrence catches a glimpse of it as it runs off in pursuit of a young boy, and gives chase. He becomes the hunted, however, and is attacked by the creature before it can be driven off by gunfire from its pursuers. Lawrence is taken home, wounded and near death.

He wavers in and out of consciousness for the next month, but as the moon waxes towards full, so does his strength. By the eve of the next full moon, he is feeling better than ever, and the jagged scar left by his wound has completely healed. And as the full moon rises over Talbot Hall, the beast runs loose again.

The scope of this film is much broader and grander than the original, taking full advantage of the vast differences in budget, technology, and creative freedom enjoyed by modern filmmakers. The production design is superb, creating the atmosphere so vital to recapturing the essence of the great Universal Horrors, an element that VAN HELSING sadly lacked. The photography, by Shelly Johnson, beautifully presents that atmosphere to the viewer, from the crumbling edifice of Talbot Hall to the gas-lit streets of London to dark, fog-shrouded woods of the English countryside.

But we are talking about THE WOLFMAN, and there would be nothing worth photographing if the look of the creature itself had not been ‘right’. Thankfully, Universal realized there was but one artist capable of doing justice to that originally created by Jack Pierce, and that is Rick Baker. Baker, who, along with John Landis redefined the Werewolf movie with 1981’s AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, now brings the “Man” portion of the Wolf-Man equation back to the fore, after thirty years of increasingly canine-like lycanthropes. The make-up is terrific, resembling what Pierce created while remaining state-of-the-art.

While this is director Joe Johnston’s first shot at a Horror Film, he has managed to build-up a rather impressive genre resume so far. Beginning with 1989’s HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS and 1991’s THE ROCKETEER, to 2001’s JURASSIC PARK III, Johnston is no stranger to genre audiences. He also has notable credentials in the visual effects world, having worked on the original STAR WARS trilogy and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Though this is his first venture into the world of classic Horror, he handles it with style, creating a fitting homage to the movie that launched the Horror career of Lon Chaney, Jr. and gave us the creature that would carry the studio throughout the first half of the 1940’s.

I saw this on the opening weekend, accompanied by the 12-year-old Uni-Nephew. Both of us loved the film, daresay for different reasons. It was his first real exposure to the classic monsters, to the great Horror Films that his uncle so dearly loves, and I’m overjoyed that I could share that with him. For me, it was as if watching something reappear that I thought had long since vanished beneath an avalanche of metrosexually androgynous vampires and testosterone-juiced lycanthropes who resemble a cross between Lassie and Rambo. It was the rebirth of classic Horror, and it is just as welcome now as when it was reborn in 1958 with Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA. If you consider yourself a fan of the classic Monsters, you have to see this movie. Don’t wait for the DVD, this film should be seen on the big screen. Four out of five skulls, with an extra jawbone thrown in for good measure.




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