Quint faces down THE WOLFMAN and lives to tell the tale!
Published at: Feb. 12, 2010, 4:33 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I just recently returned from 18 days of continuous travel (21 days if you count the road trip to New Orleans that led up to within 8 hours of my departure for Sundance) and I landed in Austin with just about an hour to make the AICN screening of THE WOLFMAN.
The travel gods smiled upon me and the flight was smooth, the arrival early and bags among the first off the plane, so I was able to make my way to the Alamo and take in THE WOLFMAN.
It was a packed screening with lots of great pre-show entertainment from the fine folks at the Alamo… everything from clips of Mad Monster Party to 8mm home movies from the 60s of kids dressing up as werewolves and mauling their friends.
If Harry “sort of loved” Wolfman I sort of didn’t hate it. As usual we seem to have similar opinions on the movie, but he skewed a lot more positive. We both think the movie is flawed and I suppose Harry gives it more credit for what worked and I see it as more of a missed opportunity.
As a bit of set up, my favorite Universal Monster Movie is The Wolf Man, followed closely with the first Three Frankensteins as one story. As films those are my favorites, but going by design The Creature From The Black Lagoon blows them all away in my book.
As an adaptation THE WOLFMAN is second only to Francis Ford Coppola’s vision of DRACULA (if we’re looking at the last couple of decades’ worth of film adaptations). THE MUMMY was campy, not scary, and kinda stupid and Kenneth Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN was a giant, if interesting, mess, so I don’t know if that’s exactly high praise.
The flick is a 70% movie. It is almost there. The cinematography by Shelly Johnson is probably a career best, the film is unapologetically R-rated and Rick Baker’s Wolfman redesign is awesome… it moves great and you can see enough of Benicio Del Toro through the fur and prosthetic that you buy the hybrid creature. Emily Blunt has never been cuter to me, Anthony Hopkins chews as much scenery as I was hoping going by the trailer and Hugo Weaving was born to sport mutton chops.
So, where did it go wrong? There are two key issues wrong with the movie… One, the script wasn’t there, specifically in regards to the love story, which is kind of crucial in a movie where love is supposed to be Lawrence Talbot’s only possibility of escape from his curse.
Emily Blunt plays Gwen Conliffe, Talbot’s brother’s lady. When Talbot’s brother is mauled by some sort of creature she writes to Lawrence asking for him to return to his broken home in order to help find out what happened to his brother. This means Lawrence has to face a father who institutionalized him as a child.
So within the span of a couple of months Gwen has to fall in love with Lawrence and become his savior according to a gypsy woman (played by the great Geraldine Chaplin). That’s not an unreasonable time, even given that her love is brutally murdered at the very beginning of this time span.
But more focus is put on Lawrence’s crazy relationship with his kind of proud, kind of kooky father Sir John (played by Hopkins) than on the love story. Hey, I understand… it’s a crucial relationship in the movie and if you have Anthony Hopkins you better damn well use him. But you can’t set up a love story being so important and then only give it one half scene when Blunt is mending Lawrence’s busted lip and one full scene of him teaching her how to skip stones.
The second major issue is that you can feel that this is a film divided. Even if the troubled production wasn’t common knowledge I think most film fans could spot that this isn’t fully one man’s vision. From what I gather Mark Romanek was firmly in the practical effects world and when Joe Johnston came on board three weeks before shooting he had a different set of priorities.
Instead of just ditching Rick Baker and all his work, Johnston compromised and kept all the post-transformation Wolfman scenes prosthetics, but essentially threw out all of Baker’s prosthetic transformation builds.
It’s a house divided and unfortunately Johnston’s house pales in comparison to Baker’s.
I get labeled as anti-CG because of my love and respect for the artistry of practical effects, but I appreciate well done computer effects and don’t think they should be excluded from the filmmaking process at all. But there’s a forgiveness to practical effects that isn’t exactly there for CG and I think The Wolfman is a brilliant example of compare and contrast. The practical effects hold up brilliantly, you buy the Wolfman as a character, but the CG is spotty.
Not all of it is bad. Some of the transformation stuff works, but most of it has the awfully distracting digital sheen, the light not bouncing off the flesh right, etc. Plus there are two horrendous CGI animals… a stag and a bear… that just kind of baffle the mind. Was it really cheaper to have a full dozen or more digital team fully realize, render and execute a digital bear than it would have been to shoot for a day with a real trained bear?
I fully admit there’s also a factor of me being a practical effects junkie that knows Rick Baker designed a werewolf transformation that was scrapped in favor of some crappy CGI shots that feel more only a slight step up from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS.
Would I be this critical of the effects if it wasn’t The Wolfman? Maybe not, but this series and this particular creature has a history of pioneering effects work, whether it’s Jack Pierce’s make up on Lon Chaney Jr. or Rob Bottin’s work on THE HOWLING or Rick Baker’s make-up on An American Werewolf in London which was so groundbreaking they had to invent an Oscar for him.
The drama partially works, the effects partially work and the action partially works. It feels like Johnston could have used an extra week of photography for some of the action scenes, particularly the big action set piece at the end. There are cool shots in the finale, but they feel cobbled together, with little connecting tissue. Honestly they made me a little unsure on how Johnston’s going to handle Captain America… But whenever I feel any doubt I think back to Rocketeer… which, looking at it without the nostalgia goggles, is far from perfect, but the iconography is there and the period feel is right.
So, ultimately you have a movie that is almost fucking great… so close that it makes it worse that the film didn’t come together better. I don’t know what Romanek would have done differently if he felt constrained financially anyway, but I’m sure Johnston did the best he could coming in so late to the game… At the end of the day you have to look at what the final product is, forgetting the hard work and struggles to get it there. It’s the end product that will live on or disappear.
And this end product is flawed. Interesting, yes, but not what it could have been. It’s up to the individual to decide if they can accept the movie, flaws and all, or let the flaws serve as a constant reminder of how almost there it is. I guess I fall more in the latter category.
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