Friday, February 12, 2010

'The Wolfman' respects Chaney's original, features state-of-art effects


By Steve Crum

As a fan of classic Universal horror movies, I place Lon Chaney Jr.’s The Wolf Man as my favorite among The Mummy, Dracula, The Invisible Man, and Frankenstein. That is why I anticipated seeing Benecio Del Toro’s werewolf take with trepidation. I could not wait to see it, while fearing it would disappoint. Not to worry, silver bullet fans, The Wolfman is a worthy romp through full moon nights.

The original 1941 version is still preferred, but The Wolfman’s director Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III) pays grand homage while playing to the 2010 crowd. However, why the title has to be spelled “Wolfman” instead of “Wolf Man” is a slight irritant. After all, Universal produced both movies.

Writers Scott Stuber, Benicio Del Toro (yep, the star), Rick Yorn, and Sean Daniel based their screenplay on Curt Siodmak’s original, and how. There are references regarding not only the ’41 movie, but to virtually all four, subsequent, Chaney Wolf Man guest appearances in horror films ever produced. For history’s sake, they are: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (’43), House of Frankenstein (’44), House of Dracula (’45), and even 1948’s comedy-horror gem, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Never think movie sequels and remakes are a product of just the last couple of decades.

About the only contrived element missing from the Siodmak original is wolfbane. Siodmak used it as a plant that had mystical, preservation powers affecting the creature. It was a featured element of the six Chaneys; it is sorely missed in this new version (except for brief mention) only because of the faithful inclusion of most other werewolf legend. To the vast numbers of younger viewers who have never seen any Chaney Wolf Man, it should matter not. As the ad promos say, The Wolfman is “inspired by the classic Universal film.” It is not a Xerox redo.

To prove that point, main character Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is a Shakespearean actor in this story, which opens in 1891. He is also a British nobleman who returns to his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) at Talbot Hall in Blackwood, England, after his brother Ben is brutally killed. His brother’s fiance, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt), is also at the estate for the funeral. Lawrence’s mother was also violently killed years ago. Lawrence is haunted by visions of his mother’s death, which he witnessed after the fact. Not long after he views what is left of his brother’s butchered remains, nearby villagers begin to suffer brutal attacks on the foggy moor by what appears to be a large, wolf-like animal. The inclusion of beset villagers is a staple of Universal horror films, yet another tip of the hat to horror movie history.

The big difference between then and now filmmaking is the special effects and violence level. It is no spoiler to say the killer is a werewolf (a “wolf man”), but realize the monster this time around is a full blown mass murderer, taking on a dozen villagers, police or whomever one sharp claw and long tooth rip at a time. And he is fast. Decapitations occur, pardon the term, at breakneck speed. Chaney’s wolf guy would pull off maybe one kill per full moon rising evening.

How can there be a werewolf loose before Lawrence even arrives home? Ah, the twist of the story surfaces, but will go without much explanation due to ruining it for viewers. When Lawrence is indeed bitten by the creature, and is transformed himself into a werewolf, then the story takes unique turns as there is double trouble in the woods.

In keeping with Universal tradition, there is Scotland Yard’s Inspector Aberline (Hugo Weaving) hot on the bloody trail. There is also a band of gypsies camped across the swamps. While the original old gypsy woman Maleva, gloriously played by Maria Ouspenskaya in the original, is long gone, an unrecognizable Geraldine Chaplin does a credible job in the role. It is she who recites the famous werewolf credo: “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” It is all very campy, and mood appropriate.

As with previous Universal horror films, do not expect a complex script. The Wolfman is basically a mass hysteria, villagers versus monster opus. There is also a developing love story, but the real attraction is Rick Baker’s memorable wolf transformations and body count mayhem. Action dominates. Expect lethal silver bullets and cane handles.

Del Toro handles the anguish of being a werewolf about as well as Chaney did nearly 80 years ago, but in this respect, it is hard to top Lon Jr. I do want the brand name of the durable shirts and trousers both Lawrence Talbots wear. After each transformation, in which their bodies are stretched five ways and a killing spree follows, Talbot always wakes up shoeless, but with his shirt and pants intact.

Obviously, the clothing is more complex than the script.
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On an A to F grade scale: B
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The Wolfman trailer, in HD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VS02xaTIdRI

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