by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Among the superhero movie elite is without question director James McTeigue’s politically charged 2006 film V for Vendetta, based off of Alan Moore’s graphic novel of the same name. Heavily critical of oppressive, war hungry governments who lie to their citizens and control through fear, it is very easy to read V for Vendetta as an attack on the ultra right wing extremists. Even if you do not quite agree with the politics of V for Vendetta, the film still has plenty to offer in the action and suspense department. Larry and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix boys) penned V for Vendetta, so you know you are in for one hell of a thrill ride when the bullets, knives, and fists start flying. Despite the heaping amount of praise I give this film, I do think it does have its fair share of flaws which cause it to stumble during its second act, especially when much of the focus is pulled off of the liberal-minded vigilante V, a monstrous experiment that backfires on all of those who were responsible. The story is so busy and tries to juggle so much at one time that you may find yourself hitting the rewind button out of confusion, at least on your first viewing. Things do clear themselves up a bit after revisiting the film a few times but certain points are still murky. Even so, you have to applaud the film’s reluctance to simplify itself, which is always invigorating in a superhero film.
The year is 2020 and much of the world is ravaged by civil war, disease, unrest, and chaos. Great Britain is under the control of a fascist Norsefire party, who act as a sort of Big Brother type. One evening, British Television Network employee Evey Hammon (Played by Natalie Portman) decides to make a trip to the home of her boss, Gordon Deitrich (Played by Stephen Fry), despite the government curfew that is firmly in place. The streets are partoled by “Fingerman,” a secret police force who takes orders from High Chancellor Adam Sutler (Played by John Hurt). Evey ends up bumping in to several “Fingerman,” who then attempt to rape and beat her but she is saved by a mysterious man in a Guy Fawkes mask. This man, who calls himself V (Played by Hugo Weaving), proceeds to take Evey to a rooftop that overlooks the Old Bailey, which he then proceeds to destroy. The next days, the Norsefire party attempts to cover up this attack but V infiltrates the BTN and takes credit for the attack. He then encourages the citizens of Great Britain to rise up against this tolterian force that oppresses them and join him on November 5th, 2021, outside the Houses of Parliament and watch as he destroys it. Evey ends up bumping into V as he is fleeing the BTN and she narrowly saves his life, but it is all caught on camera. With no other alternative, V takes Evey to his underground hideout where she slowly begins to understand what V is trying to accomplish. She also learns about his horrific past inside a concentration camp called Larkhill, one set up by the Norsefire party. Meanwhile, lead inspector Eric Finch (Played by Stephen Rae) is hot on V trail but he ends up discovering more than he bargained for.
Certainly not the easiest film to briefly sum up due to the fact that there are tons of moving parts that allow the story to keep chugging along, V for Vendetta certainly is a rich and hearty thriller that more than satisfies. The first forty minutes of the film are absolutely glorious and flawless, with plenty of mind-bending action sequences and slow mounting suspense to keep you glued to your seat. The infiltration of the BTN by V seems like something Christopher Nolan would have concocted in one of his Batman films with closed-quarters action that would have been right at home in The Matrix. Then things switch from relentless action into more of a political thriller and character drama. The second half of the film is certainly interesting, especially when we get to hear about the origin of the Norsefire party and how V was molded into a Shakespeare-quoting gentleman who prefers to slay his victims with knives and ideas. It is here that the narrative tries to cram in too much and things begin to get tangled up in its own story. There are so many characters to try to keep track of that the exhaustion carved into lead inspector Finch’s face says it all. Yet when things finally do come together, or at least when we can finally put all the puzzle pieces in place, it does knock you off your feet. In a way, this is a positive because the more times you see V for Vendetta, the more that it chooses to reveal, making it one that you could happily add to your film collection.
Another unusual approach in V for Vendetta is never allowing the audience to get a glimpse of the V’s face. We learn that V was horribly disfigured in a fire and that he also can take quite a bit more punishment than the normal human being, a result of experiments that were conducted on him in Larkhill. V keeps his scarred face hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask and allows his personality to come alive in eloquent and poetic dialogue that pours from the small slit in the mask’s mouth. He is mildly pretentious in the way he quotes Shakespeare, enjoys high art, and swoons over The Count of Monte Cristo, a film he can quote line by line. His underground lair is walled with books as thick as bricks, shrines to individuals who were deemed “unfit” by the Norsefire party (a lesbian woman who was in a cell next to V while he was in Larkhill), and accented with classical tunes that pour forth from his jukebox of 100 songs, none of which V has ever danced to. Weaving has his work cut out for him in selling V to the audience but he does it with human grace. I enjoy the fact that V is meant to represent all of us and I loved the fact that my imagination ran wild with what he looked like. We only ever get a glimpse of his hands, which are red, swollen, and peeling, grotesque but tragic, even more so when Evey sees them and V quickly covers them up so he doesn’t offend her.
Then we have Portman’s Evey, who has to speak in a faux British accent that does come off as fake from time to time but Portman’s character is caught in so much conflict that you barely notice. She is a powerhouse when she has her hair shaved off in one of the film’s more intense moments. She morphs from a conformed member of the Norsefire society into a cold, steely liberator with eyes that are made of fire, perhaps the same flames that baptized V. Her intimate moments with V, the ones where they speak of their pasts and V’s plot are touching, haunting, and hypnotic. Then we have Rae’s Finch, a loyal Norsefire party member who is beginning to question the party he has dedicated himself to. The more he uncovers, the more he begins to see that V is not the enemy. Another standout is John Hurt as Sutler, who is almost always seen on a giant screen that looms over the closest members of his cabinet. There is so much force in his voice when he snarls at those close to him that he needs to remind the people of Great Britain why they need him. Rounding all the main players is Fry is a closeted homosexual who fears his sexual orientation will have him jailed, but that is the least of his worries, and Tim Pigott-Smith as Peter Creedy, the scowling and slimy head of the “Fingerman.”
V for Vendetta has a shattering moment in the middle of the film when it flashes back to tell the story of Valerie (Played by Imogen Poots and Natasha Wightman), a lesbian who was disowned by her family and ultimately arrested by the government and thrown into Larkhill. The scene is fueled by so much raw emotion, anger, frustration, and ache that it still retains its punch every time you see the film. It is the highlight of the convoluted middle section of V for Vendetta, one that shows the true suffering at the hands of evil individuals who lack the right to judge their neighbor. It also acts as the push behind this liberal minded superhero outing. It is a call for tolerance and acceptance of all walks of life, something the far right refuses to do. Despite the longwinded politics of the middle portion of the film (trust me, it covers it all), the last act ties everything up in grand, fiery fashion, complete with a rousing fireworks display. The end battle scene between V and several members of the “Fingerman” is turned up eleven with slow motion spirals of V flying through the air and cutting down those who have caused him so much pain, V’s rage tied up with fluttering ribbons of blood cutting across the action. Yet it is the idea that together we can accomplish anything that will have you on your feet by the time the credits roll. It is the idea of universal freedom that allows V for Vendetta to stand as one of the true triumphs of the superhero genre.
V for Vendetta is available on Blu-ray and DVD.