Wednesday, February 26, 2020

The Wolfman Is A Storytelling Mess But A Delight When It Comes To Wolfman Carnage


Universal has constantly gone back to the Universal Monsters well throughout this century and, prior this Friday's new release The Invisible Man, somehow only one of these attempts has entailed reviving these characters through a horror movie. The Universal Monsters became famous through small-scale horror fare that resonated with audiences both by tapping into post-World War I fears and the distinctive performances of actors like Boris Karloff & Bela Lugosi hired to portray the monsters. Who, then, thought bringing them into 2017 entailed whatever the hell was happening in that Tom Cruise The Mummy dumpster fire? The only one of these films (again, before this weekends Invisible Man remake) to realize that scary characters work best in horror confines is the 2010 stab at The Wolfman.

From the get-go, one can tell that The Wolfman's screenplay is gonna be messy at best and outright abysmal at worst. Voice-over narration from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) urges the protagonist of the film, Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro), to return to his home in response to the disappearance of Talbot's brother. In the process, we barrel through Conliffe's relationship to Talbot's sibling as well who the heck Talbot is. If you blank out for a second, you'd likely miss the line of dialogue and visual making it clear that Talbot's occupation is working as an actor! This hurried opening sequence is not an ideal way to get introduced to the figure we're supposed to get emotionally invested in for a feature-length production.

After this clumsy opening, we see that Lawrence hasn't returned home due to a traumatic experience where he came upon his mother's corpse. This has ensured that he and his dad, Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins), are estranged. Now back home, Lawrence learns that his brother was viciously killed by some unknown beast. While searching for answers regarding some medallion found on his brothers' person, Lawrence is attacked by the same being that slaughtered his brother. Lawrence survives but is now given the ability to transform into the titular creature whenever the moon is full. Plenty of vicious carnage ensues, though, despite having so many gifted dramatic performers on hand, there's shockingly little in the way of compelling drama to be found.

"Where does the man begin and the beast end?" intones the Emily Blunt voice-over that closes out The Wolfman, an idea that serves as the crux for many werewolf tales for a reason, it's such a rich idea thematically. However, it's one that doesn't really come into play here simply because we never get the chance to know Lawrence Talbot as a person prior to his time as the Wolfman. Whether or not this beast is an extension of his own human personality is a mystery for the ages, Talbot just isn't given much of a concrete personality to work with. Even the toxic father/son dynamic between himself and John Talbot that plays heavily into the plot ends up getting resolved with an odd whimper.

Like I said earlier, clumsy storytelling abounds here. The central romance between Talbot and Conliffe is never convincing for a minute and while the attempt at making John Talbot a surprise baddie similarly falls flat. The fact that John Talbot's first shot sees him shrouded in shadows and glowering at Lawrence Talbot makes it pretty obvious that this is our central antagonist, as does a later reveal that John Talbot has built a secret shrine to his dead wife's grave. Despite all the obvious foreshadowing, John Talbot being the actual villain is eventually treated as a grave threat. Apparently, it's so complex to understand that the character constantly acting like a bad guy is a bad guy that we had to have an awkward scene where Lawrence and John have a father/son talk about the elder Talbot's obvious motivations.

Yes, The Wolfman sinks like a stone when it comes to the character work. So why did I end up finding it to be an agreeable watch? That comes down to the atmosphere and the Wolfman mayhem. The Wolman is helmed by Joe Johnston who is no stranger to helming period piece genre fare like The Rocketeer and Captain America: The First Avenger. Much like those titles embraced a retro-1940s adventure feel, here, Johnston renders The Wolfman with a style that totally revels in being set in the 19th-century. It's impossible to not be delighted by scenes of Benicio del Toro walking around a creepy darkened mansion at night illuminated just by candlelight. Ditto for the juxtaposition of prim n' prop European locales & costumes with uber-bloody violence. 

Johnston's gift for leaning into the fun part of a specific era of the past serves The Wolfman quite well in a number of spots. A bit more of a surprise, though a welcome one, is seeing a filmmaker known for his family-friendly Disney titles having a ball with showing the Wolfman just viciously killing people. In a happy development, The Wolfman does not keep its beastie off-screen for the majority of its screentime, we get to frequently see this monster indulging in all kinds of vicious violence across a number of fun set pieces (including an especially enjoyable science demonstration gone awry sequence). Such grisly scenes make heavy use of Rick Baker's deservedly Oscar-winning makeup work for Del Toro's Wolfman, which really does help to make this creature look like a believable organism. The Wolfman's screenwriting leaves so much to be desired but I can't deny that it delivers the goods when it comes time for some monster mashing. Far more subpar 21st-century Universal Monster fare like The Mummy or Van Helsing could have taken more than a few cues from The Wolfman.

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