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The Wolfman (2010) Review

If you had asked me thirty minutes into the movie, I would have told you that The Wolfman was a complete waste of time. There is so much to dislike about the start of this movie, I was afraid I was turning into a complete humbug. But then the second act totally, completely, utterly nails it, and I realized that my senses hadn’t left me. The Wolfman – Benicio del Toro’s love letter to one of the great Universal classics, directed first by Mark Romanek then Joe Johnston, scored by Danny Elfman then Paul Haslinger then Danny Elfman again (whoops), with practical makeup by Rick ‘Fucking Awesome’ Baker (I’m pretty sure that is his nickname) until they decided, “Fuck Rick Baker, let’s make the werewolf transformation scene CGI.” Well, it feels about as congruent as that last sentence reads. The movie is one amazing sequence surrounded by a mish-mashed mess of disparate, conflicting visions.

Wolfman is all the more frustrating because the most fleeting glimpse of the awesome movie this could have been is always present. The cinematography works so hard at real honest to god ‘Universal horror’ atmosphere, only to be undercut by endless ‘jump scares’ that even I Know What You Did Last Summer would be ashamed of. Danny Elfman’s score (or whatever amalgamation this score actually represents) is mostly hit-you-over-the-head bombastic, but the ‘gypsy’ theme is really, really great. I can’t stop imagining how riveting the score would have been if Elfman had been constrained to some kind of Gypsy string quartet. Rick Baker’s practical effects are very cool. It took a lot of guts to throw a totally anthropomorphic wolfman on the screen in front of cynical ‘seen-it-all’ contemporary audiences, but they pull it off with gusto. Unfortunately, someone else had the genius idea to make every other object in the movie CGI. A docile bear? CGI it! A deer? CGI! A tree? That’s right a tree. I am serious. Come to think of it, I think Emily Blunt’s performance was also CGI.

Benicio tries his best, but his Lawrence Talbot is a flat character living in a world of flat characters. I was so excited by his weird sort-of American accent in the trailers. I thought, “Wow, that’s a gutsy move doing that homage/parody of Lon Chaney, Jr.” I’m pretty sure that’s what he was going for, too. Problem is, they only gave him, like, three lines in the entire movie, so you never get a feel for any sort of personality. I envision an alternate dimension version of this movie where Benicio del Toro plays the character exactly the same, but he’s talking all the time, kind of like, oh, I don’t know, Lon Chaney, Jr. in the original Wolfman? The problem with Wolfman 2010 is that the main character was written as a sort of black hole that sucks the life out of every second of film he’s in human form in. The other characters aren’t much better. Elrond does pretty good.

And then, out of nowhere, the movie becomes the freaking awesome fun romp it should have been the entire time. After Larry Talbot’s first transformation, he is caught and transported to a Victorian-era London insane asylum. First off, I must admit that I’m a total sucker for pre-modern insane asylums in movies. This part gets a pass for the insane asylum alone. But it’s not just that. Benicio changes into a werewolf once again but in a way other werewolf movies don’t, in front of a crowd of observing scientists. Benicio’s werewolf literally bitch slaps science. Yes, it’s silly and obvious, but it works. It works like, well, the Mummy movies at their best. The ensuing spree and blood bath is gloriously silly fun. Wolfy is pulling out guts and livers with his teeth and scaring uptight Victorian women through the window of an upturned trolley car. Awesome right? Not gonna win any Oscars or anything, but I went to see this movie to see some bitchin’ werewolf action, and the London sequence delivers in a big way. I know this review sounds super negative, but I might even say that the London sequence alone is worth the price of admission.

Unfortunately, ol’ Larry Talbot returns to his daddy’s mansion and the ending is a lot of the same, albeit with good cinematography and set design at times…

List of unforgivables:

1. You have Rick Baker doing practical makeup. He has volunteered to do the transformation scene. He did the transformation scene in American Werewolf in London, people! Come on! I’ve read an interview or two with Joe Johnston where he says something to the effect of, “we decided to go CGI for the transformation because there are things we wanted to do that couldn’t be done with practical effects.” Apparently ‘the things he wanted to do’ were a series of mindblowingly predictable shots that never quite show the whole transformation. A toe splitting through a shoe here, an eyeball reflecting the moon there, fur growing on an arm over there. They never really show a transformation ‘money shot.’ You’ve seen American Werewolf in London, right? That whole transformation is practically made up of money shots. American Werewolf in London shys away from close-ups because close-ups make you feel like you’re being cheated. It’s like Joe Johnston (or Mark Romanek or whoever) is relying on clich├ęs to do the leg work for him. “Oh, look, he’s transforming. I know this because the arch of his foot grew big.”

2. (Spoiler) The “Feral Himalayan boy” that turns everyone into werewolves in the first place is Gollum. No, I did not say he looks like Gollum. He is Gollum. Did Joe Johnston seriously think everyone in the audience would just forget that they’d seen Lord of the Rings?

3. Remember in Aliens when Ripley comes face to face with the Queen Alien? Remember how there was no music, and no editing funny business, just the slow dawning of, “Oh shit, what’s she gonna do now?” That was great, huh? Joe Johnston’s Wolfman is the opposite of that. Even in the last scene of the movie, even after we have seen, met, hung out with, had a beer with, etc. the wolfman for the entire movie, this movie has a ‘jump scare’ fetish! Seriously, the last scene where we’re supposed to feel like “Oh my god, under all that fur and killing, there’s still a human being under there!” they go for the ‘jump scare!’ Why? Come to think of it, did this movie pioneer the ‘double jump scare?’ There’s more than one scene where they ‘jump scare’ twice!

Magic Moment: SPOILER!!!!!! When Anthony Hopkins transforms into a daddy werewolf, he totally looks like the daddy werewolf from Teen Wolf. I am not joking. See the movie and tell me I’m wrong.

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