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Tabula Rasa

The Wolfman

Directed by Joe Johnston, 2010

A review by Kyla Ward, 2010

Sir John Talbot: So, the prodigal son returns. I hope you're not expecting a fatted calf.
The Wolfman posterThe youngest son of Lord Talbot has been torn to pieces. The elder has returned to the family estate for the first time in twenty-three years, to find his brother's fiancée beautiful and his father about as mad as he remembers. Detective Aberline, fresh from his failure to solve the Ripper murders, is not far behind, but the villagers are already melting down the silverware. Let the hunt commence!

This film, which is Universal Studios remaking one of their own icons, is entirely self-aware. It understands it will be measured not just against its sainted source, but against An American Werewolf in London. It does its damndest to assimilate them both and approaches the tale of the ill-fated Lawrence Talbot with style, gusto and some common sense. Unfortunately, it breaks absolutely no new ground.

In a world overrun by zombies, where vampires are putting up a spirited defence, the werewolf is moving up along the inside rail. Starting as vampire antagonists in the Underworld series, becoming their romantic rivals in True Blood and New Moon, and their flatmates in Being Human; The Wolfman at least allows Benicio Del Toro to take the field without a single pesky bloodsucker in sight. He just has to cope with Dad, Sir Anthony Hopkins at his most charmingly deranged since Bram Stoker's Dracula. Which he does: his is a grounding presence, carrying the audience through a gauntlet of flashbacks, hallucinations and transformations. Hugo Weaving's Aberline makes a clever, sympathetic antagonist. Emily Blunt takes a role (Gwen, the fiancťe) that could easily have been buried and stands tall. They all uphold the fine tradition of talented actors lending gravitas to the supernatural.

Equally, there probably isn't a frame in this film that couldnít illustrate some dissertation on the Gothic Tradition. From that first pull from the full moon down through the twisting branches of the trees, it's a work of art. Not as mannered as say, The Company of Wolves (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1984 -- my all-time favourite werewolf movie), but a seamless blend of the old Universal aesthetic with modern technique. I was reminded irresistibly of this quote from Siegbert Prawer's Caligari's Children (Oxford University Press, 1980). "The impossible took place in a tight, false world of studio-built landscape where every tree was carefully gnarled in expressionistic fright; each house cunningly gabled in gothic mystery; every shadow beautifully lit into lurking menace." The all-important transformation sequence is gorgeous. Talbot's expression, as the hand he extends to the candle grows talons. Limbs dislocating and reforming as he struggles up the marble steps of the family vault -- but these are properly visual delights. There is a definite homage to Rick Baker's American Werewolf, which as he shares credits on this film with Australia's David Elsey, is not only to be expected, but welcomed. Furthermore, director Joe Johnson, with his background in FX work, knows when to show and when to conceal. He uses mist and fleeting glimpses between trees to establish a presence, then doesnít hold back from a single grotesquery when it comes to what this creature can do. Hearts are ripped out, arms torn free and I donít when I last saw so many intestines anywhere. But the single image that impressed me the most involves candlelight and piano keys.

The story, as said, holds few surprises. Those it does I have not mentioned. The plot has been thought through and the tale is soundly constructed, and conveyed in a straightforward fashion, the hallucinations notwithstanding. In fact, a little less simplicity would have brought the story into line with the irredeemably adult gore. There is much there to build on; Talbot's actor background and the entire Ripper connection come to mind, as elements left largely undeveloped. But my biggest disappointment was that Gwen's arc, although it at least exists, consists of efforts that reveal nothing the gypsies (and audience) donít already know, and the involvement of those colourful folk seem nothing more than a throwback to the original -- rather like that awful rhyme. "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night..."

Is this a breakthrough revitalising the werewolf myth? No. A work showing the true maturity and sophistication the horror genre is capable of? No? A visual treat that entertains for 125 minutes? Definitely. There is one scene in particular that I cannot describe here, that has needed doing in a horror film for so long that it is funny. In fact there was more laughter at our screening, during that scene, than there were gasps and screams anywhere else. Dr. Hoenneger had only the best intentions, I'm sure, as did Universal. I can't help hoping they do The Mummy next.


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