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Monday, February 15, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review The Wolfman

Howard Waldrop: Poor Curt Siodmak (who made it to 102). To have your 1941 screenplay (which gave us most of the cinematic werewolf tropes we have) have every bit of the poetry and life sucked out of it by two screenwriters and a director. (Maybe they thought the soulfulness in Benicio del Toro's eyes would make up for it.)

Lawrence Person: The Wolfman is a gorgeously art-directed mediocrity, combining the look and pace of a lush costume drama with the clichés and gore of a modern horror film. It's professional enough to hold your attention while in the theater, but the plodding, by-the-numbers nature of the beast (the film itself, not its titular character) is enough to make you regret the time spent there.

HW: To the original setup (long-gone American-raised son — here, the second and younger one, an actor to boot — receives a letter from his brother's fiancée, to return to the ancestral pile — the brother's disappeared and things are afoot) they've added nothing, only mixed things around to no good purpose. In the approximate Claude Raines role is Anthony Hopkins. There's Art Malik as a wrinkled old Singh retainer (not in the original) who 40 years ago would have been played by Christopher Lee or Michael Ripper.

There's the fiancée (Emily Blunt) in the Evylyn Ankers role. It's not bad casting — it's just wrong — Maleva the gypsy is played by Geraldine Chaplin. (I have never missed Maria Ouspenskaya more, since she died after a fire in 1949, smoking a cigar in bed.) Her (Siodmak) folk-poetry piece "Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night..." is used as prologue to the movie. It's the only minute of poetry here.

LP: Director Joe Johnston seems to have gone to the Zack Snyder School of Unsubtle Direction, with a graduate work in The Institute for Horror Move Clichés. Music cues herald every impending werewolf attack with all the subtlety of a Mexican soccer announcer. And something like 90% of those attacks have the exact same visual characteristics: character pauses for lingering shot, only to have werewolf leap onto them from outside the frame, carrying them (or at least significant body parts) off the other side of the frame. Even the boo-shock jump scares (including, yet again, the "character wakes up from the nightmare only to find he's still in it" cliché) are painfully predictable. Pick any random minute from the last thirty of Peter Jackson's Dead Alive and you'll find more imaginative gore than is on display in this entire movie.

Even potentially interesting scenes, like Talbot's grim hydro- and electroshock treatment sessions in a Victorian insane asylum, are marred by thuddingly unsubtle direction. The assistant orderly is a grinning sadist (complete with evil giggle) while the Head Professor Doktor Shrink (Antony Sher) comes across like a caricature of Sigmund Freud as penned by Julius Streicher.

Del Toro (a very effective actor in the right role, as witnessed by Traffic or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) looks like Lawrence Talbot, but he wears the role like an uncomfortable and ill-fitting suit. He doesn't have the bearing and presence you would expect of a leading stage actor. Except for the transformation and asylum sequences, his acting runs the gamut from A to C, the change from his brooding anguish over his brother's death to his guilty anguish over his lycanthropic crimes having all the dramatic arc of a stubby pencil. Sometimes he comes alive; his anguish during the hydrotherapy scenes are entirely convincing. (Then again, plunge me into a tank of ice-cold water, and I guarantee you I wouldn't need my Drama degree to make my screams convincing.) If the script ever lets him crack a smile, I must have missed it.

It's amazing how little Anthony Hopkins elevates the material. He does fine, but as one of the best in the business, you expect him to give you more than the distant, icy superiority he offers up here. Contrast this with the splendid work he did in The Edge (another mediocre movie), where he not only acts Alec Baldwin under the table, but steals his wallet, car keys and shoes to boot.

Emily Blunt is fine in a criminally underwritten role. It's not that she completely lacks chemistry with Del Toro, but their characters are each so sunk in their respective miseries that what chemistry they do have is on the order of "Hey, once we're both less depressed, maybe we should consider going out for coffee."

Surprisingly, the actor who far and away comes off best is Hugo Weaving, who can be very uneven (his one-note portrayal of Elrond was probably the weakest major character in The Lord of the Rings). But here his droll, intelligent Scotland Yard inspector steals the show, as well as breathing much-needed life into every one of his scenes.

HW: There are a tiny couple of redemptions (too late) here. Prosthetics have been berry, berry good to lycanthropy since An American Werewolf in London. They've only gotten better, and part of the audience (who'd evidently never seen this stuff before) gasped. And the idea of one werewolf, stalking another, with a double-barreled shotgun loaded with silver bullets, seems to be a first.

But the whole thing seems in the end unnecessary. It's not as big a waste of celluloid as the Nicolas Cage remake of Wicker Man was, but then nothing is, is it?

LP: If you have a hankering for a werewolf film, well, this is a werewolf film. And it has some gorgeous art direction (which was Joe Johnston's role in Hollywood before he took up directing). But there are a lot better werewolf films out there. Neil Marshall's Dog Soldiers, a tale of British soldiers running into a pack of werewolves while on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands, probably had about 1/50th of the budget for this film and was at least ten times as good.

HW: There are so many ways to lose all the poetry in a classic screenplay that this one seems destined to be taught in Screenwriting 101 under the heading "Missing the Boat."

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Joe Johnston

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (based on Curt Siodmak's original screenplay)

Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Antony Sher

Official Website: The Wolfman Movie - Now Playing - Official Movie Site...

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