Thursday, October 14, 2010

Howls of Laughter: The Wolfman, Redux

By Steve Evans

Here's a Halloween rental idea for a flick that most people managed to miss when it hit theaters last winter after a delay of nearly two years. Take a looky at Benicio Del Toro's pet project, The Wolfman. Keep the volume at a moderate level for effective background texture at your Halloween party. Or crank it up for a laff.

Universal Studios had a hairy idea: take one of the lesser Universal monsters from the studio's cycle of classic horror movies from the 1940s, slick him up with digital effects and a handsome makeup job by the great Rick Baker, and turn loose a remake to see if it gets contemporary filmgoers barking with excitement. Who knows? Maybe they thought it would spark a revival of old horror films, the way Brendan Frasier kick-started the Mummy franchise 10 years ago. It certainly helps when you have two Oscar-winning stars on board (Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins), as well as a director (Joe Johnson) known for helming expensive, effects-laden productions (Jumanji, Jurassic Park III). It also doesn't hurt that Del Toro is an avowed fan of the original The Wolfman (1941) and had been trying for half a decade to bring an update to the screen.

Sad to say, this flea-bitten retelling of the old classic spurs more giggles than gasps. For all the guts, gore and green money on display in this new Wolfman, the project labors under the weight of living up to its inspiration. Trying too hard to pay homage to Lon Chaney Jr. in the not-bad original film, Del Toro as the titular wolfman looks more like a bloated Brad Pitt, licking his tongue inside his mouth as though trying to dislodge a bit of raw meat from between his teeth. Hopkins seems content to chew the (mostly computer-generated) scenery, delivering a carbon-copy of his performance as the syphilitic Dr. Van Helsing in Coppolla's 1992 Dracula movie. Pretty Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) has a devil of a time making any impression, since she's here only to make a fuss over Del Toro and help him fight through his lycanthropy, which must be inconvenient as hell on moonlit dates.

Fans of the original film will enjoy the inside jokes and nods to Wolfman lore peppered throughout the screenplay credited to Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en), but extensively re-written, reportedly at the director's insistence late in pre-production. Really, though, this new Wolfman owes as much to John Landis' crazy cult classic An American Werewolf in London (1981) as to the old Universal Studios tropes that also inspired Landis. This new picture delivers a corker of a chase to enliven the film after way too much plot in Act 1, but the sequence pales in comparison to the virtually identical mayhem that Landis staged in Picadilly Circus for the climax of American Werewolf.

What's left is a terrific makeup job by Academy Award winner Baker (he won the first Oscar for makeup effects in American Werewolf), as well as two excruciating transformation sequences and a decapitation that's so amusing they reworked it into the climax so the gag could be used one more time. By then, The Wolfman has already lost a lot of blood and most of its bite.

As a double-bill with the original Wolfman this silly remake offers adequate Halloween chills. Just don't be disappointed if the picture comes off less like the Lon Chaney classic and more like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Cinema Uprising copyright (c) 2010 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.

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