Reviewed by MattFini
Starring Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving
Directed by Joe Johnston
Distributed by Universal Studios
Much has been publicized about The Wolfman’s turbulent production history. So much so that even my seventy-year-old parents are vaguely aware that original director Mark Romanek quit the project over studio disputes, and Joe Johnston was brought on board as an eleventh hour replacement. And when you know that much, it’s easy to dismiss every flaw as the result of studio tinkering or a director-for-hire’s latency.
Having said that, I’ll admit to being among the few who enjoyed Universal’s big-budget remake of their Lon Chaney, Jr., classic in its truncated, theatrical release. It moved quick, delivering on its promise of an R-rated, bloody monster movie – even if character depth and development was obviously sacrificed at every turn. It’s not surprising, then, to find a “director’s cut” on the Blu-ray/DVD that clocks in sixteen minutes longer than the version we saw in theaters.
And it helps. The director’s cut makes The Wolfman a slower film, but not a boring one. Instead, it restores pace to the story so that it doesn’t necessarily feel like the editors were rushing along so we could get to Talbot’s transformation within the first third. The actors have a little more to do before the werewolf carnage sets in, and most importantly, our resident werewolf actually feels like a sympathetic character this time around.
This version of The Wolfman finds the estranged Lawrence Talbot making a reluctant trip back to his hometown of Blackmoor, England after receiving word that his brother has gone missing. It’s quickly revealed that Talbot didn’t have the happiest childhood, and once we meet Anthony Hopkins in the Sir John role, it’s not hard to see why. Fans of the original film will recall Claude Raines as a sympathetic man whose increasing concern for his son grounded that film in reality. Hopkins takes the character in a completely different direction, for his Sir John is a brutish, sinister man with a wide-angled mean streak. It’s fairly obvious why Larry didn’t stick around.
The theatrical cut took a lot of meat out of the performances, and it was difficult to discern whether Benicio Del Toro was sleepwalking through his part or imbuing his Lawrence with an emotional detachment to the proceedings. The question is rectified in the director’s cut, making Del Toro’s work far more sympathetic and resonating. This Lawrence Talbot is uncomfortable from the moment he steps back into Blackmoor, but never more so than when his father is around. That this soon-to-be werewolf is already brimming with emotional baggage makes his looming transformation all the more tragic.
By the same token, Anthony Hopkins borders on creepy as the sinister father with more than one skeleton in his closet. One can see the damage he’s inflicted on Larry throughout the years, and his conflicted relationship with his children adds an entirely new twist to a well-established mythos. This Sir John is an unhinged control freak, and his interactions with his son alternate between snide and cynical with a passive-aggressive twinge to almost every syllable. In some circles Hopkins was unfairly derided for chewing the scenery throughout, but his performance is fantastic.
In terms of smaller roles, Emily Blunt is still just a pretty face. Her relationship with Talbot is expanded in the director’s cut, but the two actors still lack the proper chemistry to give their relationship any palpability. Geraldine Chaplin proves to be no Maria Ouspenskaya in the role of the all-knowing gypsy, Maleva – although to be fair, the 2010 version doesn’t give the character much to do. Special mention must be made of Hugo Weaving’s Inspector Abberline, who manages to steal every scene he’s in as a man of science who almost instantly becomes a man of faith. A shame that Weaving wasn’t utilized better, as he’s practically reduced to that of a glorified plot device in the third act.
But the best thing about The Wolfman isn’t the pedigree cast; it’s the rich and Gothic feel running throughout it. The set and costume designs make this an experience on par with that of an authentic period piece, and when coupled with the atmospheric shots of the English countryside – complete with thick and spooky fog – you’ve got a film that feels completely true to its predecessor. 1941’s The Wolf Man is required viewing in my home every October for it packs an ambiance that isn’t easily beaten, but Johnston and crew have done well to ensure their film measures up.
Warts and all, The Wolfman works because Johnston approaches the material with an obvious love and respect for the werewolf mythos. Not only does the moon have a beautifully foreboding presence throughout the course of the film, but the titular beast is plagued both by ghastly nightmares and a disorienting increase in his senses to help convey the “curse” of lycanthropy. It covers the subgenre’s bases in a most satisfying way.
In this age of rampant CGI, it’s a miracle that Lawrence Talbot’s transformation into a werewolf still packs any charm. Sure, we were cheated out of the initial promise of a practical/GCI mixture, but the process of man into wolf looks as it should: uncomfortable, brutal, and most crucially, impressive. It won’t make us forget the groundbreaking works of Rick Baker and Rob Bottin on An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, respectively, but Baker’s work here creates one impressive (and realistic) looking creature.
Sadly, the third act is a bit of a mess. This new version restores a nifty scene early on in the film in which Talbot, upon returning to Blackmoor, meets a mysterious stranger on a train played by Max von Sydow. This is where he acquires the silver cane. It appears as if this might play a significant part in the climax (as fans of the original are undoubtedly aware), although, unfortunately, the final act remains unaltered. There’s nothing particularly wrong with how the film plays out, only that it feels a bit out of synch with all that has come before – as if they weren’t quite sure how it would all end up when they started filming. Again, considering the production history, that’s a definite possibility.
While much of this updated Wolfman succeeds, it’s far from a perfect film. Wolf attacks, while bloody and fun, are almost entirely devoid of suspense and instead play for cheap scares. The lycanthropic carnage did, admittedly, have me grinning from ear-to-ear, but I would’ve much preferred the film to be scary. As it stands, it talks the talk, but it doesn’t necessarily walk the walk.
Howling onto Blu-ray, Universal’s high definition release of The Wolfman is the only way to go for fans of the film. Not only is the audio/video top-notch, but the collection of groovy extra material can only be found here! In terms of the picture quality, Universal has put together a gorgeous disc. This lustrous period production is rich with inky blacks and strong detail. Colors are sharp, and flesh tones are accurately represented – none of that unnatural, waxy skin to be found here! The audio howls to life with an HD DTS 5.1 track that is a strong candidate for the very best I’ve ever heard. The dialogue is always clear and even, never giving way to other sound effects. Rear speakers are always working toward the illusion of being in 1891 Blackmoor – and just wait until you hear that wolf howl! It’s an aggressive track, but only when it needs to be and never at the expense of dialogue.
In terms of extras, you get the ability to stream the original 1941 Wolf Man via your BD live account. It’s a nifty idea, but I was hoping that Universal would’ve given us a Blu-ray for that classic to coincide with this release. The Universal-specific U-control feature offers viewers two choices while viewing the film: the Take Control option takes you behind the scenes of the production while Legacy, Legend and Lore explores the Wolfman through endless heaps of trivia and werewolf mythos. Both of these features are very cool, but it would be nice if Universal would wise up and allow these to be accessible from another point on the menu, too. Watching the film three times in order to get all the bonus content is a bit much. There are two alternate endings, both offering a little variation on the actual ending. Hilariously, one of them ends with the Wolfman coming fairly close to winking at the camera. A small collection of deleted and extended scenes should’ve also been put back into the film as they add a bit more depth to the characters. There’s also a handful of great featurettes: a 12-minute look at Rick Baker’s work on the film, and another 12-minute piece highlighting the mythology of werewolves. Very cool for a werewolf geek such as myself! The 15-minute Transformation Secrets pulls back the curtain to show how the filmmakers were able to accomplish the magic trick of changing Lawrence Talbot into a monster. (Here’s a hint: They used computers!) It’s a great little extra, though. Lastly comes The Wolfman Unleashed, which examines the stunt work of the film.
Other features include standard access to BD Live, a ‘My Scenes’ feature allowing you to save your favorite scenes, D-box motion control for those of you equipped with rumbling seats, and of course, the digital copy.
Universal has stacked this Blu-ray with so much exclusivity that the DVD shouldn’t even be considered. As for the film itself, The Wolfman isn’t going to make anyone forget about Lon Chaney, Jr., but it’s a worthy little companion piece to an enduring classic that manages to entertain and enthrall even if it never quite comes alive in the way that the filmmakers were hoping.
3 1/2 out of 5
4 1/2 out of 5