It's a pretty safe bet that you were expecting me to kick off this review by bitching and moaning about another Hollywood remake of a classic genre flick. Sorry to disappoint. Maybe you'll shrug this off as sacrilege, but I really do think that 1941's The Wolf Man makes a compelling case for a remake. I'll admit to never having been much of a fan of the movie. For my money, at least, it pales in comparison to the most classic of Universal's monster movies from the 1930s, and it's dragged down by Lon Chaney, Jr.'s awkward, simpering take on Larry Talbot. Despite being surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, the original Wolf Man just seems lumbering and uninvolving whenever Chaney isn't hidden behind Jack Pierce's iconic wolf make-up.
On paper, at least, this update of The Wolf Man sounds phenomenal. Universal veered away from the formula that made their revamp of The Mummy such a colossal success at the box office. There are no snarky one-liners. There's no rollercoaster adventure. This is a movie with a $100 million-plus price tag that's a hard R: unrepentently and unflinchingly gruesome. At the same time, there's a clear emphasis on more than just the usual visual effects spectacle, fleshing out an unnerving atmosphere...changing the backdrop to Victorian England, a setting far less frequently used in horror than you might expect, and draping every inch of the
The Wolfman fails to live up to that promise, though. One of the most notoriously troubled stabs at a blockbuster in years -- swapping release dates, directors, editors, and composers the way most people change socks -- it's kind of surprising that The Wolfman is as watchable as it ultimately is. It's not some dismal, unwatchable trainwreck. It's definitely not a success. The Wolfman is more mediocre than anything else, transforming from something visually spectacular to cacklingly demented to limp and lifeless far more often than del Toro ever sprouts fur and fangs.
Nearly seven full decades may have passed since The Wolf Man first roared its way into theaters, but a lot of the broad strokes of its story remain intact in this remake. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) was born into wealth and privilege but abandoned his family and home in favor of a life in America. Decades pass before he grudgingly returns, and even then it's only because of the news that tragedy has claimed his brother. The return immediately proves difficult. Unrecognizable from Claude Raines' performance in the original film, Lawrence's father (Anthony Hopkins) here had clearly lost his mind years ago...the man's an unhinged lunatic, a shut-in whose first impulse is to fire his rifle at anyone stepping foot inside what's left of his once-stately manor. The character of Gwen Conliffe, portrayed here by Emily Blunt, still plays the role of love interest, but to compound the tragedy, she's also his late brother's fiancee and an object of disturbing obsession for Lawrence's father. Talbot is nearly mauled to death by some sort of feral creature at a gypsy camp, but he recovers inhumanly quickly...so much so that Scotland Yard (represented here by Hugo Weaving) suspects that his troubled past has once again bubbled to the surface...that he was consumed by an insane, murderous rage. The accusation is misplaced but proves to be prophetic when the next full moon breaks, as Talbot himself transforms into a creature of the night...
Benicio del Toro is a marvelous actor, and I can very clearly see what he's attempting to do with the character of Lawrence Talbot. This is a man who'd spent so much of his life hiding...this Shakespearean actor transforming himself into different characters on the stage to mask the torment that's ravaging him inside. Repression is a recurring theme throughout The Wolfman, and there's something very insular about del Toro's performance...that you can see that he's quietly restraining something dark deep within himself. It's too insular, though...del Toro doesn't share enough of himself for the audience to have much of anything to latch onto...for any of his suffering or torment to really resonate. I just never felt as if I had any investment in the character or anything that was happening to him. Emily Blunt couldn't be more perfectly cast, and she offers what's easily the most accomplished of the lead performances here. The romance between Gwen and Lawrence seems as if it's just trying to work its way through a checklist, though, lacking any sort of genuine spark. Anthony Hopkins gnaws shamelessly on the scenery, pretty much playing the same unhinged cariacture of himself he has for a while now.
I'm floored by the depravity of the violence showcased here, especially in a $100 million blockbuster. I mean that in the best way possible too: impalings, evisceration, arms lopped off, heads half-eaten, slews of decapitations, fingers gnawed off, buckets of intestines draped all over the ground...The Wolfman even has a cacklingly demented sense of humor about it too, such as when a severed arm goes flying and the pistol still in its hand suddenly fires. The individual attacks are swift, brutal, and gory, and there are a hell of a lot of them. There may only be a few rampages, but they're spectacularly violent and gruesome, and the overall body count puts Freddy and Jason to shame. The werewolves that Rick Baker has so skillfully created look amazing; these are easily the best of these creatures to ever carve a path of destruction across the silver screen. I just love the way the werewolves move too...as brilliant a job as Baker did crafting a sense of physicality in the monsters of An American Werewolf in London, his talents have only improved over the past few decades.
The strange thing is that, at least in this extended unrated cut, the first werewolf siege doesn't take place until a full half-hour in, and Talbot doesn't suffer his first transformation until nearly halfway through the two hour film. You'd think that'd mean the first half of the film is slower...more deliberate, and that all hell breaks loose from there. That's really not the case. Even though the bulk of the action is absolutely weighted in the second half of the film, The Wolfman has a clear and focused sense of direction early on. (That's something that certainly sets this version apart from the theatrical cut.) It knows where it's going. In its second half, though, The Wolfman can't really figure out how to bridge the action sequences. It just feels tedious and directionless...filler to bide its time until the fur and fangs pop out again.
It's a disappointment that the extensive CGI work isn't in nearly the same league as Rick Baker's make-up. I know that bitching about CGI is as stale and boring as griping about horror remakes, and I don't fundamentally have a problem with computer enhancement or anything. I just prefer for it to be an invisible art...that I can't look at an effect and immediately know how it was executed. The visual effects here are just computer-generated to the point of distraction.
Pinch-hitter Joe Johnston
If Van Helsing soured you on the thought of Universal giving any of their classic monsters another whirl, you'll probably be pleasantly surprised that this update on The Wolf Man doesn't pander. There's an enormous effort directed towards atmosphere and performances, as uneven as those ultimately wind up being, and the unflinchingly graphic violence earns a hard R rather than a more audience-friendly PG-13. The Wolfman has all the best intentions but isn't quite sure what to do with those individual parts, and the end result doesn't rank any higher than okay. Rent It.
This Blu-ray disc features both the theatrical version of The Wolfman along with a new unrated cut with sixteen minutes or so of additional footage. The bulk of the changes come early on, with the theatrical release gutting the setup to get Benicio del Toro in fur and fangs as quickly as possible. The title sequence has been revised somewhat, we now see Talbot performing on-stage as well as his initial encounter with Gwen at the theater, and there's a particularly memorable cameo with Max von Sydow and the silver-tipped cane from the original movie. Other differences didn't seem quite as stark, but I did get the sense that the backstory and relationships are better fleshed out in the unrated cut, and it washes over the choppy feel that dominates the first half-hour or so of the theatrical release.
This presentation of The Wolfman was nicked from a digital intermediate, so it should be just about a pixel-perfect recreation of what made the rounds theatrically on digital screens. The movie's kind of overdirected, sure, but the photography is frequently gorgeous. The film boasts a striking and rather painterly palette...cold, understated, and almost dreamlike in a way that feels entirely appropriate for this sort of period piece. The one and only idyllic flashback features colors that are far more vivid as a visual break. Though the image softens somewhat in darker, danker, mistier sequences, clarity and detail are otherwise remarkably strong. As expected for a nine-figure blockbuster fresh out of theaters, there is no trace of speckling or wear, and the image isn't marred by any apparent filtering or edge enhancement. The faintly gritty texture of its film grain complements the look and tone of The Wolfman, and it's appreciated that it hasn't been smeared away by overzealous noise reduction. The only complaint I have is that black levels look elevated for long, long stretches of the film, and contrast winds up looking unusually flat as a result. I can only guess that this was intentional -- Universal wouldn't regrade that sort of thing so drastically for video, would they? -- but it strikes me as kind of odd anyway. Otherwise, though, The Wolfman is exactly the sort of showcase material you'd expect out of a visual effects spectacle with a $100 million price tag.
The Wolfman packs this BD-50 disc just about to the breaking point, but it makes the most of every byte it has at its fingertips, even taking advantage of seamless branching to avoid cramming separate encodes for each version of the movie onto a single disc. It hopefully follows that I was unable to spot any hiccups or missteps in its AVC encode. The Wolfman is very lightly letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
I'm very tempted to label The Wolfman's six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack as reference quality. This is a movie littered with spectacularly violent and unflinchingly gruesome slaughtering, and its soundtrack is every bit as aggressive: werewolves darting around and encircling their prey, gutteral snarls coaxing a hellish roar from the subwoofer, and blasts from rifles and revolvers attacking from every direction. As atmospheric as the cinematography so often tries to be, the film's soundtrack is even more adept at setting the stage. The mix is littered with creaking wood of the decaying Talbot Hall, a violent flutter of birds' wings in the surrounds, thunderous flurries of hooves, and the unnerving howl of the wind. There's just a strong sense of directionality that never relents. The score is particularly full-bodied as well, heavy on soaring strings and an exceptionally robust low-end. Dialogue is balanced flawlessly in the mix, consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout. My kneejerk reaction to The Wolfman as a movie may be incredibly mixed, but I really can't come up with anything the least bit critical to say about this lossless soundtrack.
The Wolfman also belts out lossy DTS 5.1 tracks in Spanish and French. A descriptive video service track has been provided alongside subtitle streams in English (SDH), Spanish, and French. The Wolfman is enhanced for rigs with D-Box bass shakers.
Universal is aggressively pushing the online interactivity that Blu-ray has to offer, especially with this disc: the movie opens by streaming trailers online at 720p, there are Facebook and Twitter-centric options you can fiddle around with, you can push content to your phone, the front menu has a ticker with all sorts of online promos, and there's even an option to stream the original 1941 take on The Wolf Man.
The second disc in this set is a digital copy for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices. The traditional blue case comes packaged inside an embossed cardboard sleeve.
The Final Word
This remake of The Wolf Man isn't nearly the movie it should've been -- with such a strong cast and so much time and effort clearly invested in fleshing out its sense of atmosphere -- but...well, if history's any indication, it could've been a lot worse. Considering how tormented a production it had been for years on end, I'm kind of surprised that The Wolfman is watchable at all. "Could've been worse" isn't exactly going to have a ticker-tape parade breaking out downtown or anything, and even though Universal has made a compelling effort for this to be a marquee Blu-ray release, the movie's much too mediocre to recommend with any real enthusiasm. Very strong Blu-ray release for an aggressively okay flick. Rent It. I really do respect the direction that Universal is trying to take with The Wolfman, however, and hopefully they get it right when the next remake of one of their classic monster movies comes down the pike.