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Wolfman (2010), The
Universal // Unrated // June 1, 2010
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
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
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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.
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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
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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 Wolf Man (1941) (70 min.): Universal
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The streaming generally works well enough, though. Miles better than YouTube; not in quite the same league as DVD. The original Wolf Man has an AVC encode that hovers around the 2 Mbps range...about a tenth of what the remake scores on this Blu-ray disc. Compression artifacts are abundant, although they're smaller and less intrusive than I'm used to catching online. There's been quite a bit of filtering to ease the compression, and the grays in this black-and-white image also have a tendency to drastically flutter. A substitute for Blu-ray it's not so much. On the upside, the image never dropped out or paused to rebuffer...if not for the grays kind of violently shifting, it would've been a completely seamless experience.
After the movie finishes, there's a prompt to take a survey on Universal's website to let them know what you think. I'd vote that the implementation works really well, but it's not a substitute for higher quality physical media. If there were large amounts of related content -- say, vintage serials offered as a streaming option on the upcoming Flash Gordon BD release -- then that seems really compelling. If a movie has newly-produced extras that didn't exist when first issued on Blu-ray, obviously that'd be terrific to stream as well. But a movie...? I'd rather have a more detailed image and a more robust encode on a separate Blu-ray disc, even if I have to pay more for it. Your mileage may vary. A BD of the 1941 release of The Wolf Man would've gotten my vote if that had been an option, but given a choice between streaming the original version of The Wolf Man or nothing at all, I'll take what I can get.
- U-Control: I generally wouldn't chalk myself up as much of a fan of running picture-in-picture extras. Too often, they just seem like smatterings of uninteresting behind-the-scenes footage or outtakes from other featurettes/documentaries that aren't really worth wading through an entire movie to see. The Wolfman gets it right, though: rather than just splicing together whatever leftovers happened to be sitting around, this material was expressly created for U-Control, and it really does build on the experience more effectively than the overwhelming majority of these PiP extras do.
Both U-Control features are limited to the theatrical cut of The Wolfman only. Users can freely toggle between these two features, but they can't be active simultaneously.
- Legacy, Legend, and Lore: The Wolfman's
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Even better is the accompanying subtitle trivia track. There are reams and reams of werewolf lore dished out here, and even with as many werewolf books and movies as I've devoured over the years, a lot of this was new to me: more obscure ways that might turn someone into a werewolf, how to identify a lycanthrope (well, aside from fur and fangs), the etymology behind the word "werewolf", possible cures, how to prevent a werewolf from transforming back into human form, the presence of werewolves in various countries' mythologies, the first werewolf movie ever filmed, and even nods to Paul Naschy and Hammer. I've torn into quite a number of subtitle trivia tracks over the past few years, and this might get the nod as my all-time favorite.
- Take Control: Periodically, the movie will cut away to full high-definition video of creature designer Rick Baker, cinematographer Shelly Johnson, or visual effects supervisor Karen Murphy. One of them will be standing next to a large virtual monitor that allows them to explore their work in the film in far greater depth, and the fact that they can rewind, pause, or cut away to behind-the-scenes footage obviously sets it apart from a traditional audio commentary. As much as everyone griped about the CGI bear theatrically, we get a chance to see the original mechanical bear suit that was far, far, far more of a trainwreck, cinematographer Johnson showing off the gorgeous production art and showcasing some of the more atmospheric photography, and an expanded discussion of what went into creating the physical werewolf effects than what's offered elsewhere on the disc. Each transformation sequence is discussed and dissected in great detail, including looks at concepts that didn't make it into the movie as well as different render passes to chart its evolution. There's just shy of 40 minutes of material in all. If "Take Control" seems sparse and choppy early on, keep going: they really don't have much to say early on, but these segments are longer and far more frequent throughout the second half of the film. If I'm not miscounting, there are 13 of these segments in all.
- Legacy, Legend, and Lore: The Wolfman's
- Alternate Endings (8 min.; HD): Don't be thrown off by the meaty runtime of these two alternate endings...they're pretty much the same as the one you've already seen, but one character suffers a nastier end rather than walking away unscathed, and there's one final scare as a tag.
- Deleted and Extended Scenes (11 min.; HD): The centerpiece of this reel of deleted and extended scenes is an even longer take on Talbot's rampage through the streets of London, carving a path of destruction through a costume party -- complete with a blind chanteuse! -- and mauling a puppeteer on the street. These shots have fully completed effects, and I'm sure they were yanked out for being so much more overtly satirical than just about anything else in the movie. There are alternate takes on two other effects-heavy sequences that are fully polished, but at a glance, I couldn't spot what the differences are, exactly. Finally, there are a couple additional snippets of characterization, spelling out why Singh is so doggedly loyal to his master and Lawrence explaining why his return home had been coming for quite a long time.
- Return of the Wolf Man (12 min.; HD): The first of The Wolfman's featurettes puts its emphasis on the storytelling and its performances, including the Shakespearean drama between father and son lurking inside this monster movie, how wonderfully the repressive Victorian backdrop complements the story of the beast within waiting to be unleashed, and the many different stages of Lawrence Talbot's arc. "Return of the Wolf Man" is somewhat cursory and tends to skim the surface, but still, it's a bit more insightful and substantial than average.
- The Beast Maker (12 min.; HD): The legendary Rick Baker explores in detail the design and fabrication of his wolfman....errr, wolfmen, including the use of leg extensions to give the actors a more animalistic
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- Transformation Secrets (15 min.; HD): From there, The Wolfman veers away from Rick Baker's physical effects and plows head-on into the digital domain. The elaborate transformation sequences are obviously the central focus here, including the drive to make each transformation different from the last and pointing out the various stages of Talbot's agonizingly painful shift from man to beast. Also featured here are CG extensions made to Rick Baker's make-up, the frenzied computer-generated rooftop chase, and the werewolf-on-werewolf action that drives the climax.
- The Wolfman Unleashed (9 min.; HD): Finally, "The Wolfman Unleashed" delves into the elaborate stuntwork. It runs through some of the specific challenges posed by this film, such as the difficulty effectively capturing the speed of a werewolf and nailing the timing of a creature suddenly breaking into a dash on all fours. We also get a run through the elaborate coordination behind a shot of a stuntman bounding down four stories and a look at the choreography of the final battle.
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.