DVD REVIEW The Wolfman

A shaggy dog story

x

2009 * 15 * 114 mins * £19.99 * 7 June 2010
Also available on Blu-ray (£24.99)
Distributor: Universal
Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Max Von Sydow

Given its widely reported nightmare journey to the big screen, and the tortured howls which accompanied its theatrical release earlier this year, you’d be forgiven for assuming The Wolfman is a lupine catastrophe of Van Helsing proportions. It never quite sinks to those unappetising depths, but Joe Johnston’s monster movie remake is a confused mongrel of a film – half restrained gothic horror, half Hellraiser, with enough carnage by moonlight to make even Pinhead nod approvingly.

A remake of the 1941 Universal horror classic, The Wolfman takes valiant strides to remain faithful to the genre-defining original, with misty moors, candlelit corridors and a brooding atmosphere evoking a suitably unsettling quality largely absent from modern horror cinema. But the scars of studio compromise are all too apparent in the film’s beefed-up action quotient and blood-spattered teen-friendly trappings.

Benicio Del Toro looks suitably hirsute stepping into Lon Chaney Jr’s ample shoes as Lawrence Talbot, the black sheep of the Talbot bloodline, who returns to his ancestral home only to find his brother dead and the countryside terrorised by a creature of the dark. He rarely convinces as a prim and proper theatre thesp, however, and make-up effects wiz Rick Baker’s reverence for the original bipedal Wolf Man design does Del Toro no favours, giving him the appearance of a cuddly WereBear when he should be demonic and bloodcurdling at a glance.

From the original Wolf Man to An American Werewolf In London, a large part of the appeal of watching lycanthropes tear up the silver screen has been the transformations. So it’s disappointing that The Wolfman dumps the CG-light approach used elsewhere in favour of feeble computer-animated shapeshifting that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mega Shark Vs Giant Octopus sequel – a decision made all the more insufferable by the fact that Baker was responsible for An American Werewolf’s still unsurpassed latex effects.

With the button-nosed beastie failing to land the scares, it’s down to Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) and David Self’s script to give viewers the heeby-jeebies. Although reasonably faithful to the original – with the odd concession to allow for a climactic wolf-on-wolf slugfest – the languorous pacing, stuffy dialogue and humdrum plotting are more likely to put the average viewer’s gallant endeavours to stay awake in danger than their nerves. For a tale so thoroughly lampooned in Aardman’s The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit (put the two films’ “priest giving a scary sermon” scenes together for a good giggle) the absence of surprises is a constant frustration.

For the most part it’s a film played drearily straight, but larger-than-life supporting actors Anthony Hopkins and Hugo Weaving inject a small amount of fun into proceedings with a pair of comparatively entertaining turns. As Lawrence’s distant father, Hopkins meanders between underplayed enigma and knowingly hammy for the bulk of the runtime. Meanwhile, Weaving’s resolute Inspector is a joy to watch  – though it’s hard to know what point is served by making him a fictionalised version of Abberline, one of the cops who hunted Jack the Ripper.

The Wolfman bears comparison to another millennium-era remake of an early 20th Century classic – Bram Stoker’s Dracula. That’s primarily because they share distractingly similar scores, but also because they both present viewers with clear-cut examples of style over substance. Joe Johnston’s visual work here bodes reasonably well for his latest gig, Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s just a shame he made such a dog’s ear of the rest of it.

Extras:

DVD owners beware: you’re getting screwed by the pooch with this release, because the standard-def disc comes with just 11 minutes of deleted scenes (including one very gory masquerade sequence). The high-def crowd also get featurettes on Rick Baker’s effects work and a look at the 1941 Universal classic, as well as a U-Control track (a customisable picture-in-picture commentary) on werewolf legacy, lore and legend. Blu-ray owners also get two alternate endings and a Pocket Blu app which turns your iPhone/iPod Touch into a remote control. Nifty.

The Blu-ray contains both the original theatrical cut and an extended cut with 16 minutes of extra footage, whilst the DVD has just the latter. For those who care, it adds little of interest. Mostly it’s tedious character development from before Lawrence transforms, slowing proceedings to a crawl, though there is one worthwhile addition – a cameo from Max Von Sydow which gives us our one decent look at Larry’s iconic silver-topped cane.

Jordan Farley