Judge Clark Douglas isn't a werewolf; he just hasn't shaved in a long time.
When the moon is full, the legend comes to life.
"Lawrence, you've done terrible things."
Facts of the Case
Lawrence Talbot (Benecio Del Toro, The Fan) is an acclaimed actor starring in a production of Hamlet. One day, he receives a visit from his brother's wife Gwen (Emily Blunt, The Devil Wears Prada), who informs Lawrence that his brother has disappeared. Lawrence reluctantly returns to the Talbot family estate for the first time in many years, where his father John (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) gives Lawrence the sad news that his brother's body has been found. Apparently, he was mauled by some sort of wild beast. Lawrence determines to stick around until he can figure out what's going on and who is responsible for his brother's death. The answer is a startling one: a savage werewolf is on the loose. During his attempt to track down the werewolf, Lawrence is bitten by the violent beast. He survives the encounter, but it seems that he's now cursed to live the remainder of his life as a werewolf himself. Is there any hope for Lawrence, or is he doomed?
I heard a lot of negative things about The Wolfman both before and after the film was released. The film went through a wide variety of production problems, from director Mark Romanek leaving the film early on to Danny Elfman's gothic score being thrown out (and then being re-instated) to reports of various re-shoots taking place. The movie underwhelmed both critics and audiences, and the film didn't really make the big splash at the box office that Universal hoped it would. I don't know whether it's the 17 minutes that have been added into the film's first act (I reviewed the "Unrated Extended Director's Cut" rather than the shorter theatrical version) or just the fact that I'm a sucker for this sort of thing, but I have to admit that I enjoyed The Wolfman.
Regardless of how one feels the film fails or succeeds on any other level, it must be admitted that The Wolfman has a terrific sense of atmosphere. The ominous production design, brooding color palette, spine-tingling score, dour costumes and romantic cinematography join forces to immerse the viewer in this Victorian-era horror story. This is the sort of horror movie that we see far too little of these days; the sort of classical gothic horror that can also be found in films like Bram Stoker's Dracula, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Sleepy Hollow (rooted, of course, in the classic Universal horror films of yesteryear). If you're a fan of those movies; odds are pretty high you'll find plenty to enjoy in The Wolfman. If not, you may be frustrated by the style-over-substance nature of the movie.
Many complained about the pacing of the original theatrical version, and having skimmed the first half of that version, I can say quite confidently that you'll either feel the director's cut makes this much better or much worse. If you're one of the people who thought the film moved much too slowly in its original incarnation, you'll be disappointed that it takes even longer for things to get cooking this time around. However, if you're one of those that felt the film rushed too quickly into Lawrence's first transformation, you'll find plenty of valuable bits of set-up that both enhance the story and help set the tone quite nicely (my favorite additional bit: a cool little scene featuring Max Von Sydow as a mysterious figure who brings a prop of great significance into the plot).
Of the performances, my favorite is Anthony Hopkins' turn as the enigmatic John Talbot. Hopkins seems to be having as much fun here as he did when playing Van Helsing in Bram Stoker's Dracula. There are a couple of fleeting moments in which John Talbot gives Lawrence a devious wink, which seems to be the key to reading Hopkins' performance. Hugo Weaving (V for Vendetta) also makes a solid impression as the Scotland Yard inspector attempting to get to the bottom of all this werewolf business. However, the real star of the film is makeup artist Rick Baker, who does some genuinely impressive work (Baker reportedly begged to work on the film due to his love of the 1941 version of The Wolf Man) and gives the werewolves in the film a classic, convincing look that couldn't have been done with computers.
The hi-def transfer is excellent, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate the film's rich visual design. While there's a bit of softness throughout (an artistic decision that seems entirely appropriate), detail is still quite solid. Fortunately, blacks are very deep and shadow delineation is superb, which is pretty essential for a film with as many dark scenes as this one. The film gives us a lot of good looks at the title character, which demonstrates confidence in Baker's make-up work (creature features often tend to keep their monsters in shadow as a way of preventing the artificial nature of their creations from becoming too obvious), and the Blu-ray transfer allows you to see every little hair and wrinkle on Del Toro's face. The audio is superb as well, as it's a strong, well-balanced mix. Danny Elfman's score comes through with considerable strength, and the growling of the werewolves will cause your speakers to rumble. The action scenes pack a punch, but the quieter moments of atmosphere benefit from the complexity of the sound design.
The Wolfman gets a pretty solid supplemental package:
• U-Control: The "U-Control" feature has been rather hit-and-miss in my dealings, but The Wolfman offers one of the better variations on the idea. This track resembles a less comprehensive version of Warner Bros.' "Maximum Movie Mode," as Rick Baker and other members of the crew appear onscreen as you watch the film, offering all sorts of in-depth info on how the movie was made (sometimes they'll pause the movie or show a scene in slow-motion). You also have the option to watch the movie in "Legacy, Legend and Lore" mode, which offers a variety of pop-up trivia and video footage exploring the history of werewolves and the original Wolfman movie. (Note: U-Control is only available on the theatrical version.)
• "Return of The Wolfman" (12 minutes): A nice featurette offering interviews with the cast and crew on the themes of the film. There are some particularly interesting thoughts from Hopkins on the psychological elements of the movie.
• "The Beast Maker" (12 minutes): A featurette spotlighting the work of makeup genius Rick Baker.
• "Transformation Secrets" (15 minutes): A look at some of the digital effects in the film, which are generally less interesting than Baker's real-life make-up effects.
• "The Wolfman Unleashed" (9 minutes): An examination of the action sequences in the film. Interesting just how much live-action stunt work was done during a lot of these scenes (numerous moments I thought were CGI are actually real).
• Alternate Endings (8 minutes): There are two alternate endings, one of which is just a little bit more tragic than the original ending, and another of which feels like a blatant attempt to set up a possible sequel. The official ending is definitely the best, as far as I'm concerned. One bit in particular in which the Wolfman crashes a masked ball is just plain silly and would have completely ruined the film's gothic mood.
• Deleted and Extended Scenes (11 minutes): These are deleted/extended scenes that are not featured in either the theatrical cut or the director's cut. They wouldn't have really added anything to the film, so their exclusion was wise.
• Assorted Bits: You get a digital copy of the film, and the disc is equipped with BD-Live and is D-Box Enabled. As a nice bonus, you can also stream the 1941 film for a limited via BD-Live or by going to Universal's website and typing in a code.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For me, the biggest issue is the fact that Benecio Del Toro never really manages to dig into the soul of Lawrence Talbot. It may not be entirely his fault, though. The character as written is a somewhat uninteresting one; there just isn't much depth. Likewise, Emily Blunt's character seems more or less like a requisite love interest, rarely getting much of interest to do (despite some nice acting moments, particularly the final scene she shares with Del Toro).
It's by no means a masterpiece of gothic horror, but The Wolfman is an absorbing watch that benefits from an expanded director's cut. The Blu-ray release is excellent, so I recommend that you give this one a rental at the very least.
Editor's Note: Fans who purchase the Blu-ray will also be able to stream the original 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr. via BD-Live, pocket BLU, and UniversalHiDef.com
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