Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Half man, half beast, half measures: The Wolfman

The family has already suffered the untimely demise of its beloved, beautiful matriarch and the institutionalization and exile of one of its boys for mental illness. As our story begins tragedy strikes once more with the gruesome slaughter of another Talbot son on the eve of his marriage. He’s cut down one night along the moonlit moors by something that seems both beast and man. When Laurence Talbot returns from years abroad to find out what happened to his fallen brother, he’s reunited with John, their father, still lurking in the gloom of the family’s decrepit rural mansion, who advises Laurence to forget the past. It is a “wilderness of horrors,” he says, and best left ignored. Of course we know Laurence will do no such thing, since gothic tales such as this feed on obsession with the echoing creaks of old traumas that never die.

The Wolfman is itself an exercise in looking back, referencing a long tradition of lycanthrope flicks, mostly notably Universal’s own 1941 classic The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. This latest entry isn’t set in the present or even in 1941 but rather in 1891, setting it just a few years after the Jack the Ripper murders. It doesn't really set out to renovate any aspect of the werewolf legacy but rather subscribes devoutly to the established rules and tropes of the familiar myth. Yet it feels uncertain as to how fully it wants to surrender to the spell of old things. Victorian England is made to look artificially caked in soot, and while early scenes thrive on the anxiety of the unseen, such as one riveting sequence that plays out in the terrifyingly insufficient firelight of a fog soaked gypsy camp, the movie, helmed by Jumanji director Joe Jonston, gradually makes concessions to contemporary demand for souped-up gore, offering flamboyant decapitations and buckets of organ spillage. The Wolfman boasts make-up design by the legendary Rick Baker, yet its transformation scenes, heavily accentuated by smooth and slick CGI, have nothing on the ferocious tactility of Baker’s precedent-setting work on 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. (You just don’t squirm the same way watching this newfangled stuff, perhaps because the horror isn't located in the body or even some likeness of the body but rather in some hovering screen of synthetic imagery.)

So I’m going to have to go with what seems to be the critical consensus on
The Wolfman as a movie that can’t quite make up its mind about what it wants to be, a moody and mysterious homage to the subtler chillers of old, or an iconoclastic, bracingly modern monster mash. It shifts uneasily from sinister to silly, from brooding to camp, especially once we’re thrown into one of these insane asylums where the torture treatments are administered by drooling, grinning maniacs. Yet for all that I was still pretty engaged with and entertained by The Wolfman. The perfectly cast Benicio Del Toro, who also produced, is arguably a bit wasted on Laurence for lack of rigorous character development, yet the character is just inherently interesting. Laurence is an actor, known for his Hamlet. He's perhaps psychologically unstable, and bears a confused but deeply-rooted Oedipal grudge against his father, played for kicks by Anthony Hopkins; he's drawn to his dead brother's fiancée, played fairly straight by Emily Blunt, who's made to resemble the brother's dead mother; and the hairy situation he finds himself in may be as much the product of repressed rage as a disease contracted from a particularly nasty animal bite. It just goes to show that certain monsters endure for a reason. No matter how often they’re overwhelmed by kitsch, no matter how often we recycle them, they still maintain the power to fascinate us by virtue of their primacy. You might chuckle at the conceit of a werewolf running loose in London, but it’s no great leap to buy into the metaphorical potency of the beast within.

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