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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, February 13, 2010

 
Saturday Night At The Movies



Wolves, lower


By Dennis Hartley
























Ay, Chihuahua…Del Toro es el lobo!


Inga: Werewolf!
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: (startled) Werewolf?!
Igor: There.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: What?

Igor: (pointing) There, wolf. There, castle.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Why are you talking that way?

Igor: I thought you wanted to.

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: No, I don’t want to.

Igor: (shrugs) Suit yourself. I’m easy.

-from Young Frankenstein.

You know what “they” say-it always seems to come in threes; especially in Hollywood, where the studios have recently been on a decidedly Victorian kick. As of this weekend, we have the slobbering jowls of Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman snapping away in theaters, hot on the heels of Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria. Basing their film on the The Lon Cheney Jr classic of the same title, director Johnston and screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self (who adapted directly from Curt Siodmak’s 1941 script) have re-imagined a few elements here and there (primarily, one would assume, as a nod to the Goth and Steampunk aficionados), but remain more or less faithful to the original.

The film opens promisingly enough, with a vintage Hammer Studios vibe. It’s England, it’s 1891, there’s a full moon, an old dark manor, and (you guessed it) a fog on the moor. A terrified man is fleeing from an unseen, bestial horror just as fast as his little Wellingtons can carry him. Not fast enough. You can imagine what happens next, and it is not pretty. The filmmakers waste little time establishing that their dark tale is not only going to be, uh, dripping with atmosphere, but with a healthy amount of viscera as well.

Local myth attributes a recent spate of these brutal killings to an elusive lycanthropic creature of unknown origins, which haunts the moors when the moon is full. The villagers (as is their wont in such stories) are a superstitious lot, and believe that they have been cursed (naturally, the nearest group of Gypsies is suspected to have a hand in it). This is the unsettling milieu that an American actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) finds himself thrust into when his brother’s mysterious disappearance precipitates a return to his boyhood home and a wary reunion with his long-estranged father (Anthony Hopkins). Lawrence has not returned at his father’s request, but rather at the urging of his missing brother’s fiancée (Emily Blunt). The elder Talbot’s misanthropic demeanor has not exactly endeared him to his neighbors either, and when an inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving) arrives to investigate the latest killings, they happily cast their suspicions in the direction of the Talbot family estate. Through fate and circumstance, Lawrence becomes suspect #1, and a dark family history unfurls.

As I was watching the film, I started pondering why filmgoers and readers continue to be so fascinated with the idea of vampires and werewolves. I suppose it’s something to do with those primal impulses that we all (well, most of us-thank the Goddess) keep safely locked away in our little lizard brains. Both of these “monsters” are basically predatory in nature, but with some significant differences. With vampires, it’s the psycho-sexual subtext; always on the hunt for someone to, um, penetrate with those (Canines? Molars? I’m not a dentist). There is a certain amount of seduction (or foreplay, if you will) involved as well. But once they get their rocks off, it’s an immediate beeline for the next victim (no rest for the anemic). In criminological terms, vampires are serial date rapists (making it even more puzzling to me why people find them so sexy). Werewolves, on the other hand, are much less complex creatures. They are spree killers, pure and simple (“He always seemed like such a sweet, quiet guy. Until that moon was full.”) With them it’s all about the ripping, and the slicing and the dicing. No sweet talk, no cigarette afterwards.

Vampires are quite self-aware of their “issues”…but they can’t stop doing what they do. They have highly addictive personalities-which is an element a lot of people can identify with on some level (with me, it’s chocolate…and yes, you may call me Count Chocula). Werewolves, on the other hand, generally have no cognizance of their actions (until perhaps after the fact). They have true schizophrenic personalities, which I think makes them the scarier creatures. I suppose that even those of us who are not homicidal maniacs can still relate on some minor level (“I did WHAT last night? Jesus, I’ll never get THAT drunk again!”). Werewolves scare us because they remind us of the duality that exists within all human beings (after all, Hitler and Gandhi walked the planet at the same time).

In cinema, I think my favorite “monster movies” don’t necessarily involve characters physically shape shifting into wild beasts. One example would be Jean Renoir’s 1938 thriller La Bete Humaine (reworked by Fritz Lang as the 1954 film noir Human Desire) with the great Jean Gabin as a train engineer who is plagued by blackouts, during which he commits horrendous crimes, usually precipitated by sexual stirrings (Freudians will have a field day with all the P.O.V. shots of Gabin chugging his huge locomotive through long, dark tunnels). Of course, you can’t forget Elvis’ immortal line from Jailhouse Rock (after administering an uninvited smooch): “Ah… sorry, honah. It’s just the beast in me.”

So where in the hell was I going with this? With my ADD, I’m so easily sidetracked (“Oh, look. I found a shiny silver bullet!”). Back to the movie review. The Wolfman, 2010. Was this a necessary remake? Well, 69 years seems to be a respectful enough moratorium (it’s not like the bodies are still warm). On the plus side, Johnston’s film does evoke the original in pure mood and atmosphere; it’s nice to see someone paying homage to what I would consider Universal’s classic horror era (which also includes wonderfully atmospheric creature-less chillers like The Scarlet Claw, my personal favorite of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes entries). The transformation scenes are genuinely creepy and frightening, and Rick Baker’s creature prosthetics uphold his reputation as the top man in the industry. Danny Elfman’s suitably gothic score fits in nicely (Tim Burton lets him out of the basement now and then). On the down side, despite the impressive cast, no one’s performance stands out; even the usually hammy Hopkins seems oddly detached. While I can appreciate that Del Toro was trying to “internalize” the inherent tragedy of his character, he never gets to develop it fully-which could be due to the rushed narrative in the second act. There are some interesting peripheral characters introduced (like a Gypsy seer, played by Geraldine Chaplin, who we don’t get to see enough of these days) but again, they are ultimately given short shrift.

Fans of old school Gothic horror will fare best. While the film features graphic violence, it stops just this side of being gratuitous (unlike the execrable “torture porn” subgenre, which has given horror movies a bad name). With a sharper script and more plot development, they could have had a minor cult item here. But for the time being, Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Boris Karloff can continue to, um, rest easy.

I’m not like other guys: The Howling, The Company of Wolves, An American Werewolf in London, Werewolf of London, Wolf, Wolfen, The Curse of the Werewolf, Dog Soldiers, Underworld , Van Helsing, Skinwalkers, Bad Moon, Teen Wolf , I Was a Teenage Werewolf, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Silver Bullet.


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