Joe Johnston | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 15 / R
The “extended director’s cut” (as the Blu-ray blurb describes it) of The Wolfman begins with a new CG’d version of Universal’s classic ’30s/’40s logo, the one that I’m sure opened many/most/all of their beloved classic horror movies. As well as being a self consciously cool opening shot, it’s a succinct way for director Joe Johnston to signal his intentions: this is not your modern whizzbang horror movie, but something more classically inspired.
Aside from a murderous opening teaser, the film makes this clear pretty quickly — or rather, quite slowly. The plot and character are allowed to unfurl at a gradual rate, building up to bursts of action later on rather than trying to keep the audience’s adrenaline pumping with a constant barrage of set pieces. This rationale seems to be particularly true in the 16-minutes-longer extended version, which adds additional dialogue-centric scenes from the outset. It also adds flaws like blatant continuity errors: in the original cut, Gwen writes to Lawrence to persuade him to come; in the extended version, she visits him in person, rendering future references to her letter baffling.
An extensive illustrated list of the numerous changes can be found here. Despite the “unrated” branding implying “more gore” as per usual, there’s hardly any of that added. Instead it’s mainly character moments of varying degrees of relevance, plus an array of inconsequential tweaks. I appreciate the attempt to bring a slower, creepier style back to modern horror films, but Johnston over-eggs it at times. This becomes especially evident when the majority — perhaps even the totality — or plot developments and, particularly, twists are guessable far in advance. Trying to lose 16 minutes for the theatrical cut was probably a good idea, though some of my favourite moments lie amongst what was excised.
The other downside comes when Johnston tries to have his cake and eat it. The plot may retain its relatively leisurely pace throughout, but room is found for three or four CGI-packed action sequences. I think the film indulges too much in CGI. It’s a useful tool when used well and all that, and it’s undoubtedly found itself well employed in out-and-out blockbusters, but its obvious presence in even low-key scenes here — it’s used to realise a tame bear and sacrificial deer, for instance — feels incongruous; a sore thumb when so much of the script, plotting and pacing is old school.
There’s plenty of computer work on show in the transformations, fights and deaths too, of course, but I feel a similar sense of incongruity there: after the filmmakers went to publicised effort to make the Wolfman himself a creation of makeup rather than computers, it’s a shame they couldn’t extend the practical approach to more effects, particularly others involving the werewolves. As it stands, The Wolfman’s CGI is unoriginal, the same pretty-real-but-undoubtedly-computer-generated stuff we’ve seen in every blockbuster for the past five to ten years. Even Anthony Hopkins’ decapitated noggin feels like something I saw in some 12A blockbuster in the last half decade.
The gore all round, however, was rather good. I’m no gore fiend, but considering the subject matter and the film’s more adult bent, it was appropriately gruesome and, at points — such as the (brief) reveal of Ben Talbot’s mutilated body — scary and plausible; indeed, it was scarily plausible. The same can’t be said of the abundant jump scares though. Such artificial frights are widely considered the scourge of horror movies, and The Wolfman certainly has more than its fair share of cheap ones. Generally speaking, in most films I find such moments to be neutered by the events and signposts being so damned predictable; Johnston is frequently not guilty of this, at least, pulling off some genuinely surprising jolts. And some of them are even legitimate, if such a distinction is possible.
Despite the avowed interest in story, I nonetheless found the scary bits and action sequences to be The Wolfman’s most engaging. Leaving aside the predictability I already noted, the cast are at least partly to blame. I’ve never much rated Benicio del Toro as an actor (with exceptions) and here he does little to change my mind. Indeed none of the cast excel themselves — Hopkins, Blunt and Weaving may not be bad per se, but there’s little to endear them either. Hopkins stands out as either rather good or rather hammy, depending on your point of view; and either way, he’s distinctly Hopkins-y. Plus ça change.
Max Von Sydow’s cameo-sized role (only found in the extended cut) is possibly the film’s best bit. Aside from the fact he’s usually good value, the relevance of the scene itself is unclear. That might sound like a problem, but I choose to see it as making the sequence — and the character — rather intriguing. The rest of the supporting cast are largely British faces recognisable from TV and similarly-sized film roles, playing the parts you’d expect them to and existing primarily as monster ready-meals. Equally, Danny Elfman’s score is disappointingly generic and clichéd, particularly so whenever the film is being the same.
Considering Johnston’s background in family-friendly films, he always seemed an uncertain choice for an adult horror movie. In some respects there was nothing to fear — the adultness is clearly undiluted — but he’s nonetheless made an adequate movie, rather than the exceptional one a classically-styled horror revival deserved. On the bright side, it’s immeasurably better than Universal’s last foray into their horror back catalogue, Van Helsing. In fact, placed in such company, The Wolfman almost begins to look like a masterpiece.
The Wolfman begins on Sky Movies Premiere tonight at 10pm, and is on every day at various times until Thursday 16th December.