February 16 2010

The Wolfman – Review

I saw The Wolfman the other day, and although I had heard it wasn’t all that great, I still had high hopes.

In general, the movie gave me what I had hoped for – cool special effects, great acting, dark cinematography and lots of scenes with the wolfman doin’ his wolfman thing (running, hunting, feasting and even howling).

I am a big fan of An American Werewolf in London and always love to see modern takes on the old monster movies. I can also appreciate the idea of paying homage to an old move like the 1941 classic, The Wolf Man. I actually liked Peter Jackson’s homage to the original King Kong.

But whenever you pay homage to some classic movie of the past, you run the risk of being so concerned that you treat the original with respect that you make bad creative decisions, and this is sadly what the modern version of The Wolfman did.

Critics have complained that the acting is lackluster and almost boring and that the storyline is painfully predictable (the supposed “twist” about the identity of the beast that bites the main character was so obvious I worked it out very early on). But my main problem was with the look of the Wolfman himself.

If you’re going to make a werewolf movie, you have the challenge of chosing what a half man/half wolf looks like. Some movies, like An American Werewolf in London (and it’s late 90’s sequel, An American Werewolf in Paris), as well as Twighlight : New Moon, go with the complete transformation, and either go with large puppetry (back in the good ol’ days) or more recently in complete CGI.

This leans on the side of the wolf, but there are movies that lean on the side of the man. Naturally, the original Wolf Man falls in this category, as does another great contribution to the genre, the 1985 comedy, Teen Wolf starring Michael J Fox (there was a lame sequel to this movie as well, called Teen Wolf  Too and starring Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman) along with the simply titled, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfieffer.

Unfortunately though, when you go for the “man who looks sorta like a wolf” style, it can come across as funny, it can come across as sexy (as in Nicholson’s Wolf) but it is not easy to come across as scary.

The Wolfman tries to go for this look while really striving to be a scary movie and it just doesn’t work. Whenever I saw the Wolfman roar facing the camera, it was just painfully obvious that it was just a guy with lotsa hair and makeup and big monster teeth in his mouth. The scenes where you see the beast as a silhouette racing through the forest are really cool and the transformation scenes are absolutely amazing, but when you turn the lights on and look at him fully transformed, he just looks like a nasty Wookie, or more accurately, he looks like a tribute to the original Wolfman.

The one thing they didn’t think about was that if George Waggner, the director of the original Wolf Man, had the budget and the special effects of Hollywood today, he definetly would have made the Wolf Man look better than a guy dressed up for halloween. He used everything he had and came up with the best he could at the time, and so it’s silly to pay homage to his film by making a monster that looks cheap and fake by today’s standards.

Personally, the style of movie werewolf that I like the best is the wolf/man hybrid, where they don’t lean on the side of the wolf or the man, but try to create a completely unique mix of the two.

The easy way to do this is just put a big wolf’s head on a muscle-bound actor and you can do this on a low budget (like in the movie Dog Soldiers) or you can do it with a big budget (as in the Lycans in the Underworld Series).

The problem with this look is that the fake wolf head never looks very realistic and never moves with the fluid dynamics that a real beast would. Often they avoid using CGI and go for an anamatronic head and face, but no matter how big the budget, they never quite get it. See for example, the above clip from the 2009 film Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It had a budget of 35 million to play with and this is as good as it gets?

As for CGI werewolves, I have to say that my favourite is actually the one that Hugh Jackman turns into in the 2004 crap movie Van Helsing. The movie flopped and the werewolf was in unconvincing CGI, but it had the physique of the sort of werewolf that I would love to see more of.

The only movie I could find that did a strong, scary, non-CGI werewolf that is pretty decent is a 1996 film called Bad Moon. The anamatronics are not very sophisticated, but even with only a 5th of the budget of Underworld, they came up with something genuinely scary. I haven’t seen the whole movie, but this clip might show you what I mean (be aware, this clip is a little bit gory).

What I would really love to see is someone combine both a physical actor and a CGI wolf head to create a truly realistic werewolf creature. We’ve seen this combination of live action and CGI improve increadibly over the last couple of years with movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Where the Wild Things Are, both of which include live characters with CGI heads or faces. I’d love to see what they could you using this technique to create a memorable monster.

Sadly, The Wolfman, in its efforts to pay its respects to an great old cheesy movie, ended up making something that came off as old and cheesy, but definetly wasn’t great.

In its desire to honour a classic, it sadly missed the opportunity to become a classic itself, and so while the 1941 Wolf Man will forever be remembered as one of the great original monster movies, the 2010 Wolfman will very quickly be forgotten.

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