‘Wolfman’ to elicit howls and boos

Posted Feb. 18, 2010, at 6:06 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:56 a.m.

THE WOLFMAN, directed by Joe Johnston, written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, 91 minutes, rated R.

The new Benicio Del Toro movie, “Hirsute and Hatin’ It” (okay, “The Wolfman”), is so ripe with the stink of fouled fromage, it should have taken place in France instead of Victorian England. But here we are, wet and slumming it, and while the set decoration is excellent, the same can’t be said for the film itself.

If you follow movie news, you know this beauty has been delayed and tweaked for months by its studio, Universal, which allowed its 1941 classic film of the same name (sort of — it was called “The Wolf Man” then) to be bastardized by director Joe Johnston, the man responsible for such crowd-pleasures as “Jumanji” and the forever-memorable “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”

Johnston’s remake was supposed to howl in theaters last year. The irony? It became a howler in theaters this year. Sure, that’s a cliche and a bad joke, but it’s also a community service. If that line didn’t take you down, you should know that it has nothing on the several cringe-inducing moments in “The Wolfman.”

Just for the hell of it, let’s first point our fingers at screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. They are, after all, the people who saddled audiences with the film’s trite, boring script, and who failed to strike a balance between a serious horror movie and one tinged with elements of camp. While that was handled with fi-nesse in John Landis’ terrific 1981 cult movie, “An American Werewolf in London,” here the two collide and then collapse in their strained effort to come together.

About the story. It has been changed. For instance, instead of being an astronomy student in California, as Lon Chaney Jr. was in the original, we now have Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot, a Shakespearean actor in New York circa 1891 who returns to England when word comes that his brother has been murdered. And by mur-dered, we’re talking torn apart. By what? Lycenthropy! Determined to find his brother’s killer, Lawrence takes to the woods and starts his dumb search. Naturally, he has a nasty brush with the werewolf who killed his brother, and he’s bitten. Cue the moon.

Larry’s questionable father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins, employing every accent in his deep bag of tricks, not the least of which are elements of the character from which he apparently never can escape, Hannibal Lecter), is a sorry replacement for Claude Rains, who had the capacity to elicit sympathy. Hopkins doesn’t — at least not here, where he’s featured as a cold caricature with a feasting heart, in which is tucked a secret that sucker-punches the movie. It won’t be revealed here, but what were they thinking?

Providing a bodice and a trembling bottom lip is Emily Blunt, who should have returned to her livelier role in “The Young Victoria.” Here, Blunt is Lawrence’s dead brother’s former intended. Who wants to bet she takes a moonshine to Lawrence? Also in the movie is Hugo Weaving, who plays a detective from Scotland Yard.

Now, about the gore. Here’s a tip — don’t eat before watching the movie because here’s what’s on the menu — severed heads, ropes of entrails, kidneys ripped free from messy midsections, and the transformation of Lawrence into the Wolfman himself. The movie actually excels here, offering its best scene as Lawrence is ques-tioned about his current state of being only to go bananas for bloodshed while screaming “I will kill all of you!” He’s not joking. The scene has what much of the movie lacks — tight action, nice editing, and some genuine chills as Lawrence gets down to the gutting.

Too much gutting, actually. “The Wolfman” is filled with so much over-the-top gore, you have to wonder whether Johnston knows how to build suspense at all. You want to take his hand, pat it, and say, “Less is more, Joe.” But no. His heavy-handed approach harms a movie that should have been ensconced in Lawrence’s con-fusion and self-loathing, not blood for the sake of blood. It’s a choice that costs the movie plenty, beginning with its soul.

Still, in the end, at my screening at least, the best part of the show had nothing to do with what was onscreen. Instead, somewhere in the theater, one inspired audience member let out a “boo” midway through that lasted for about 10 seconds and sounded amusingly like a werewolf howling, complete with a pitch that increased to the heavens. Whoever did it, bravo.

Grade: D+

On Blu-ray disc

ANALYZE THIS, directed by Harold Ramis, written by Ramis, Peter Tolan and Kenneth Lonergan, 106 minutes, rated R.

Harold Ramis’ 1999 comedy, “Analyze This,” is now out on Blu-ray disc, and the silence you hear is that nobody cares. The clarity high definition offers confirms it — the movie remains a bust.

Back in the day, the parallels were obvious. The film features Robert De Niro as a mobster so deeply conflicted and emotionally unstable, he pours his heart out to a shrink. Meanwhile, on HBO’s “The Sopranos,” the deeply conflicted and emotionally unstable mobster Tony Soprano poured his heart out to a shrink.

Obviously, someone got shrunk here — and it wasn’t HBO.

“Analyze This” is a fitting title for a film whose writers could have benefited by popping some Prozac before sitting down to pen the film’s only occasionally funny script. The film does boast an inspired opening and a few clever moments, but too often it plays it safe, falling victim to a cliched formula that spoils what could have been a witty comedy.

With Billy Crystal doing his familiar shtick as De Niro’s psychiatrist, the film’s big loss was Ramis’ decision not to use Lisa Kudrow as an active participant, but as set decoration — in this film, her comic talents are wasted. She’s just Crystal’s unhappy, misunderstood fiancee, a pretty smile in pretty clothes who moves about prettily while offering the occasional bitchy line of dialogue.

If only the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov had lived to direct this film. Imagine the inspired simplicity of it: Set up the joke, ring a bell, make us laugh. That’s one conditioned response this film lacks.

Grade: C+

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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