The Wolfman or Change You Can’t Believe In

by zunguzungu

And again, Scrimshander regards the modern cinema:

If The Wolfman has one problem (which isn’t the case) then it’s not that it betrays the original (which is no Bride of Frankenstein) nor that the décor dictates the action at every turn (which is true) but that the décor proves so deadening, composing an unbroken fabric of picturesque gloom that extends over the woods, the town, the city streets, and into an ancestral home, Talbot Hall, which may as well be Castle Dracula. While the original Wolf Man (1941) makes much of Lawrence Talbot’s movements between his family home and the surrounding woods, coded as light and dark, the remake draws barely any distinction at all between culture and anarchy. The old house has every appearance of long disuse and coffin-like gloom despite the continued presence of the patriarch, Sir John, played with check-cashing abandon by former actor Sir Anthony Hopkins. The cobwebbed and leaf-strewn interiors, decked out with musty antiques and grotesque hunting trophies, look no less wild than the wilderness itself, where excess specimens of masonry and sculpture have apparently been dumped to gather moss. It’s a period piece that takes place among ruins, as if the past were remote and half-decayed even to itself. The incursion of the supernatural barely registers because everything looks haunted; the heavy-handed art direction has already turned all the world into one great mildewed garden store. There is no sense of the ordinary, however Victorianized, from which to depart. Dreamy pastel skies intrude on the gloom when Emily Blunt is around, but otherwise every frame says period, gothic, horror with a monotonous insistence that leaves little room for what the werewolf subgenre is ostensibly about: transformation.

Perhaps the monotony is symptomatic. The original film tells the story of a male hysteric: Lawrence Talbot returns home from the frightening modern world (he’s British, it’s 1941) only to displace his anxieties onto the gypsy superstitions intoned by Maria Ouspenskaya. The original Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) is not a hypocritical monster but a firm rationalist whose incomprehension of the son’s sickness (whether we’re psychologizing or not) leads him to insist, admonish, and finally bludgeon out of sheer intractable realism. Oedipal to different ends, the remake reveals Sir John as a son-biting werewolf who murdered Lawrence’s sainted mother. This time the world is hysterical; the law of the jungle matches the law of the father, who expounds about releasing the beast through his wolfishly unkempt beard. So, has the film processed the disillusioned climate of the recession into a story of poisoned origins or is it just that easy to project a sadly muddled world onto a sadly muddled film?

The strange thing is that Joe Johnston has directed a number of films about the eruption of nature within the comfy domestic circle, including Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji, and more recently Jurassic Park III, family comedies framed as adventure stories in which the forces of the adult world appear as giant creatures on the rampage. It’s tempting to think that The Wolfman plays as a belated coming of age story because Johnston has grown too accustomed to grafting interchangeable perils onto this Spielbergian theme. Then, it’s probably easier view the adult world through childish eyes than to return with an adult sensibility to the now child-like world of the monster film, a genre dominated by innocents who either don’t know their own destructive power (Frankenstein, The Wolf Man) or at least can’t see beyond their own longing (Dracula, The Mummy). For the most part, maybe for this reason, we live in a twilight of the monsters. The great lycanthropic film of our time is not The Wolfman but Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Gromit, a proxy for the genre-literate viewer, furrows his brow as the human characters tumble through the plot and pantomimes the same urgent warnings that a plot-savy child might shout at the screen (equally unheeded, for the most part). Of course, he instantly drops his guard whenever Wallace puts himself in danger, passing instantly from aloofness to concern as the film leaps from parody to homage. Were-Rabbit displays the knowledge that familiar genre trappings, however silly, will elicit Gromit’s combination of knowing distance and instinctive canine loyalty, and the film maneuvers between these states with surgical precision instead of leaving it all to camp and credulity. Honorable mention to Dog Soldiers and Ginger Snaps.