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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Benicio Del Toro is a Lon Chaney for the 21st century in The Wolfman.
The time is right for a bloody, gory werewolf picture. Werewolves have gotten the short shrift on screen lately. Sure, lots of girls (and more than a few creepy women) love Twilight's Jacob Black, but surely a werewolf has better things to do than work on his six-pack and flirt with teen girls. For this reason - and because I loves me the monster movies - I was immensely excited for The Wolfman, an R-rated remake of the Lon Chaney classic. Unfortunately, what we actually get is a very mixed bag.

Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor who is called back to his family estate in England after his brother goes missing. Just as he arrives, his sibling's corpse is found badly mauled and mangled. Talbot comforts the man's fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt), while questioning his father John (Anthony Hopkins) about the mysterious death. The search for answers leads him to a gypsy community, where he is bitten by a wolf-like creature. His seemingly fatal wound heals itself unnaturally; those in the know - particularly a Scotland Yard detective named Aberline (Hugo Weaving) - understand that Talbot will be the latest victim of an ancient curse.

Boy, is he ever. When the moon turns full, Talbot transforms into a werewolf who rampages through town, viciously slashing anyone who gets in his way. Aberline leads a posse devoted to putting a silver bullet into Talbot. Gwen, meanwhile, finds herself attracted to the man who, under different circumstances, would have been her brother-in-law. She wonders if there might be some other way to get rid of the curse, so she begins trying to track down a gypsy who might have an answer.

There is much to like in The Wolfman, just as there is much to dislike. The fundamental problem with the film is that it doesn't know whether it wants to be old-fashioned or cutting edge. I mean that both in terms of tone and of special effects. Many of the scenes play with the traditional feel of an old black-and-white monster movie. There's a sense of slow-burn subtlety that was common to 1950's horror films. But then, when Talbot becomes a wolf, it abruptly gets very gory and explicit, as a more contemporary horror movie would. The two approaches never really gel and, in fact, seem at odds with one another.

The combined use of make-up effects and CGI exacerbates that flaw. Some of the shots have Del Toro in Lon Chaney-style make-up that allows us to recognize him beneath layers of latex and fake fur. In other shots, the wolf is created solely by computers, so that it looks nothing like the actor. This means that Talbot-as-wolf doesn't look the same from shot to shot. It also means that the make-up scenes have an old-school vibe (which I actually like a lot) that clashes with the more modernistic CGI scenes. I wish the movie had committed to one technique or the other, preferably the make-up; while it isn't as high tech as the computer stuff, it's more fun because it allows the character to have some humanity.

Even the actors don't seem to be on the same page. Hopkins and Blunt give the kind of performances you'd expect in a film like this. Del Toro, on the other hand, is obviously going for a different approach. The actor infamously made the choice to incomprehensibly mumble all his dialogue in Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, immediately marking him as someone who liked to make out-there choices. While not as flagrant, it is obvious that Del Toro is trying to give a gonzo performance here. Even when not a wolf, he gets all wild in the eyes, gives bizarrely penetrating stares, and acts like a man possessed. When he is a wolf…well, let's just say that his over-the-top approach is one of the best parts of the movie. The man works overtime to give the role his own personal stamp. That said, it often feels as though he's in a completely different film than his co-stars.

The plot could have used a bit of work. The Wolfman doesn't do a very good job of introducing Gwen and John. Considering that the relationships they have with Talbot provide key plot points later on, some character development would have made the intended payoffs are a lot more potent. You may have heard that the release of this movie was delayed four times in the last 18 months. Seeing the version in theaters, I think it's safe to say that much of the expository stuff has been cut out. It sure feels like it has; the story often shifts gears unexpectedly. All the initial press material listed the running time as 125 minutes, but the release version is 90 minutes long with an additional 12 minutes of end credits. Clearly, stuff was cut in order to focus less on the people and more on the monster.

And really, the monster is the only thing that works. If you're even remotely interested in horror, it's hard to deny the pleasure of seeing a werewolf running rampant, digging its claws into people. Del Toro is clearly having a ball with it; his intensity is what makes him such a great choice for the role. Whenever the werewolf attacks, The Wolfman suddenly springs to life a little more. If nothing else, it absolutely provides some good gore and shock moments.

I think the potential for greatness was here. Enough about the movie works that you can see how it could have been a really awesome update of a horror classic. Watching The Wolfman, though, it becomes obvious that the filmmakers never fully settled on what kind of werewolf picture they wanted to make, and so you get a lot of disparate elements - some of which work, some of which don't - colliding all over the place. Even so, I'll still take this werewolf over Jacob Black.

( 1/2 out of four)

The Wolfman is rated R for bloody horror, violence, and gore. The running time is 1 hour and 42 minutes.

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