Film

'Wolfman' Is all Bark and No Bite


The Wolfman

Director: Joe Johnston
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Geraldine Chaplin, Cristina Contes
Rated: R
Studio: Universal
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-02-12 (General release)
UK date: 2010-02-12 (General release)
Website
Trailer

It's all there: the gloomy Victorian England setting; the decrepit Gothic family manor; the faux religion and ancient gypsy curse; the mark of the beast; the town filled with superstitious residents; and the bloody, vivisected corpses strewn along the countryside. Even the make-up, by veteran F/X wizard Rick Baker, is sufficiently post-modern while instantly recalling the look and feel of the classic Universal beast. Everything is in place for a throat-ripping, blood-spewing good time, and for a while at least, the 2010 version of The Wolfman delivers. But there is also a reverence here, a devotion to the past and all things retro that undermines the energy and the effectiveness of what director Joe Johnston and star Benicio del Toro want to bring to this terror update. Instead of fear, we get fanciness.

American actor Lawrence Talbot (del Toro) returns to his boyhood home in the UK when his brother Ben goes missing. There he encounters his sibling's distraught fiancée Gwen Conliff (Emily Blunt), his aging and eccentric father (Anthony Hopkins), and a townspeople terrified over rumors of a "monster". Blaming a local band of gypsies for their plight, Talbot heads out into the night to get some answers. He is summarily attacked by a rampaging beast. While on the mend, Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) from Scotland Yard arrives to investigate. All leads point to something unnatural and evil. Lawrence soon discovers he has been bitten by a werewolf, and when the moon is full, he is destined to turn into a marauding, vicious fiend as well.

There's a saying in cinema that goes like this - if you're going to remake a timeless bit of movie macabre, you better have something new to bring to the genre redux. Better CG transformations and a glossy period piece look are just not enough. Unfortunately, that is mostly what this new take on the legend of lycanthropy has to offer: good performances; great production design; skimpy scares and storyline. No one is actually thinking that any mainstream effort is going to capture the true horror of a half-man, half-creature, stalking the UK countryside and since The Wolfman Is looking backward, not fresh and forward like The Howling or Dog Soldiers, it never really intends to. But today's audiences need that special kind of spark, that reason to become reinvested. A talented cast is just not enough.

Granted, del Toro and the rest rise to the occasion, dropping their usual performance tics to take on iconic, often ambiguous characters. Our star does indeed shine when asked to bring a sense of depressed menace to his overwhelmed lead. Hopkins too takes his often scalded lines and delivers them in a manner that makes up for their inherent dreariness. Blunt, on the other hand, does the most with her deemed damsel in distress turn. About the only name not living up to his hype is Hugo Weaving. He definitely looks the part, and plays it to the hilt, but he is still stuck in Matrix mode, letting his voice drop down in a mired "Mr. Anderson" inflection. His Abberline should be more heroic. Instead, he's hemmed in by the lack of anything significant to do.

Indeed, most of The Wolfman suffers from such narrative ennui. It's more than happy to trod step-by-step through a series of set-ups and set-pieces, unable to find a dimension below the obvious. Lawrence is troubled by visions of his late mother's death. We just know that will come back later to prove some point. Similarly, an adolescent stay in an asylum gets an equal contemporary storyline link. With Blunt flitting in and out of things, meant to symbolize the innocence and affection that almost all the male characters lack, we get a mythos both superficial and stilted, incapable of real emotion and yet frantic to turn into a Shakespearean level of tragedy.

Instead of using the contrast between light and dark as some manner of symbol, Johnston simply settles back and plays journeyman here. His direction is precise, pointed, and very pretty. There are shots that seem lifted directly from an old wood carving of supernatural chaos. But there are also moments that fail to connect, like the "rock skipping as burgeoning romance" scene between del Toro and Blunt. Each offers as much meaning as they can to the thin dialogue, but without a little support from Johnston, it's much ado about nothing. Even the action sequences are handled in obvious ways. Every time someone is shown standing, face on, toward the camera, you can count the beats until a 'sudden shock/beast growl' attack fills the frame - or even worse, a rapidly edited incident of something scurrying among the trees, only to see an arm fly into the air or a fan of arterial spray strike an edifice.

No one is questioning the sincerity of everyone involved. While the production history here argues a struggle between something much more powerful and ominous (original director Mark Romanek left over budget and creative differences) and clear commercial concerns, there is still enough mood and dread to give horror geeks the shivers. Besides, it's refreshing - in a wholly antique way - to see a film that takes the notions of monsters and murder so seriously. Contemporary terror treats fear as the punchline, a porn-like pop shot to an often irreverent or irrational foundation. Here, Talbot's conflict between man and inner beast recalls the early days of psychology and the battle between sanity and derangement. It also infers the growing industrial revolution, the rise of modern thinking, and the dismissal of folklore and fantasy.

Too bad then that The Wolfman doesn't embrace more of its potential meaning. This is eerie eye candy of the most schizophrenic, sometimes satisfying kind. It's clever without being cloying, but it's also derivative without being daring. As with the recent wave of sappy vampire sagas that substitute romance for anything remotely terrifying, the need for suspense and dread has been replaced by the desire to be pretty and poetic. At its core, the werewolf is a heady combination of the old and the new, the unexplainable with the purely instinctual. Johnston and crew strive mightily to make sense of such a dichotomy. The resulting Wolfman, however, is all bark and very little bite.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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