Sunday, January 31, 2010

Little Old Lady Got Mutilated Late Last Night

Universal Pictures practically invented the American Horror Movie in the 30's and 40's: Dracula; Frankenstein; The Mummy; The Invisible Man... and one my all-time favorites, The Wolf Man. It was the transformation that always got me. Of course in 1941, makeup artist Jack Peace couldn't have even imagined CGI effects, so it was done the old-fashioned way: replacement photography. They would take a shot of Lon Chaney Jr. lying on the ground, stop and apply some makeup and yak hair, take another shot, stop again and and more makeup, and so on. It was a long and laborious process that yielded mediocre results, at best.

In the 50's and 60's Hammer Studios revisited many of these characters, usually starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. They never took on werewolves, though there were plenty of (usually) bad werewolf movies. It wouldn't be until 1981 and director Joe Dante's The Howling, that the werewolf got scary again. For the first time, thanks to makeup wiz Rob Bottin, we got to witness a transformation that used neither replacement photography, nor hand-drawn animation. Using a series of bladders under latex, Bottin showed the audience painful stretching of skin and re-shaping of bone that would accompany an actual physical transformation into a monster. I was 20 and immediately decided I wanted to go into FX makeup (thankfully, I didn't, because I couldn't imagine CGI, either). And even though Dee Wallace ended up looking more like a cute little were-Pekingese puppy than a werewolf, the movie (with a screenplay by John Sayles), was actually pretty good.

Of course, later than same year, Bottin's protege, Rick Baker, would create a full-body transformation for director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London:

Landis' and Baker's work remained the standard (the team worked again on Michael Jackson's Thriller) and An American Werewolf... would be the best werewolf movie ever made for almost 30 years.

Then along came Jurassic Park, and CGI changed movie FX forever. And in 1999, Stephen Sommers got lucky with his new version of The Mummy, resurrecting a Universal monster that had appeared only in comedies like The Monster Squad and cartoon shows like Scooby Doo. Sommer's action-adventure movie took the shambling, decayed monster and turned him into a powerful (and yummy) magician as the antagonist, a soldier of fortune and a plucky (if klutzy) librarian as the heroes and used state-of-the-art CGI to create an amazing sand storm in this rollicking horror adventure.

Universal, thrilled to be able to revive a long-dormant franchise, greenlit a sequel and then allowed Sommers to make Van Helsing. The Mummy pictures had been so successful, they figured they'd let him use not one, but three of their classic monsters - Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster and the Wolf Man - in what would become an overly-loud, overly-CGI'ed, over-blown mess of a picture. Bad acting, a ludicrous plot, corny dialog, ridiculous effects and star Hugh Jackman being shirtless for only a few seconds all contributed to a true epic fail.

On February 12, Universal tries again, reviving Kurt Siodmak's original plot and characters in The Wolfman, starring Benicio del Tor; Anthony Hopkins; Hugo Weaving; Emily Blunt and Geraldine Chaplin. Directed by Joe Johnston a hit (Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; Jumanji;) or miss (Jurassic Park III; Hildalgo) kind of guy, the plot once again concerns Larry Talbot (del Toro), and English ex-patriot returning from American to attend his brother's funeral. Talbot has a strained relationship with his father (Hopkins) and later runs afoul of a cursed gypsy on the moors, one night.

The movie has been bounced around for quite a while. Originally scheduled for release in 2009, it kept getting pushed back for re-shoots and re-edits (not usually a good sign) and composer Danny Elfman didn't get to finish his original score because the delays cut into his commitment schedule. Most recently, Elfman's replacement was removed and Elfman is back in. If it weren't for the movie's terrific cast (and even the best actors have made some stinkers), I don't know that I would be so anxious to see it. But the trailer still looks terrific:

D and I already have plans to see it. You know I'll be reviewing it when we do. Can The Wolfman be as successful as The Mummy in reviving a Universal Monster? Will it be a better movie than Landis' and Baker's classic? I'll be attending with not-quite high expectations, something worked out quite well for Sherlock Holmes, earlier this year.

More, anon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'll be surprised if this is more than fair. It just looks too much like a period piece. A modern day Wolfman has many more possibilities to be fresh and relevant.