Reviews - The Wolfman

Review by Bluntinstrument

The Wolfman is the tale of an astranged son returning to the lonely near-derelict mansion home of his father and sister-in-law to help investigate the brutal slaughter of his brother in the nearby forest. As supernatual horror films go, this attempts more than most to return to the fog-drenched mouldering Victorian roots of the cinematic genre, even going so far as pitting a gypsy encampment against an equally superstitious isolated village with the gossip mill firelight comforts of the tavern at its centre. Include the London detective and the recipe is gathered for a Hound of the Baskervilles feast. Having set this up, together with a fine cast including Anthony Hopkins, Benicio Del Toro, and Hugo Weaving, it is a shame that one is too mindful of its failures to appreciate its strengths. Hopkins is not so much mysterious or reclusive as muddled in motive and act, Del Toro is rendered bland through given little chance to exhibit the personal scars of his backstory. Weaving has the most characterful lines but his liveliness is a jarring contrast to drabber characters too poorly sketched. The plot feels well-paced at first, atmospheric and expectant, but subsequent to the main character's infection this is lost through cuts to the narrative and the niggling feeling that a different director has added in an avalanche of shockers (pouncing dogs, dreams within dreams, etc.) that grow more tiresome as their effect dwindles. This is a shame because, aside from a few CGI mis-steps, this should be a brave and entertaining addition to classic horror, grounded in the age-old theme of one man's confrontation with his past and his nature.
Into this particular mix, Elfman chooses a particularly dark and heartless pallette, dominated by strings and horns; wind and percussion are limited, all other brass omitted. The effect is ironically stunning, draining the colour from what could very nearly have been an overblown Sleepy Hollow score, but leaving the composer free to concentrate on his string writing in a way not heard since Dolores Claiborne (or, in another world, perhaps Big Fish). His thematic material is typically muscular, capable of standing up to any number of repetitions in various guises, whether blared in a hellish horn chorale over rusty blooded low string ostinatos, in empassioned cello solo, or warm string harmonies. The chromatically flecked main theme, at first disturbingly reminiscent from Wojciech Kilar's 1992 score to Coppola's Dracula (and where else is there a more fitting role model, one would ask the critics) is, on screen, instantly associated not with a character (e.g. Dracula/wolf) but with the relentless forboding of the supernatural curse, embodied by the warnings of gypsies (the Transylvania connection?); the hidden violence in familial relationships, erupting into horrific bloody violence in the cold light of a full moon. By limiting his orchestration, Elfman's score feels old and doomed, muffling any sense of the supernatural as anything other than a carnal reality, employing chorus sparingly and not to dazzle. There is still much room both for rich bombast and soothing melancholy, but the overall effect is one of a unity of tone which helps bind the film together even if its effect is not often felt consciously.
One might expect that on disc this limitation over the course of an hour might prove deadening but in truth there is much to sink one's teeth into once preoccupation with overall tone and thematic allusions are passed, since Elfman has never been known to stint on detail in his work. With scores of broader character this can be exhausting, but in The Wolfman it is the detail which, submerged and superfluous on film, now proves absorbing and the key to an hour's entertainment. Capitalising on this is the number of tracks topping 5 minutes, pushing a momentum that overcomes the ticking clock. The reviewer is somewhat perplexed, however, at the arrangement of tracks: the two suites might come in handy as calling cards for the attention defecient and fill in gaps perhaps in the film's tortuous editing journey, but they give too much away too early. To listen to the CD from the Prologue is revelatory - entering to Elfman's world at this point is like peering through the fog, looking for musical clues. One is rewarded with a mystery of a score and hackle-raising highlights such as 'Gypsy Massacre' and 'Country Carnage'. The same embarrassment tails the score: 'The Finale' might not quite feel grand or effective enough as a closer, but 'Wolf Wild #2' is way too brief, and dies away just as you feel your pulse quickening. Now add 'Wolf Suite pt 1' instead, its themes laid out in full, splendid and powerful - a show-stopper ending that would leave any listener with a lasting impression.
Verdict: An efficient and fitting score which may not have needed Elfman's hand, but which benefits immeasurably from it on disc.
Score rating: * *
CD release rating: * * *

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