Thursday, March 20, 2008

Rick Baker's New WOLF MAN

The movie isn't due to be released until February of next year, but Universal has made the surprising decision to leak two advance portraits of Benicio del Toro in full makeup as THE WOLF MAN. Looking at these two shots (one here, the other further down -- click to enlarge), it's easy to understand the studio's enthusiasm: they show Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker at the very top of his game. In fact, this is rather more like the monster I had expected Baker to create for AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON back in 1981, where a more bestial, inhuman, wombat-like werewolf design won him his first Academy Award for Best Makeup. In an ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY interview with Lindsay Soll, conducted in support of these new images, Baker confessed about his new project, "The old fanboy in me is jumping up and down here!" And so are fanboys all across the Internet.

To appreciate what Baker has done here, you must consider the various werewolf makeups that have come and gone in the forty-odd years since the last truly great one: Roy Ashton's grey timberwolf interpretation of Oliver Reed in Hammer's 1961 film, CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF. (The casting of Benicio del Toro in Universal's remake of THE WOLF MAN shows that director Joe Johnston has already learned an important lesson from the Hammer film: to ensure a great werewolf, hire an actor who has a volatile edge even without the makeup -- it makes the transformation that much more convincing.) Paul Naschy's werewolf makeups have always been wildly uneven in execution; there are some terrific ones (FRANKENSTEIN'S BLOODY TERROR, CURSE OF THE DEVIL), some dull ones (THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI, LYCANTHROPE), and quite a few at various stops in-between. Aside from the Naschy films, not all of which received American release at the time, and the occasional oddity like Universal's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF (1973) or Amicus' THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974), werewolf movies were generally put on ice for most of a decade, only coming back into vogue when Rick Baker conceived some stage-magic-influenced makeup trickery that would allow him to transform an actor from man into wolf in a brightly lit room.

John Landis' AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON contains a classic transformation sequence, but frankly, I don't consider the end result a great werewolf makeup; I don't even consider it a great werewolf rig, because it's not all that lithe or believable onscreen. (Nor would I consider David Naughton particularly volatile casting.) In terms of conceptual design and execution, I was far more impressed by the wicked Big Bad Wolf designs brought to Joe Dante's THE HOWLING by Rob Bottin, a Baker protégé who introduced his mentor's change-o-head effects to the screen while Baker's much-postponed gig was still in post-production. The Eddie Quist werewolf in THE HOWLING is as good as a post-Universal werewolf can be, and this is partly thanks to the preparatory (and yes, volatile) performance of Robert Picardo. There have been quite a few werewolves onscreen since those two seminal pictures brought sprouting hair back into fashion -- in WOLFEN, THE MONSTER SQUAD, SILVER BULLET, WOLF and VAN HELSING, to name a few -- but they've mostly followed Baker's Oscar-winning template, leaving most of the man out of the Wolf Man equation.

What Baker's latest design has effectively achieved is a completely successful modernization of one of the cinema's three great archetypes of horror. Since the late 1940s, more or less, the cinema has been stymied by an inability to improve upon Jack Pierce's original iconographic makeup designs for the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man. (Dracula, being more rooted in the performance of Bela Lugosi, didn't quite have the same problem; if anything, the cinema has been stymied about how to do something new with Dracula since Christopher Lee burst into the library with a blood-smeared mouth in Hammer's HORROR OF DRACULA [1958], and with vampires in general since they took to wearing leather dusters and Goth hairstyles in THE LOST BOYS [1987].) But Baker's WOLF MAN makeup succeeds in modernizing Pierce's ideas without denying them; it's at once classic and contemporary, a very tough balancing act, which not only bodes well for Johnston's film, but for the possibility of a bona fide renaissance of the monster movie.

Not horror movie... monster movie. The difference between the two is that a horror movie, as we understand the species today, bludgeons you with situations involving pain and bloodshed, served up with all the grim realism the MPAA will allow (and even more when it comes to "unrated" video); a monster movie is escapist entertainment that excites your imagination with fantasy, spooky atmosphere and iconographic imagery. Monster movies are often thought of as being juvenile in nature, and they are distant cousins to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, but nearly all of the great archetypal monsters -- the Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera -- originated in novels written by and for adult readers. Universal made its first forays into lycanthropy, THE WERE-WOLF OF LONDON (1935) and THE WOLF MAN (1941) after the literary precedent of Guy Endore's 1933 novel THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS.

My one concern about these fantastic promotional images is that it runs counter to the traditions of Hollywood to show all of your cards before a movie opens, especially a movie like this. Pre-release stills for horror movies from THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) to THE EXORCIST (1973), and from FRANKENSTEIN (1931) to THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980), absolutely withheld the revelations of their shocking makeup designs: you bought your ticket, and THEN, and only then, you got to see the monster. With this in mind, I can't help thinking that THE WOLF MAN must have something else tucked far up its sleeve to surprise us. To trump work as magnificent as this, it's going to have to be damned good.

But these photos represent a new plateau in the astounding career of Rick Baker, who here proves himself the equal of any of the great masters who ever inspired him. The ball is in your hands, Rick -- I can't wait to see how far you run with it.

FEEDBACK (3/21/08): Bill Chambers, editor of Film Freak Central, writes: "This is ultimately irrelevant though others may point it out as well: Mark Romanek (of ONE HOUR PHOTO fame) was actually the guy who cast Del Toro as the Wolf Man. It's something they had been collaborating on for some time, and they had Baker working on it I think before the project was even greenlit. Romanek left just days before principal photography began over a budgetary dispute, and I believe the pictures being leaked was a form of damage control more than anything else... Knowing this was Romanek's dream project and considering his instincts to nab Del Toro and Baker, I think [his] would've been a less generic film than we're bound to get from journeyman Johnston. Which is probably all right by the studio--and in fairness, the approved budget of $100 million was already pretty extravagant for the material."

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