Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Case against Universal Monster remakes, Part Two

Sorry for the delay, but work's kept me a bit busy. Here's part two of the case against Universal Monster remakes.

In a previous post, I wrote that current film making styles can not generate the feeling and mood of the original Universal Monster movies. But film style is not the only obstacle facing a remake of the classic monster pictures. Today’s special effects, as shown in The Wolfman, also threaten to overrun the production.

The Trouble with Transformations

This is where werewolf movies shine. While other monsters can change forms, only the Wolf Man is about the transformation, both in a physical and intellectual sense. The character is a dark look at humanity when freed from societal restrictions and able to fulfill our most primitive impulses. The Wolf Man is the truest embodiment of man’s animalistic nature and a most striking transformation.

CGI technology is a silver double-edged sword to werewolf movies. While such tricks can deliver new, more amazing transformations, it can also lead to the dilution of the film’s emotional impact. To understand how this can happen, we first need to discuss the past history of werewolf transformations.

The first werewolf transformations involved lap dissolves and other camera tricks combined with make up effects. In Werewolf of London, Henry Hull changed his appearance in one continual tracking shot. The change was achieved by stopping the camera when Hull walked behind an object, like a pillar. Hull’s make up was modified to appear further along in the transformation. Then, with Hull back behind the structure, the camera rolled and Hull stepped into view, walking to the next foreground object. After several such cuts, the transformation was complete.

But the transformation most familiar to classic horror fans came in 1941 with The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. The change appeared on camera, with no cutaways or pillars blocking the audience’s view. The technique involved shooting several feet of film, stopping the camera and rewinding the film a few frames while makeup is applied to the actor. The camera rolls again, footage of the new make up is shot. Then the camera stops and the procedure is repeated. The results are a series of dissolves from one make up application to another in smooth succession, creating a stunning on screen transformation.

The technique was time consuming for the crew and physically demanding for the actor. Chaney claimed he was forced to be stationary during the entire shot, while other accounts say various techniques were used to line the actor into the same position as before. Regardless, any movement or misplacement of the actor would be detected during the dissolve and look jarring, so extreme care was taking during the long shooting process. Due to the difficulty of filming such scenes, it’s not surprising that filmmakers used such techniques sparingly.

One last thing needs to be mentioned about the early werewolves of cinema. One can’t ignore the fact that these creatures were portrayed by men in make up. No matter how monstrous their appearance, the werewolf always retained a basic human form. But then came 1981 and two movies changed the look and transformation of the werewolf forever.

Released in April, Joe Dante’s The Howling was the first movie to use modern latex and animatronic special effects to bring the werewolf to life. From glimpses early in the first half of the movie, the audience senses that the werewolves are unlike any previous screen incarnations. And once the creature is seen in its full glory, the audience knows these creatures are not men covered in yak hair. The werewolf looks like a wolf walking on its hind legs. It has an elongated snout, long, claw-like fingers and is indeed unlike any previous screen werewolf.

The first full body transformation, mostly visualized by traditional cell animation teases the audience and serves as a fitting, perhaps unintended red herring to Eddie Quist’s transformation. This moment is a showstopper in every sense of the word. Over several minutes, we watch as actor Robert Picardo’s skin bubbles, bone shift and stretch, and he changes into the towering beast. All the changes occurring on screen, with no cuts or dissolves. By the time his snout elongates into his final, wolf-like form, modern special effects have changed werewolf movies.

While The Howling might have beaten John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London by 4 months, the movie’s transformation was even more stunning. Instead of turning into a biped beast, David Kessler (played by David Naughton) is turned into a snarling, four legged monster on camera, under the bright lights of a small apartment. Hair literally grows on camera as David’s body flexes and mutates into a beast of nightmares.

While more dramatic than the transformations in both Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man, the effects work are just as, if not more, labor intensive. The actor is subjected to a series of body and head casts, from which the special effects team will create the various latex appliances needed for the scenes. The resulting creatures must also be sculpted and created, along with various stages in between man and beast.

And this work is all before the cameras roll. To film the transformations, the actor must have the appliances glued to their face and body, along with small air bladder between the actor’s skin and the appliance to create the bubbling effect. In some cases, the actor’s body is hidden and replaced by a fully articulated puppet (Naughton’s lower body was hidden by a false floor for one shot). And a crew of effects workers is needed to control the creature’s body, both with the real actor and the completely fabricated monster.

Given the time and effort required to change a man into a werewolf, one may wonder what could be the problem with a CGI transformation. After all, the actor would not be subjected to as much physical exertion, allowing older, more experienced actors to play the role. The crew needed to generate such effects scenes would be minimal and changes can be made with relative ease (compared to running back to the shop to rebuild or redesign an effect).

But the problem is that now, transmutation scenes are too easy and less time consuming. Aside from making them easier and cheaper, it also allows the filmmaker to insert more of them. And that is what happened in The Wolfman.

In the two earlier films, the audience was treated to one full transformation. Eddie Quist’s second transformation was interrupted just as it started, by a silver bullet to the chest. David Kessler’s second transformation is only shown in two brief shots. The expense of creating new makeup appliances and effects riggings prohibited a second complete transformation. And, to be honest, it really wasn’t needed, as both films were coming to an end.

But CGI has changed that. The Wolfman has three complete transformations, each stopping the story as Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) is affected by the full moon. And while this might not seem the case, remember that the script is written to show three transformations, each in different locations and under different lighting. And regardless of the dialog going on while the changes take place, these additional transformations hold up the story, as nothing really is able to happen until the change is complete.

In fact, one can say the second transformation freezes the story beyond the metamorphosis, as Lawrence prowls about London in a special effect laden sequence. He runs across rooftops and down alleyways, ripping into unfortunate Londoners that cross his path. It’s a rollercoaster ride of a scene, but adds nothing to the plot. And Lawrence isn’t given time to react emotionally to what he has done, as he has to be on his way out of London, courtesy of a traveling montage, to his next transformation.

Watching Del Toro’s Lawrence undergo so many changes and multiple attacks on nameless characters dilutes the overall power of such carnage. In Chaney’s The Wolf Man, the first transformation sequence is of Larry Talbot’s feet alone. He only kills one victim, but later discovers his next target is the woman he loves. While the changes and attacks are thrilling, it’s the stuff that happens while Larry is human again that forms the meat of the story.

In the original, we see a man racked with guilt, terrified of the part of his being that now eludes his grasp. The remake doesn’t give Del Toro a chance to reflect upon his nocturnal rampages (or the actor doesn’t deliver, depending on your feelings towards Del Toro’s performance). The audience isn’t given the chance to feel for Lawrence’s plight or his numerous, nameless victims. In fact, to accommodate the climatic final battle (SPOILER AHEAD), the film changes the focus of Lawrence’s pain from his violent, animal form to the curse bestowed upon him by his father. The movie veers wildly from the source material, much to the film’s detriment. Lawrence mourning for his victims takes a back seat to a familial tale of a son taking vengeance for the sins placed upon his shoulders by his father. An interesting idea for a movie, no doubt, but it doesn’t work when you add werewolves into the mix, as victims become nameless meat puppets tossed into the grinder for cheap thrills. (SPOILER ENDED)

But that is the results of allowing a filmmaker access to cheap and easy (compared to previous techniques) special effects. The movie becomes less about the humans within the story and more about how much action a film can cram into it’s running time. Like The Mummy remake, the subtlety that marks the power of the original is buried under an avalanche of special effects designed to please a target audience.

Next up, how star powered casting can spell doom for any monster.