“Never look back, Lawrence.  The past is a wilderness of horrors.”      - Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins)

 For some, the definition of Universal Studios is “the company that made the monster movies” even though that cycle ended almost seventy years ago.  I like Universal’s classic horror films!  They still stand tall and proud in the imagination from those far-off childhood days when I was allowed to stay up til 9pm to watch them. 

I also like Universal’s more recent raidings of its corporate tomb, like  Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992).  I’ll sidle nonchalantly past Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), gazing innocently the other way, before admitting I also like Steven Sommers’ Van Helsing (2004)!  It’s a weird, unwieldy mish-mash of pulp fiction tropes and camp as a row of tents but it delivers.

What it doesn’t do is pay due deference to its source material.  Of course, one could easily argue that Universal itself didn’t treat its properties with appropriate respect, since the genre-defining monsters were all-too-soon reduced to playing straight men to Abbot And Costello.

Now The Wolfman has come along to redress that balance by using the finest of modern CGI effects to revisit the 1941 original.  Benicio Del Toro was obviously doggedly determined to play Lawrence Talbot, having stuck loyally with the project through a long, traumatic gestation and a last-minute change of director.  Initially, during the film’s long, slow first act, you really wonder why he bothered, since there’s very little for him to get his teeth into. 

In terms of mood and mise en scène, the film has all the hallmarks of the original Universal horrors and their British Hammer siblings: the local village which is obviously a set, the moody, mist-shrouded forests of skeletal oaks, the dilapidated ancient monuments and statues hinting at civilisations long forgotten, the ancient circle of standing stones beside the gypsy camp and the snarling, drooling predator in the dark.

These latter two elements furnish the film with its first stand-out set-piece, as the beast attacks the gypsy camp with all the speed and ferocity of a lightning bolt.  It is a furry blur hurtling between caravans but, oddly, when you do catch a decent glimpse of it, it looks disappointingly like a man in a teddy-bear suit.  Bungle The Werewolf … be afraid!

But Hugo Weaving has no fear.  He turns up at the beginning of act two and the film promptly comes vividly to life.  He is playing Inspector Abilene of The Yard, fresh from failing to track down Jack The Ripper.  This is an interesting inter-textual cross-over which owes more to Alan Moore than Lon Chaney.  Weaving is wonderful, with his dignified cynicism and wry one-liners lifting the whole project into another league (not quite an extra-ordinary one, but you get my point).  His performance successfully changed my mind over a film which, by this point, I had all-but written off as a failure. 

It’s at about this time that Anthony Hopkins (who had, up to this point, been sleep-walking through his role as Del Toro’s father, Sir John Talbot) suddenly becomes a much more animated character – giving Hopkins the chance to present us with another of his wonderfully wicked, casually evil performances.  Although, I still wonder about the thick Irish accent he (and only he) employs.

Other performers include Art Malik, who gives a confident and subtle performance with what could have been a horribly stereotypical character, Talbot The Elder’s Sikh manservant, Singh.  Meanwhile, Anthony Sher turns in a thankfully brief cameo as the stereotypically German psychiatrist in charge of the London asylum into which Talbot Jnr is confined.

Once transformed, the lycanthropic Del Toro quite deliberately bears a distant resemblance to Chaney’s and, unlike any other screen wolf I can think of (except, unfortunately, Michael J Fox’s Teen Wolf – 1985) Del Toro can still give a recognisable performance through the make-up.  Obviously it was important to make-up maestro Rick Baker (who, one hardly need mention, transformed all transformation scenes forever more with his still-remarkable work in An American Werewolf in London thirty years ago) to retain the subtle distinction between Man Wolf and Were Wolf.

The film’s truly stand-out sequence comes when Talbot The Wolf cuts loose in old London town, one part Phantom of the Opera to two parts Murders at the Rue Morgue, the scenes of him galloping across the rooftops really do make you yearn for someone to green-light An American Werewolf in Victorian London and to do so double quick!

After such a slow, contemplative start, it is delightfully shocking to have a crescendo involving a wolf fight that easily caps the Nicholson / Spader fight which concluded Wolf (1994), especially in a film which has also encompassed sub-textual considerations of the relationship between ancient myth and modern (by Victorian standards) Freudian analysis … I can’t be the only one who noticed that the son’s silver bullets were loaded into the father’s gun!

Director Joe Johnson makes the special effect sequences buzz with a drama and a vibrancy, as you would expect from someone who began his career at ILM but, sadly, he fails to draw out of the dialogue and character development scenes, despite sterling work done by a, generally, excellent cast.  I appreciate the slow dramatic build to the big transformation and I bemoan the films that plough straight in with the gore and don’t bother establishing any characters; but, in a werewolf movie, the characters have to be thrilling and the dialogue positively electric to sustain a full hour of screen-time with no wolf. 

They aren’t.

To be fair, they aren’t in Curt Siodmak’s original 1941 script, either.  But they are in the afore-mentioned An American Werewolf in London which similarly waits a good hour before unleashing its wolf on-screen and which retains its crown as the best-written, best-performed, scariest, goriest werewolf film ever.

Dir: Joe Johnson
Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Hugo Weaving, Emily Blunt
Dur: 102 mins
Cert: 15

Images © Universal Pictures


As the shreds of the so-called British Film Industry quivers in the shadow of Hollywood’s big, bullying three-dimensional behemoth … one of the few things we can do that they can’t is create a musical biopic with balls.  Possibly because of the lawyers, possibly because Americans are, reputedly, just so darn polite, their biopics tend to be limp, deferential affairs.  Even when they do admit to their subject’s faults (like, say, in Ray - 2004 - or Walk The Line - 2005) they still manage to eulogise and forgive. 

However, you can always rely on an independent British film to show you the grit and grime behind the glamour of the music business.  From fictional depictions like That’ll Be The Day (1973) and Stardust (1974) through Slade’s Flame (1975) to the ugly truths of Sid And Nancy (1986), Twenty-Four Hour Party People (2002) and Closer (2004) we never seem to tire of demonstrating just what arseholes our musical heroes are. Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is no exception but, in this case, its subject, Ian Dury, wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Taking the spotlight, centre-stage as Dury, is Andy Serkis who, as has been demonstrated many times in the past, is a very physical performer.  He has shown impressive physical prowess and a mime-like finesse in throwing shapes for his pioneering of the mo-cap technology that nowadays underpins the creation of most cartoons and video games.  He turned a soulless, mechanical process and made it an art.

He brings this same flexibility to the jerky, stumbling, spastic shapes of Ian Dury.  His transformation into Dury is, like Tom Hardy’s transformation into Charles Bronson last year, quite extraordinary.  Shedding weight to give his face the appropriate lined, worn look, and spending months exercising just one side of his body, he manages to ape Dury’s Polio-derived gait with painful accuracy … but the real revelation is the voice.  Those deep, gravely, Estuary tones are reproduced remarkably, especially when he is performing Dury’s trademark numbers, which were all re-recorded with him by all the surviving members of the Blockheads.  It is an extraordinary performance fully deserving of the BAFTA it didn’t win and the Oscar for which it wasn’t even nominated.  The fact that neither this nor Hardy’s performance last year have received major award recognition is a travesty which leaves me almost lost for words.


Director Mat Whitehouse has learned a lot from his mentor Michael Winterbottom about shooting in a documentary style.  Consequently, the aesthetic of the film is convincingly in-keeping with the grainy, poorly-lit music-films of the seventies.  It is clumsy and amateurish and aggressive and passionate, much like its subject and very much like the Punk music scene through which he rose.  Like Dury’s lyrics, there is a simple, dirty poetry to this film.  At one point, musing about his disability, Dury comments: “Polio … it’s like love … There’s no cure for it!”

Dury comes across as a git, frankly.  He’s needy but endlessly uncaring as a husband, selfish and manipulative as a boyfriend, mute and mostly useless as a father.  But, as with all artists, he is surrounded and supported by people who tolerate all this because they love him.  They love his passion and his talent, his angry joie de vive and his frequent moments of desperation.

To its credit, the film steadfastly refuses to sentimentalise Dury or even sympathise with him, he is a true grotesque and we see him here, warts and all.  He calls the song Sex And Drugs And Rock And Roll “ … a celebration for The Outsiders … The Uglies!”  He is definitely an outsider but, in-keeping with his merciless refusal to feel sorry for himself, this status energises him.

Ray Winston, by contrast, gives a restrained, dignified performance as Dury’s father, appearing only in dreamy flashbacks.  He represents a vanished, steadfast generation and the greatest lesson he teaches his little boy is about standing up proudly and hiding your pain inside.

By contrast, the other flashback narrative gives us Toby Jones as a cruel, disappointed warder at the Boys’ Home where Dury is deposited by his father.  Here he is brutalised in ways that only young boys can conceive but this, sadly, is Dury Snr’s plan - to have his son beaten so severely and so often that, like metal, it makes him stronger.  There is a mission statement on the wall in the dormitory: Men Made Here!

This is why the adult Dury maintains his steely exterior at inappropriate times with the people to whom he should actually be opening up.

We’re over an hour into the film by the time he first burst onto the stage as a Blockhead, spasming and scary like some brutal Bauhaus clown.  But the unique man and his unique music were created by his unique circumstances.  To appreciate the music (as, presumably, we must already do, since we’ve chosen to watch a film about it) we must experience the emotional swamps from which it arose like marsh-gas and mouldy corpses.

Sadly, once he achieves some modicum of fame, he promptly falls into all the stereotypical drink and drug traps of the untrained pop-stars of the time.  I suppose  this had to be here, since it’s the name of the film, but it does serve to make the whole project feel more familiar and far less unique.

Never-the-less, if you, like me, have always been intrigued and exhilarated by the music and more than a little curious about the man who wrote it, your appreciation of it will grow exponentially with having seen this film.  Furthermore, if you feared that Serkis would be fated to forever play henchmen and heavies in expensive Hollywood productions (his role as Lumpy in King Kong - 2005 – Mr Grin in Stormbreaker – 2006 - and Captain Haddock in the up-coming Tintin movie all spring to mind) then fear not, with Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll he has proven himself to be a formidable leading man. 

Even though BAFTA, this year, elected to go with the dapper charm of Colin Firth instead of Serkis’ scary, sweaty energy … his day will come.  There are unfathomable depths of talent within that man, much more than can be contained within the fragile framework of Britain’s nebulous film-industry.

Dir: Mat Whitecross
Stars: Andy Serkis, Bill Milner, Olivia Williams, Naomie Harris
Dur: 115 mins
Cert: 15


So, Edge of Darkness.  It’s edgy.  And quite dark. 
Of course, that’s the ground-breaking 1985 BBC TV serial I’m talking about.  It gazed into the abyss of 1980s political corruption and asked doom-laden questions about mortality … all haunted by Eric Clapton and Michael Kamen’s sparse, jarring score and the fathomless depths of Bob Peck’s pain.  Edge of Darkness also brought director Martin Campbell to the attention of Hollywood.  Already 45 years old, he had worked his way up through directing TV shows like The Professionals (1977 – 83) and Shoestring (1979 – 80) to the pinnacle of Edge of Darkness, which showed a restraint and a maturity that has, sadly, been all-but entirely absent from his subsequent movies.
One such movie is … Edge of Darkness.  Yes, the man who helped make the original an event which is still discussed admiringly 25 years on, has directed the big-budget feature-film re-make.  I fear this will not live quite so vividly in the memory.
The film begins with dead bodies rising to the surface of a lake … something forgotten, long-buried, rising up to cause misery and confusion.
Of course, the main reason this film is considered of significance is because Mel Gibson has himself risen back to the surface after, what, seven years either behind the camera or in the headlines.
Here, he is well-liked copper and proud father, Tommy Craven, just getting on with his life when his daughter suddenly starts vomiting blood – something else unwanted coming up – and she is very soon cold in his arms.  At this point Mel becomes the character we have seen before … a steely-eyed hollow man on the edge of sanity with nothing to lose and no fear of losing it.  His confusion and grief gives way to flashes of fury and an icy determination … ole Mad Mel has resurfaced.

He begins his own investigation into his daughter’s death and that eventually brings him to the attention of (Darius?) Jedburgh a mysterious Security Specialist without portfolio.  Joe Don Baker brought a real charisma to the original role, a flamboyant American amongst a cast of dour, grey Englishmen … Ray Winston here reverses the cultural divide … but plays Jedburgh as a very calm, still man. 
I like watching Winston in a film, he is at his best when his obvious physical size is held in  check, threatening to break out into acts of extreme violence at any moment.  He was fascinating in The Proposition (2005) and, of course, utterly mesmerising in Nil By Mouth (1997); but Hollywood has never really found a role that fits him.  This film is no exception.  His role in the narrative is never entirely clear and I fear that is because the point of him was lost somewhere in the adaptation.  His line “I don’t know what it means to have lost a child but I know what it is to not have one” should be redolent with sadness and significance but, instead,  just sounds like fortune cookie rhetoric.
Much about this film is less than clear.  To some extent that is deliberate because, after all, it’s a political thriller – filled with long scenes of people sitting in dark rooms delivering pages of exposition … a sure sign of a political conspiracy.  But then the weighty nature of the conspiracy is interrupted regularly by the obligatory fist-fight, car-chase and shoot-out which interrupt the gradual accretion of suspense that sustained the original TV version through almost five hours.

Again, the original had a faceless, systemic corruption with no single villain at its core, but here we have Danny Huston who, like Winston, has pretty consistently failed to capitalise on the screen-burning potential he demonstrated with his breakthrough performance in The Proposition.  As the evil industrialist, Bennett, he is asked to do nothing more than arch that eyebrow and exudes slimy charm.   He may as well have ‘Bad Guy’ printed on his business cards.
Edge of Darkness doesn’t have the genuine political credentials of 1974’s  The Parallax View or 1976’s All The President’s Men (the films that all conspiracy thrillers want to be) but then it doesn’t have the pace or energy of The Net (1995) nor Enemy of The State (1998) either … leaving it just floating between these two shores.
To be fair to Mel’s performance, you are actually more interested in his journey than in the details of the actual conspiracy.  That’s irrelevant.  What you are actually getting is the story of a man unravelling because his reason for being has been taken away. 
As a character, Craven is infinitely more interesting and more convincing in the moments where he is hallucinating conversations with his dead daughter … these scenes are genuinely affecting.   
Out of curiosity, I dug out my old DVD of the proper version just for comparison purposes and was very quickly reminded that Peck’s performance in those scenes, when he goes from joy to despair in a moment, joy at hearing his daughter’s voice, despair at realising it is just a memory and he is still utterly alone in the world, are genuinely heart-breaking.  His performance is a master-class in how an actor can allow the calm surface of his face betray the turmoil roiling in the depths below.
Gibson gives of his all and is to be congratulated but, ultimately, this new version of Edge of Darkness merely has a few hidden shallows, it lacks the gloomy depths and solemn clarity of the original.   Ultimately Jedburgh’s coda, in the original, has a grandeur which helped lift the whole serial far above the tame and tepid police procedural it could so easily have been.  Here it just reads like a flaccid pastiche of the end of the Marky Mark movie Shooter (2007) a film that is, frankly, best left to sink without trace. 
You see, some things are just best left where they lie, Martin.
Dir: Martin Campbell
Stars: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic
Dur: 117 mins
Cert: 15
Images © Icon Productions & BBC