Monday, August 9, 2010

More on Wolfmen, and Also Some on Atmosphere

Yesterday while eating my Wolfman Rancheros I watched the 2010 update of The Wolfman. This thing was hyped around here (in Orlando, I mean, in connection with Universal’s Halloween events last year, on billboards and on fast food soda cups) and so I was vaguely interested in it for a while.

Was the movie entertaining? Well, I took breaks to write a blog entry and to feed the cat and to stuff laundry into the machine, but overall felt my two Sunday morning hours had been decently spent.

Was it good? Well . . .

Actually, the elliptical well there is unnecessary. The actors are names but with the exception of the female lead they come across as wooden character frameworks rather than as humans (my fiancé called them something like “skeleton people”). The storyline, while curvy, is predictable. The effects are occasionally cartoonish, and at one point after the Wolfman batted a Wolfman hunter’s head off his neck I was surprised to feel disinterested by the gore.

But I still enjoyed the film because of the atmosphere. I’m easily won over by a muted landscape and gothic foreboding, and in The Wolfman the atmosphere is created with such care that it may be to blame for some of the flim’s other faults. Just as the wide shots of asylum interiors and London streets offer beautiful views with our actors reduced to small figures, the broad takes on superstition and small-city fear overwhelm the growth of the characters.

(This problem, of course, isn't one specific to the horror genre. We can probably all think of times we've read straight lit pieces and thought, come on, enough of the description of the falling snow, or the noises of the rushing traffic, or the mundanities of cubicle life, just get to the characters.)

It made me think of another piece of art, executed more skillfully yet also supersoaked in atmosphere: Leonard Wolf’s The Annotated Dracula. My first year in undergrad I was cast as a narrator in the drama department’s fall play, and as a consequence spent hours every weeknight up in a sound both with a muted mic, too engaged with the action of the play (projected up to me on a little black-and-white monitor) to open homework but too bored to just sit there. Somehow I found in the campus library a copy of The Annotated Dracula and I hauled the enormous volume up to the booth with me every night as we approached the premier. The edition was gargantuan, library black, loose and frayed, and inside, along with Stoker’s story, filled with illustrations and historical background and editorial elaboration on plot points major and incidental. There were so many asides that they sometimes became ridiculous, but the project as a whole hung together well and carried a foggy gravitas that made me consider stealing the damn thing. Thankfully it would have been too big even to fit under my shirt.

So maybe that was the spark point for me. Since reading it I’ve issued free passes to stories that are short on narrative elegance but that somehow capture the spooky desperation and wonder of our nostalgic take on the past unknown: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, certain X-Files episodes, cheesy network TV Halloween reruns, volumes of horror writing. I feel guilty loving a set of art that is so regularly flawed, but maybe we all let our standards go for certain atmospheric trick, in the hope that this time everything will come together better than expected.


  1. While I'm talking about atmospheric films: has anyone seen Taxidermia? I think it has some of the same type of atmosphere as classic horror films, but filtered through a grainier and darker lens. Its monsters aren't wolfmen tearing around taking heads, but they're still monsters, and the world still feels on the verge of tipping into something unrecognizably and magically weird.

  2. I'm so accustomed to disappointment from films that I'll accept nearly any excuse to enjoy one if I'm going to sit all the way through it.

    Video games are actually where I tend to be most dependent on atmosphere -- at least in part because in that case it's far, far more central to good storytelling.

  3. I agree entirely re: the importance in video games, probably because so much of the narrative drive is provided by the player in collaboration with the game. When I think of games I've really, really enjoyed, I think primarily of RPGSs or games like RPGs, with intense world building. I'm also very fond of the (now) older survival horror games, with the oppressive claustrophobia of Resident Evil mansions or the creeping weirdness of small towns in Silent Hill. I think RE5 was rightly criticized by some people for opening up the world of its gameplay and going for a more action-y setup, among other things.

    This is probably a reason too that I'm fond of retro games that I don't even like playing (like Centipede, or Joust). All those blipping blocky sprites and the electric colors make me feel like everything's right in the world.