Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman, a more or less straight-faced remake of the 1941 Universal horror film, is not a particularly good movie; it’s slow and creaky and not remotely scary, and the tone varies wildly throughout. But there’s 15 minutes of wonderfully campy (and bloody) werewolf rampage in the movie that just about saves the rest of it. In fits and spurts, I had some fun here.
Benicio Del Toro stars as Lawrence Talbot, a role filled by Lon Chaney in the original film. Talbot is touring England with a theater company when a letter from Gwen Conliffe (Emily Blunt) informs him of the death of his brother Ben (Gwen’s fiancée). This brings him back to the sleepy village of Blackmoor and his father’s expansive estate, where he hasn’t been since he was a child.
Through disjointed flashbacks, I was able to piece together the following, which may not be completely accurate: Lawrence witnessed the death of his mother, was sent to an insane asylum, and then to live with his aunt in America. This partially explains Del Toro’s American accent, though it still leaves the question of why he looks nothing like Anthony Hopkins, who plays his character’s father; the mother was suitably “ethnic” looking, but still
Anyway, Lawrence promises Gwen that he’ll find out what happened to his brother. Ben Talbot was torn to pieces in gruesome fashion, as were two other men. On a full moon. No surprises: it’s a werewolf, you may have guessed from the title of the film.
And refreshingly, most of the characters in the film know it’s a werewolf too, silver bullets at the ready. Also refreshing: instead of the re-imagining of the myth that has become so popular in recent years, in the Twilight and Underworld films, among others, these werewolves play it by the book.
As do most of the special effects in the film, by Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker, who wore an ape suit for the 1976 remake of King Kong. In The Wolfman, he dresses his actors in wolf suits, more man than wolf, an appropriate nod to the original movie. While these retro, campy effects may be dismissed by some, I had a lot of fun being brought back to the days of Universal horror and 50s monster movies.
Out of the spate of remakes of the Universal icons in the last 20 years – Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mike Nichols’ Wolf (?), and Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy – The Wolfman comes closest to re-capturing the feel of the original. That, I can really appreciate.
But that doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie. Notorious reshoots pushed the film back from a fall 2009 release, and the resulting film is a mess, its biggest fault the complete lack of a driving narrative. Lawrence finds out what happened to his brother, and from that point on there’s just no drive – the characters have no goals (or if they do, they are unknown to us) – and the film tends to slog through one set piece to another with little plot to tie the two together.
Pacing is all over the place – some scenes are cut too tight, others drag on with little of interest taking place – and while the movie is only 100 minutes long, it feels considerably longer.
Acting is of a higher caliber than we expect from these films, with Blunt and Del Toro filling in a depth to their characters that the script lacks. Best of all are Anthony Hopkins, as hammy as he’s ever been, and Hugo Weaving, as Inspector Abberline, the wry policeman on the case. “Pint of bitter, please.”
Big complaint: there’s a heavy reliance on jump scares here. Characters enter a dark room, glance around and take baby steps as a POV shot slowly pans and zooms. Then boo! Oh, it was just some birds, or a dog, or the dog again, or a stuffed lion’s head mounted on the wall, which emits a low roar on the soundtrack for some reason. One hopes that a major 2010 picture would avoid this overused cliché, but no, they’re here and as overused as ever.
Also odd: the CGI mixed in with traditional (even dated) prosthetic effects. Here we have a man in a wolf costume running around next to a fully animated bear and a deer. The CGI is shrouded in darkness and never really distracting, but one wonders why they just couldn’t get the real animals; this has become increasingly commonplace in recent years.
But for the all-too-brief werewolf scenes – the best of their kind since 1981’s The Howling and An American Werewolf in London – I can almost forgive The Wolfman. Almost.