A film review by Craig J. Koban February 18, 2010


2010, R, 105 mins.


Lawrence Talbot: Benicio Del Toro / Gwen: Emily Blunt / Sir John Talbot: Anthony Hopkins / Maleva: Geraldine Chaplin / Inspector: Hugo Weaving / Hoenneger: Antony Sher

Directed by Joe Johnston /Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self.

Joe Johnston’s remake of the 1941 Universal Horror classic THE WOLFMAN does one thing absolutely correct: it knows that period monster movies feel spookier and have richer atmospheres.  Aside from one successful attempt to modernize this very famous movie creature by placing it in a contemporary setting (like in AMERICAN WEREWOLF ON LONDON, for example), I can’t think of another more fitting way than to place this beast in the foggy, misty, shadowy, and ominous backwoods areas of a late 19th Century England.  The settings and locations do such a bravura job of accentuating the mood of pathos and dread to the horror of the story, not to mention that the people that populate this period almost seem more befuddled and defenseless and against the creature that attacks them.   

There is relatively no surprise that this newer, spiffier, and more expensive redo of the Lon Chaney Jr. original looks sensational: Before cutting his teeth in directorial assignments (like HONEY, I SHRUNK THE KIDS, JUMANJI, THE ROCKETEER, JURASSIC PARK III and HIDALGO) Johnston served on the art department for the first three classic STAR WARS films under George Lucas, so he certainly is no stranger to creating films with a unique and prevailing vision.  He has also allied himself with an impressive production team to create his eerie and distinctive WOLFMAN for modern consumption, like the menacing and stark cinematography by Shelly Johnson, the hauntingly gorgeous production design of Rick Hendrichs, the spin-tingling and effective music score by Danny Elfman, and, of course, the mother of all monster makeup artists, Rick Baker (who is no stranger to conjuring up perversely twisted and macabre makeup and transformation sequences).  If anything, THE WOLFMAN is a stunning triumph of film artifice.  This is the most sumptuous looking Gothic Horror film since Francis Ford Coppola’s DRACULA and Kenneth Branagh’s FRANKENSTEIN. 

Again, placing this film squarely in a period setting is the right choice:  As the film opens in a rural English countryside of the late 1890’s we come to the estate of Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins) whose son has recently disappeared.  His other son is Lawrence (Benicio Del Toro), a touring stage actor that spends much of his time performing the works of Shakespeare, but he is quickly taken away from his thespian duties by his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (the always fetching Emily Blunt, one of the few actresses to appear both sexy and dignified in stuffy period garb) who pleads with him to assist the family in their efforts to find his brother.  When Lawrence does make his way home a completely distorted and half eaten corpse is discovered that appears to be his brother.  Yet, judging by his vicious and bloody wounds, it seems unlikely that any normal forest predator could have inflicted the damage.  

Just what was the cause…hmmmm? 

Becoming obsessed with discovering the real culprit of the brutal murder of his sibling, Lawrence finds himself on a hunt that leads him to a strange gypsy camp.  While there the camp's denizens – and him in particular – are methodically attacked by a hideous half-man/half-wolf creature.  Lawrence, rather miraculously, survives his hellish ordeal with the creature, but not without some ghastly fang wounds to his neck and shoulder.  Of course, he does not feel any better after the attack, especially when the gypsy leader, Maleva (a kooky and deranged Geraldine Chaplin) spontaneously pronounces that Lawrence is indeed "very cursed."  He does not take her comments too close to heart, but with the advent of the next full moon Lawrence does transform into a carnivorous, salivating, humanity-feasting wolfman that goes on a bloody, berserker-filled rampage.  



Hot of his trail are the likes of deeply determined Scotland Yard investigator (played by Hugo Weaving, complete without all of those delicious Hugo Weaving-like pauses and cryptic inflections) that does, with some help, manage to apprehend Lawrence and throw him into one of those appallingly oppressive Victorian mental intuitions.  The head psychiatrist there quickly deduces that Lawrence is suffering from severe delusions.  In one of the film’s most ironically hilarious and horrifying sequences, the physician places a tied up Lawrence in a room filled with students and colleagues and is placed in front of a large window with a looming full moon just on the horizon.  The doctor eases everyone’s concerns by stating that he will prove that the nature of lycanthrope is just a silly myth.  Well, the full moon does come, with predictably gory ramifications. 

One aspect that many will find pleasing about THE WOLFMAN is that it does not neuter itself down to the measly and weak confines of a PG-13 rating.  Johnston has crafted a blood-curdling, gut splashing, and barbarically intense R-rated horror fright fest.   Also important is that he also manages to find an all-too-difficult happy middle ground between being overtly campy and solemn.  THE WOLFMAN is, at its core, a Saturday matinee thrill and chill schlock fest that does not take itself to seriously...but just serious enough.  And, yes, the transformation sequences, which thanklessly blend the finer aspects of Baker’s cutting edge makeup design and the augmentation of CGI trickery, are gruesomely intoxicating (often, it’s difficult to tell where the physical effects start and where the computer effects end, which is to the film's credit), notwithstanding that when the creature unleashes an orgy of werewolf kick ass, it's spectacularly and entertainingly violent (this film is not for the feint of heart).  Yet, THE WOLFMAN does generate some winks at the audience and tongue in cheek chuckles as well, especially with Del Toro’s Lawrence prophetically warns everyone in that institution ward of what will happen to them when the full moon comes: Very few actors could pull off the line “I…will…kill…you...all!” and make it both cheeky and scary as well as he can. 

Del Toro (a self-professed WOLFMAN nut) is quite decent in his dual role, projecting the right level of poignancy with brute force and caged animalism.  Emily Blunt may serve the purpose of being his obligatory love interest in the film, but she remains satisfyingly sultry throughout.  One performance that I really admired was from Anthony Hopkins as the blustery, wild-eyed, and enigmatic Sir John Talbot, whom is holding secrets of his own from just about everyone (granted, you can see the arc of his character with relative ease).  What’s kind of compelling here is that Hopkins plays up to the hammier levels of his character by not overtly hamming it up or over playing scenes to inane levels.  When Talbot tells his son, “Terrible things, Lawrence.  You have done terrible things,” you can sense a twisted level of malicious glee in Hopkins.  He’s having wicked fun with this semi-maniacal role…but he’s so dry, refined, and subtle; he subtly over-acts.

It there are nagging problems with THE WOLFMAN than it would definitely be in the area of character and story.  The script is from two potent and strong screenwriters (Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, who penned SE7EN and ROAD TO PERDITION respectively), but the resulting script does not provide much in the way of dramatic or emotional buy in for the audience.  Lawrence, even while played with a melancholic passivity at times by Del Toro, never emerges as a fully realized and evocative main character.  The only empathy he generates is due mostly out of the fact that he’s a monster that everyone wants dead, but even that empathy is fleeting (he slaughters people that deserve it, to be true, but also countless ones that don’t deserve it).  Also, the love story between him and Gwen is only sketchily developed and feels more perfunctory than passionate.  Lastly, there is not much of an underlining narrative here to keep everything afloat for its 105 minutes: Johnston has recently admitted that the Blu-Ray release will have 18 minutes reinserted back in to help embellish the story that was truncated by his theatrical cut.  Ummm…okay…but why not have those scenes in the final theatrical cut? 

Perhaps what exasperates the film’s problems is its sorted production history, which seemed as doomed as the main character himself.  The film was originally slated for release for November of 2009 and then was rescheduled several times to allow for what has been rumored as re-shoots as well as re-tooling of the transformation sequences.  There has also been ample speculation that editors Mark Goldblatt and Walter Murch were hired to re-envision the film without the input of Johnston himself (a rumor that the director has negated).  Nonetheless, this near $100 million dollar monster mash is a marvel of cinematic design and wisely places its setting and tone in the right places.  Yet, as terrific as the film looks and as appealing as the actors are in it, it’s hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend this WOLFMAN, which stumbles around rather aimlessly telling a fairly disjointed story that lacks genuine interest.  THE WOLFMAN has a ravenous howl, to be sure, but it lacks bite in too many areas to warrant a trip to the multiplexes.

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