Despite having all the right (hairy) pieces in place, this uneven new Wolfman doesn’t quite work as a whole. But if you can hang in there during the pretty-but-rote stretches, there’s R-rated gory fun to be had when the beast finally cuts loose.
In The Wolfman, Benicio del Toro’s Lawrence Talbot learns you can go home again–as long as you remember to bring a supply of anti-tick lotion and a tug toy. Talbot, a Shakespearean actor in late-Victorian England, returns from decades of travel to decaying Talbot Manor to investigate the death of his brother. Instead he runs afoul of gypsy curses, a guilt-tripping landed-gentry father (laid down with Anthony Hopkins’ usual bat-snot crazy paternal authority), Scotland Yard (represented by Hugo Weaving’s terrifying mutton-chop sideburns), and of course that Ol’ Devil Moon and the Beast Within.
Yep, we’re in horror remake territory, though for a nice change, it’s not all naked teenagers getting diced and skewered. The Wolfman is a fairly loving ode to the 1941 Universal horror film The Wolf Man (starring Lon Cheney, Jr. as the woefully hirsute antagonist), so this time it’s well-tailored Victorians who find their throats slashed, their bowler-topped heads setting off in opposite directions from their bodies, and their bowels suddenly disem-ed. Set in 1891 Blackmoor, England, there are stunningly portentous skies, foggy moon-lit nights, and dark halls draped in cobwebs and family secrets.
Unlike Universal’s amusement-park-ride/movie Mummy franchise, this new Wolfman is not played for campy (intentional) laughs, nor, thankfully, is it updated to contemporary times and filled with a bunch of pretty faces from the CW Network. No, this is a “serious” retelling with serious ahck-tohrs, a la Coppola’s Dracula with Gary Oldman or Branagh’s Frankenstein with De Niro.
Unfortunately as directed by Joe Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, Hildago), The Wolfman is sometimes too reverent, with lots of gloomy vistas and stilted, polite conversations among the genteel. We already know what’s going on far ahead of time (the “I feel stronger, my senses are more acute” scenes are deadly in all the wrong ways), so the film feels more like a respectful homage, a useless bauble, than full-blooded entertainment in its own right.
Johnston is a solid journeyman director of steady lite action, but he lacks the lunatic vision could have used. You can enjoy The Wolfman for its affectionate dedication to old-school horror on the moors–as a visual textbook on Victorian arch-Gothic creepiness, the film looks very nice. But for at least the first half, it lacks any sort of internal dramatic or horrific drive. Despite some nifty stuff with feral kids and ice-water mental treatments, Johnston just doesn’t have enough weirdness in his veins to fill the manors, gypsy camps, and village pubs with the sort of phantasmagorical paranoia they clamor for.
Johnston also seems unsure what to do with his cast of quality actors. He can’t get some of them started (when he’s not howling at the moon, del Toro comes off like a mumbling Muttley the Dog) and can’t get some of them stopped (Sir Anthony is clearly off his meds and his leash, indulging all British thespians’ right to ham it up in horror films). Poor Emily Blunt has the classic “Monster’s Girlfriend” role, putting her versatile talent to work playing nursemaid, curse-researcher, and dog groomer.
Only Weaving, a veteran of both The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix trilogies, consistently strikes the right balance, even if his Inspector Aberline’s contemptuous snarls have more than a little Agent Smith in them. (If the character’s name sounds familiar it’s because Scotland Yard’s Frederick “Francis” Abberline was an actual person—the lead investigator on the Ripper murders, he’s also portrayed by Johnny Depp in From Hell.) Part of The Wolfman‘s problem is it craves a more dynamic, extroverted actor than the talented del Toro–in that regard, I’d be all for a sequel starring Weaving.
Luckily, while the first half has bits of gruesome gore (and this is a very violent film), eventually The Wolfman starts to go delightfully insane. In the second half more time is spent in crypts than drawing rooms, and a riotous sequence at a London asylum finally kicks the proceedings into high bloody gear. The movie gets in touch with its Famous Monsters of Movieland pulpy roots, and the fun starts.
Still even good old-fashioned ripping and tearing isn’t enough to make The Wolfman completely work as a horror film. No matter how impressive the legendary Rick Baker’s makeup effects are, you still end up with a half-wolf, half-human, running around upright in tattered human clothing. The result is a “monster” that’s more silly than scary; you keep thinking Teen Wolf, not American Werewolf in London. Unable to stir up any genuine dread, The Wolfman settles for jump-shock scares and insides-out gore. But if you can stay awake during the deadly flat “character” scenes, by the end the wolf-run-amok bloodletting is enough to shake some B-movie fun loose along with the rolling heads.