I'm no fan of Hollywood's frenzied desire to remake every film, television show, and cartoon that ever succeeded, but a remake of The Wolf Man (1941) made sense to me. The original film appeared nearly seventy years ago. It features a great premise and it holds up, after a fashion. However, the hammy period acting, limited special effects, and underdeveloped backstory all affect its reception in 2010. We could do so much more with these elements in the present, while composing a kind of Valentine to the great old horror movies.
It begins well. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his ancestral home to learn his brother is dead, savagely ripped to shreds. The locals believe a monster lurks in the woods, and Talbot learns and that his father (Anthony Hopkins) has been keeping secrets. Our progatonist's desire to learn the truth may prove his undoing.
The film's flaws, at least initially, are those of the films it seeks to imitate. Yes, the actors frequently chew the scenery, but they fall far short of the hardcore set-munchery of Lon Chaney, Jr.'s Lawrence Talbot. The music is overblown— I suspect that was Danny Elfman's intention. The film tries to capture the essence of Universal's old monster movies and update it for a twenty-first century audience. The intention doesn't preclude criticism, but careful critics should pause and consider whether their complaints are germane.
The opening sets exactly the right tone for the movie, and the ending almost returns to it, though in a more amplified and violent way. We're treated to muted colours, dark shadows, artificial dialogue, an isolated village, superstitious villagers, a gypsy encampment, an ancient manor, and a sinister curse. The nearby woods feature gnarled trees, picturesque ruins, and splattered guts. Eerie howls pierce the night. A killer walks the land, and that killer is no mere human.
If the film had continued in this vein, I would have said that, while Universal may not have created a great film, it has, son of a bitch, made a strong modern-day successor to their fabled horror movies of Hollywood's Golden Age. The first and third acts pretty much give you what you'd expect from a film called The Wolfman
Unfortunately, that wasn't good enough. This movie received numerous rewrites, reshoots, and revisions, and the finished product becomes totally unhinged in the middle. The tone meanders, as Talbot finds himself in a mental institution. We're treated to a feeding frenzy of special effects and a dog's breakfast of confusing shots. Anthony Hopkins explains the film's mysteries and backstory in a wordy speech. New characters appear so we can watch an over-the-top comic-book revenge sequence. The Wolfman runs amuck in a visually stunning recreation of 1891 London. As in all genre films set in the late Victorian Era, the story connects to the Jack the Ripper murders.
Much of this proves visually interesting, and none of it is needed. The middle clearly should have featured (and likely, at one time, did) prowls in the dark, development of existing characters, gradual revelation of mysteries, and a few more deaths by extreme violence. The film actually has a backstory which would have been worth revealing slowly, through clues and clever writing. Hammy as the performances are, they would have worked, had the actors been given actual characters. Instead, the film spends enough money to finance a film festival's worth of independent horror movies on scenes that sometimes work on their own terms, but (for the most part) don't belong in this movie.
The transformations are as impressive as the mise en scène. Effects combine old-style make-up and clever camera work with contemporary CGI. I find it remarkable how often the former trumps the latter in effectiveness. In places the filmmakers include gratuitous CGI that looks uncannily like CGI. We don't need some of those London leaps. A real bear could have been used for close-ups of the gypsies' trained animal; his facial shots don't bear scrutiny.
In the end, we have a film that varies from genuinely thrilling to funhouse-scary to laughably manipulative. It is, in its defense, a better homage to the old Universal films than Van Helsing. I don’t quite consider this the dog most critics have named it, but it falls far short of expectations.
The film's conclusion clearly hints at a sequel. Abbott and Costello have long since passed; perhaps the next Wolfman can meet Flight of the Conchords.
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self.
Based on the screenplay by Curt Siodmak.
Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot
Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot
Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe
Hugo Weaving as Frederick Abberline
Simon Merrells as Ben Talbot
Art Malik as Singh
Geraldine Chaplin as Maleva
Mario Marin-Borquez as Young Lawrence
Asa Butterfield as Young Ben
Gene Simmons performed some howls for this movie, some of which can apparently be heard in the film. His claim to be the “voice” of the Wolfman, however, is something of an exaggeration.