Directed by Joe Johnston
Starring: Benicia del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, And Hugo Weaving
Plagued with production problems (including a last-minute change in director), The Wolfman remake seemed about as cursed as the Talbot family of the film itself. Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, the film succeeds when in gear as an atmospheric horror/thriller, but fails when it attempts to tell a cohesive story that makes a lick-of-sense.
Benicia del Toro (who uncannily resembles Lon Chaney Jr., the star of the 1941 original The Wolf Man) plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor who returns home to Britain after many years abroad in America, to reconcile with his father (Anthony Hopkins) and track down the killer of his brother Ben. While investigating a group of traveling gypsies (and in between fighting off advances from his brother’s fiancé played by Emily Blunt), Lawrence is bitten by a werewolf, and soon falls under the spell of the full-moon, which turns him into – well, you know. Entrails a-plenty are then spilled.
The narrative pays homage to the spirit and integrity of the original film in some places and spits in the face of it in others – and I’m not talking about the change in period to Victorian-era England. While the basic tone of the story and Larry’s struggle with what he has become remain more or less in tact, there’s an odd change to a key relationship that I can only figure was modified to satiate a modern audience that requires big, explosive third-act payoffs.
Problems with fidelity to the original source material, though, is a distant second to the problems the screenplay has in and of itself, regardless of whether or not it is sticking to the structure of the 1941 original. Characters make puzzling decisions – at one point Larry is instructed by his father not to leave Talbot manor under a full-moon, then, one scene later, does it anyway with no explanation as to why – and some important story points are glossed over and unclear. The screenplay is credited to Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, but it seems like there were more than two cooks in this kitchen. The narrative isn’t a cold sloppy Joe so much as a luke-warm stew of ideas served with only one purpose: to make sure what you only really care about is watching a half-man/half-beast hack off limbs, slash faces of small-town villagers, and gut officials of Scotland Yard.
And it is in these sequences where the film succeeds in spades. Director Joe Johnston (of the severely underrated The Racketeer and the severely retarded Jurassic Park III) crafts the scenes when Larry is in full wolf-mode with equal parts fun, gore, and scares. Legendary make-up artist Rick Baker has created a wolf man worthy of the classic film (and of the genre in general – seriously, it’s masterful stuff), and the gore effects are equally as impressive. It’s clear Johnston and Baker had a blast filming these scenes, and there are shots that exemplify a director who had complete and utter confidence in his make-up and special effects department. Johnston’s not afraid to bring the camera up close to Baker’s work and let it linger.
While there is a palpable sense of atmosphere throughout the film, a credit to Johnston’s abilities as a director, Johnston curiously fails sometimes to make use of fog and shadows, relying more on loud jump-scares and gruesome flashing images to frighten the audience. While overall I was impressed with the thick cloud of doom hanging over Blackmoor woods that Johnston creates, it felt like he missed plenty of opportunities to instill a sense of real dread into the film.
Del Toro does fine work as Talbot. Besides his aforementioned resemblance to Chaney Jr. (which is creepy), and a vocal cadence that is, at times, similar to Chaney’s as well, del Toro finds the place in Talbot that’s uncomfortable being back to where his childhood was, and is even more uncomfortable when he realizes he literally cannot control the beast within. The rest of the performances range from good (Anthony Hopkins (who once again brings his patented over-the-top derangement to the screen) and Hugo Weaving) to bland (Emily Blunt).
But you’re not going to see this film for Academy Award worthy acting or Robert Towne levels of screenplay craftsmanship. You’re going because you want to see a man transform into a monster and wreak havoc on the innards of innocent victims. You’re going to see it for that reason, and with the remake of The Wolfman, you’re going to get your money’s worth.