Opening Friday, February 12
Directed by Joe Johnston
All of the elements are in place and we’ve been here before. Familiarity wrapping us like a warm blanket. There’s the gloomy English countryside. Foggy nights. A brilliant full moon. Angry villagers and good ol’ gypsy mysticism. And, last but not least, the Wolfman, wonderfully realized by make-up FX maestro Rick Baker. That said, reviving the Wolfman brand – since the hirsute beast joined the Universal classic monsters pantheon in 1941 – should be a piece of cake. Turns out, it isn’t. Director Joe Johnston’s update isn’t the complete disaster you might expect it to be given the rough production history. But it’s not entirely great either. Like the protagonist at the center of its story, Larry Talbot, the film is consistently at odds with itself.
Johnston’s range over the years has delved into adventure (Jurassic Park III, The Rocketeer), drama (October Sky) and kiddie fare (Jumanji). Here he takes a gothic turn with a script by Andrew Kevin Walker (who knows “grim” and “gothic” well, he also penned Seven and Sleepy Hollow) and David Self (screenwriter on The Road to Perdition and The Haunting remake, to give you an idea of his unpredictable value). While the story is set in the 1800s, itâ€™s evident that Johnston and Universal are struggling to find the right balance between appeasing those looking for a return to the atmosphere-drenched, deliberately paced, horror films that the studio was known for in the ’30 and ’40s and the younger generation of fright fans weaned on hard-hitting, head-splitting genre films.
Yes, The Wolfman is one of those inconsistent creatures of celluloid that bears the claw marks of repeated tampering. The film opens on a vicious and exciting attack that smashes to a blood-dripping title card before you’re even allowed to catch your breath. From here, it hurries into the crux of the story where it settles into a relaxed retelling of key beats from the 1941 original film before switching gears yet again with new twists and turns that are extremely questionable and don’t sit right with this original Wolf Man fan.
The first act of the film is the most palatable and offers fans a modicum of harmless changes. After the death of his brother, Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) returns home to England to visit his father, big game hunter Sir John Talbot (Hopkins). Here Walker and Self’s script wisely make Talbot a proactive character tasked with investigating his brother’s death at the request of doe-eyed widow Gwen Conliffe (Blunt), whereas the original found Lon Chaney Jr.’s arrival on his father’s doorstep a less emotional reunion and offered Talbot a chance to chase some of the local tail. It’s Talbot’s newfound determination that sets him on his path of later becoming cursed by lycanthropy. But a well-choreographed gypsy camp massacre, early on, is just one of the many telling symptoms of the film’s dueling identities.
This break from the building somber dread introduces both overt energy and a surprising amount of spilled viscera. That’s right, this Wolfman for 2010 is a real butcher – splitting bellies, dismembering and beheading with any chance he’s given leaving his victims screaming and wandering about like injured soldiers on the war-strewn beaches of D-Day. Classic monster purists might scoff at this sort of unbridled mayhem, but it’s clearly out to wow the audiences who clamor to see Saw. I’m mixed on its use of steaming intestines and lungs, to be honest. Nonetheless, these fits of action are exciting and a blast to watch, especially a London chase that tips a hat to An American Werewolf in London (one of two tips of the hat, in fact, to John Landis’ film).
The real forced, puzzling tempo-breakers though are the jump scares Johnston resorts to in an effort to set the audience on edge during extended moments of drama. He does this with ineffective hallucinations, for instance, involving feral children or the Wolfman growling from a mirror; there’s even a gimmicky “it’s only the dog” gag that threatens to cheapen the quality of the film. Furthermore, much like Walker’s Sleepy Hollow, there’s stilted exposition (reserved for the big reveals) that suck the energy out of the room.
Even with these weird stylistic missteps, there’s always the cast to root us back in the drama. Hopkins chews the scenery at every turn teetering between a worldly, distant and quirky patriarch to an imposing, sometimes scary presence. Weaving and Blunt are serviceable in their respective roles as Scotland Yard Detective Abberline (still wincing from the Jack the Ripper case) and the mourning and concerned Conliffe. As Lawrence Talbot, Del Toro channels the required angst – although he doesn’t need much help with those sorrowful eyes of his (not keen on the hair, though) – but he, not to mention the script, misses the mark in eliciting our sympathy. Talbot’s emotional journey is somewhat cut off halfway through the story when it veers from the source material and he’s whisked off to an insane asylum, leaving Conliffe to probe deeper into the lore of lycanthropy. Talbot’s passive stance in his quest for a cure doesn’t work here; then again, the writers made this ill-advised decision to pave the way for themes that enhance the father/son dynamic and introduce a borderline silly confrontation. Still, Del Toro throws himself wholeheartedly into the role of Talbot’s vicious counterpart, bounding about wide-eyed and snapping with a set of chompers beneath Baker’s impressive make-up. The transformations are still nowhere near as impressive as what Baker did in American Werewolf, but they are not terrible for being CG-fueled.
Technically, the environs, photographed by Shelly Johnson (a Johnston vet), and Rick (Sleepy Hollow) Heinrich’s production design are gorgeous. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman’s score is perfect for the material, although at times familiar.
The Wolfman isn’t perfect but it is watchable and I’ll certainly be the first to admit I was grinning ear to ear every moment the beast was onscreen. Thankfully, it isn’t an embarrassment as Universal’s Van Helsing was, and not nearly as hokey as Kenneth Branagh’s vision of Frankenstein. But you don’t have to have wolf-like senses to smell there are too many cooks in the kitchen here. A monster caught between two worlds – old school and modern horror – The Wolfman is a decent effort, yet I’ll still reach for Chaney’s ’41 version when I need my annual fix of this beloved Universal monster.