Back to the Beast
I'm as much at odds with Universal's The Wolfman as its lead character is with his wild side. I've come to accept remakes and reboots for the necessary evils they are, so I can see why the Lon Chaney Jr. classic was updated as it has been. Today's audiences prefer movies more active than the intimate original, and the studio has spared no expense in providing one of their greatest monsters with as burly an overhaul as possible. But to what end hath all The Wolfman's toying and tinkering led? A film, as it turns out, worse off than those that took their cues from its ancestor. This particular remake ends up being a brutish mess more content to purport elegance than to whip up some of its own.
It's to Joe Johnston's (The Rocketeer) credit that he at least keeps the story steeped in period doom and gloom. 1890s England is the setting du jour, where Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) has returned home under grim circumstances. His brother has been found torn to shreds, and having spent most of his life overseas, Lawrence resolves to hunt down the guilty party himself. Unfortunately, a savage werewolf is the culprit, and after he puts the bite on Lawrence, our hero catches a case of full moon fever that leaves him with more than a thorny walk. He too transforms into a veritable hound from hell, and with the dogged Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving) on his trail, Lawrence hasn't long to rid himself of this curse before things get really hairy.
In The Wolf Man of 1941, the film's theme was all about the old world encroaching upon the new world -- the bright and shiny future being reminded of why it once feared the wild and wooly past. To an extent, so does The Wolfman, and it shows most in the movie's presentation. Though the first scene's foreboding moors will set any classic horror buff's heart aflutter, not two minutes pass before a set of slashed innards indicate this beast means business. Although I'm all for brutality in horror films, it doesn't work when chucked as randomly throughout the fray as done here. In spite of some very spiffy period visuals, The Wolfman is a film of modern sensibilities -- which translates to the requisite spasmodic editing and some pretty dodgy CG. Only a few good glances of Rick Baker's make-up work are afforded, so you'd swear some grip was chucking Furbies at the camera half the time.
What does this all mean for the story, which was as important a part of the Chaney film as the monster himself? I must say it went a bit further with the plot by adding a new dimension to Lawrence's relationship with his father (Anthony Hopkins). But the flick seems in too much of a hurry to sate its bloodlust, and Lawrence never gets to evolve into the tragic figure he should be. He's more of a Saturday morning cartoon, a guy we end up watching to see what grisly antics he'll get into this week (Del Toro's dazed performance does little to help). Hopkins comes across as money as ever, but capable cast members like Weaving and the very lovely Emily Blunt are usually cast to the side until the story's crisis quota needs to be filled. Thank heavens for that top-notch production design! When the film's jump scares aren't assaulting your retinas, you might just contract the willies from seeing fog pervade the pitch-black night or the soil turn moist from spilled blood.
What works about The Wolfman has me looking despondently upon what didn't follow suit. The film commits the cardinal remake sin: in trying so hard to leave its own mark, it ignores what helped its predecessor endure for so long. As technically proficient (for the most part) as it is, The Wolfman lacks a soul, which is what will keep monster fans everywhere from howling for more.
MY RATING: ** (out of ****)
(Released by Universal Pictures and rated "R" for bloody horror violence and gore.)