Joe Johnston’s remake of The Wolfman kind of snuck up on me. I’d seen the teaser and knew it was coming, but I never put any effort into figuring out when, despite my inherent affinity for werewolves (feels like ages since Hollywood’s produced a palatable scrap of lycanthropic cinema). So I found out in the most unpleasant way possible: overhearing a pair of coworkers talking about the movie a few feet away from me. Bummer.
Anyhow, after rushing out to go see it, I’m not entirely certain my haste was called for. The Wolfman isn’t a bad movie, but nor is it a very memorable one. It’s just very, very mediocre.
The story goes like this: After the mysterious ripping-to-shreds of his brother, young actor Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro) returns to his familial estate in a quaint English village. Under the watchful eye of his creepy father (Anthony Hopkins) and a suspicious Inspector from Scotland Yard (Hugo Weaving), Lawrence endeavors not to leave until he’s uncovered the mystery behind his late brother’s gruesome mauling. This results in his getting bit by a very large wolf, naturally. As the full moon rises, Lawrence undergoes a horrific change into a monstrous wolfman. Only the widow of Lawrence’s brother, Solana (Christina Contes) can release Lawrence from his damnation, but the machinations of Lawrence’s father may seal his doom.
Universal’s recent attempts at reviving their “Classic Monsters” for modern moviegoers haven’t had a very splendid track record. I may be in the minority, but I didn’t much like The Mummy, to say nothing of its slew of torturous sequels. Then came their “homage” to all their horror classics in the form of the Van Helsing, the only movie I have ever walked out of in my entire life. So when they announced they’d be reviving The Wolfman, one of my favorite installments in the Unviersal Classic Monster canon, my immediate response was a big “fuck you.” Thankfully, they soothed my aggressions by announcing that Stephen Sommers (director of The Mummy and Van Helsing) would have no hand in the project. Whew.
What we got out of director Joe Johnston, though, was a bit disappointing. Nothing in the movie is all that painfully terrible, automatically putting it heads and shoulders above anything Sommers might produce. However, there’s nothing especially outstanding about the film, either. It hurries about the paces of its plot as someone would hurry about their daily routine. Everything is pretty clearly telegraphed from start to finish and while I applaud Johnston on some truly gorgeous and eerie set designs and a pleasantly gothic atmosphere, The Wolfman doesn’t really try to be all too scary.
It follows the trend of a lot of modern blockbuster horror movies in that it’s more of an action flick than a horror flick. There’s lots of screentime for the Wolfman, running around villages, London streets and old mansions, tearing the people and the scenery to pieces, but it’s executed more for the sake of being “cool” than “frightening”. You’ll find the titular Wolfman and his rampages as spine-tingling as, say, the CGI Hulk and his rampages from The Incredible Hulk. Cool? Yes. Scary? Hardly.
And that’s not so much a bad thing, if that’s what you’re into. While I continue to weep for the loss of practical effects (I know that we’ll never see any werewolf transformations done in the way of The Howling or An American Werewolf in London ever again), I can’t deny that the CG Wolfman’s transformation effects look pretty good. The CG helps to accentuate the beast’s use of canine musculature and movements, as well as some superhuman displays of athleticism. The scene in which the Wolfman hops across the rooftops of London gave me flashbacks to a similar scene from Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf, only done far, far better. The facial make-up is something I’d like to single out as being very pleasing. They chose to emulate Lon Chaney Junior’s make-up from the original Wolf Man rather than go all crazy with a prolonged snout and over-the-top doggy features like a lot of modern werewolf flicks go for.
All that out of the way, though, I felt that the “high octane action thrill ride” approach did a major disservice to the excellent set design and atmosphere Johnston had also crafted. The movie would’ve benefited from a little more subtlety and a more genuine attempt at “scares”. As it stands, the only attempts to frighten the audience are some terminally lame “false alarms”, particularly during a dream sequence where the “jump” effect is used over and over in rapid succession and is almost embarrassing to observe.
As a saving grace, the cast is quite good. I dunno what they did to him, but Benicio Del Toro really looks like the spitting image of Lon Chaney Jr., albeit skinnier and a bit more “Hollywood-ugly” as opposed to “ugly-ugly”. Hugo Weaving was a pleasant surprise, too. The guy’s sort of becoming the William Atherton of the 2000s, in that he plays a tremendous asshole in every film he’s in. Dude’s getting typecast. As for Anthony Hopkins, well, he sort of phones his performance in. Either that, or he didn’t have a whole lot to work with (and considering how cut and dry the script seems to be, I wouldn’t doubt that possibility). He plays a fun villain and all, but there’s nothing all too amazing about his performance.
For my money’s worth, I found The Wolfman to be way too average of a movie. I was expecting a moodier, more atmospheric kind of horror movie as opposed to an action flick with some horror movie dressing drizzled over it. If that’s your sort of thing, though, then I’m sure you’ll get more out of this flick than I did, which isn’t an inherently bad movie, just not very special.
You can pick up The Wolfman on DVD, Blu-ray, or download it via Amazon Instant Video by clicking the link.
“Can someone just let Hugo Weaving play a nice guy for a change? Now that would be truly scary and unnerving.”)