Directed by Joe Johnston ("Jurassic Park III", "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids") and written by Andrew Kevin Walker ("Se7en", "Sleepy Hollow") and David Self ("The Road to Perdition"), there is a lot to like about "The Wolfman", the new big budget version of the classic Universal horror film. Unfortunately, there is just as much confusing narrative to cause confusion and dislike about it as well. Ultimately, it is a forgettable film, which is a shame because as you watch it, you keep hoping it will ultimately swing the other way.
London, 1891. Lawrence Talbot (Benicio Del Toro), an actor touring in England, returns to his ancestral home, Blackmoor, at the request of his dead brother's fiancée, Gwen (Emily Blunt, "Sunshine Cleaning", "The Devil Wears Prada"). His brother was recently killed in a strange, savage animal attack and she needs his assistance trying to comfort his father, Sir John (Anthony Hopkins). Larry arrives at his ancestral estate and finds it in a sad condition; nothing appears to have been cleaned in ages and there is a deep sense of dread about the house and the small town nearby. Larry visits his dead brother's body and realizes the attack was not made by a normal animal and people in the town start to blame the attack on a Wolf Man. The blame also starts to fall on a group of traveling gypsies led by Maleva (Geraldine Chaplin). Soon, Larry is attacked by the wolf and races against the impending full moon to find out who the wolf man is. And when he realizes Gwen might be in danger, his mission accelerates. Then, Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving, "The Matrix", "Priscilla Queen of the Desert"), a Scotland Yard Inspector, arrives to lead the investigation.
Johnston is not a very prolific director. He's had some hits and some misses. His debut "Honey, I Shrunk The Kids" showed promise but with the exception of "The Rocketeer" and "Jumanji" his films have been very uneven and most would be best described as "Cable-Ready" fare. "Jurassic Park III" should have been released direct to video. Both screenwriters, Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self have penned highly original, interesting screenplays and you would probably expect something interesting and unusual from them. Most of the problems with "The Wolfman" arise in the narrative. And for that, the screenwriters and director receive most of the blame.
What I did like about the film is it is just dripping with atmosphere. Dirt and leaves line the entry hall of Blackmoor. The exterior is lined with black moss giving the building a decaying look. This theme is carried throughout; the night scenes are filled with black, white and silver, which I am sure is no surprise, but the method in which this is done lends the film a unique look, making it appear almost monochromatic, almost as though it is a black and white film.
The narrative has a quick pulse to it, giving the film a faster pace than you might expect. In many films like this, a lot of time is spent establishing the mythology of the characters and the setting. Often the film runs two hours plus as a result. In "The Wolfman", as a scene ends, the action seems to shift and fast forward to the next set-up. This keeps the pace brisk and also mimics the actions of the actors when they are turning into the wolves. It's a nice touch and helps give the film a slightly stylized look.
I also appreciate the fact the filmmakers decided to make the film a period piece. I'm not exactly sure why this was done, but it does lend an air of interest to the film. Does it make it more believable? Maybe. It seems the more old-fashioned a setting, the more believable it is to see a man turn into a wolf. Somehow, if the film were set in present day, the threat wouldn't be as real. Surely there is some modern weapon that could be used to trap and or kill a wolf man more easily. The original film was released in 1941 and this new version jumps back sixty years before that. Giving the film a period setting, even if it isn't the same period, somehow, strangely, seems like a tribute to the original. Perhaps this is meant to be a prequel, Del Toro's character is Larry Talbot, the same name of Lon Chaney Jr.'s wolf man. Maybe Del Toro is meant to be the ancestor of the character later played by Chaney. It's a nice thought, but I'm not sure how much of this was deliberate.
This new version is an R-rated film, which is a nice change of pace in the current marketplace. So many studio films are created with the caveat they must receive a PG or PG-13 rating, to ensure the millions of teen-aged boys who buy multiple tickets can get into the theater. An R-rating allows this film to paint a bloodier picture, a more 'realistic' picture of the carnage of what a wolf man can and would create. How stupid would it be to have a film like this rated PG-13? Every time the wolf attacks, the camera would have to cut away to the reaction of someone standing nearby, or a shadow on a wall showing us the action. This is probably what would have been done in the 40s and this technique could be applied with some great success in this project. But to make it work, the filmmaker has to apply some great skill and finesse. In "The Wolfman", there more blood and gore, less skill and finesse. It seems like an acceptable balance.
There is a significant amount of exposition dedicated to making us believe Benicio Del Toro is the heir to an English estate, in 1881. His father (Anthony Hopkins) makes a comment about Larry's time spent with his aunt in the United States. There is a reference to his mother, who may have been Spanish. But it just doesn't work. Del Toro is a great actor and he always brings a lot of intensity to the roles he plays. But you don't ever believe he is the son of Anthony Hopkins. You have to quickly get past this little bit of information and move on, because the film has more story to get through and it won't wait for you.
As we hear Gwen narrate the beginning of the film, we see a brief shot of Lawrence on stage as Hamlet and the camera pushes forward abruptly and we see another shot of Lawrence as Macbeth, then the camera pushes forward and we watch as Lawrence's brother is murdered by a large beast. This beginning scene is very good at setting up the tone for the entire film. Even though this is a period piece, the camera never lingers too long and the action continues to move forward. Late in the film, as we watch Lawrence transform into the beast, his face gets a little hairy and then his body jerks forward and we see that his face has transformed again. Each time his body convulses, or jerks forward, another bit of the transformation takes place. Both of these methods seemed similar and help to advance the narrative in a quick, almost modern way. It might seem like this would be a little jarring, given the film is set in 1881 England, you might expect a film more reminiscent of Merchant Ivory, but it is a refreshing way to tell the story.
Del Toro is always a pretty intense actor and this serves him well in his performance of Lawrence Talbot. As he becomes embroiled in the mystery and learns more about the situation, you get the sense there is a growing anger lying beneath his surface, an anger that he is barely able to contain. When this anger reaches its apex, it unleashes the beast within him.
Anthony Hopkins is one of the greatest actors of our time. But he is also an actor who frequently just walks through the parts he is playing, like he can't muster the enthusiasm to make the role something memorable. So he simply plays Anthony Hopkins. Granted, Anthony Hopkins playing himself is a lot better than most would do with the role, but we have seen this man in some truly great, truly memorable performances. Because of this, it is disappointing to watch him simply play himself. If he isn't able to muster the enthusiasm for the role, why take it?
Emily Blunt is good as Gwen, the woman who first must mourn the loss of her fiancée and then realizes she is attracted to the man's brother. She brings intelligence and strength to the role that helps to set it apart from the typical damsel in distress.
Hugo Weaving plays Inspector Abbeline, the Scotland Yard inspector sent to the Moors to help with this strange case. There is a brief reference to Abbeline's previous duty hunting Jack the Ripper, a nice touch helping to make his character seem more vital. When he arrives, he finds the townspeople in arms trying to impart their own brand of justice. Abbeline quickly puts a stop to it and begins his official investigation. But events quickly take over and he finds himself unable to stay ahead of the investigation and must fight to keep from drowning.
When you are dealing with a fantasy film, a horror film, a film depicting anything out of the ordinary, it is vital to get one aspect of the production absolutely and completely right. The story has to be airtight. If it is, if the filmmakers follow their own established rules for the universe they are creating, if all of the characters fit together correctly, if everything makes sense in these parameters, we can enjoy the ride and the film. If there are problems with the story, we become distracted and start to look for other problems. Is the make-up believable, is that special effect working, did they recreate that scene correctly? We begin to pick it apart. There are problems with "The Wolfman" and these distract us from the rest of the film.
Ultimately, I didn't leave the theater fearful of the next full moon and that is a problem.