Hollywood, particularly Universal, has made an effort to resurrect their classic 19302-40s horror franchises in recent cinema history. From Bram Stoker’s Dracula to The Mummy to Van Helsing, Universal (and Columbia) have, for better or worse, mined the box office potential of their old properties to wildly different results. When tackling this material, one can’t simply make a straightforward remake from a horror film from the early American sound era. These nascent horror films starring Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. possess their own lasting artistic value, but they certainly don’t resonate in terms of effective, modern means to achieving a lasting horrific effect relevant to practices today. Tod Browning and Lugosi’s Dracula supposedly turned audiences into fits of heart-racing fear back in 1931, but contemporary moviegoing struggles to see how he induced such a reaction.
These films work more interestingly as important signposts in the historical evolution of horror than lasting entertainment experiences for the modern era. More importantly, horror has changed focus since 1960, when the genre lost its concern with supernatural creatures and space aliens and focused instead on the horror and potential for evil inherent in man in the forms of serial killers and psychopaths. Thus, when adapting these creatures, who in their adaptation process have more in common with their filmic predecessors than the literary source material, the end result and newly manufactured appeal of such films don’t lie in their potential to be terrifying, but in some other form of entertainment value. Coppola’s Dracula and Sommers’ Mummy films are entertaining in their own respects, but they aren’t remembered for being scary. Bring in Joe Johnston’s long-awaited update of The Wolfman, a film whose failure or success doesn’t necessarily ride on how horrifying it is, but on potential original value excavated from the source material that couldn’t be realized in its 1941 predecessor. It is in this respect that the film fails.
Benicio Del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, a British expatriate who has returned to his homeland from New York City to inquire on the disappearance of his brother at the request of his fiancée Gwen (Emily Blunt). The village of Talbot’s home has been ravaged by brutal, unprecedented animal attacks. Talbot gets bitten by said animal and, of course, begins to endure a mysterious transformation while Aberline (Hugo Weaving), a Scotland Yard inspector, enacts a looming counter-investigation.
Like the revitalization of any franchise within the last few years, the story of The Wolfman is (pun not intended) universal and immediately recognizable. What audiences want in films like this are two basic things, 1) creative but slight variations in their interpretation on this familiar material, and 2) a unique stylistic and entertaining approach to such familiar source material. Johnston and company, unfortunately for us, deliver on neither.
The Wolfman is no way a terrible movie. It’s not an abomination. Trade papers and journalists will spin this movie to be the aborted realization of a troubled production, but there are far worse examples of rushed business decisions in studio history. What’s wrong with The Wolfman is that it never solidifies a coherent artistic or narrative vision, which calls into question the necessity for a relaunch if the inspiration isn’t evident. The Wolfman moves at a lightning pace to its detriment (a probable result, in this case, of too much time revisiting the editing room by too many people) as the filmmakers never allow the film time and space to breathe and establish – let alone immerse the audience in – the world that it has created. What follows this botched, haphazard opening act is far better than the film’s first thirty minutes, but without the necessary foundation, none of what follows is convincing enough to be effective or affecting.
The film employs a CGI-laden, cartoonish approach to gore which is fun to witness in its initial moments, but when The Wolfman offers little in terms of a fresh approach to entertainment with this all-too-familiar material, it becomes evident that the gore offers little more than a diverting replacement for where genuine suspense is supposed to be. The film is indeed entertaining in several moments, especially the first two scenes where Del Toro transforms into the eponymous creature. It’s an unchallenging, mostly inoffensive breeze to sit through, but its entertainment value is superficial, its vapid core sleekly disguised beneath the immediate appeal of sound and image. I will say, though, that I the first few scenes of Talbot’s painful transformation – while frustratingly rushed through – were a joy to behold as Del Toro’s digits and joints methodically dislocated themselves into an artful grotesquerie – a beautiful marriage of aesthetique and industrial effect. Sure, one can’t help but become nostalgic for the far more appropriate use of Rick Baker’s makeup talents iconically utilized in An American Werewolf in London almost thirty years ago, but Johnston’s take on the wolfman story is never grounded enough in any conviction of reality to feel that something of depth is lost without the employment of practical effects and animatronics in the process. On the contrary, the CGI transformations were one of The Wolfman‘s few redeeming factors to behold.
As far as performances go, Weaving and Sir Anthony Hopkins (as Lawrence’s father Sir John Talbot) seem to be having grand fun with what little they’re given. Weaving in particular owns the screen, and he’s generously given the film’s rare moments of funny dialogue. One of The Wolfman‘s most surprising lacking aspects is that it is, of all actors, Del Toro who doesn’t deliver here. Supposedly a passion project for the actor as he is purportedly a fan of original wolfman Lon Chaney, Jr., Del Toro comes across as even less interested and less inspired than the talents behind the camera. He’s bland and dry, especially as Talbot (and he displays no convincing history of chemistry with the father figure, which hurts the film’s third act), and as the creature this allegedly method actor brings nothing new to the table. I wasn’t expecting the arguably inappropriate existential take on Frankenstein’s monster via De Niro in Kenneth Branaugh’s Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but Del Toro is an actor whose track record thus far warrants fully all the praise he’s received. He’s notoriously achieved a great deal with small roles in the past, but instead of wishing he had more screen time as I did in witnessing his innovative supporting turns in The Usual Suspects and Traffic, Del Toro does directly the opposite here: delivering scant to nothing in a role that occupies the majority of the film’s screen time.
As a director, Johnston doesn’t necessarily disappoint because of how haphazard his career has been so far. He’s never displayed a collective vision, and as a typical director-for-hire he is the wrong choice for this stylistically heavy subject matter. His fast-moving camera and quick cutting at first alludes to the intoxicating overstylization of Coppola’s Dracula, but where the wine baron resurrected the styles of Abel Gance and German Expressionism for his take on a classic monster, Johnston uses style as an allusion to something deeper going on underneath the (apparently) lightning-quick clouds of Victorian England, but this is a veil over the empty, uninspired, and unfortunate missed opportunity that this take of The Wolfman finally realizes itself to be.
The Upside: An entertaining (if lacking) breeze after the first act, Hugo Weaving’s fun performance.
The Downside: It’s all an empty, uninspired affair.
On the Side: Sir Anthony Hopkins stipulates in his contract that he only play characters possessing the title “sir.”