The Wolfman (R) 103 min. Directed by: Joe Johnston Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker & David Self Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving Cinematography: Original Score: Danny Elfman
There is a scene in the new Wolfman where Emily Blunt runs through the foggy night forest, pursued by Del Toro’s slobbering beast. She runs as far as she can, and finds herself balanced precariously at the edge of a treacherous cliff that overlooks a roaring waterfall. Behind her, the monster comes loping and snarling through the underbrush. She has nowhere to go, so she turns pleadingly to face the attacker, her hands concealing the weapon behind her back.
I love moments like this, and the beautifully lush cinematography, Elfman’s shrieking gothic score, as well as Blunt’s wide, staring eyes make it a thing of haunting beauty. When I was a kid, this was the stuff of my dreams and nightmares. In fact, that’s the biggest problem with all of Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman. Less a rendition of the original 1940’s classic and more a high-gloss version of a geeky fan-boy’s interior fantasy life, this Wolf is a total howler. It’s still fun but the odd subtext trumps the dark tragedy of its predecessor.
Visualized with a grand and impressively atmospheric set design, Wolfman 2010 has been structured so it triggers every monster lover’s pleasure centers; the late Victorian setting, the gypsy camp at the edge of the forest, the fidelity to Lon Chaney Jr’s. wolfish appearance, and Anthony Hopkins brooding old aristocrat, who looks like he’s constantly eyeing up your lungs for consumption. Even the crumbling, derelict manse that Hopkin’s Lord Talbot lives in is so close to the original manor (they may in fact be the same building) that a hardcore follower of the first film might squeal before he catches himself. In every way, this is the definition of a rich and handsome production and it pays homage to the genre worshipers who revere it. Maybe a bit too much homage.
In the original, Larry Talbot was a well meaning and laid-back ladies’ man. Chaney made him more awkward and self-aware than he realized, and this gave him a sense of charming character. He’s so affable that its a genuine shock when he finds himself turning into a murderous monster by moonlight. Del Toro’s Larry is like a blank slate that stunted adolescents and reclusive nerds can graft their own troubles on to.
Benicio does what he can to come off as doomed, but the script has positioned him as a brooding man-child locked down by the oppressive shadow of his father. He can barely function as his own agent, until the beautiful, dewy Gwen comes along, his dead brother’s intended wife. When Larry eventually gets bitten by something on the moors and transforms into the wolf, he finds a new sense of power and terrible desire. He’s also pursued by the undeterred Officer Abberline, a Scotland Yard detective that has his own bowler hat and muttonchops to prove he’s serious.
Now, lets examine that a bit. The telling portions are in the casting. Johnston’s film is literally a movie-buffs wet dream; a cobbling together of vital and meaningful bits to form a buffet of fantastical wish-fulfillment. So you are a darkly handsome aristocrat with daddy issues and a superpower that lets you unleash and shed all your inhibitions? Cool, but cooler yet if Emily Blunt is the woman you long to whisper sweet nothings to but can’t, and how awesome to have Agent Smith himself playing Sherlock Holmes as your own personal nemesis? Does it get better? Sure it does.
In this heated cinephile daydream, the great Anthony Hopkins is your dad, only wait, it’s more like he’s really Orson Welles—the fat drunken, latter-day Welles who would chew your ass out over peas or pass out while pimping Californian champagne. Hopkins has the Wellesian contempt and sneering pomp down so well, I was actually disappointed that I didn’t get to hear him growl ‘Rosebud’ through pursed lips.
When Wolfie goes berserk on London and goes leaping Incredible Hulk style across the rooftops, he even stops and finds the time to crouch on a gargoyle, howling like a madman. I assume he was thinking ‘Spidey, eat your heart out!’ The real problem with all of this undercooked adolescent pandering is that it never amounts to anything more than few chuckles or gasps of geeky glee. The Wolfman’s own worst enemy is the hovering iconic presence of …The Wolfman.
The acting is fine for the most part, although Hopkins surely comes off the best. Weaving is second as the kind of inspector you’d find in those old horror comics where characters would say things like “Stop! Do you hear that”? Silence!” Blunt does what she can but she’s mostly there because she has the kind of features that look great when contrasted against flickering candlelight or reflected in the light of the moon. I think she’s terrifically talented, but the script gives her nothing to do. Same for Del Toro, who can never quite manage to make Talbot the same pitiable and tragic soul that Chaney gave us.
There are some good action scenes and the movie has much fun with the sequences where the Wolfman goes out on the prowl, ripping apart the townsfolk and playing hell with law enforcement. The 40’s wolf mostly strangled people, but this new one has the precision of a modern-day surgeon, expertly pulling out organs from their squishy casing with barely a second glance down at what he’s doing.
The wolf design is very similar, albeit more ferocious. I like the decision to keep the shredded clothes and the signature fro. Rick Baker, who is responsible for that legendary transformation scene in American Werewolf in London, does a nice job with the makeup, adding in more specific details. This guy is a hairy, hairy gent and I’d like to meet his tailor.
What is missing is a script that would give us something of substance to hold on to emotionally. The character development is nearly nonexistent, instead opting for the kind of pop culture archetype and Freudian pandering I mentioned above. We never believe there is a flame of any kind between Del Toro and Blunt, and that’s down to the writing. I never felt the depth of torture or internal conflict that belongs to Larry. The only thing I know for sure here is that Lord Talbot is one crazy bastard and Hopkins metaphorically chews the scenery apart until he has had enough, and literally begins devouring it.
In the end, The Wolfman never goes far enough into the campy vein to give us a picture worth remembering, and it’s far too over-the-top and poorly paced to work as a dark drama. What’s there is a lot like the wolfman himself, a hybrid of conflicting allegiances and desires. But hey, the geek crowd will probably have a good time.