Review Of The Wolfman Movie/DVD
Title: The Wolfman
Starring: Benicio del Toro, Hugo Weaving, Emily Blount, Anthony Hopkins
They don’t make monster movies like they used to. They, being Universal Studios. For nearly 40 years Universal released scores of monster movies, some becoming classics that have influenced the horror genre ever since. The remakes of these movies, like The Mummy and its sub-par sequels, and updates like Van Helsing, have been Universal’s doing, but these remakes and re-imaginings have never captured the true horror of their originals. The Wolfman is a scary, valiant attempt. It isn’t as funny as The Mummy, but it isn’t as loud, unfocused, and dim as Van Helsing. Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman is based on 1941’s The Wolf Man, which was Universal’s second werewolf movie at the time. The original movie franchise instituted much of the werewolf lore modern audiences take for granted: susceptibility to silver, the effects of the full moon, even the humanization of the wolf form. It is upon this franchise that The Wolfman respectfully stands.
It is 1891 and Lawrence Talbot’s (Benicio del Toro) brother Ben Talbot (Simon Merrells) has been viciously murdered. Lawrence has been touring on the stage as Hamlet, but he returns to his childhood home, Talbot Hall in Blackmoor, England. There he finds Ben’s fiancée, Gwen Conliffe (Emily Bunt) consumed with grief, and his menacing father Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins). The local believe a group of Gypsies is responsible for Ben’s murder. Determined to solve the mystery of his brother’s murder, Lawrence visits the Gypsies, but their camping ground is suddenly ambushed by the beast. The beast bites Lawrence and lopes off into the night. Inspector Francis Aberline (Hugo Weaving) comes to Blackmoor to investigate and immediately suspects Lawrence because of the time he spent in an insane asylum. As the full moon rises, Lawrence transforms into the Wolfman and begins his bloody rampage. When Aberline finds Lawrence in the woods in human form, and covered in blood, Lawrence is sent back to the asylum.
Lawrence Talbot is oddly heroic in human form, and despite his narcissism, he’s a tragic figure. He was a tortured man long before the wolf bite. His transformations simply fuel his angst. He tries to suppress the prowling monster inside, but the full moon is inescapable and the Wolfman is unstoppable. As the Gypsy woman Maleva says, only one who loves him can stop him. Blurring the lines of hero and anti-hero is what Benicio del Toro does best. In The Wolfman he makes it look easy enough for it to look like he’s phoning it in, even when he isn’t.
It’s del Toro’s support cast that can’t keep up. Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe is largely wasted. It isn’t Blunt’s fault. Hollywood has a terrible habit of casting promising young actresses as dead-eyed love interests. Gwen Conliffe has no other purpose than to weep in a dignified Victorian manner (none of that throwing yourself on the coffin, thank you very much) and glide around daintily in gothic gowns. Anthony Hopkins as John Talbot fares evens worse. He mostly blends into the disarrayed background of Talbot Hall. Hopkins lack energy, and loiters on the screen with a tired expression on his face. Only Hugo Weaving manages to reach del Toro’s level, and as in many of his other movies. Weaving even outshines the leading man.
The star of The Wolfman, however, isn’t any of the actors, but the technical achievements of the set design, art direction, and production design. Like all monster movies, The Wolfman needs a sense of atmosphere to terrify the audience. The original was set in the early 20th century so The Wolfman’s gothic Victorian atmosphere is a new development. Some of this atmosphere comes from nature – the misty moors, the dark woods, and the full moon. But the gothic architecture of Talbot hall, London, and the asylum add a sense of eerie, looming dread. London is a dark haunted shell of a city, this being a few years after the Jack the Ripper murders sent London into a panic. The Wolfman’s murders are just as gruesome as the Ripper’s, and in the film most of his kills are horribly graphic. It’s a gore-fest complete with gallons of blood, beheadings and organs spilling out. If you don’t look away, you’ll see the bloodbath in its entirety. Some might balk – the bloodiness was implied in the original; but they’re not called monster movies for nothing. The gore does go downhill when the Wolfman and his beastly werewolf maker finally meet. It’s more funny than frightening – almost cute.
The Wolfman’s classic make-up style is all thanks to Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker, who worked on Michael Jackson’s Thriller and An American Werewolf in London. The make-up is amazingly wolf-like complete with latex prosthetics, hair and dentures. All this simply enhances Benicio del Toro’s lupine qualities – hair and all. What takes away from the Wolfman’s scariness is the CGI transformation from man to beast. As his bones crack and his face extends, the sense of dread is non-existent. The CGI looks cartoonish at best. Not every remake and update has to be chock-full of CGI for it to be relevant. Sometimes the CGI just diminishes the quality of the movie. It’s the make-up and the set design that looks most real. Sometimes the old way of doing things really is the best way.
The Wolfman is a suspenseful, often scary piece of entertainment, bogged down by necessary, or flat characters, and an abrupt ending that doesn’t have the emotion of the original. The Wolfman tries to strike a balance between its B-movie predecessor and glossy studio blockbuster. It ends up being a juggling act that fails.
Reviewed by: S.I.