Over recent decades, each of the classic big-screen monsters from the former half of the 20th Century have started receiving glossy, big-budget Hollywood resurrections. This trend was kicked off by Francis Ford Coppola in 1992 with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was followed two years later by the Kenneth Branagh production Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the shadow of these two motion pictures arrived Stephen Sommers’ reinvention of The Mummy in the form of an Indiana Jones-style blockbuster action-adventure. This brings us to 2010’s The Wolfman; director Joe Johnston’s long-delayed reimagining of the 1941 Lon Chaney movie. This retelling of the classic story could’ve either been a fun, blood-soaked creature feature or a restrained, effective thriller. Unfortunately, it’s an uneasy, poorly-paced hodgepodge of these two categories with boring characters and stale dialogue.
This version of The Wolfman takes place in the 1890s on the moors of rural England. Lawrence Talbot (Del Toro) is a Shakespearean actor who returns to his Victorian England homeland once he hears of the disappearance of his brother. Reuniting with his estranged father Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) for the first since he left as a youth, Lawrence arrives to learn his brother’s mutilated corpse has been discovered. In the process of discovering who killed his brother, Lawrence is bitten by a werewolf, which transfers the curse to him. It isn’t long before the full moon glows, Lawrence begins turning bestial, and the massacre he leaves in his wake begins drawing the attention of both the local villagers and Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline (Weaving, bearing no resemblance to Johnny Depp who played the same character in From Hell).
The Wolfman endured a rather problematical production period during its journey to the big screen, with heavy editorial attention, reshoots and many missed release dates. Even if you were unaware of all the post-production tampering, it’s obvious – evidence plagues the final product. The picture is at times incoherent and incomprehensible, with badly handled subplots and jarring tonal changes. At one stage during the film’s latter half, flashbacks of Lawrence’s early life are shown that make little sense in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, the botched romance between Lawrence and his brother’s former fiancée Gwen (Blunt) is nonsensical – why does Gwen even love him? In terms of tone, it’s clear in the atmospheric visuals and set design that The Wolfman may have been originally designed as a restrained gothic horror film. It’s also clear in the gore and the wolf action sequences that someone else wanted to splatter buckets of gore throughout the picture in the hope of satiating the gore hounds.
Where The Wolfman succeeds is in the wolf action scenes and the special effects. Rick Baker’s make-up effects are gloriously old-fashioned and effective, and the physical transformation from man to beast looks convincing enough (Baker was an inspired choice to handle the make-up, since he won an Oscar for his efforts on An American Werewolf in London). This picture is a hard R as well; replete with the kind of gory beheadings, dismemberments and disembowelments that could only be suggested back in the era which bore the release of the 1941 original. If you came here wanting hardcore wolf attack sequences, The Wolfman thankfully delivers. The problem, though, is that it takes an hour for the werewolf action to begin, and the gaps between the action scenes suffer from terrible pacing, wooden acting, and sophomoric dialogue. Despite a cast full of Oscar nominees and winners, the script (penned by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self) never bothers to develop the characters into the first or second dimension, hence a serious lack of humanity. Joe Johnston is the master of bland, after all, having previously directed Jurassic Park III and Jumanji. Thus, with no interesting characters and far too many dead spots, The Wolfman sorely lacks action and is, at the end of the day, quite a bore.
The woefully miscast Benicio Del Toro is a total snooze as Lawrence Talbot. Del Toro apparently lobbied for the role, but he clearly had zero fun with it. The emotional connection is absent, with Del Toro’s character generating no empathy and failing to excite emotions. It’s a tedious portrayal, and the actor triggers boredom during his dialogue scenes. Surrounding Del Toro is a great deal of talent, though none of the supporting actors were able to submit truly remarkable work. Anthony Hopkins, in his second classic horror remake (he played Van Helsing in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula), is perhaps the best actor of the bunch, but he was clearly on autopilot. Emily Blunt is forgettable as the thankless, pointless “love interest” with no real purpose, while Hugo Weaving fares better as Abberline.
The Wolfman required a deft touch in order for it to work; it needed skilful pacing and intoxicating build-ups of tension. The Others is a strong modern example of this style done well. Unfortunately, in the case of The Wolfman, neither subtlety nor skill is delivered by the undercooked screenplay or Joe Johnston’s direction. More than that, the climax is a total dud; quickly dissolving into an awkwardly naff, cheesy, unsatisfying disaster. Oh well, at least The Wolfman delivers in the werewolf aspect better than New Moon.