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There are two things I appreciate right out of the gate in regards to director Joe Johnston's remake of The Wolfman. One, I'm a sucker for gothic horror, so I'm open-minded to pretty much any period piece monster movie. Two, it's been many moons since we've seen a mainstream horror film starring actual adults and not the usual central casting assortment of reality TV-quality teenyboppers. For those two things, kudos. Maybe it's that little bit of goodwill that kept me from hating The Wolfman outright. It's the kind of relentlessly-paced junk that moves so fast and looks so cool that you barely have any time to process how empty it all is before the end credits roll. It truly is a modern spin on a classic, in almost all of the worst ways.
Benicio Del Toro, as American stage actor Lawrence Talbot, returns to his ancestral estate of Blackmoor upon hearing of the death of his brother, Ben, at the hands of some kind of giant beast. Talbot strikes an almost immediate connection with his late brother's fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt), but clashes with his weirdo father (Anthony Hopkins) in the wake of his brother's death, re-opening long-buried childhood wounds concerning his mother's apparent suicide. It's immediately clear from the moment Hopkins appears on screen that he's hiding something -- something dark and not-so-mysterious -- and it's the most significant new element in screenwriters Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self's reworking of the 1941 classic Universal film. The Ben Talbot murder also attracts the attention of London's Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving, having more fun than anyone else in the film) who travels to the countryside to find out for himself if there's a lunatic on the moor or a creature far more sinister.
Lawrence finds a gold pendant with his brother's murder scene evidence, which leads him to a gypsy caravan where he's swiftly attacked by a werewolf before he can get any answers. It's a promising (if completely traditional) set-up, but from there the movie can't find its narrative footing. It flirts with being romantic, but Johnston seems bored with that. It dallies with larger themes concerning the sins of the father being passed on to the son, but the filmmakers can't seem to say anything substantial about it at all and give up. It barely scratches the surface of what it must be like for a man to lose himself over to animal instinct; Johnston perhaps fearing that other werewolf films have worn this idea out. They haven't, and it's part of what makes werewolves such compelling monsters in the first place.
At the end of the day, it settles for being a roller coaster monster-versus-monster thrill ride (Johnston in his comfort zone), and its wrap-up has more in common with Universal's recent The Incredible Hulk than Universal's not-so-recent, original The Wolf Man. It's louder than it is scary; more gory than it is creepy. It's a brainless action movie disguised as a classic horror film, animated in perpetual fast-forward with a room full of computers. Even the clouds in the sky whiz by at super-speed.
There's a startlingly similar quality between Del Toro and the original wolf man Lon Chaney Jr., the droopy-eyed miserableness of a man made into an instant suicidal by compulsions beyond his control. Which is not to say that Benicio's performance is particularly good, but, honestly, he's not given a lot to work with here. Del Toro internalizes so much it looks like he's cursed not only by lycanthropy, but also by delivering dialogue. Hopkins is probably one glass of bourbon away from phoning it in, but at least he doesn't seem confused by the overall quality of the material. Emily Blunt inhabits Gwen, an underwritten role, with a realism that's surprising. Weaving plays the same role Johnny Depp played in From Hell, the Scotland Yard detective made famous for his work on the Jack the Ripper case, but Weaving approaches the part almost imperceptibly winking at the audience, providing a little spark to all the mud and blood and hopeless curses.
I can mostly forgive The Wolfman for being such a hollow experience because I like Rick Baker's make-up work (though the film is chock full of rubbery, unconvincing CGI at every turn) and I like Rick Heinrichs' detailed production design. Both, along with appropriately misty cinematography by Shelly Johnson, supply just enough of a diversion to take your mind off The Wolfman's crippled script. (Plus, it's a little-boy thrill to see the wolf man rip apart his victims with such cartoonish ferocity.)
DIY filmmaker Mark Borchardt once said, "No one has ever paid admission to see an excuse." The Wolfman survived a director change (Mark Romanek), a writer's strike, conflict between Baker and the CGI artists, a last minute second-guessing of Danny Elfman's score (which sounds a heck of a lot like his score to Sleepy Hollow), and editing woes. Really, the only thing that matters to the audience is what's up there on the movie screen. Despite all that production mess, The Wolfman will either be seen as a squandered opportunity to pay homage to the golden years of Hollywood horror or a kick-in-the-pants bit of stupid, noisy fun. Both are true.