Few films run into the monumental production hiccups that have plagued The Wolfman from day one. With directors leaving, budgetary concerns, the firing and rehiring of Danny Elfman, and an emergency clean-up editing session after an LA screening it's not hard to understand why so many people considered this project a sinking ship. I have been following the woes of The Wolfman for some time but despite what I had read, possibly despite my better judgment, I went into the theater optimistic as a die-hard fan of the Universal monsters. Interestingly enough, this film is so patched together, so broken and stitched, that it more closely resembles Frankenstein's monster.
The tragic story of Lawrence Talbot is timeless. Here is a man cursed for reasons beyond his control; victimized by fate in the tradition of the protagonists of Shakespeare or Euripides. He is a man who becomes a monster upon the full moon and commits horrible atrocities that fill his heart with regret once the transformation is reversed. Lon Chaney, Jr., who played this role originally in several Universal films, brought so much sympathy to the part, particularly the scene in Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman wherein he is begging for someone to find a way to kill him, it was heartbreaking. You feel for this man and, though he is also a monster, you make an emotional connection.
My major problem with this reboot is its obnoxious reliance on shock value violence precludes this connection. I'm not naive; I understand that a modern Wolfman film has to differ from one made in 1941. But a large contingency of horror geeks spent months clamoring for a hard R rating for the film and expressing their desire for a gory, bloody werewolf movie. Well guys, we asked for it, and unfortunately we got it. I found it impossible to make a sympathetic connection to Talbot when his bestial form was gleefully ripping innocent people to shreds in vivid detail in front of me. This problem is in no way aided by the fact that Benicio Del Toro delivers his most dispassionate, phoned-in performance in recent memory.
But hang the character problems and my stubborn fandom of the original film aside, the violence in this film is just plain silly and wasteful. I make no secret of the fact that I am generally a gore hound. So it's not a question of being put off by the mere presence of violence; far from it. My problem with the gore in the film is that it is just plain amateur. The savagery of an attack by a werewolf notwithstanding there were moments where severed limbs were just being tossed around like it was a surprise party at Tom Savini's house. There are instances of more understated but still bloody gore that bear testament to the genius of Rick Baker, but those are less prevalent than the graphically goofy attacks. Oh, and that's right, you have Rick Baker! Why in blue blazes would you use so much CG violence in the film when you have one of the kings of practical effects on staff? Apparently replacement director Joe Johnston's penchant for computer-generated nonsense trumps Academy Award-winning effects man Baker who has previously worked on arguably the greatest werewolf movie of all time.
The story is inexcusably choppy. There are beats that they seem hell-bent on hitting by a certain interval in the runtime and sacrifice story coherency and flow to achieve that. There are few to no opportunities for the film to sit in the weight of what should be an epic, gothic tale. Again, this is clearly due to all the last-minute editing and noticeable studio suit involvement, but regardless, it amounts to a film that moves at the pace of a racecar while the audience struggles to read the blurry writing on the side. There are elements about the film that are clearly intended to be surprising that are telegraphed from frame one and the relationship between Del Taro and Blunt has absolutely no legs; forced, obligatory, phony.
There is a logical dissonance problem in the film that really bothered me. There is a point where Talbot gets captured and shipped off to a mental institution in London where they are treating him for madness. This incarceration, as you can imagine, ends badly for several members of the staff. It never made sense to me why anyone would think that Lawrence Talbot was simply mentally ill instead of a monster. There have been enough witnesses who have survived the attacks and enough mutilated bodies to provide the evidence that no mere man could be the perpetrator. And yet, even after he runs amok in London, the papers still refer to him as a lunatic. I know it sounds trifling, but it sets up the weirdest exchanges between Anthony Hopkins and Del Toro in the asylum that makes their relationship irreparably murky.
In the realm of credit where credit is due, I must say the actual design of the wolf is phenomenal. loved the way it looked, the way it moved, and definitely the way it sounded. I was glad to see that the conceptual trait of the werewolf walking mostly upright was maintained as opposed to the animistic choice of having him perpetually on all fours. It's a strange trend in more modern werewolf films wherein they almost always move like actual wolves and while I see the logic behind that choice, I think the decision to make him mostly upright emphasizes the human aspect of the monster and is strikingly more effective. I also thought the cinematography was gorgeous and the shots of London were truly beautiful.
The one thing The Wolfman has going for it is that it is aggressively watchable. It forces you to be entertained by the barrage of images and the taut, breakneck pacing. Hugo Weaving and Anthony Hopkins turn in great performances and the action sequences are incredibly well-shot; apart from a weird reliance on CG forest animals. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention how agonizingly stellar the transformation sequences are. But overall, it lacks substance and tries to compensate for its patchiness by upping the gore element. I can't say I hated it, but I have no reason to ever see it again and that is a major disappointment.