When this remake of the 1941 film The Wolfman was announced a couple years back I was really excited. At the time the film was set to be directed by Mark Romanek (one of the best music video directors of all time with an expert command of atmosphere and a pretty good movie called One Hour Photo under his belt), it had a great cast including the inspired casting of Benicio Del Toro (who had reportedly always wanted to play a werewolf), it was written by Andrew Kevin Walker (of Se7en fame), and it was going to have physical makeup effects by the great Rick Baker. We hadn’t really seen period horror done right since Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow and we were also due for a good werewolf movie. That was a whole lot of awesome there and there was definitely room for improvement in the 1941 film. But then things began to fell apart. Mark Romanek at one point dropped the project and was replaced by the much less awesome Joe Johnson (director of the monumentally forgettable Jurassic Park III), there was also talk of massive reshoots and the movie’s release date was pushed back a number of times until finally being given the rather lame release date in the February of 2010. In short the movie had “troubled production” written all over it and reviews seemed to indicate it was a mess. After finally seeing the film in its finished form I can see for myself what the results were.
The film is set in 1891 and begins with a stage actor named Lawrence Talbot (Benicio del Toro) coming home after his brother was killed by some sort of creature. There, he meets his father John (Anthony Hopkins) and his brother’s fiancé Gwen (Emily Blunt). The village is filled with rumors and conjecture. Many there, including a Scotland Yard detective named Aberline (Hugo Weaving), think that Lawrence may have had something to do with the attack because of his past history which includes a visit to an insane asylum. It does however become much clearer that the supernatural is involved when there is an attack on a gypsy camp by some kind of violent creature. Lawrence is present during that attack and is wounded by the creature, but survives. Not only does he survive but his wound manages to heal surprisingly fast, so fast as to seem almost… unhuman.
The first thing that this movie gets wrong is the atmosphere. It’s clear that Joe Johnson has given a go at making some good period set dressing, but he’s never able to really make it as interesting as he deeded to. Maybe it was budgetary constraints, maybe it was simply a lack of vision but the movie’s set decoration seemed neither authentic nor particularly artful or creative, just uninspired. The exteriors aren’t much better either; the film never comes close to matching the atmosphere that was elicited from the moors in the original film. I’m also not really sure what kind of horror movie they wanted to make. This is an R-rated horror film (a decision I back up 100%), but they use this freedom in some really inelegant ways. At times this feels as blunt as a slasher movie with kills occurring strictly for eliciting bloodlust rather than really building an effective thriller. It’s like halfway through production they realized they weren’t capable of building a sophisticated horror film and decided they would just stick to appeasing the gorehounds.
As for the creature itself, it was alright, but it certainly wasn’t a monster for the ages and I might have been a bit too quick to assume it would be awesome just because they decided to use real makeup instead of pure CGI. Otherwise the effects are kind of inconsistent. For example one of the three transformation (the second one) sequences was really well done and creepy looking, but the other two looked kind of lame and workmanlike. That extended to the attack scenes, a couple of them were really well done but some of them (especially the first one) were poor and marred by bad effects.
I heard an interview with Benicio Del Toro once where he said that he’d always wanted to play a werewolf, and that was long before this movie was in production, seeing him in a dream role was always part of what interested me in this project. The final product however does very little to show any passion on the part of Del Toro or anyone else for that matter, and I don’t blame him for it either. There are aspects of his work that seem to show flashes of a good performance, but it feels like they’ve been buried under some poor editing or something. Anthony Hopkins on the other hand just seems really bored, like he’s just waiting for his paycheck to be mailed and neither Emily Blunt nor Hugo Weaving are given much to do either.
Overall, The Wolfman is about as disappointing as its reputation would suggest. It isn’t a terrible film and if the production was as troubled as it sounds I guess they were lucky to make something that was this watchable, but it could have been a whole lot better. I’m about willing to place all of the blame for this on Joe Johnson, I just don’t feel like he had the skill to turn this into the really transcendent thing that it seemed like it could have become with a little genuine vision. The fact that this bland hack has been hired to make the Captain America film makes me a lot more scared than anything in this movie.
** out of Four