Title: The Wolfman
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Andrew Kevin Walker, David Self
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt
The Wolfman does get werewolves. I was afraid that Joe Johnston’s big-budget remake would turn the titular creature into a glorified CGI dog, but no: the werewolves here are precisely Wolfmen, tall, hairy, fast, and bipedal or quadripedal at their pleasure. There’s some CGI involved, yes, but a non-trivila number of the effects shots involve a dude in make-up and a costume, with an assist from always reliable creature wizard Rick Baker. These werewolves are pretty scary — big, violent and ruthless. There’s no reasoning with them, which is really the way it should be.
The movie takes the werewolf myth in some interesting directions, too. It has a religious angle I wasn’t expecting. Once the small Victorian hamlet of Blackmoor (yes!) starts being terrorized by a mysterious beast when the moon is full, the devoutly Christian townsfolk bring out the shotguns and pitchforks, while the big-city rationalists decide to imprison the culprit (a famous actor named Lawrence, played by Benicio Del Toro) and give him electroshock therapy. The villagers turn out to have precisely the right idea: the Beast Within can’t be coddled, he must be squelched. Lawrence came upon his affliction in a moment of undisciplined curiosity; it must be mercilessly driven out of him, even if it means his death.
Floating around amidst all this, close enough to touch, is an accomplished horror movie that packages these ideas — and the classic monster — in a dark, brooding exterior. The Wolfman, sadly, isn’t quite that movie. It feels rushed, meddled with; like a film whose ambitions were crushed in the editing room.
The first thing I noticed was that the cutting seemed off. Johnston appeared to be working to establish a stately, eerie atmosphere, but scenes kept ending abruptly; broody, painstakingly structured shots were constantly being cut short. It’s as if someone had been trying to shave seconds off the running time.
Worse, the story seemed to be getting the same treatment. The Wolfman was written by David Self and Andrew Kevin Walker, who both cut their teeth on some terrific, heady movies — Walker on dark genre films like Se7en and Sleepy Hollow, and Self on Thirteen Days and Road to Perdition. But here, they — or whoever screwed with their handiwork — dropped the ball on some of the basics. The romance between Lawrence and Gwen (Emily Blunt), his brother’s widow (Lawrence is bitten — “cursed” — while investigating his brother’s mysterious death) is almost purely theoretical; it is so woefully undeveloped that we resign to its inevitability instead of buying into it. And without giving too much away, let me say that the movie is to some extent built on a thematically convenient but awfully sloppy red herring — pay attention to what the old gypsy woman says as she sews up Lawrence’s wound at the beginning of the film, and then think about how (and whether) the film delivers on her promise.
There’s still quite a bit to admire here, from a truly ghastly nightmare sequence that takes full advantage of the movie’s R rating, to the typically masterful performance by Anthony Hopkins as Lawrence’s secretive, reclusive father. (The dynamic between Lawrence and dad is one of the few things that really work well here.) And Johnston, who has heretofore mostly stuck to family-friendly efforts like October Sky and Jurassic Park III, shows a surprising facility with horror film mechanics, though it would have been nice if the powers that be had let him slow down like he seemed to want to do. But The Wolfman, for all its varied strengths (have I mentioned Benicio del Toro’s convincingly somber, low-key performance?) never comes together. It’s a set of beautiful, expertly crafted parts, assembled willy-nilly.