'Wolfman' all bark, no bite
It's not a howling good time. And no, it doesn't bite.
So, what does Universal's remake of its 1941 monster classic, The Wolf Man, accomplish?
The answer's as simple as its title: Nothing.
Apart from shortening its name to two words, The Wolfman brings little new to one of horror cinema's most iconic creatures. And despite a heightened amount of gore appropriate for its R-rating, The Wolfman seems strangely neutered - like a PG-13 movie in wolf's clothing, a few chills but no thrills.
Directed by Joe Johnston (Hidalgo), The Wolfman, set in Victorian England, stars Benicio Del Toro (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) in a low-key performance as Lawrence Talbot, a British expatriate living in America as a celebrated stage actor.
When his brother, Ben (Simon Merrells), goes missing, Lawrence is summoned by Ben's fiancee, Gwen (Emily Blunt, Sunshine Cleaning) to investigate.
He returns home to Blackmoor, England, where his father, big game hunter Sir John Talbot (Anthony Hopkins, The Silence of the Lambs) reveals that Ben is dead, his mauled and grisly remains discovered in the woods.
The superstitious townsfolk are quick to point fingers at a band of newly arrived gypsies, and Lawrence determines this is as good a starting point as any.
Under light of a full moon, Lawrence visits the gypsy camp, which is promptly attacked by a wolf-life creature, disemboweling, decapitating and disarming scores of victims, before delivering Lawrence a nasty bite and vanishing upon the moors.
The wounded Lawrence returns to Talbot Hall, where he undergoes an unusually speedy recovery, under the watchful eyes of Gwen and Sir John.
But the murders attract the attention of Scotland Yard Inspector Abberline (Hugo Weaving, The Matrix), who suspects the Talbot family has some rather ghastly skeletons in its closet.
Lawrence is quick to dismiss the inspector's suspicions, but soon learns to eat his words - along with body parts and general viscera - come the next full moon, when he transforms into a werewolf for a macabre night on the town.
With the stalwart Abberline in pursuit, Gwen seeks to find a cure for Lawrence's condition, as Lawrence resolves to shed light on his family's dark secrets.
While the plot stays relatively close to that of the original Wolf Man, Johnston's remake lacks the scares that make its predecessor a definitive horror film. The new Wolfman relies heavily on false scares, namely loud noises that come unexpectedly only to reveal something completely innocuous, like a flock of startled birds or an irate dog. Sure, it'll make audiences jump, but so would a cuckoo clock if they're not expecting it.
It would also help if the characters were actually developed. As written, Lawrence seems more of a storyboard outline than an actual character, the film so eager to start his metamorphosis that viewers don't even have the chance to care. Del Toro plays it safe, though, with an appropriately restrained performance for an otherwise flat character.
Hopkins hams it up as Sir John, acknowledging the B-movie-ness of it all and having some genuine fun, but it's Weaving as Abberline who delivers The Wolfman's standout performance. Historically based on the police detective who investigated the Jack the Ripper case, Weaving's Abberline is used to excellent effect, an adversary more worthy than his opponent and an absolute pleasure to watch.
Also enjoyable are the costume and makeup effects by Hollywood legend Rick Baker (Star Wars), paying respectful homage to the original Wolf Man, while presenting the creature to a modern audience. Superb art direction delivers a truly eerie setting, complemented by decent cinematography and a moody score from Danny Elfman (Beetlejuice).
Unfortunately, all these elements clash loudly with the film's unfortunate and blatantly obvious computer-generated effects, including a baffling CG bear in the gypsy camp, an even more baffling CG deer and a terribly rendered monster-boy-thing resembling The Lord of the Rings' Gollum in the pre-production stage.
Add to that a laughable climax involving a werewolf battle royale, in which two creatures are kind enough to fight in shirts and skins/furs (presumably in case audience members can't tell who's who), and The Wolfman, much likes its protagonist, becomes its own worst enemy.
Then again, the film's been fighting itself since its 2007 announcement. Originally slated for an April 9, 2009, release, The Wolfman was pushed back to Nov. 6 that same year, only to be pushed further back to last Friday, Feb. 12.
Its original director, Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) left before shooting started, citing creative differences, and in an interview with Total Film Magazine, producer Scott Stuber attributed the delays to complex visual effect work, namely in creating the textures and landscapes of Victorian London. The film was never intended to be a "CGI-fest," he said, but rather to honor Lon Chaney Jr., the original Wolf Man.
As it stands, Chaney still holds that distinction.
The Wolfman, rated R for bloody horror violence and gore, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone.